Thursday, November 15, 2018

Weekly To-Do, 11/8 - 11/14

Week two of my to-do list. This was equally useful this week - some patterns persisted, others didn't. I'm sorry if it bugs you.

As before (I didn't think it would hurt to include this disclaimer in every post): I'm including selected names of pubs and books because making this list would be ten times harder, and therefore not worth the effort, to anonymize them all. This week I anonymized a couple of them. Any of the acceptances could fall through at any time. By naming them, I am not badmouthing the publications who rejected or didn't reply. This is data, not trash-talk or promotion.

Articles about freelancing (2)
Review of What Should Be Wild
Review of Empire of Sand
MST article (draft)
Review of We Can't Breathe

Books I Hate subject KW
Barrelhouse (answered)
PitchWars reader (answered)
Houston Chronicle (answered)
OL Books

Freelance article 1 to Medium
MST article to BAFG (accepted)
Catch, Release to KR
Books I Hate to KH (answered)
G to A
Pop Feminism piece

Last Night in Nuuk
Catch, Release

Scribe rejection
Submit Scribe elsewhere (accepted)
Email to Shields publicist
Emails w/ TWRP
Emails from Locus
Freelance article 2 to FF

Edits on Choundas review
Edits on Scribe review
Edits on Surge review
Edits on Biss review
Edits on "After Gardens"
Check LAR, Locus, Pleiades daily for filed reviews
Promote Choundas review
Promote Tinsley review
Agent research
Author chatter on Twitter
Website updates

I forgot to note down one item from last week: Write & record snippet for friend's podcast. I wish I'd finished at least one other book, but it was a stressful week with the fires. I did a surprising amount of writing.

Thursday, November 8, 2018

Weekly To-Do, 11/1 - 11/8

As promised in my last post, here's the initial round of What I Did This Week As A Freelancer. Feel free to email me questions if you have them. To preempt at least one question, this is one week's stuff: Thursday morning, November 1, to Wednesday night, November 7. The categories aren't in any particular order, except maybe in the clarity of their definitions.

This is only writing-related stuff. During this week I also made plans for a film screening at CSUN, bought flights to AWP and Iceland, voted, took the occasional shower, etc. I had included work I did for the Northridge Review on this list, but I took it off. It's part of my life but not concretely part of my freelance agenda.

Very important: I'm including the names of all the pubs and books because making this list would be ten times harder, and therefore not worth the effort, to anonymize them all. Any of the acceptances could fall through at any time. By naming them, I am not badmouthing the publications who rejected or didn't reply. This is data, not trash-talk or promotion.

This was an extremely helpful exercise. I think I'll keep doing it until I or you get tired of it.

Review of Beyonce in Formation
Review of Five Plots
Review of Notes from No Man's Land
Review of We Can Save Us All 
Blog post

Guesthouse (answered)
Prairie Schooner (answered)
Houston Chronicle x2 (accepted)
Sinkhole (answered)
Washington Post x2
Sewanee Review (answered)
VIDA (answered)
io9 (rejected)
SyFy Wire
The Outline

Thirty-Seven to 3:AM (accepted)
Five Plots to Rain Taxi (accepted)

What Should Be Wild
We Can't Breathe
Empire of Sand 

Emails w/ mentoring program supervisor, mentee
Email to potential editor-employer
Emails w/ UTP publicist
Email w/ Gatsby's Child publicist
Emails w/ Shields 
Emails w/ TLS re: Virtuoso
Misc networking emails 

Completed Lubchansky interview
Tax paperwork to Chronicle
Promoted TLS piece
Misc social media (interacting w/ writers, presses, etc.)
Edits on Surge review
Accepted assignment from Arts Fuse
Attended literary event in DTLA
Checked LAR & Locus daily for filed reviews
Updated Duotrope after rejection (through Submittable)

Questions? Comments? Get in touch. :)

Monday, November 5, 2018

The Book Arbiter

Suspicious fish is suspicious

I'd like to caption the above with "every book critic ever" 

I've been meaning for a while to write about this essay, "The Movie Assassin," which got a fair amount of attention when it came out at the end of September. I've read widely varied reactions to this article, from total angry dismissal to "I feel seen." I loved it, found it worth reading repeatedly, considered what it meant to me in multiple dimensions, still am not sure that I've written, below, everything I have to say and think about it.

The main thing the essay made me want to repeat is how important I find it not to go with the flow of the crowd when writing criticism. 27-year-old Sarah didn't like The English Patient perhaps for immature reasons, but twenty years later, she has the language to express what's wrong with it, and in my view it's the same thing that's wrong with a lot of prestige pictures: it's not good just because a preponderance of influential people say it is.
Everyone had agreed to care about this thing, to call it good, to give it nine Academy Awards. But it was just a piece of shit sprinkled with glitter that everyone, including me, agreed to call gold.
Opinions like this (that The English Patient is bad) are difficult to defend. They make people mad who are deeply invested in everyone agreeing on what's gold and what isn't. They can be easily dismissed because they're fringe, because the rest of the crowd disagrees. They are problematic for people who are easily occupied or entertained by essentially mediocre art.

Which is most people, in fact - and I don't say that with any insult in my heart. Mediocre art needs an audience and the audience needs mediocre art. Sometimes I need to watch Easy A instead of Wild Strawberries. But I know that most people are going to like Easy A more than Wild Strawberries, because the latter is much harder to like, and is reaching out to a narrower shred of the audience.
The moment now strikes me as so incredibly East Coast—this notion of consensus—which I would later run away from, and then, in a strange way, miss.
All this background is important when writing criticism, I believe. It's the reason that, even though I understand a hell of a lot more about movies than I understand about books, I don't want to write film reviews (anymore; I used to want it more than anything). It's why I don't like talking with friends about movies, for the most part. If someone asks me what I think of this or that, I don't want to tell them, because the answer will likely make the person's mouth turn down or their brow furrow. American film of the 2010s generally isn't that good, because the camerawork is pedestrian and the screenplays are impossibly safe and the characters are circumscribed and technology makes them aesthetically lazy. I see these flaws, just for starters, in virtually every movie. If you ask me if I saw a given movie, I would so much rather say no than yes, because no continues the conversation, and yes is likely to kill it.

I would be a miserable sod as a film critic, not because I don't like movies (I adore them), and not because I want to be a killjoy (I prefer to cheer for people's art), but because I know too much about movies to be anything but cynical about contemporary American film.
Every time I thought about the fact that other people all over the city were reading it, I would shake my head and try to think about something else. When I walked by the theater and saw people in line to see it, I felt sick.
The review for which I felt this go-with-the-flow problem most keenly was for Belly Up, which I reviewed on assignment for LARB in May. I knew, from the hype it was getting and various indications in the text, that it was likely to be a big hit critically. I knew I couldn't fake a good opinion of it, and I thought I was way too early in my critical career to be doing that, anyway. So I told the truth and said that, even though the book was compact and well-executed, I found it chilly and distant, that there was no human spark in the stories.

And I felt bad about it for weeks. I didn't want the author to think I was being mean for no reason. I didn't want to negatively impact her career or readers' opinions of her book. I didn't want my review to be the reason she sold even one fewer copy of her book. But I was assigned to review the book and I had to do it truthfully.
If you write thousands of sentences that have absolutely nothing to do with what you think or feel those sentences are still what you will become. You can turn yourself into another person. I turned myself into another person.
I had a different crisis in reviewing CoDex 1962. It was the standard-issue who-do-I-think-I-am crisis, the one where this book has been lauded all over the world and it's a twenty-year achievement by an acknowledged young master of literature, and I'm a little baby critic who didn't really think the trilogy was a trilogy so much as it was three books pushed together, and the last one was maybe a little hastily written? to finish a trilogy the writer had lost enthusiasm for or moved creatively away from?, so I wrote a lot of weasel words like seems and I think, but my editor would have none of that. He said I praised the book enough in other paragraphs that I could ding it a few times without sounding like a jerk. I wasn't necessarily worried about sounding like a jerk; I was worried about sounding like I didn't know what I was talking about.

But I'm fairly sure I do. Just because every critic in the world was falling all over themselves to love CoDex 1962 didn't mean I ought to ignore my reservations about it. I didn't trick LARB into accepting that review (it was another assignment, in fact). They wanted my words. I had to offer them truthfully.
It was the best thing I’d ever written.
I think the error comes in believing that because other people are reading and/or purchasing your criticism, you are automatically correct in any given opinion. That because I write book criticism, I am The Book Arbiter, that I know for good and all what people should enjoy and what they shouldn't. I don't believe that, because I don't believe "should" is how audience enjoyment works. My opinion of 2010s cinema is not correct for the vast majority of moviegoers alive today. It would be irresponsible of me to write that opinion down as reasonable criticism, even if I do think I'm right. I'm a critic, and proud of my work as a critic, but I'm not an arbiter. I don't believe any single critic is, or should be.

The audience is the only arbiter that matters.

It took Sarah Miller twenty years to reaffirm her opinion of The English Patient. It's interesting to me that this was the book/movie she chose to make her point, because my opinion of the source book is extremely unusual for a heavy reader: I can't stand it. If given the opportunity, I would bow out of reviewing it, because I don't understand what it's doing well enough to form a reasonable or useful opinion on it. This happened to me earlier in the year with Sarah Vap's Viability, to which I had the opposite reaction. I loved it, but didn't understand at all. After a few months of trying to write the review I apologized and tapped out. Embarrassing, but better than lying.
I knew there were people who made money saying things they thought were actually true, or important, but I figured I wasn’t good enough to do that, because otherwise, people wouldn’t keep asking me to write stupid stuff.
Of the movie The English Patient I don't have much of an opinion, except that I liked it more than the book. Maybe Sarah's right, and it's a pretentious, very pretty piece of fluff. It wouldn't be the first time I thought that about a well-lauded film. 


Some sad stuff has happened this week. My husband's uncle (his mother's sister's husband) has passed away after a short illness. We subsequently had to cancel a family get-together for this weekend that we'd all been looking forward to. Plus, the week in public life has been very cruel.

But there's plenty of good news in my life (and I'll bet in yours too). My review of Tommy Orange's nominated-for-everything There There appeared in the Times! Literary! Supplement! on November 2. Here's a link, but it's behind a subscription wall. Also, I went to a cool event over the weekend and met some new and interesting L.A. book people.

I wanted to let you know, those of you who get my blog posts via email, that the traffic might increase unpleasantly soon. I am doing a project to track all the work I do on a weekly basis as a freelancer, and the best place I know to record all that tracking is here, on my blog. I'll post that progress until someone yells at me to stop or it's no longer useful. Until then --

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Disorganization Is Not Sexy

I have got to get my job under control.

"Job" and "life" feel pretty interchangeable at this point, but of course they're not. I can lean on others for help with my life. Last night I called my husband from an event in Santa Monica and asked him to make dinner, so I and my guest would be able to eat almost as soon as we got home, and although I felt bad because there was the briefest pause and I knew he'd been at work all day and I was asking him to work some more and he was clearly not really up for it, he did it, because we are married and that's what the spouse does, they help, even when they don't really want to. But for my job I'm stuck with me. Matt can't review books for me, he can't follow up on pitches for me, and he can't apply for awards and grants for me (regrettably).

I had a houseguest for the past several days who has been doing full-time creative freelancing for a lot longer than I have. She is also naturally more organized than I am. She gave me a whole lot of ideas and pointers, some of which I'm going to implement right away (divide work into three categories) and some of which won't adapt to me (visual project planning) (she is an artist, and I can't draw a decent freehand rectangle). While she was here, we visited a heavenly stationery store in Highland Park, and I bought a huge, beautiful project planner, with all kinds of room for whatever I need to keep track of. I haven't figured out exactly how I'm going to use it yet, and I don't want to muck it up with false starts.

In the meantime I'm going back to my old Panda Planner, which I loved for several months, but which doesn't have enough room in its monthly calendar for my purposes. My deadlines are based in months rather than weeks or days (something I learned along the way), and I need the space to plot them out, which little monthly squares don't give me. Since my next three weeks are going to be tightly plotted, though, I'm going to use the Panda unconventionally to set things in order.

The first dramatic step I've taken is to archive everything in my email box before January 1 of 2018. I am a keeper, not a thrower-awayer, so I had 4,000 emails in one mailbox and 5,000 in another. Now that's down to under 1,000 each. I'd like to take it down further, archiving & deleting everything unnecessary, so I can do the "inbox zero" practice that thrower-awayers generally do. The follow-ups are too time-consuming at the moment, and could be much better if I could get a system going.

Yes, I did this to myself. No, I'm not complaining. Not really. I told an editor the other day that I'm running around with my hair on fire, and that's true, but complaining? I love my work. I love my life. I wish there were a bit less of it, is all.

In this week's big news, I will have a review in the Times Literary Supplement this week, and I bought this novelty pillow:

I'll leave it to you to decide which is more impressive.

Out in the world (it's been a minute since I did this):

I extracted a piece of my thesis-project memoir, named it "Boundin'", and reworked it (with editorial help) for Nailed. If you haven't known me for long, or if you happen to have a grumpy opinion about my financial privilege or emotional stability, I recommend you read it. My life was not always so.

I interviewed Carlos Lozada of the Washington Post for sinkhole. We talked through an intermediary, so I didn't get a sense of his personality via email like I usually do, but via his answers he seems like a good, smart, friendly guy.

I interviewed Litsa Dremousis for Books I Hate. She, on the other hand, demonstrated a wealth of personality, and I enjoyed every minute of it.

I reviewed a book of short stories from Bolivia, Sleeping Dragons by Magela Baudoin, for Cleaver. I liked the book. Very economic prose.

I reviewed Sybil Baker's novel While You Were Gone for the Heavy Feather Review. Both Sybil's team and HVR were great to work with and I hope to do so again.

I reviewed The Rending and the Nest by Kaethe Schwehn, a beautiful book, for Locus. This came out in print in the...August? issue, I think, and is just now on the website. It's accompanied by a bitchy little take on a book I really disliked, Moon Brow, by Shahriar Mandanipour.

More to come, including Rain Taxi and, oh, did I mention the TLS?

Friday, October 19, 2018

Close Reading

This week, a piece I wrote appeared in the Establishment. I'm so proud and happy, because that means:

Two to go. 

I've been wanting to write this essay, in one form or another, for years. I hate the book Stoner. Bottomlessly. I hate it for its mediocrity, for its use of the tired cycle of noncommunication --> bad relationships (which is constantly mined for comedy and tragedy alike), and for its prejudices, which are evidently invisible to readers who want to love characters who love literature. I was grateful for the opportunity to disseminate my annoyance to a wider audience.

But I want to reiterate that I got no complaint with the execution of the biography. I'm sorry to be casting shade on a decent biographer.

The original version of the essay I handed in was much longer than what was published. I wrote some paragraphs of evidence-gathering from the biography and close reading of the novel, which I include below for your amusement, in case you're a literary nerd like me. I wanted the opportunity to prove that Williams is a mediocre writer at greater length than I had to play with in the published version. They're essentially out of context, but if you've read the essay, you can follow along.

One sentence that I wish my editor hadn't advised me to cut, which is not part of the close reading, but is a more general critique on white male criticism: "Perhaps if I didn’t read every book with the underlying question of do I exist in this narrative?, I wouldn’t notice the substandard roles women tend to play, either." That's the question under everything I read, and it's a profoundly important question at this cultural moment - not just for me, a white woman, but for anyone who's not a cis straight white male.

There's more news from me, but it can wait till next week. Enjoy!


Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Never Yell Help Unless You Really Need Help

The past handful of days has been kind of bonkers and I am not handling it well. I'm behind on almost everything: reviews, interviews, reading, pitching, volunteering, editing, applications, my personal life. The only thing I'm up-to-date on is publicity via social media. Which probably isn't a good thing.

Here is the news:
  • sinkhole, in their generosity, has put me on their masthead as contributing books editor. I wrote a special bio just for them.
  • I found out that my name and review are quoted in the paperback for Red Clocks.
  • My piece on Medium has racked up 20,000 views.
  • I wrote an op-ed of sorts about the Stephen Elliott situation, and it got me a flurry of messages and shares and conversation. This is the first time I've been in the vanguard of thinkpieces about a cultural issue instead of tagging along behind.
  • My friend Ryan mentioned me in his podcast, the Coolness Chronicles.
  • A close family member has been impacted by Hurricane Michael and I am worried. 
Here is the further explication of that news:

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Week On

I'm gradually learning that I do best at this freelancing thing when I work week-on, week-off. Like, last week I wrote one or two reviews every day, knocking out a massive pile of assigned galleys. But this week I can't bring myself to write anything, and I'm reading, sleeping, and tending to other responsibilities instead. This schedule seems unworkable in a field where deadlines don't happen on a biweekly basis, but my brain gets quite mulish if I push it. And there are professions that run week-on, week-off, so it's not unheard of.

It would be nice if my brain was more cooperative. I'm reminded of when I started teaching yoga, and I figured out that a profession which relies almost entirely upon the consistency and strength of one's body, which is a changeable, inconsistent actor even when one is young, is a taxing, stressful profession. It's a different thing than a profession which requires your body to be present; you can come to work at an office job with a twingey knee and virtually nothing will be different. As a yoga teacher with a twingey knee, everything is different. This goes for athletes, too, and dancers, and people who otherwise employ their bodies for 90-100% of the work of their profession. You live in your primary workplace all the time, and the livelihood that your body represents gives you a strange relationship with the flesh you inhabit.

Now that I'm in a profession that uses my brain as entirely as teaching yoga used my body - a profession where I can't go to work and pretend to be interested for half the day but am really just marking time, where I have to truly think for every minute of the time I'm doing my job - I feel similarly stressed and taxed, and hadn't acknowledged it until, well, right now.

I think that's why a schedule is shaking out, almost involuntarily, where I'm doing that 90-100% thinking work only half the time I'm alive. Otherwise, I might collapse. Perhaps saying that my brain is uncooperative is wrong; its resistance could be keeping me from becoming a pile of unthinking goo.

All that said, this has been a pretty interesting week for me as a writer. Two reviews on which I worked unusually hard went live, along with a few other less labor-intensive pieces. An article I previously wrote as a blog post was featured on Medium, and the soil it turned over had all kinds of horrible creatures living in it. If you're not a member of Medium, I think you may not be able to see the comments left on the piece by members? Or something? Trust me, though - it isn't fun. (For a sample, see the comment on my previous blog post.) The negative feedback characterizes me as everything from "misandrist" to "borderline psychotic." One guy tried to convince me that I needed to see my own teenage experience in terms of the feelings of the boy I was with. Mmhmm. The positive feedback was nice to hear, though.

As for the hard-work reviews:

I wrote a review of Tana French's latest novel, The Witch Elm. I used the review as an occasion to write about a cultural/feminist theory I named the Lucky Loop. I made three charts to accompany the article. The Mantle ran two of them, and this is the third:

French's novel illuminates all the issues I pulled out in this piece, so it's not so much me coming up with these ideas as packaging them, but I'm proud of doing that, anyway. The charts were surprisingly fun to make.

I'm a Tana French superfan, so the argument exists that I might have spent the entire last year working insanely hard to build a portfolio as a book reviewer just so I could get her book earlier than its release date, for free. I can neither confirm nor deny this argument.

I also wrote a detailed review of Shelley Jackson's first novel in years, Riddance, the subtitle of which is The Sybil Joines Vocational School for Ghost Speakers and Hearing-Mouth Children. The rest of the book is as elaborate as the subtitle. Opinions have varied widely on it; Publishers Weekly starred it, while Kirkus called it tedious. I loved the book, but I predict a lot of people will buy it because it sounds cool and then will never finish it.

Otherwise out in the world:

I reviewed a remarkable anthology, So Many Islands, for sinkhole. I doubt I ever would have read a sentence of writing from most of these people if not for this anthology, and some of the island nations from which the writers hail I'd never heard of. If you're a traveler and/or you like anthologies, pick this one up; it's good.

I did a kind of book profile, including some quotes from the author, of Barbara Barrow's The Quelling for an interesting website called the Inquisitive Mind, or In-Mind, run by a very nice pair of PhDs. I found it via Googling magazines similar to Psychology Today (PT did not respond to my pitch). I thought that profiling the book for an audience interested in psychology would do better for the book than a regular review. It was an extremely readable book with wild conflicts, and I'm watching the author with interest.

And I wrote a regular review of Donald Quist's first story collection, For Other Ghosts, for the Arts Fuse. This is the third-to-last story collection I plan to review for quite a while. It was very good! I'm just not the right reviewer for short stories.