Thursday, December 27, 2018

Books I Read in 2018

This is probably the most intense year of reading I've had since I was a book-addicted kid. The total is 150-160 (inexact because of chapbooks and books I didn't finish), or just about three per week. I consider that an awful lot of books for one year.

I was dissatisfied at the lack of year variation in my book diet - it was almost all new releases, very few older books - and that I didn't successfully read a Big Book. I read several books that were ~450 pages, but none of them were classics, even by my very loose standards.

Here's 2017's version of this post, and I think it's worthwhile to repeat the first paragraph of that post:
It's possible that I'm doing this to show off, I'll come out with that up front. But if I can try to step back and use myself as an example: as a writer, you should be prepared to read a LOT. Voraciously and omnivorously. Poetry, nonfiction, avant-garde, pulp, scholarship, everything. Read it all and then get back to me if you still want to be a writer.
The ^ marks a book that I did not read for review, interview, or another kind of research. (There were a lot fewer of them than books I did read for review/research.) The * marks a book I didn't finish.

The bolded books were my favorite books of the year. Very subjective. Others I read were more skillfully written, or more fun, or more memorable, or easier to recommend to readers who are not me. But the bolded ones were the books that ensorcelled me, the ones that made me want to keep reading late into the night or tiptoe out to read them early in the morning.

Sunday, December 23, 2018

Weekly To-Do, 12/16/18 - 12/22/18

Not much to say about this week. I read a lot, and Musalaheen was one of the best books I read all year. (I've kept up with a list of all the books I read this year, which I'll post here soon. It's...long.)

In case you missed the conversation on Facebook, I'm doing a multi-book project involving the phrase "horse latitudes," so this week's reading involved a few of those. Two were poetry, and one was a novel. Many more to come. This mystery will be solved within a few weeks, I promise.

Disclaimer: 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.

Locus roundup
Lost Gods review
Blog post
Last Woman Standing review
Unmarriageable review

Lost Gods
Frail Sister
Stranger in the Pen
Horse Latitudes books (3)
Tides of the Titans 

TCS to Psych Today
Feature to K (responded)
Sissy to WaPo
Op-ed to LAT (rejected)
TCS to Folks
Sissy to NPR

LARB (accepted I think?)

Emails w/ WD publicist
Emails, texts w/ Malhotra

Promote Ariana Grande piece
Promote podcast appearance
Promote TBS list
Promote Egan review
Promote Nemett review
Update website
Submit to contest

Thursday, December 20, 2018

See Me Now?

I am so tired of year-end roundups of books that I could start screaming and never stop, like that guy who cracks in Real Genius.

Seriously. I had no idea how many of them there were until this year, when paying attention to them is kind of part of my job, but now I feel like I'm drowning in them. And what good do they do? So often they're just composed of all the same books I heard about ad nauseam this year. I wish all the best to the authors of these books, really I do, but if I read one more article that gushes over The Incendiaries, The Third Hotel, and The Great Believers, I'm going to, well,

I could write a very long list of things I learned this year as a writer. I think I picked up about 100 bylines, based on inexact estimates, and that's a lot to learn from. I got into too many arguments, and I made some wonderful connections, and I alienated a nonzero number of people, unfortunately. I went to book parties and I joined Twitter and I wrote for outlets I've been wanting to write for since I was in my mid-twenties. I felt lucky and cursed, miserable and exhilarated. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. But there's just one thing I want to write about today: using the first person in book reviews.

I've never believed that subjectivity in the majority of writing types is a bad thing. The only places to preserve objectivity are textbooks or journalism: areas where the meretricious struts of objectivity are necessary or the infrastructure crumbles. For nearly everything else, I find it pretty important to remember the existence, the bias, the shades and emotions of the genuine human being who's composing the words you're reading. Hi, here I am.

In my reviews, I turn to the first person when I want to offer my subjective experience of reading the book. Again, I see nothing wrong with this. When I read poetry and have a hard time with it, I want you to know that. I hope my first-person truth-telling will make other readers who have a hard time with poetry feel less alone, and help them choose to forge on with reading poetry anyway (because if a reviewer has a hard time with it, what do you have to be discouraged about?). A few of my editors, though, have flagged my dips into the first person and asked me to remove them. It took time and guidance for me to understand why instead of getting defensive.

A great example of why came from a review that was just published yesterday, of Adam Nemett's We Can Save Us All. In the second paragraph, the finished review reads:
David, the main narrator, is a bit of a misstep; in his ordinariness and insecurity, he is inadequate to the task of anchoring this wild, funny book. 
While my original draft read:
David, the main narrator, is a bit of a misstep; in his ordinariness and insecurity, I found him inadequate to the task of anchoring this wild, funny book. 
In my draft, I wrote this judgment in the first person because I'm not sure that every reader will find David inadequate. It felt harsh to indicate that. I'm a critic, but I'm one reader, and I'm willing to bet that readers who resemble David more than I do will find him more adequate than I did. And his ordinariness and insecurity are part of the point; I think it's still way too big a book for such a schlub to be the center of, but I do see why Nemett did it that way. The point is, I felt like I was opening myself to more hostility by using definite language (here's how it is) than by using subjective language (here's how I found it). I think I'm right but I'm willing to be wrong, and I don't want to stamp out other readers' points of view. The first person demonstrates that efficiently.

My editor pointed out that subjectivity weakens the certainty of the passage, and thus of the review in general. It's like using seems instead of is: weaseling out of saying what you really mean. This is true. It just is. Without definite statements instead of "I think/I feel" statements, criticism has no air of authority. Thus, first person should be used sparingly, or not at all, if the critic is going to maintain her authority as a critic.

But I am dubious about saying that any single critic's opinion is the only way to receive a given book. As one of my teachers said, if everyone in the room has the same thing to say about a book, it's a dead piece of literature. So to say that how I received the book is how I received the book, rather than how the book definitively is, feels more correct, kinder, fairer.

And I know I don't know everything about reading, writing, or reviewing. Without some subjectivity, I start to sound like a know-it-all, or a snob, or worse.

Still. My editors are right. Criticism is messy and unconvincing with too much subjectivity. I keep seeking the right balance of I and you, of critic and reader, with some author thrown in there, too. Without that balance, criticism feels either too limp or too steely. I am a good enough reader to suss out what an author is doing most of the time, but I don't want to lose track of the flawed and biased person who's reading, or start proclaiming myself the Great and Powerful Oz of book critics. That's not in anyone's best interests, not readers nor writers. Nor me.

For more subjective opinions, see below.

Out in the world:

I reviewed Anne Boyer's bring-you-to-your-knees essay collection A Handbook of Disappointed Fate for the Los Angeles Review. It's too, too good. And this review is very subjective, but hopefully in an authoritative way.

For Locus, I reviewed the third book in B. Catling's well-received Vorrh trilogy. I read all 1,400 pages of this trilogy in a week, and I know the overload involved there is not the only reason I fucking hated the books. I was on pins and needles the last couple of months waiting for this review to go on the website, because I am so proud of pointing out the sick colonialism and the dark, hideous horrors of these books. If you haven't read one of my reviews in a while, read this one.

I reviewed a short novel that seemed to come and go quickly despite being a lyrical wonder, Alyson Hagy's Scribe, for the Carolina Quarterly. The editor there is super nice and we're going to be working together at least a couple more times in the coming months.

I did a breathless three-minute review of a second PANK chapbook, Stacy Austin Egan's You Could Stop It Here, which was very good, for Pleiades. I hugely enjoy this format.

I feel bad about giving a net negative review to Hollywood vs. the Author, a collection of essays about writers in Hollywood, because it's the first book I've reviewed for Rare Bird and I really like the people at that press and the work they're doing. But the book had obvious flaws. What are you gonna do?

Also for Book and Film Globe, I wrote a snarktastic piece about the video for Ariana Grande's "Thank U, Next," which pissed me off. My take pissed off some other people. Oh, well. My editor at that site is assigning me almost everything I pitch, so there will be much more to come there.

Finally, I wrote an essay about writing without pay that I posted (...behind a paywall) at Medium. If you find it interesting, I'd appreciate a share.

Sunday, December 16, 2018

Weekly To-Do, 12/09/18 - 12/15/18

This week was a complete shitshow. A lot of things happened all at once, some of them merely eventful and others emotionally messy. I drove to LAX and back for a 15-minute appointment. I had an internal biopsy. I spent two days on planes. Etc. Which meant that I didn't get as much done as I hoped to this week. I'm nearly done with a long book I had hoped to finish yesterday, but didn't, and I planned to write at least two reviews, but I mostly slept instead. Oh, well. Next week should be better.

I'm starting to think about a vacation in January or February, like...just...taking a few days not to do this. One of my recent intentions was to take one weekend day each week not to work at all: not to send emails, think about my schedule, research, read for review, or write. It's been over a month since I thought that up and I still haven't managed it. (Which means I've worked at least a little bit every single day for months.) I'd like to spend some time with horses, letting the hours pass slowly. I'd like to stand in the desert and look at the wind moving the sand. I'd like to recalibrate.

Fingers crossed.

Disclaimer: 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.

Revisions to Nuuk review
Ariana Grande piece
Notes for Locus roundup

The Collected Schizophrenias

EA to Locus
Books I Hate queries (2)

R&RG (answered)

Emails from Nathaniel
Emails w/ Sarah, Stephanie
Emails w/ George
Emails w/ Caroline

Publish & promote Medium piece 
Submit literary pieces (3)
KR contract
Review Booth galley
NBCC survey
Promote Catling review

Sunday, December 9, 2018

Weekly To-Do, 12/02/18 - 12/08/18

This week I did a theoretically dumb thing: I complained publicly about rejections. The Twitter thread begins -

- and goes on to explain why these rejections are so frustrating. I'm usually able not to take them personally, but this thread explains why I can't seem to this time.

If anyone thought the thread made me look like a jerk, they didn't say so. I got a bunch of support from friends, and interest in reading the MS from newish friends and even from a press. Bitching and whining about rejections is a boring rookie move, but I am beyond frustrated about the gap between the feedback I've gotten about this MS and the interest shown in it.

Anyway. Aside from that, it was a busy week; four reviews appeared, I wrote four more, and I had a variety of applications and administrative stuff to assemble. Plus all the good news, which is maybe even more stressful than bad news.

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.

Review of Schwartz
Nervously edit freelance article
Blog post
Revisions on Five Plots review (minimal)
Revisions on Harun review
Review of Moskovich
Review of Gaar
Review of Narrator

World Domination
Something Like Breathing 

Multiple to B&FG (mostly accepted)
GAITR to Pitchfork

Guardian (accepted)
BOMB (accepted!!!!!!!)
Chronicle (rejected)
Rain Taxi (responded)

Emails w/ Aly
Messages w/ Ron
Emails w/ Neal
Emails w/ Locus
Emails w/ Geoff

Promote Asim review
CALYX acceptance & corresp
Promote Boyer review
Update website
Apply for Balakian award
Promote Schwartz review
Promote Scribe review
Locus year-end business
Submit finished review to KR 

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

From Noon Until Noon Again

Yesterday I was feeling very blue. It was the kind of blue I knew would pass, but that didn't make me feel less worthless in the moment. This sensation was the result of a variety of things.

I got a handful of rejections all together that were more hurtful than the norm. One was one of those where they don't even send you an email, you just find out when they send the list of winners in the newsletter. I understand that organizations can't be all things to all people, but ugh, what a sucky way to learn that I didn't get picked. I also got two rejections from agents, one of whom I'm pretty sure didn't read my query all the way through based on their reply. My pitches and follow-ups for the past week have mostly not been answered. I didn't get a side job I hoped I'd get. The reading & reviewing - in reality, I've been very productive lately, but it feels like digging at the side of a sand pile. It doesn't look like there's actual progress, or that there ever will be.

Personally: Two friendship-related disappointments hit me in the course of a couple of days. I'm doing a whirlwind east-coast trip this weekend and don't have anything to wear. I signed Matt and myself up for both PreCheck and Global Entry without realizing that we don't need both, and Global Entry is useless for the reason I wanted it, which makes me feel like the management skills on which I pride myself have failed me. The end of the semester is coming and it feels like I fucked up, mostly, instead of helping, at CSUN. I can't manage money at all, not one little bit. Really truly. Can't.

Over the weekend, I went to a few junk shops in Ventura and bought some materials for collaging. I found the most amazing things! Vintage catalogs, magazines, paper doll sets, curious books, even a couple of woodcuts. Back in September, I resolved to make a visual collage at least once every six weeks. I love to collage, even if it's not an art form that I know how to do (like I know how to write). It's a sincere and powerful artistic release for me. But my resolution involved using real materials to collage rather than just catalogs and junk mail, which is how I've been doing it up till now. I expressed it to myself as "put some skin in the game," which means cutting and pasting things that have objective value, materials that once meant something to someone, rather than items that are worthless or easy to reproduce.

I was thinking about Anne Carson's book Nox, which includes collages of family photographs and letters, materials that surely were precious but that she cut up and pasted over and re-made as materials for her art. I couldn't decide if it was...wasteful? a loss? something she'd regret?, but I also found it daring. As I looked at more collage artists' work, I began to wonder if collaging was worthwhile at all unless you collaged something of value. Maybe it depends on what you're trying to do as a collagist.

In any event, I felt sure that I wasn't going to do satisfying work as a collagist, whether I want to make work that others see or not, unless I used materials that intrigued me instead of trash. So I bought some in Ventura over the weekend.

Problem was, when I got home and spread all the materials on the floor to show Matt, they were all so interesting that I was overwhelmed. I didn't know where to start. What if I fucked up, and wasted the materials that I'd spent money on? What if I was wrong about the book I wanted to chop up and use as background? What if I had to throw out real photos from the 1960s? It upset me, because my creativity wanted to be brave, but my heart did not.

All of this was swirling around in me yesterday, Monday. Why couldn't I do anything right? Why was everything so wrong? All my best plans led to flinching and fucking up at the last minute, or to gatekeepers reminding me that, nope, my work isn't that interesting.

At therapy, the plot thickened, in a way that I really can't talk about here.


This morning, I woke up and felt better, mostly because, as I said at the top of this post, my blues were a passing thing. Why-am-I-so-worthless is a refrain that comes and goes in me all the time, but only occasionally can I not just wave it away like a mosquito. Most of the stuff above, this morning's light reminded me, is either not important or it's fixable. The rejections are what they are; being a writer is learning to see rejection as neutral instead of negative. Sometimes they hurt and it takes time to get over them. That's okay, too.

Then, today, a couple of downright exciting acceptances came through, some of them from places I'd despaired over re: their lack of response just 24 hours earlier. (Also some rejections, which felt neutral instead of painful.) My Asim review got some good feedback and mentions. I heard from a friend I've missed for a week or two.

Most importantly, I went for a walk. I wanted to think about the review I need to write before I go to bed tonight, and what I was going to say in it, but instead I found this song banging along with the rhythm of my steps. For some reason, it reminded me of the picture I liked most out of the material I bought in Ventura. I imagined the song title typed in Courier below the picture, all caps, with a period.

The two hands laced together and I had it: a series of collages about songs that get stuck in my head. That was what I needed: a theme! I needed something to collage around. And now I have it.

I'm not saying that all you need to feel better is for things to start going your way. That'd be too easy, and also wrong. It's fortunate that I got a handful of good news on a day when I needed it, but that's just business, just freelancing. What made me feel solidly better was figuring out a direction for my collages. Doing that made me feel like my future as a creative person was not hopeless, which was a much bigger, more amorphous, more deadly feeling than a bunch of disappointing "no"s.

And that figuring-out was just a matter of waiting until my brain made a connection between one thing and another. Not panicking when the answer didn't come right away. Not forcing myself to sit down with scissors and glue. Having patience with the trawler teeth of my mind, feeling sure that they'd dig up answers for me. And...yep, they did.

Sit through your blues and see what's on the other side. You are not worthless. Be patient and true. I'm telling you, but I'm also telling myself.

Out in the world:

This piece about Mystery Science Theater 3000's reboot. I could have written a piece twice this length. I have so much to say about the show. But for now I said this. Got both fantastic, sparkly private feedback and bad public feedback about it.

I interviewed Daisy Johnson, who was nominated for the Booker Prize this year. She was separated from me by a wall of publicists, in terms of our contact with each other, but through it, she seemed lovely. Her book, Everything Under, was surprising. For those who are curious about how I got to interview a Booker Prize nominee: the Rumpus asked me to. I have no helpful secrets for how to make something like that happen.

I reviewed Jabari Asim's terrific book We Can't Breathe for Brevity. I really, really recommend this book. It's short, it's beautifully written, and it's a supremely helpful primer for entrenched racial problems in America.

I reviewed a book I really did not like for the Arts Fuse. The author's international reputation tends to indicate I am wrong about it, but I challenge you to read the book and then get back to me about how. I even have a copy, if you want it.

Pleiades published a three-minute review I wrote of Maya Sonenberg's chapbook for PANK. I wrote another one for another PANK chapbook that's forthcoming.

Sunday, December 2, 2018

Weekly To-Do, 11/25/18 - 12/01/18

I discovered something interesting this week. For whatever reason, I had a hard time concentrating on reading or writing, and I thought that meant I was working an inadequate amount. In fact, no; this list shows that I just did a lot of other work than the obvious kind. Lots of correspondence, pitching, and miscellaneous upkeep. My question then becomes a chicken-and-egg one: whether I did the other work first, such that I had no mental room for the reading/review work, or whether, when I realized I wasn't concentrating properly, I compensated.

Who knows? My own ability to work or not work is mysterious to me.

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.

Finish MST3K article
Review of Korneliussen
Review of Harun
Revise Nemett review

Hollywood vs. the Author
Last Woman Standing

WD to B&FG, R&RG (semi-accepted)
HvA to B&FG (accepted)
CS to Chron
SLB to Guardian
Dual essay, HL article to sinkhole (semi-accepted)
S to IM

Shields publicist (answered)
Pierce College (answered)
Washington Post

Emails w/ Shields
Emails w/ Guardian ed
Emails w/ Futurepoem
Emails w/ Cameron
Emails w/ Madison
Check in with mentee
Texts, emails w/ SH
Email Amy 

Promote Xue review
Submit "American Smile" x2
Submit "You Must Know"
Update Duotrope with rejections/acceptance
Contracts for LAR, TWRP, B&FG
Compose & send out newsletter
Request UTP books
Submit "Authority"
Submit "Jaws"
Promote MST3K piece
Request Wurth galley
Order business cards
Accept [secret thing]
Submit "Authority"
Twitter stuff for MST piece and Establishment piece