Sunday, November 25, 2018

Weekly To-Do, 11/15 - 11/24

Week three of my to-do list. I took the opportunity of the holiday to change the pattern of the days the list covers. The list below starts last Thursday and runs through Saturday evening, and future lists will go from Sundays to Saturdays.

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 entirely. 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.

Blog post
Review of Love in the New Millennium
Review of G
Notes on Korneliussen

LAR (answered)
Agent LH
Barrelhouse x2 (answered)

LWS to BUST (accepted)
Sissy to Advocate
Ceremonials to KW
Ceremonials to ST
CS to Bitch

Love in the New Millennium

Email Graywolf publicist
Email NBCC
Emails w/ LD
Email PANK publicist
Email Futurepoem about G
Emails w/ Locus eds
Email Tor publicity
Emails from GC, WD publicists
Email WRB x2

Promote Biss review
Promote Lubchansky interview
Promote Johnson interview
Promote Sonenberg review
Website updates
Check Pleiades, Locus for reviews
Edits on Scribe review
Edits on Nemett review
Research on TLM
Edits on Love review
End-of-year Locus business
Read mentee's work, make notes
Update Duotrope with rejections
Submit "What We Left in the Caf" x4

Next week I'm planning to do a little less. December is going to be plenty full, but I worked steadily enough through most of November that this last week of it is shaping up to be calmer than usual. Yay.

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

November Poem

Every year or so I write a poem. I expect nothing from them, because I don't know a damn thing about the process of making poetry and so have no idea whether what I write is any good. But here's the one I wrote this week. I thought it was appropriate for the November holiday.


Bird Woman

having done no
research at all on
the subject, I
often think of
Sacagawea, alone with
a passel of white men for
mile after mile of
total wilderness, whether
they passed her around
as men do, whether
she was untouchable, too
to spoil like the land
they crashed through,
searching for the sea mile
after mile, her steps
quiet on the earth, along
for the journey, another
item on the manifest, whether
she hovers
above the ghosts of
trees she sheltered them under,
gone now, above
the mini-mall, her skin
untouched or not, whether
she helped them, whether
they helped themselves

Saturday, November 17, 2018


One summer I lived with my mother in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. For a period of that summer, she left town, left me alone in her apartment. I was nineteen years old. I neglected to take the trash out for several days, because the trash can sat in a pantry and didn't noticeably smell, and I wasn't amassing enough garbage to need to take it out. There was food in there. The next time I threw something away, I found that maggots had infested the plastic waste bag. They looked like moving grains of rice. I was disgusted, and then deeply ashamed. The shame burned my face as I took out the trash, hosed out the bin, sprayed Lysol, put the bin back in the pantry. I never told her.


That same summer, I worked at a rundown movie theater. I started out in concessions, and then I was trained up to tickets and eventually projection. (Which I loved. Projecting movies was one of the most remarkable collisions of cerebral passion and tactile pleasure I've ever known. I didn't get to splice very often, but sometimes I did. I stole a metal reel that was broken and unusable, and I hung it on my wall, over the TV, for years.) But when I was still downstairs, I learned that the concessions booth was inhabited by mice. We never saw teethmarks on any food containers, and we never found droppings. But at the end of the night, cleaning up, we invariably saw small gray blurs darting from corner to corner. They were unmistakable, even if not fully visible. The leadership of the theater chose not to act on the mice. They didn't do any harm, didn't interfere with the stock. We thought they probably ate the popcorn we dropped and that was it. Plus, it was a rundown theater, one of the least busy in town. I imagine it has since closed.


In high school, my bedroom was in the basement of a ranch house in Maryland. The finished part of the basement was separated, by thin walls and thin doors, from an unfinished portion. Boxes occupied it. So did crickets. Dozens or possibly hundreds of shiny black crickets, noisy and quick. Sometimes they made their way into the finished part, a.k.a. my bedroom, and I'd find them, antennae twitching, on the beige carpet, or on the linoleum glued to the cold concrete of the bathroom. Trembling, sneaking up, yelping when they moved, I would trap them under water glasses and leave them there to suffocate. It would take a couple of days. At first I tried to shift them onto pieces of paper or cardboard and release them outside, but they'd just return to the basement, and on more than one occasion, a cricket leapt inside the glass, scaring me, and I dropped it. The unpredictable movement of the crickets was more frightening than I can communicate. They terrified me, to the point where I lost sleep worrying about them. To this day I am afraid of crickets. Not spiders, not beetles, but crickets.


Sometime in August of 2016, I found a baby cockroach in my kitchen sink. It was the first of several. I am a poor housekeeper, but not that poor; it was part of a general downward trend in the quality of that kitchen, and generally, the living experience in that apartment. I was less disgusted than I was disappointed: this place, too, was subject to pests. I tried to keep it safe, but I should have known that was impossible. I contacted the management company and they came and sprayed, but the roach incidents increased, coming closer together in time, the roaches bigger and bolder, and about a month later we moved out. It was the last kick out the door we needed from that complex, which was awful, but which gave me a whole lot of writing material. Including this.


Part of the reason I hate the holidays - the seven weeks from mid-November to the beginning of January - is the energy in the air whenever I'm outside my home. The general public is emotionally raw, whether they're nervous or angry or joyful or something else. Everyone is excited in some way, like a molecule is excited: quivering under the influence of an energetic force. Their emotions are large and exposed. It's extreme. I hate it.

At the end of last week and the beginning of this week, as you may know, major fires erupted in my area. By the grace of the Santa Anas, we never had to evacuate, but we had a couple of scary days; one of the fires was only a mile or two away. On the third day, the winds died down and our air quality declined, so we went to Lowe's to see if we could get some filtration masks and potentially a purifier, if we could find one of reasonable price and functionality. Within a few minutes of going in the store, I felt mean and angry. I snapped at Matt and got so impatient that I walked away from him when he wanted my help. I was tired and unsettled and just mad. And as soon as we got back in the car, I felt better (and regretful).

It was the people, I realized. The stress of the fires caused people to buzz with such bad energy that it turned me into Mr. Hyde.

We went home. We went out again a couple of days later and the very same thing happened. I felt rude and short-tempered and mad at the whole damn world. "I'm not going out again," I told Matt after we got back in the car. "Not until this is over." He nodded fervently.

I can't hide from the world forever. And I can't perceive human beings as pests. These two sentences are almost perfectly opposed and both true.

I tell people fairly often that part of what I love about working at home is that when I do go out again, the world seems nice. I greet people happily instead of seeing them as obstacles. Slow clerks are worth my sympathy. Bad drivers are cute. The more I'm out and around people, the more they seem like they're in my way, instead of going their own way.

One year, I hope, I'll be monied and isolated enough to stay home for the entire seven-week period of the holidays. At that point, the only thing I'll have to worry about is crickets.

Out in the world:

For sinkhole, I reviewed Eula Biss's Notes from No Man's Land, which was rereleased in a ten-year anniversary edition by Graywolf. In the process of reviewing this book, I wrote about whiteness in America at perhaps unwelcome length. I hope you read it anyway.

I reviewed a fascinating book, Beyoncé in Formation: Remixing Black Feminism by Omise’eke Tinsley, for the Houston Chronicle. Almost everything I have to say about the book is in the review; almost everything I have to say about placing the review is unsayable. The Chron was great to me. Very sharp, very nice people there.

For Western Humanities Review, which is working to beef up their critical section, I reviewed The Making Sense of Things by George Choundas. This was one of a really small number of books by straight white men I've read or reviewed this year, and so far it's the only one that didn't make me roll my eyes at least once because patriarchy. I'm glad I broke my rule for it, and I give it my highest recommendation.

For Books I Hate, I interviewed Matt Lubchansky. I've been a fan of theirs for a long long time and I was really happy to add them to the roster. They're totally right about The Canon.

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 --