The Spectrum of Exile

Held apart
(Image by Kristina Tripkovic, via Unsplash)

When you’re a little kid, you have an egocentric view of the world. The things that happen around you are things that you influence. You make something, you move something, you get something out or you put it away. You imagine yourself to be the sole motivating force for the universe, and it takes some developmental growth to be able to recognize that other people do things for reasons that make sense to them but that you’ll probably not quite ever know.

So when the people around you ignore you, or don’t want to be with you, you imagine that it’s your fault. You imagine that there’s something you’ve done—something you ARE—that’s made them not want to be with you. You search through the silence for some clues to what you could do differently, even as nothing that you try to do makes any change at all.

And that understanding of the world, that it’s our own flaws that make other people not respond to us, is pretty persistent. We know that’s not true (well, at least not always true), but it still feels true, it runs straight through those channels that were cut into us from childhood onward.

As adults, we’re left to interpret silences in a lot of different ways. We apply for jobs, we send our work off for review, we put our profiles onto dating sites, we send our work component to our colleagues. And then we wait.

And as we wait, we don’t just go into power-save mode. We keep thinking. Why am I not hearing? Should I do something else? Should I send a reminder, or would I be a pest? Should I assume it’s gone cold after a certain number of days? Have I done something wrong? If we got information, we could act on it, but the absence of information demands that we create our own. The fact that it’s almost certainly wrong doesn’t matter. It feels better than the void.

I want to differentiate here between two phenomena that are related and yet have important distinctions: loneliness and exile. We can be lonely temporarily or permanently. We can be lonely for reasons that have nothing to do with us, after someone dies or moves away. Exile is different; it’s the fact of others’ decisions to not have you any longer, to not associate with you, to exclude you from membership. The emotional states feel similar, but their implications are radically different. In exile, you have no recourse, no options, no agency. It wasn’t an accident.

When I was excluded from academic life twenty-five years ago (and as Marc Bousquet accurately puts it, the PhD is now rightly understood as the conclusion of an academic career, not its beginning), it was a form of exile. It was a community to whom I had dedicated my allegiance, which had then determined that I was not desirable. When I send a manuscript to a literary agency, never to be responded to again, it’s a form of exile. It’s another community to which I would like to dedicate my allegiance, which has determined that I am not desirable.

The more we aspire to, the greater the depth and diversity of exile we invoke. If we grew up imagining ourselves fundamentally flawed, wretched, unwantable, then those are the interpretive stories we employ every time we offer ourselves to the world in a new way, only to be met once again with silence.

You can help with this, though. If you advertise a position in your company, acknowledge every single person who applies. If you invite submittals of creative work to your fellowship or gallery or publishing house or conference, acknowledge every single person who applies. Tell them what the schedule is, when they should expect to hear about next steps and what those next steps will be. Don’t leave them to imagine, for weeks, or months. Tell them how many applicants you’ve had, so that they know the odds.

If you’re working with colleagues on a complex project, acknowledge the work they send you, let them know whether it needs revision or re-thinking. If you’re overwhelmed and won’t be able to use it for a few days, one sentence in an email is enough to communicate that. If you’ve promised work on Wednesday and now won’t be able to get to it until Friday, tell us that on Tuesday, and keep us apprised of how things are going.

We can frame all of these simple actions in terms of workplace professionalism, of organizational courtesy. But by doing so, we diminish their weight. They’re more important than that. There are people on the other side of the silence who are desperate, who are anguished, who need to believe that they aren’t irretrievable. You can offer comfort, if you want. You just have to think about it.

Three Meditations on Ephemerality

Who knows where they’ll take us?
(image by Laura Kapfer, via Unsplash)

First Verse

I worked a volunteer shift at our tiny library today. It was a quiet, drizzly day, with few patrons. But I had some homework. Our librarian would like to cull the collection a bit, and so asked if I’d go through the adult fiction, YA fiction, and graphic novels, looking for the last borrow date on each book. Any book that hadn’t been taken out since 2017 was to be rolled forward onto its nose, awaiting her further consideration.

There’s a humbling exercise for a writer.

The array of writers whose books I tipped (at least one, sometimes two, sometimes several) would be known to many or most of us. There were literary heroes: Colum McCann and Zadie Smith, Haruki Murakami and Ursula LeGuin. There were pop stars past their prime: Anne Tyler and John Irving, Jennifer Weiner and Robert Ludlum. There were the phenoms by Stieg Larsson, two of the three girls no longer of interest as they played with fire or kicked the hornet’s nest. There was fluff by Danielle Steel and George R.R. Martin, classics by Twain and Steinbeck and Morrison.

This is the fate that awaits us all. From compost were our books grown, and to compost shall they return.

Second Verse

Nora and I were in Manhattan last week to visit friends. We had a conversation with one of those friends about their favorite museums, which included the American Folk Art Museum. And it suddenly occurred to me that my writing might be described as a form of folk art, so I looked at their definition.

Since 1961, the American Folk Art Museum has been the leading institution shaping the understanding of art by the self-taught through its exhibitions, publications, and educational programs. As a center of scholarship, it showcases the creativity of individuals whose singular talents have been refined through personal experience rather than formal artistic training.

Well, I’m certainly self-taught, my work coming through personal experience rather than formal artistic training. But can I claim “singular talent?” Not for me to know. That’s a curatorial decision.

Third Verse

As part of that New York trip, we went to a pretty abysmal (albeit highly reviewed and pretty expensive) restaurant, where we had an array of dishes suitable for the world’s most exclusive nursing home. All I had to do was lift a fork and point in the general direction of a vegetable, and it collapsed in surrender.

But, because Nora is who she is, we ended up in a delightful, nearly hour-long conversation with the young couple at the next table. And it emerged through the course of our chatting that he’d also written a novel. I told him I’d be eager to read it, and yesterday afternoon, he sent it as a PDF. Because I’m a binge reader, I’ve now read it.

It’s really good.

No, I mean really good.

I’m not going to tell you much about it, it’s not mine to disclose. But I mean, here’s this fellow who went to college to become an engineer, who’s worked for a dozen years as a coder for big tech companies, and he’s written a book that’s at least as good as anything I tipped forward in the library today. If it were available to you in a bookstore, I’d write a review and recommend that you buy it. If he were teaching this summer at Bread Loaf, I’d recommend that you try to get into his workshop.


Well, maybe not so much a synthesis as a swirl of leaves. Folk art. Culled collections. Those whose work is known, and those whose is not.

If we aspire to anything beyond immediate kindness and generosity, I think that we delude ourselves. We have no monuments, no lasting value. We simply help our friends and neighbors, or we don’t. My days have been improved because of the books that I’ve read; some other folks’ days have been improved because of the books that I’ve shared. That’s all that there is. That’s all that there needs to be.

The Elder and the Younger

Seven years between them

Two new books are now available for you, under what one of my friends has called the “zero-revenue business model.”

The Abbot of Saginaw came to me in 2014, my first novel. It had set out to be a completely different book, but as I took notes for that one, a new character emerged: Robert Yoder, former Benedictine novice turned Army Air Corps mechanic in WWII, who had become the owner of a poolroom in Saginaw, Michigan. He and his business partner/bartender Charles had constructed a generous, welcoming home for the working men of Saginaw, a true “third place” focused partly on pool but more fully on conversation and cameraderie. (The fictional Genesee Billiards Club is a better version of the best parts of the bar my dad went to, a family more native to him than the family he had at home. The guys at his Eagles Club would ultimately be his pallbearers, the ones who knew him best and would miss him most.)

Robert operates from what Natalia Ginsburg would call “the great virtues” rather than the little ones. He plays pool not to beat others, but to be his best self. He competes not to win, but to employ his full focus. He is a professional host not merely to make a living, but because he is drawn to build a place where men can become friends.

Throughout the story, he encounters others for whom those virtues do not exist. And although there’s a plot and a tournament and all that, the heart of the story is how Robert can maintain those great virtues in the face of the chislers and hustlers and fearful men who often travel from one poolroom to the next. How he can discover more ways to bring his best traits to the service of others.

& Sons was the work of summer and fall 2021. You may have seen it “live-blogged” here during the summer, as I gave weekly updates on its emergence, like a crop report. The origin of this one was in remembering a place I’d worked in the 1980s, a family sporting goods store that had once been the father’s general store. When that father died, he left it to his two children, in a way that guaranteed that they would be at one another’s throats for the remainder of their own lives.

In this book, the family business is Barrows & Sons, a sixth-generation farm in southern Nebraska. Cale, the youngest son, has spent his whole life fleeing farm culture, via college and grad school and faculty life and moving half a continent away from his home. Ray, the middle son (actually his sister Coby Rae, but she’d been a better son than Cale had ever been) stayed home to run the farm. BJ, the eldest son and rightful heir of Barrows & Sons, had been killed twenty years earlier in a farm accident, leaving Ray to hold the family’s legacy together.

When their father Bobby dies, his will makes it clear that Cale and Ray will have to come to some new relationship with one another—not a ten-minute phone call on their respective birthdays, but a tenuous, bumpy, wondrous partnership that makes them both new.

The two books are separated by seven years. One is urban and the other rural. One is set in the 2022 present, the other in April through November 1956. One protagonist is sexually and romantically inexperienced, the other broadly and diversely engaged. One has a doctorate, the other went straight from high school to abbey. But for all of those surface differences, the books share a common project: to explore the roles that generosity and service and decency can play in men’s lives, even as people around them imagine that they should just “man up” and fall in line.

Either of them can be yours, for the asking. Get in touch, give me your mailing address, and it’ll be on its way.

Men’s Books #2: Kent Haruf, Our Souls at Night

Nora was about to go to her volunteer shift at the library. The first Monday of the month, from four to six. Kimberly would be there for part of it, but the volunteers gave her a little extra time for herself. She deserved that.

Bring home a book for me, Herb said before she left, and he handed Nora a paper with a title and the author on it. She brought it home that evening. Why did you want this book?

I read it a few years ago. I wanted to read it again. I thought maybe I’d write about it. I’m starting a book club.

He explained a little about that idea, and she thought it was a good one. But after dinner, she started to read it herself.

I wonder why he writes like that, she said later that evening. It’s flat.

Well, I think he’s trying to have it feel plain. Like even quotation marks would make it all feel special, like their words were important and not just words.

Even this section, she said. And she quoted from a part of the book she’d just read, where Louis and the boy were in a hardware store so Louis could buy the boy a baseball glove. She read. “That cap’ll keep you from getting burned up in this sun, the little man said. Rudy was his name, Louis knew him from years ago. It was a wonder he was still working, a wonder that he was still alive. The other manager, a tall man named Bob, had died years ago. And the woman who owned the store had gone back to Denver after her mother died.”

She hinged the book almost closed across her thumb. Why is it that we need to know the name of the other manager? And that the woman who owned the store was gone to Denver?

I think it’s because Louis would know those things. It’s another way to show us who Louis is.

She read the book in three days. That was unusual for her, she normally sat with a book for a long time and read just a few pages at a sitting. Every so often she’d say, I’m forgetting whether this is his book or yours. I want to ask you why you did something or another, and then I remember that you didn’t write this. But it feels like you. It feels true.

He liked that idea. He didn’t write anything at all like this writer Haruf did, but he wanted to read the book again because he thought it had a kind of decency to it. It was a book about a man who was kind and who seemed to know how to be kind even when other people weren’t. So when she said that Haruf’s book reminded her of his own, he was pleased with that. It felt good.

They’d had a few hard days leading up to her reading the book, mostly because of something else Herb had written. But it seemed like now she was able to hear him again, to remember that he was trying to be kind even when other people weren’t, and that he was drawn to write about people like that himself. That was why he’d wanted to read this book again, because there was something decent and generous about it.

Other people wrote about Haruf’s books, too. Sometimes important people, like Joan Silber, who wrote for the New York Times that “his great subject was the struggle of decency against small-mindedness, and his rare gift was to make sheer decency a moving subject.” She wrote about him that way because he’d just died, not long after finishing the book but before anybody besides his editor and his wife Cathy had gotten to read it.

The book is flat, like Nora said. But it’s not flat in the same way that Hemingway was, even though the sentences are short and the language is simple. Hemingway had something to prove, and like most men with something to prove, he wasn’t going to let you know how he felt. That tightness was a resistance to emotion, keeping things aboveground. Haruf was simple too, but it was because Louis and Addie didn’t need to prove much of anything. Sometimes people are quiet because they’re stingy. Sometimes people are quiet because they’re generous, and they want to leave space for others. They look the same if you’re not paying attention, but they feel different.

Men’s Books #1: Walter Tevis, The Color of Money

Don’t be deceived because you’ve seen the Tom Cruise movie. From Walter Tevis’ official website: The Color of Money was first published by Warner Books. Copyright 1984 by Walter Tevis, Inc. The Touchstone Pictures film directed by Martin Scorsese was released in 1987. The screenplay by Richard Price bears no resemblance to the novel.

Within a year he’d be dead.

He taught writing at Ohio University for a while, drank and smoked and didn’t write a word for fifteen years. He’d been a phenom, publishing The Hustler when he was 31 and working as a technical writer for the Kentucky Highway Department, The Man Who Fell to Earth four years after that, but got comfortable and lazy and forgot what he was for. 

He tore himself away from academic life, put himself into a New York apartment, and wrote Mockingbird in 1980, The Queen’s Gambit in 1983, and this book, The Color of Money in his final year, 1984, which feels to me like the most autobiographical fiction ever written. 

He had lived a life without drama for twenty years, remembering from time to time the games of straight pool he had played as a young hustler…[41]

This book, about Eddie Felson rediscovering who he is, is about Walter Tevis rediscovering himself as well. He had lived a life without drama for twenty years, but shook himself loose for four final years of brilliant return to his storytelling core, for which we can all be grateful. It’s a message to us all: do the thing you’re made to do. Here, at length, is Tevis’ anthem to honest work in a dishonest world:

People thought that pool hustling was corrupt and sleazy, worse than boxing. But to win at pool, to be a professional at it, you had to deliver. In a business you could pretend that skill and determination had brought you along when it had only been luck and muddle; a pool hustler did not have the freedom to believe that. There were well-paid incompetents everywhere living rich lives. They arrogated to themselves the plush hotel sites and Lear jets and American provided for the guileful and lucky far more than it did for the wise. You could fake and bluff and luck your way into all of it… The world and all its enterprises could slide downhill through stupidity and bad faith, but the long gray limousines would still hum through the streets of New York, of Paris, of Moscow, of Tokyo, though the men who sat against the soft leather in back with their glasses of twelve-year-old Scotch might be incapable of anything more than looking important, of wearing the clothes and the haircuts and the gestures that the world, whether it liked to or not, paid for and always had paid for. Eddie would lie in bed sometimes at night and think these things in anger, knowing that beneath the anger envy lay like a swamp. A pool hustler had to do what he claimed to be able to do. The risks he took were not underwritten. His skill on the arena of green cloth—cloth that was itself the color of money—could never be only pretense. Pool players were often cheats and liars, petty men whose lives were filled with pretensions, who ran out on their women and walked away from their debts; but on the table, with the lights overhead beneath the cigarette smoke and the silent crowd around them in whatever dive of a billiard parlor at four in the morning, they had to find the wherewithal inside themselves to do more than promise excellence. Under whatever lies might fill the life, the excellence had to be there. It had to be delivered. It could not be faked. But Eddie did not make his living that way anymore. [186-88]

The excellence had to be delivered. It could not be faked. And for those first few years, and then again for the final few, Walter Tevis—fully, vividly alive—delivered it.

Don’t be misled, by my enthusiasm for this book, to imagine that you’ll encounter Eddie Felson as some sort of model of the new man, the guy who’s got contemporary masculinity all figured out for the rest of us. What you’ll see here instead is someone who knows that his old version isn’t going to cut it any more, and who’s stumbling in the dark to make a new way. When he’s at his worst, he’s trying to figure out an angle, to set up a game, to lay the odds and make some money. When he’s at his best is within those six rails, where he loses his sense of self altogether and just builds patterns upon patterns. Does he gamble because he’s competitive, because he loves to win, because the money can be good? Yes. But he also gambles because it’s the price of entry to those rooms in which his entire focus is demanded. Once he’s bought his way in, he can let all of that go and just have the balls tell him what they want him to do.

With his new girlfriend Arabella (another searching soul—Eddie’s drawn to squandered promise, like himself), he does things that can be seen as supportive, or that can be seen as overbearing. They’re probably both. She knows Appalachian folk art, and has left her crappy administrative job to work with Eddie to start a gallery. But although it’s wonderful, it’s not easy:

He felt suddenly uncomfortable. “What are you pissed about?”

“I don’t know.” She had just finished showing one of the less expensive quilts and it was laid out on the counter to display the pattern; she began folding it now. “I’m sorry if I was mean-spirited, Eddie,” she said, “but I’m beginning to feel as if I’m working for you. You make the decisions and take the responsibilities.”

He seated himself on the stand where the Statue of Unliberty had been. “You took us to Marcum and the others,” he said. “You’ve put up the money.”

“It’s not the same. I was the one who was supposed to know folk art, but you chose the pieces to buy. You’ve taken over.”

He understood her problem, but he was getting annoyed. “You don’t have to be a second-class citizen.”

She was silent for a moment. Then she said, “Maybe you’re right. You caught me off balance at first. I hadn’t expected you to move so fast.”

“I was making up for lost time.” He took a cigarette from his shirt pocket and lit it. “Still am.” [226]

This is the awkwardness of gender negotiations, both those between Arabella and Eddie, and those within each of them.

This is not Tevis’ best book—that would be The Queen’s Gambit—but it’s the book that’s clearest about the dilemmas that men have built for ourselves, and in its portrayal of one particular man’s search for something he’s never seen.

Inventing a New Language

Because all of those characters have to tell a story
(image by Tomas Martinez, via Unsplash)

I’ve spent a couple of days re-reading Elif Batuman’s extended profile of the French film director Céline Sciamma ( whose movies include Water Lillies, Tomboy, and Portrait of a Lady On Fire). It’s a really extensive and insightful series of interviews and commentaries, in which the writer herself plays a substantial role in understanding the person she’s profiling. Totally worth reading.

But within it, I also found several things that helped me understand my own work as a writer. Sciamma talks about the ways in which movies and books typically speak a masculine language. Not only how we position characters (both bodily and within social organizations), but just the language of conflict and tension and climax, of protagonist and antagonist. And Sciamma has increasingly developed a vocabulary that allows her to not engage in those structures, to tell a woman’s story through a woman’s thinking and seeing.

What Sciamma has discovered is a serious, disciplined way of doing what you want. The discipline comes from being strong enough to not do what you don’t want… Perhaps Sciamma is on to a secret that nobody else has guessed: you don’t actually have to shoot Chekhov’s gun.

I don’t mean to put myself on a plane with an accomplished artist like Sciamma, but there’s a way in which her project shows me possibilities within my own. I’ve worked for a long time to dismantle the expectations of masculinity into which I was born and steeped (and continue to be immersed all day every day). What does it mean to be male? To be a man? To be masculine? Those are not the same project, unless we let them be.

So all of my stories, in their own ways, have had something to do with this project of reimagining what men are, what men do, what men want. And that means that they can be hard to understand for people who are invested in traditional storytelling. Readers are waiting for the conflict, waiting for the trauma, building the tension toward the unspeakable disaster that MUST be looming just off-stage. They’re waiting, as Chekhov said, for us to introduce the gun in act 1 that must ultimately be fired in act 3.

Here’s the introduction of a little piece that I wrote seven or eight years ago. It’s still relevant.

Just recently, I walked through our wonderful local bookseller, browsing the vast array of fiction, flipping through a few candidates. Then I went to the service counter; they love a challenge. “I’m looking for a genre that I think doesn’t exist,” I said. The two women smiled as they prepared to guide me triumphantly to their unseen section of paranormal cookbooks or plumbing memoirs. “I’m looking for men’s romances; books that are hopeful portrayals of men’s emotional desires about their relationships.” Their optimism collapsed, they looked at one another helplessly. I held up the copy of High Fidelity that I was about to purchase, and said, “I know about this, but Hornby’s kind of a genre unto himself.” “Oh, yes,” the older woman said quickly, “he’s too quirky to be part of any group.” The younger nodded, acceding to her elder’s greater wisdom. 

The older woman walked rapidly from behind the counter, and I followed eagerly, anticipating what she’d lead me to. “We have a couple of men who read Nora Roberts,” she said, not even looking back over her shoulder, “or Mary Higgins Clark. They have standing orders for new books. But that’s only three customers, maybe.” And then she stepped quickly behind a door labeled “Staff Only,” closed it after her, and disappeared, perhaps to frantically dial the genre police to report a deviant. I didn’t see her again for the remaining 90 minutes I was in the store.

Unlike her, you can’t escape. So I would like to focus our attention on that question that scared off my bookseller.

Where are the men’s romances?

By which I mean, why isn’t there a genre devoted to the emotional lives of men as we attempt to manage our multiple commitments in the world? Why isn’t there a genre that squarely addresses our earnest, clumsy and often-thwarted desires for desire, for challenge, for love? Why, when we hope for affection and partnership and meaningful work to accomplish, are we presented instead with Fight Club?

As was true of Esperanto, it’s difficult to invent a new language, and even more difficult to have it be taken up by people who feel just fine with the language they already know. For potential business partners like agents and editors, it’s even harder, since the discourse is paired with a business model. There’s a market for gender compliance; we don’t know if there’s a market for gender resistance, especially when men try it. (Women, every bit as much as men, hold expectations for what men ought to be and do. Better the devil we know…)

So you fall into the category of “quirky.” Isn’t that nice.

A few days ago, I was writing about the paratext of books, all the material and cultural stuff around the words that we read just as much as we read the story itself. And I thought again about the question of the book club, in which some celebrity sponsors a particular array of books among her fans. In looking through the array of current book clubs, I was hard pressed to find any that were sponsored by men. (A symptom, of course, of the larger fact that it’s rare enough that men are reading anything. We’ve got twenty years of research showing that women are the primary reading community, that men read far less often and far less broadly than women.)

So, although I’m hardly a celebrity, I’m going to start a book club. I’m going to spend a few days showing you some of my own prototypes of books that I’ve learned from, books that have revealed some new possibilities of men’s stories and men’s lives. It’ll be a treat for me as well, to go back to the books that have been so important to me and think them through again.

See you tomorrow.

What Do We Read that Isn’t the Book?

ET—The Extratextual
(image by vnwayne fan, via unsplash)

We talked yesterday about all the stuff that publishers wrap around “the thing” that a writer makes, in order to turn it into the cultural event that we’ve come to know as a book. But publishers aren’t the only people involved in telling us what a book is, and all of those other messages are also co-read along with the poor, innocent thing.

Bookstores are beautiful or grungy, nicely arrayed or heaped and mounded. But they also work in category systems, the most obvious of which is genre. Fiction and nonfiction, sure, (or as one bookstore has it on their wall posters, True and Made-Up). But then fiction and nonfiction are each subdivided into dozens of bands, geographically segregated, partially predigested before the reader ever encounters it. Is it cultural affairs or memoir? Is it historical fiction or romance? Those terms will be differently magnetic for different receivers.

Aside from genre, though, there are areas of the store called some variant of “New and Notable,” consigning everything else to being either exhausted or mediocre. Even after a book leaves the New table, it’ll be shelved face-out instead of spine-wise for a while, marking books that some staff person has taken a particular interest in and wants us all to notice. The others… well, good luck to you, you’re on your own. And then lonely, unpartnered books slowly migrate to some discount area of the store, a last half-price pause before they’re returned for credit.

Each of those booksellers’ decisions influence what we think, before we even have a chance to think at all.

There are lots of external folks who tell us what to think, too. Reviewers pass judgment on manuscripts that the rest of us may not yet have access to. Publishers have a whole mechanism of advance reader copies (ARCs) sent out to magazines and famous writers. That allows reviews to appear just in advance of the book’s actual release, like movie teasers put up before another Marvel explosion-pic.

Prizes and awards constitute further predigestion, a book or an author being lauded by The Serious People, a little gold star stuck to the cover of each subsequent copy. The Nobel and Pulitzer, the Booker Prize and the National Book Award, the Caldecott and the Newbery Medals, the Walter Scott (historical fiction) and the Orwell (political fiction) and Lambda (LGBTQ fiction). Within genres, the Dagger (crime and mystery), the Hugo (science fiction), the RITA (romance). Depending on how important the prize is, a book or writer needn’t even win it. Being a finalist is notable enough. Being “long-listed” for the Booker or National Book Award, meaning among the 20 books that the jury paid any attention to at all, provides some traction in a crowded literary market.

Maybe the book is part of a book club, and we find it because of our celebrity fandom. Oprah Winfrey, Reece Witherspoon, Sarah Jessica Parker, Jenna Bush Hager, Emma Roberts, Emma Watson, Shonda Rimes, all of them happy to tell you what you should read next in order to be a current, with-it fangirl. (Any celebrity book clubs sponsored by male celebrities? Umm… Jimmy Fallon? Former Colts quarterback Andrew Luck? That’s about all I can find.)

Your friends will tell you what to read, too. Some of them become trusted guides, and we’ll read whatever they put in our hands. We like it before we start, because those people have steered us right before.

And then there’s the one that’s most live for me right now, which is co-reading the book along with knowledge of the writer. A book written by someone not known to us can be experienced more independently than a book written by someone we know, or think we know. A book by Rachel Maddow carries all of our experience of watching her show for ten years. A book by your friend carries questions of alignment between the factual life you know (or think you know) and the fictional lives portrayed. How does he know that? we wonder. Maybe he’s spent time in prison himself, if he knows that much about it. I’ve had friends ask me if I’ve raised an adopted child, if I’ve been in seminary, if I’ve lived in Ho Chi Minh City. I’ve had friends diagnose a book as being about Nora’s and my careers and choice of places to live. It’s an array of paratext I’d never considered before my “things” became books and flew the nest into the hands of friends. I guess it’s a testament to my work’s believability that people ask, but I don’t always like it.

Words, characters, stories are all pre-read, co-read, counter-read in the context (another word for paratext, of course) of a vast array of subtle commentary. Writers’ things are not isolated acts once they leave thing-ness and become books; they fall into a broad range of ongoing conversations, which is both a strength and a hindrance. The book can be lifted beyond its own power to rise; it can be misshapen through unintended adjacency with other ideas.

And the writer has control over absolutely none of that. Those are all external actions undertaken by innumerable others, all of which are beyond our influence. It’s a humbling, surprisingly powerless place to be. We have total control over the thing, no control at all after the thing is released to its independent life.

Fly free, little ones. I hope you’ll find new friends of your own.

What Do We Read When We Read?

Go ahead, judge a book by its cover. That’s why it has one.

What is a book? If we slow down and dig into it, it becomes a pretty interesting question.

For the most part, writers don’t deal with books. We deal with words and stories and ideas. And we don’t really have a great term for what the thing is while it’s emerging. It’s not really a manuscript until it’s done and sent away for consideration. It’s not really a piece—”I need a five-hundred word piece on the hottest bands in Cleveland”—unless someone else commissions it. (It’s called a piece in the artistic trades because the editor or curator or theater director needs it as a piece of their larger vision.) And while it ferments on my hard drive in Microsoft Word, it absolutely is not a book. It’s a thing, I guess.

The thing only becomes a book after somebody else bolts some other stuff onto it, what literary analysts have come to call the paratext. The Word file gets redesigned into a page layout, with typefaces and line spacings and margins set to something other than the 8.5×11 that office supplies default to. (You NEVER see an 8.5×11 book anymore, just some leftover hippie things from the 1970s that started their lives at Kinko’s.) The “trim size” of the finished book is its own graphic question, unique to every book, which is why your bookshelf doesn’t align evenly.

Once we know what the pages look like, we then need to decide on the paper we’ll print on, and the binding method that replaces the high-school staple in the upper-left corner. The number of pages determines the thickness of the spine, which we’ll come back to in a minute.

But we’re not done with the body of the thing yet. If nothing else, there’ll be an inner page (recto, or on the right side when the book is open) that reiterates the title and the author, and then usually the back of that same sheet (verso, or on the left side) known as the title page, that includes the book title, the author, the publisher, the ISBN and the Library of Congress call number and the copyright date and the current edition and any necessary disclaimers about accuracy or verisimilitude. (This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, business, events and incidents are the products of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.)

The title page is the statement that this thing is now A Serious Book, which has become part of The Permanent Record.

And then we have the cover. Jhumpa Lahiri, in her marvelous little book The Clothing of Books, has covered most of the important ground here, about the ways that the author has lost control of the storytelling, that the graphic artists and marketers have turned the words into a product that fits into the expectations of “similar” products. About the ways that the author photo (alas) weaves the anonymous words into a personal relationship with a writer alternately young, middle-aged, old, female, male, nonbinary, pretty, homely, serious, amusing.

But a self-published writer (an abysmal term that sounds just as masturbatory as the practice may in fact be) gets more control over the wrapper. We still adhere to some of the conventions, though, we know the visual rhetoric from having consumed so many books ourselves. We choose or design a graphic that isn’t an illustration of a scene from the book, but which attempts to set an emotional tone. The abandoned factory acting as a shorthand for an entire crushed city. A disco ball to suggest the plasticized artifice of nightclubs and the era of the 1970s. An endless scatter of papers reflecting the way we feel when we contribute our own leaf to the unraked lawn. The cover is doing evocative rather than narrative work.

The title is bigger than the author’s name, because the author is an unknown whose name isn’t going to sell anything. Wait until you’re John Grisham or Janet Evanovich to blow up your name, hero. So there’s the title, the work of which is also evocative, emotional. Of all the things I’ve written, their titles fall into a few camps:

  • A single word (Leopard, Slush, Red)
  • A single word with an article (The Host, The List, The Test, The PhDictionary)
  • The ___ of ___ (The Abbot of Saginaw, The Opposite of Control)
  • Adjective/noun (Misplaced Persons, Trailing Spouse, The Adjunct Underclass, The City Killers)

It’s an art form that demands economy.

The back cover is also visual and evocative, but it oughtn’t to just be a repeat of the front, that’d be a lost opportunity. So it becomes its own independent graphic design question, its own visual enticement. But that graphic design is now put to service of some more overt promises about what the reader will encounter. That can take a couple of forms. One is the two or three paragraph summation, the pitch that introduces the character, the setting, and the problem. The other is the stack of blurbs, the collective hysteria that urges us to join the mob.

And then, there’s the spine. Book spines are under-appreciated in the lay world, but they do a vast amount of work in a tiny ribbon. When the book is on a shelf, whether at home or in a store, the spine is doing all the work there is to be done. It acts as identifier, as mnemonic aid (I think it has a green cover), and as bait all at once.

It usually carries over the graphic language of the front cover. Here’s an example, from my most recent book & Sons.

The illustration of the rusting galvanized sheets with riveted seams carries over from the front cover, as does the unobtrusive typeface (Didot) for my name, and the “fancy” typeface for the book title that would have been used by a sign painter in the midwest for the family business, Barrows & Sons. As was true for the cover, the title is reduced to semi-transparent so that some of the rust marks show through it, as they would with a painted name on a silo or a truck door. That little band, five-eighths of an inch across, has some pretty mighty responsibilities.

After all that—the page layout, the cover, the printing, the spine, all of it—the thing has become the book in our hands. Its corners hard and sharp, its pages die-cut to riffle like a deck of cards. For the first time in the thing’s life, the logic of moving forward through the story becomes that of turning pages rather than scrolling on a screen.

But we’re not done pre-reading it yet. More paratext tomorrow.

The Things Not Meant for You

Maybe not time yet
(Nicholas Bartos, via Unsplash)

We find inspiration in strange places, and at times we could not have predicted. Nora sent me an editorial from Saturday’s New York Times, written by Penn Jillette: an homage to his friend Bob Saget, who recently died at age 65. I wouldn’t have thought that an editorial written by half of a famous comedy-magic team, about another comedian whom most people know from a ’90s sitcom and a 90’s video-clip show, would have been so moving.

Jillette has always been known as the abrasive and transgressive half of Penn and Teller, the loud giant paired with Teller’s small and silent fall guy. And this editorial starts out as a praise of the abrasive and transgressive, but moves gently toward something generous.

Real art, beautiful art, is always a scary act of trust. We look to art to see another person’s heart. That human connection is all that matters. For me, it is a reason to live.

And then, after that elegant pronouncement, he reverses course on himself, and talks about the ways in which that connection can fail. Jillette’s own kids didn’t like Saget’s comedy, exactly because it felt disrespectful to them.

I have heard some thoughtful arguments against the transgressive comedy that I love. One problem is that it is often the same groups of people who are being asked to take the joke. I never heard Bob insult people who were marginalized, but other comedians do, and I don’t think that’s really fair. Even if everyone is equally fair game for comedy, our culture makes these jokes land unevenly. I see that. I don’t have the right to say to someone else: “It’s a joke. Get over it.”

And in the end, Jillette says that he hopes what he learns from his kids about respect can be balanced with what they might learn from him about trust.

Those of us in the arts may not have thought in precise terms about the occasional tension between respect and trust, but it’s there. And it’s there for a bunch of reasons.

It’s there because we are imperfect people, who think sometimes about untoward things, who reflect our own limited experiences and our own innate biases and our own unspeakable dreams.

It’s there because we cannot know every other person’s lived experience, and so may step on a trip wire that we didn’t know existed.

It’s there because our politics or our religions or our families or our ethnic ties may place us on opposite sides of some fence, both believing our own cultures to be “common sense” or taken for granted, no alternatives possible.

It’s there because the harder we try to be kind and generous, the more fully we recognize those moments where we’ve come short.

And it’s there because the things we care most about may just be boring, or irrelevant, or indifferent to lots of other people.

What Bob Saget practiced was emotional stage diving. He would fall face-first into the audience’s arms. If the audience didn’t trust him enough to catch him with their laughs, it would be worse than smashing onto a concrete floor.

When we write or paint or act or dance or whatever it is that we do, we do it for ourselves. We do it because we have something at our core that drives us to make, and then to share. I am going to show the world who I am, and I trust that someone will understand.

So, to pull a number from the air, let’s say I’m one person of a hundred who’s interested in writing about X. Whatever X is. And further, on the other side of the internet or bookstore, there are one person in a hundred who are interested in thinking about X. That means that an awful lot of people who might come into contact with my work won’t like it, and might even find it objectionable.

That’s fine. Set it aside and move along. But know that I’ve made it with respect (for both you and for me and for the work itself), and given it to you in the trust that you will take what’s meant for you and leave the rest for others. That you will, yourself, trust that there must be others who are receptive to this.

I have to write with respect, knowing all the while that the work occasionally won’t feel respectful to some reader or readers. But readers also have to begin from a place of trust, believing that a writer has done her or his best to be attentive and caring, and that errors might actually be errors.

Some years ago, I was at a writers’ conference in a session led by the poet Patricia Smith. During that session, she said (in paraphrase), Every writer has to be free to write about anything that they care about. But then they have the responsibility to stay involved in the conversation that their work has opened. That’s where trust and respect come together, in acknowledging that we’re all walking difficult landscapes as best we can. We can support one another and learn from one another, or we can knock one another down in our fear of injury or in our drive to victory.

And sometimes trust is unwarranted. As Penn Jillette also noted, Trolls don’t seek to demonstrate and celebrate trust; they strive to destroy it. The troll does not want to use offense as a tool to get to shared humanity. There is no bravery.

The more we hang around in troll culture, the more wary we become. Our trust muscle atrophies, our defensive reflexes grow strong. We are less willing to read with trust, because that trust has been so often violated by people of ill-will who intentionally work without respect, without care.

So, friends, make bravely. Write bravely. But also, read bravely. Read in a way that allows you to grow, to trust that the writer has worked from a place of respect. And if the work feels disrespectful or uncomfortable, trust that the writer can hear that if correction is offered from respect as well.

And if the work isn’t meant for you, if the work as a conduit between two hearts doesn’t flow, remember that the disconnect isn’t remotely surprising. It takes a long time to find work that matches our puzzle-shaped hearts. Treasure it when you find it, and set the rest aside with love, knowing that it might match someone else.

Navigating the Contested Curriculum

First time here. Fifty miles an hour. Hundreds of other cars. No GPS. How’s your confidence level?
(Image by Annie Theby, via Unsplash)

About ten years ago, the writer Louis Menand wrote an article for The New Yorker called “Live and Learn,” the subtitle of which revealed its true topic: “Why we have college.” In it, he differentiated between two and a half substantially different reasons why college should exist in the first place, and why the fact that we don’t talk about those motives makes it almost impossible to do any of them well.

Mission A is “expos[ing] future citizens to material that enlightens and empowers them, whatever careers they end up choosing.” It is an exercise in enculturation, in curiosity, in social norming. In this view, college education “takes people with disparate backgrounds and beliefs and brings them into line with mainstream norms of reason and taste…. Ideally, we want everyone to go to college, because college gets everyone on the same page. It’s a way of producing a society of like-minded grownups.” This is the function praised by the “great-ideas” people and decried by the “indoctrination” accusers, both of whom are kind of right, as we all are.

Mission B is sorting and ranking, of knowing who’s better than whom. In this view, “College is, essentially, a four-year intelligence test. Students have to demonstrate intellectual ability over time and across a range of subjects. If they’re sloppy or inflexible or obnoxious—no matter how smart they might be in the I.Q. sense—those negatives will get picked up in their grades. As an added service, college also sorts people according to aptitude. It separates the math types from the poetry types. At the end of the process, graduates get a score, the G.P.A., that professional schools and employers can trust as a measure of intellectual capacity and productive potential.” This model is laudable in its clarity, though it furthers the gender and race and class divisions that students arrived with in the first place. If you were born on the goal line, you’re automatically closer to a touchdown than someone born outside the stadium entirely.

And then Mission C, which Menand touches on only peripherally and only because his own students drag his attention toward it, is that college is intended to be technical training for a particular kind of job. Under this view, “…advanced economies demand specialized knowledge and skills, and, since high school is aimed at the general learner, college is where people can be taught what they need in order to enter a vocation. A college degree in a non-liberal field signifies competence in a specific line of work.”

There are clusters of colleges aimed closely at each of these three motives, and yet other colleges that try to be a little bit of all things to all students. But if we never actually say these things out loud, we’ll never actually know what kind of college we’re providing, because we won’t know why we’re doing it.

About that same time, the school I was working at was going through one of its innumerable disciplinary accreditation processes, the work of the home office making sure that all of its franchisees provide more or less the same product. In this particular instance, we were trying to ensure that we could talk about how the current curriculum met all of the expectations of the professional community for what a bachelor’s-degree-holder should know. That accreditor worked every year or two to administer a questionnaire asking professionals what students should know at the moment of graduation, what they should learn as young pre-licensure professionals, and what they probably wouldn’t know until they’d been in the profession for a few years. At no one’s surprise, the results were that all graduating students should know almost all of it, except for the business strategy parts—the grown-ups would take care of that, leaving their army of highly trained drafting monkeys at work in the back office.

Every profession is increasingly complex, in software and in policy and in diversity of available materials and tools. If we expect 21-year-olds to be competent young employees the day they graduate with their BA or BS, we’re just going to have to stuff more knowledge and technique into that undergraduate experience. But state and federal departments of education appropriately want to make sure that they aren’t paying for increasing seat time beyond the standard of 120 credits in four years, and that students aren’t incurring even more loan burden to get a degree that now takes five years, or six years, or eight. So the curriculum becomes a zero-sum game, in which innumerable forces each work to claim some share of the 120-credit landscape. As former college president Jill Ker Conway once wrote, the curriculum is the battlefield upon which intellectual wars are fought.

Now imagine again, as we did a couple of days ago, that you’re sixteen years old, a junior in high school, trying to figure out this opaque landscape even as you’re hurtling toward it. Everybody’s haranguing you about how important college is, but they haven’t done any meaningful thinking about why, or about how it might be appropriate for YOU and for your individual life trajectory. Nobody around you has experience with lots of different types of colleges, so you’re left to rely on shouted brand names (Ford! Chevy! Berkeley! Stanford!) or affordability and convenience.

Nobody tells you about the bitter fights that have gone on over that 120-credit landscape you hope to inhabit. Every inch of it was a contested decision, but now it’s presented to its potential consumers as logical to the point of inevitability. What does your get-ed consist of? Why are you doing it? How has the discipline divided your courses into methods and knowledge and underlying principles and theories of its future? You can’t take any of these programs for a meaningful test drive, it’s like buying a car from the brochure. Just shut up and get in, okay?

I’m serious. Put yourselves into that imaginary sixteen-year-old’s head, worried about issues of boyfriends or girlfriends, worried about issues of identity, engaged in a high school that’s doing whatever the state wants, worried about whether Dad’s going to be laid off or Mom’s going to be transferred to Dayton. And then imagine this flurry of garbled, unreliable information, a collegiate blizzard of half-truths pouring down upon you from which you’re expected to snatch exactly the right snowflake.

We have GOT to do better.