Archive for September, 2013

Mocking_Bird_Argument

Mocking bird kerfuffle. (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)

The kerfuffle

By now, if you vaguely follow news of the writing world, and perhaps even if you don’t, you will have become aware of the kerfuffle around Jonathan Franzen’s latest curmudgeonly diatribe, published in The Guardian last week, in which he waxes eloquent, in 39 paragraphs, no less, on much that is wrong with modern life, especially the plethora of phenomena (such as Twitter), companies (such as Apple) and people (such as Jeff Bezos) who in his view exemplify the general shallowness of society.

Nestled in his commentary, there are some nuggets of what many will recognize as truth. It is too bad that they are dissimulated in an overwhelming salvo of irritation and general grumpiness regarding “yakkers and Tweeters and braggers” and the likes of Jeff Bezos of Amazon who “may not be the antichrist, but he surely looks like one of the four horsemen.” (For an amusing read on the horror of agreeing with Franzen, read this.) On the very same day that the Guardian piece came out, there was a response which some viewed as spot on, while others, including a very well-spoken commenter using the handle “Ivan,” pointed to as precisely embodying Franzen’s critique. “Ivan” comments that “Franzen writes the type of unabashedly old-school creative literary/cultural critique that many of today’s smart folks ‘don’t have the time’ to read anymore because they’re too busy backstroking through the shallow pleasures of, you know, blogs. Wrapping his argument in a thoughtful historical comparison, he maligns the speed, form, instant gratification, and coolness embodied by our technoconsumerism– a germane topic.” One could argue with the part about “the shallow pleasures of, you know, blogs,” but Ivan goes on to ask quite validly whether the article’s writer has “even had time to process, or if is he “actually being paid to be pithy, sardonic, digestible and prolific at the expense of being thoughtful, astute and fair.”

Scathing denunciations

But enough already about Franzen. He is of course not the first “literary” writer (we’ll get back to the reason for those quotation marks later) to issue scathing denunciations of technology or social media (which of course were wildly propagated to thousands, if not millions, of people–or should I say users?– among those selfsame media). Author and former literary agent Nathan Bransford, in his tremendously popular blog, wrote in Feb 2012 a post titled “Why are so many literary writers technophobic?” in response to a spate of articles and interviews on this topic. In this post, he mentions, among others:

Jonathan_FranzenJonathan Franzen’s (I guess not enough of Franzen quite yet) statement that ebooks are damaging society and that “serious” readers read print.

(Photo by David Shankbone, Wikimedia Commons.)

 

 

 

Jennifer_EganPulitzer Prize winner Jennifer Egan complaining about social networking “Who cares that we can connect? What’s the big deal? I think Facebook is colossally dull. I think it’s like everyone coming to live in a huge Soviet apartment block, [in] which everyone’s cell looks exactly the same.” (Interestingly, or perhaps not, Jennifer Egan has a Twitter account, with over 8,000 followers despite only 8 Tweets.)

(Photo by David Shankbone, Wikimedia Commons)

 

Zadie_SmithZadie Smith writing of Facebook: “When a human being becomes a set of data on a website like Facebook, he or she is reduced. Everything shrinks. Individual character. Friendships. Language. Sensibility. In a way it’s a transcendent experience: we lose our bodies, our messy feelings, our desires, our fears. It reminds me that those of us who turn in disgust from what we consider an overinflated liberal-bourgeois sense of self should be careful what we wish for: our denuded networked selves don’t look more free, they just look more owned.” (Photo by David Shankbone, Wikimedia Commons)

 

Ray_BradburyRay Bradbury’s 2009 response to the suggestion of an ebook version of Fahrenheit 451: “To Hell with you and to Hell with the Internet.” (And lo! Two years later, the ebook came out. One could argue about whether Ray Bradbury is a “literary” writer or not, but he’s certainly part of The Canon.

(Photo by Alan Light, Wikimedia Commons)

 

Each of these outbursts prompted much discussion, commentary and writing. The most beautiful of which (at least among the pieces I encountered) was Alexis Madrigal’s response to Zadie Smith, delving deeply into the intersection of technology, communication and relationships. If there is one link you click on with the intent of reading it fully, make it this one.

These statements, while they spark interesting debate and prompt many to exercise their writing muscle, do a disservice to today’s new “literary” writers.

(Now I address the use of quotation marks, before getting rid of them. There is a massive and ongoing debate regarding what “literary” actual means. The debate is thought-provoking, fascinating, exhausting and, I think, essentially pointless. Some say the word “literary” denotes a lack of plot, that it is writing for the sake of beautiful words strung together. Some say it is idea-driven, not character-driven. It is “serious” writing. It is undefinable, but you’ll know it when you see it. Etc. To me, it is simply writing that makes one think, writing where the choice of words matters, writing that has an aesthetic value beyond the story itself, but that nonetheless can–and often does–have a wonderful story, memorable characters, a surprising yet inevitable arc. The writer April Line aptly points out that what one thinks about the literary fiction world is where one sits in relation to it.)

Here is a fact: Literary writers in the 25-45 year age bracket have come of age, at least career-wise, in a new era, when opportunities for seeing one’s work published by “traditional” publishers (and getting paid for it) have slimmed to almost nothingness, and when the dollars put forward by publishers for marketing and promotion of one’s work, even with a publishing contract, have dwindled drastically. An anonymous comment on Nathan Bransford’s post hits the nail on the head: “I love Franzen, but he writes a book a decade and laughs all the way to the bank. Who on earth has that kind of a sweet deal? If I were him, or John Iriving, or any other of those authors who’ve found a great thing and have milked it for years, I’d be against technology, too.” (I don’t think the term “milked it” here is fair, given the true greatness of these authors’  writing. Franzen is a wizard with words. I may not have liked any of the characters in The Corrections, but every single sentence in that book sings. It’s writing at a very, very high level. Nonetheless, I agree with the commenter’s general sentiment. Such opportunities are far from available for the vast majority of good, strong, worthy writing that is produced now.)

The aloof, disconnected literary writer

The pontifications or blustery explosions of established literary writers, no matter how well-written and based on kernels of hard truth, solidify the image of such writers as aloof and disconnected from the general population, from the realities of day to day life of the general population (which is ironic given that much of their work focuses on the very human experiences of the average person.) They propagate the notion that literary writers craft their Great Work–full of gorgeous writing, searing imagery, stunning insight into the human condition, true art–from up above in an isolated ivory tower, that they are ethereal, evanescent, a collection of ideas. And therefore they risk solidifying the publishing industry’s prejudice against unknown or debut literary writers because they illustrate the lack of “platform” or “reader engagement” which these days, whether one likes it or not, are two of the things that publishers look for to drive book sales for new authors. To the publishing industry, then, “literary” becomes equivalent to “un-sellable.” At least, I clarify again, in the case of new authors.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

 

So what are upcoming literary writers to make of all this?

Those who have come of age, at least with regard to their literary development, at a time of intense proliferation of social media, when many if not most of their friends are active on a minimum of two or three platforms. An age in which blogs offer a means to get one’s work “out there” without depending on the one-in-ten-thousand chance that their essays might end up being purchased (yes, for money) by an established publication with a wide readership. Would such writers discredit themselves by having a social media presence and (gulp!) engaging with people through blog posts, Twitter, Facebook and Google+? Are they then not truly literary? Will they never be accepted by the circle of authors who routinely review each other’s works in the New York Times Book Review? Are they wasting precious time that could be spent on our own Great Work?

Here is what I fear: that because literary writers are not on social media, the assumption will be that any writer on social media is not literary.

A friend of mine whom I met when our older children were tiny is a well-reviewed literary writer. She is lovely, smart, funny. She and I have had conversations, while the children smooshed Play Doh together, during which we laughed, saw eye to eye on many topics, generally “connected” well. She is someone who would no doubt post interesting links, have thoughtful observations and commentary to share on social media. Except she is not there. Even her web site is outdated. She has two published books. I don’t. Coincidence? It does make a girl wonder.

In this, as in many things, I am a hybrid. Several agents and editors have termed my first novel “literary.” And yet, I confess: I enjoy social media. I see where it has value. I use Facebook to maintain a connection with friends around the globe, and I use Twitter both to keep abreast of topics of interest to me, and to connect with others doing the same. For me it is about community, and finding a comfortable place in it. I find great satisfaction in conversations with strangers about topics close to my heart. It gives me energy to hap upon someone–a person out there in the great wild world, someone I would otherwise never encounter–who makes me laugh, or sees something the same way I do, or points me to a beautiful piece of writing or an artist’s photography. I like to write occasionally in a conversational style, or to write about un-literary, mundane things such as food or children, things that resonate on a simple level with many people. I like to post photographs. I embrace the term “literary” but refuse to be bound to it or by it.

Perhaps we are turning a corner, one in which there can be a happy medium, in which one can be a hybrid, a writer of literary fiction who is also known and liked as a person, who has an active online presence and whose writing has a far reach. Not that he is a shining example of an author who is well liked as a person, but Salman Rushdie’s response to Franzen’s “disappointment when a novelist who [he believes] ought to have known better, Salman Rushdie, succumbs to Twitter” was encouraging. Rushdie tweeted “Dear #Franzen: @MargaretAtwood @JoyceCarolOates @nycnovel @NathanEnglander @Shteyngart and I are fine with Twitter. Enjoy your ivory tower.” But I am not sure we are there yet. Rushdie names a handful of literary writers, and there are some others (Erica Jong, Sherman Alexie, Teju Cole) who engage in social media. Teju Cole, in fact, has a wonderful “small fates” series that he posts on Twitter, using the constraint of 140 characters to storytelling advantage. (Click here for a useful piece on why Twitter is good for writers, which lists several reasons without even going into the whole connect-with-your-readers bit.) However, these are established writers of literary fiction, who can afford to engage minimally with people via social media, who can have 48,000 followers but only follow 50 people. (I suspect they might just not have time for more, being busy teaching, giving keynote addresses and of course writing.)

Making art and feeling fine

What gives me hope for myself is that there appears to be a new wave of literary writers who are very active in social media. The writer Cathy Day points to it in the course of an interesting discussion on April Line’s post: “The independent literary community is BOOMING with energy, seriousness-of-purpose, and plenty of entrepreneurship–and it thrives and is sustained almost completely BECAUSE of social media. These literary writers need no support group. Over the last few years, I’ve taken my cues from them: Roxane Gay, Sean Lovelace, Dan Wickett and the folks at Dzanc Books, Matt Bell, Amelia Gray, Kyle Minor, Chad Simpson, Amber Sparks, Bryan Furuness, Chris Newgent. And Kelly Link, who runs her own press, is in this community, too. (…) The indie community is decidedly and proudly literary, often experimental, but until there’s more room for them at the tippy-top of the literary pyramid, they are happily ensconced somewhere in the middle, making art and feeling fine.

Have you heard of any of them? Perhaps, perhaps not. They all have books out, they all write thoughtfully, they are all committed to their craft. They’re feeling fine, and I’ll take my cue from them, too. But it sure would help if some of those at the helm of the literary writing world didn’t issue disparaging statements regarding the practices of those who are still trying to make it.

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Lunch time in Morgantown, PA, 1908 (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Lunch time in Morgantown, PA, 1908 (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Of all the back-to-school rituals–the alarm clock set 45 minutes earlier than for work and camp, the scrambling to get a solid breakfast into the children and to eat all together before the departure of the oldest, the reminders about back packs and homework sheets, the discussions about appropriate clothing and footwear–the one I most dread every year is the Packing of the Lunch Boxes.

Lunch boxes

Lunch boxes (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Seven years ago, when my oldest child started daycare, I panicked at the thought of how to provide her lunches. You’d think, having managed to feed and water her for two full years while she grew and developed wonderfully, and having a keen interest in food, I wouldn’t need any pointers for how to put some in a box every morning. But. There were all kinds of constraints, some self-imposed (there must be a starch, a protein, a fruit, a vegetable; there must be a variety of colors) but mostly externally imposed:

* The containers had to be ones her little two-year old hands could open on her own. In a pinch, the teachers would help, but they were big on fostering independence, for which I am still grateful.
* There could be nothing that required refrigeration or re-heating.
* Nothing even remotely nut-ish.
* Everything had to be cut up, or in finger-food pieces, or somehow manageable with her nascent utensil-wielding skills. Please include the utensils.
* Containers needed to be spill-proof, as the lunch boxes get tossed about a fair bit.
* Everything had to fit in the box, including a drink and, if necessary, an ice pack.

Don’t look at the image below

Not anticipating the intense feeling of inadequacy and horror that would result from it, I turned to the Internet for advice. There I found a thriving and entirely intimidating community of parents (I venture to guess they are 99% mothers) who post pictures of the intricate lunch boxes they pack for their children. They must spend an hour a day preparing them. (Although some say on their sites that they spend 13-25 minutes. But still.) I mean, look at this:

Bento Lunches

Bento Lunches

(I could find no copyright-free images, so this is a screen shot of the result page on Google Images for “kids bento lunch.”)

There are a number of sites with pages and pages of such pictures. From a design, architecture, creativity and health perspective, they are works of wonder. I commend the adults behind these creations for their enthusiasm and dedication. But good grief. I don’t know a single person who has the time to do this on a regular basis. (Not to mention the whole notion of creating a “need” to make food cute for it to appeal to a child. Look! You can eat the nose first!) Carrots carved to have rabbit ears. Cookie cutters used for cold cuts, with carefully placed kernels of corn or dried berries for eyes. (How about chives for whiskers?) Star-shaped cucumber slices and edamame on toothpick skewers. Thankfully for me, Pinterest didn’t exist yet. I don’t even dare to do a search for “bento box lunches” on there now.

I can do this

I wasn’t working much at the time (well, I was writing a book, but hadn’t yet learned, for better or for worse, to consider that “work”) so I actually did dabble a bit in making cutesy lunches. I confess there was an occasional gingerbread man shaped sandwich. Without crusts. I peered into the boxes of other children when I picked up my child at 12:30 at the end of lunch time, and was relieved to see that no one else seemed to have vastly “better” lunches. There was, in fact, one child whose lunch was always an almost uniform shade of brown. Poor kid. The teachers shook their heads and couldn’t understand, either, how his mother, who was a nutritionist, could do such a thing. Whole wheat pasta, whole grain crackers, Cheerios, raisins. Never a fresh fruit or vegetable. I was pleased that my child came home with a mostly empty lunch box, and I felt generally satisfied with my lunch-packing skills.

The honeymoon is over

Then, something changed in kindergarten. She started coming home with most of her lunch uneaten.I didn’t understand how she could not starve by 2:30 eating only a few bites over the course of the morning. She kept telling me there wasn’t enough time to eat. According to the school day schedule, there was a half hour set aside for lunch. How could she not find the time to eat? I knew she was a chatterbox, and could picture her gabbing with her friends at the table, but she wasn’t the type to forget completely to eat.

For three years, I went through the same (pointless) agitation every day, asking her why I should bother spending the time and effort to pack her lunches–full of things she liked, mind you–for her to come home with almost everything intact. Invariably, some part, smushed or bruised or no longer cold, had to be discarded. My time, my creativity, my early-morning brain cells, from the box straight into the trash amid crusty yoghurt lids and chicken guts. Then my daughter would sit and grudgingly finish whatever was left. That was the deal. No other snacks until lunch was consumed.

Brilliant, mom

One day of second grade, I made good on my threat to not pack a lunch. What’s the point? I asked her, when she noted the lack of lunch box. You won’t eat until you get home anyway. Feeling both childish and triumphant, I sent her off to school, assuming naively that she’d mope through lunch wishing she had one of my tasty, colorful, healthy and entirely appealing lunches with her, and return home with a new-found appreciation for them. Instead, she came home and nonchalantly mentioned that she told her teacher her mother hadn’t given her lunch, and the teacher had taken pity on her and plied her with classroom snacks–pretzels, granola bars and the like–and it had been a wonderful lunch. Phenomenal Mom Fail.

Jello is not a protein

We continued in this vein. Then it got worse, because she started not wanting certain trusty items. She said she simply didn’t like them anymore. I quickly figured out that it had to do with comments from others at her table. Children with more restricted palates and as-yet-to-be-developed social graces made faces at some of the “weird” things she brought to school. Weird being hard boiled eggs, olives, peas and other such exotic foods. (Just wait until Kindergarten gets a whiff of our Little One, whose favorite foods include capers and marinated octopus.) I tried to be understanding. The dynamics of school lunch tables can be crushing. I didn’t want her relatively broad taste in food (compared to her peers) to become a social burden. I told her we could eliminate anything from the rotation, but if it was a protein, she needed to come up with an alternative. We couldn’t simply narrow the list of options. But the alternatives she came up with were unacceptable to me: Fluff sandwiches. The kind of yoghurt that is bright pink and green. (This was when she still ate yoghurt.) Jello.

Advice from a seven year old

Lunches still came home half-eaten at best. I tried to include her in the planning, figuring she’d be less likely to ignore the lunch if she had a hand in setting the menu. I would suggest several items, and she would turn them all down. This was not working. One school night, she had a friend sleep over. The next morning, as my daughter was in the bathroom, I asked her friend, a good kid, for advice. How do your parents pack your lunch? I asked. She told me she didn’t really know. She just opened her lunch box and found whatever was there. I told her that I consult with her friend, but that it doesn’t make it any easier. “Why don’t you just not ask her?” she suggested with a shrug. Epiphany. I went back to making executive decisions.

Glory be

Finally, mid-way through third grade, there was a shift. I started re-integrating some of the items that had fallen off the list, and there was no backlash. The lunch box returned almost devoid of its contents, save for the empty containers. The kid came home, opened up the box at the counter, ate whatever was left while doing her reading, and didn’t ask for a snack until after that. She started requesting things like dried seaweed. She started commenting on how limited the diets of some of her friends seemed. “I’ve never seen her eat a fruit.” “There’s NEVER a vegetable in her lunch box.” “Every day, his mom packs him a sandwich, and every day, he just drops it in the trash. It’s such a waste. I feel bad for his mom.”

Hallelujah.

Little One is three now. Just in time to start the whole rigamarole again. Because as keen as she is on marinated octopus now, I’ll bet you anything it will fall out of favor between the years of Kindergarten and fourth grade. But that’s ok, because now Big One is back to more exciting foods.

Today’s lunch box:

* A tea roll from Wilson Farms (with cherry jam for Big One, and butter for Little One)
* Rolled up strips of ham
* Semi-cooked carrots
* A cider donut for Big One (her sister gets snacks at school)
* Apple slices and plum slices
* Milk in an insulated, spill-proof bottle with straw for Little One. Water for Big One.
* Ice pack.

Yesterday’s lunch box:

* Udon noodles (cut up for Little One) with a smidge of the cooking water and soy sauce to keep them from sticking, in a small Thermos.
* Edamame (in pod for Big One, out for Little One)
* Two clementines, peeled for Little One
* Banana for Big One
* Trader Joe’s chocolate chip granola bar for Big One.
* Berry yoghurt tube for Little One, with ice pack placed away from Thermos.

 

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