Fickle Reading and the Precious Seconds Rule, Part I: The Writer’s Dilemma

[Okay.  Procrastination time is over.  Big philosophical treatise starts now:]

A while back I had a chance to read Farhad Manjoo’s “You Won’t Finish This Article.”  Ironically, I DID, in fact, finish the article, and I even read through all the extra graphs Manjoo claims he included for kicks, and all the whining-that’s-supposed-to-be-a-joke-but-you-know-there’s-a-kernel-of-truth-there commentary that Manjoo indulges in about how he “spend[s] a lot of time and energy writing these stories.”  I spend a lot of time and energy writing, too, and I do it all for free.  But never mind that right now.

The reason why I stuck with Manjoo’s piece, even though his title dared me not to,is that the article presents research on the reading habits of Internet users.  Apparently, among the pool of readers that lands on an article, only a small percentage will go on to finish reading what they’re looking at.  About half of users will “bounce” off an article’s page–that is, will click on a link and then leave the page instantly–and another large chunk will read the first few paragraphs and then move on, possibly to tweet or retweet the link to the article they didn’t finish.  (Yes, that’s right: many Twitter users will share a link to an article when they haven’t fully vetted the content they’re supposedly endorsing.  Probably, they’re just tweeting a headline because it’s funny or awesome or cute or terrifying.  Isn’t that what Twitter’s for?)

Manjoo bewails this state of things, because goshdarnit, he works hard to pump out all these explorations of important issues affecting the world, and what do you readers do but skim the first paragraph then jump down to the comments and bitch about some opinion I’ve already tackled/supported/invalidated further down the page!  I’m a well-published, experienced journalist with lots of interesting things to say! Why aren’t you listening to me???

Well, let me tell you, Farhad: that’s the Writer You talking.  I know this because Writer Me is burning with the same outrage all the time.  Every writer does.  From when we’re very young, we’re trained that whatever we commit to paper (or blog or message board) MUST be read by someone else in order to be validated.  Why else would anyone take the time to write down her thoughts in the first place if they didn’t think they would be glanced upon ever again–even by her own eyes?  Thus it comes to pass that we writers think whatever we do happen to jot down ought, in a fair and just universe, to be read, if not appreciated and worshiped for the great work of literature it is.

Farhad, I’m sure that, in the same way that every writer over the age of eight has done, you’ve come to realize that readers hardly ever show writers the respect they’re due.  Words on a page do not equal instant acknowledgment.  Rarely do they even merit instant notice.  The reason?

Readers are Fickle.

Like feral creatures, readers roam print and virtual landscapes, sniff a sentence here and there, and meander on if the words don’t strike their fancy.  And even though you would think that readers, being literate and civilized, would at least give an idea written by a fellow literate person the chance to grow and bloom, the truth is that there are so many other collections of words growing on the plains that readers don’t have to wait around–they can simply amble to the next juicy clump of written goodness.

Face it, Farhad: readers don’t owe you squat.

I don’t mean to pick on Manjoo exclusively here.  Other professional writers have said or implied the same thing: Here is the Work I’ve Written.  Go forth, all ye readers, and Read.  Look at the brouhaha Lynne Shepherd created when she opined that J.K. Rowling ought to stop writing books because her work is clogging up the market.*  Although most critics, including comment board denizens, focused on Shepherd’s audacity in telling the likes of Rowling what to do, many seemed to miss the true point of Shepherd’s screed: to ask Rowling very politely not to write any more detective stories so that she (Shepherd) won’t have to compete with the uber-legendary creator of Harry Potter.  What Shepherd herself misses, of course, is that readers aren’t going to give a book by Shepherd any more of a chance whether or not Rowling (or Robert Galbraith) is in the mix.  No matter how much time, energy, or money (and I suspect Shepherd has a lot of money) you invest in the publication process, if readers don’t like the book you produce they’re still going to ignore it.

And I’m not the only one to state this bleak writerly reality, either.  In 2010, Laura Miller, a book reviewer for Salon, published an absolutely scathing piece about NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month, stating that people who attempt to write a novel in a month are basically wasting their time:

Even authors who achieve what probably seems like Nirvana to the average NaNoWriMo participant — publication by a major house — will, for the most part, soon learn this dispiriting truth: Hardly anyone will read their books and next to no one will buy them.

Comments on Miller’s article–a large quantity of which support NaNoWriMo–mostly accuse her of snobbery and unfairness, of being a condescending professional writer biased toward “plebes” who dare not only to write but to bring their work to the public.  But does Miller have any better long-term advice for writing elites, like those who come from MFA programs?  Nope.  “MFA programs,” says Miller in a 2014 Salon article,

create a bubble for the writers who enroll in them, but what these writers are protected from isn’t either the blistering reader reviews of Amazon or the swashbuckling critical crusaders of the legit press. Instead, pretty much by definition, the workshop world fails to prepare writers for what they will almost certainly face outside it: indifference and silence.

As for Miller’s own work as a reviewer, she writes that publishers send her a total of 20 to 30 titles per day.  Then she compares that staggering statistic with the number of books that the average book-buyer has to choose from.  With those odds, it’s hard to comprehend how the average reader will ever light on a single work,not to mention yours, even if you’ve got the prettiest cover, the best blurbs, or a sales team full of caffeine-addicted talking dingos.

Miller’s bottom line: “It is the author’s first responsibility to persuade me, and the rest of the world’s readers, that he or she deserves our attention and our time.”

Writers, repeat this to yourselves early and often.

Readers don’t owe you squat.

At the same time, you shouldn’t let this debilitatingly bleak truth get you down, writers.  There’s a silver lining to the fickleness of readers that, right this second, I bet you’re too busy drowning in despair to see:

All you writers out there?  You’re readers, too.

To be continued…




*Although I myself have defended Shepherd against Rowling-obsessed trolls downgrading Shepherd’s books purely on the basis of her anti-Harry Potter blasphemy, I still find Shepherd’s argument one of the dumbest and self serving I’ve heard in a long time.

Back for More: LA Times Opinion Section Seeks Out Poetry Again

Last year, the L.A. Times solicited “opinion poetry” for a one-shot, one-page feature in their Opinion section.  To the surprise of no one who knows the poetry industry, the naive L.A. Times Opinionistas were inundated with over 5,000 individual poems, sent by 1500 writers.  (It seems the editors never considered that poets would have more than one thing to say, so their previous call for submission in 2013 set no limits on how much work you could send.  All you Fickle Poets out there: feel free to laugh at their innocent folly.)

Luckily for us poetic types, the folks at the LA Times have repressed what it feels like to directly experience the raw, boundless desire of poets seeking publication.  (I imagine it’s like staring at the sun, or opening up the Heart of the TARDIS and gazing into the time vortex.)  The editors are calling for another round of poetry based on opinions about “politics, culture, international relations, you name it”  But the editors do seem to have learned their lesson, in that they are limiting all submissions to one poem per author.  You can read about all the other guidelines here.  The deadline for submissions is August 11.

Once again, they’re only devoting a single page to poetry, which will be published on a single day (August 31).  Maybe if we make enough noise, the LA Times will start publishing poems more often.  The Poetry Publishing Demons need to be fed, you know…

Good Writing Break: Poems by Jeffrey Skinner and Thomas Sayers Ellis

I just got through reading Dave Cullen’s Columbine.  An excellent book, packed with information about the event I didn’t know, how investigators painstakingly pieced together what happened inside the school, how the media completely misinterpreted the motives behind the tragedy (with the help of a few dumbass officials with access to the press), and how certain details about the police response were (surprise, surprise!) covered up.  Despite how good it is, or maybe because of it, the experience of reading Cullen’s book left sore spots on my psyche.  Surprised as I am that this happened, I had nightmares.  I don’t remember the last time a book has affected me in my sleep.

Keeping in mind my emotions have been raw as hamburger meat lately, I wanted to highlight a couple of beautiful, soul-mending poems I stumbled across in the past week.  The text of the first one I quote in full from this essay on “expansive poetry”; the piece itself is from Jeffrey Skinner’s sequence “Sonnets to My Daughters, 20 Years into the Future” (published in A Guide to Forgetting, 1988).  Tragically, the problems the speaker struggles with are as relevant now as they were 26 years ago:

In the news today, a woman in fatigues
let loose an automatic rifle in a shopping mall.
Three dead, seven wounded. By now you’ll
know, have seen a thousand images of disease,
cruelty, death in rags and formal dress,
failed negotiations, husband, child, wife beatings–
the endless catalog of humans who’ve so lost
the way, they tease evil in, thinking it unboring.
It is boring. Weil, Merton, a few others
were right–good is the only real surprise.
Do you love movies? I do, especially comedies.
One favorite moment: a bum in a Marx Brothers
film asks for a dime to buy a cup of coffee.
Harpo opens his coat, pulls out a cup, steaming.

There’s so much chaos in this sonnet, it’s hard to see the structure.  But structure is there (14 lines, slant end-rhymes, the volta), and it makes the pieces of the shattered form all the more meaningful.  (“Weil, Merton, a few others / were right–good is the only real surprise.”  Turns out, in the end, it is.  Hallelujah.)*

The second poem, “Vernacular Owl,” by Thomas Sayers Ellis, is an epic elegy, if there is such a thing.  (Whatever the case, I’m sure the poet doesn’t care.)

(Full disclosure: I took a workshop with Ellis in 2006.  His poetic genius is like nothing I’ve ever seen.)

“Vernacular Owl” is featured in Poetry magazine’s July/August 2014 issue, which is part of the ultra-prestigious web site.  When I pulled up Ellis’s piece, a Poetry Foundation widget appeared beside the text, encouraging me to browse the archives for (and this is 100% true) “Poems about Pets.”  A portrait of Shakespeare (oh, dear God…) is emblazoned over the category heading.

Ellis’s poem is a tribute to Amiri Bakara.

I recommend pondering the complete and utter inappropriateness of the Poetry Foundation’s browsing “suggestion” later, because Ellis’s work is way too good to miss.  His lines are musical, playful, iconoclastic, and inspired.  They masterfully convey Bakara and say more than that as well.  The framing story is of life aboard Noah’s ark, and the long poem’s refrain, “Somebody had to clean that shit up,” is priceless.  I’m thinking about sewing it into a decorative sampler and giving it to my mother for her next birthday.  Seriously.  (Those of you who know my mom know how serious I am.)

I could go on for several more pages and not do this poem justice.  So just go read it and see what I’m talking about.  You won’t be disappointed.

*Thanks to Karen Craigo, formerly the poetry editor of Mid-American Review, for introducing me to Jeffrey Skinner’s work!

Diary of a Crash and Burn: Remembrance of Writing Nightmares Past

What a weird writing day this has been.  I was all set to type up a blog post (one I’ve been planning for a while) about my philosophy of reading and the “Precious Seconds Rule”–the empowering guideline I formulated for myself at my lowest possible moment, the standard by which I’ve been judging so many pieces for Good Writing Breaks, the tenet that shapes my brand-spanking-new consciousness of what it means to be a reader and a writer, the credo I should have written months ago but have put off in favor of quick commentary and instant gratification.  (Dinty!  Dinty!  Dinty!  Make my stats go up another hundred views and I’ll add a page to my web site called Dinty W. Moore Is Creative Nonfiction’s All-Father!  I am not a stalker!!!)

So today I thought, Gotta get this done, and decided to go for a fine summer walk and stir the creative brainwaves.  Suddenly, like a buskin-clad meteorite bent on destruction, what should slam back into my mind but the problem that consumed my life for a solid six years!  Yes, indeed, it was the return of My Dissertation.  My confused, vague, messy dissertation, all the ideas I tried to figure out a place for, all the logical problems I discovered at every turn, all the rabbit holes I yearned to investigate, all of it, roiling and churning, sticking and crumbling and recombining like some massive lump of food my body couldn’t ever seem to digest.  It came back in all its malignant intellectual glory, and I, tragically, succumbed.  Instead of banging out my Fickle Reader Manifesto (which I will never label as such again, as I hate hate HATE the word “manifesto”), I worked over and worried some of the old concepts, tried to see them in new ways–like I always did when I was “writing my dissertation”–and then ran home and put down all of my thoughts before they could disappear back into the mental soup.

Talk about your bizarre reenactments.  I have no idea why I did this.  Well, no, I have a smidge of an idea.  See, all my life, I’ve been a terribly stubborn individual.  When I set out to do something, I would sit down and by God I’d steamroll my way forward until everything was done.  I couldn’t stand not finishing things, especially pieces of writing.  I was little miss all-nighter supreme in both high school and college.  Then I went to grad school and continued to forge ahead because, by gum, there weren’t nothin’ I couldn’t do if I put my mind to it. I would ride the intellectual ski-lift up to the top of Mt. St. Enlightenment, and everyone would know what a great and glorious Thinker and Writer I was.  Nothing could de-rail such an awesome uphill ride!  Yee-haw!!!

Well, you can guess where this story is headed.  (Hint: it’s in the title of this post.)  Right at the end of my Master’s program, I was diagnosed with lupus and a blood disorder that makes your blood clot too much.  It’s a long, long story, and one that I’ve told many times, but for my purposes here, I’ll just say that the diagnosis took me out of commission for quite a while.  I had to jump off that long ski-lift (you can jump off, right?) and worked in medical editing for three years.  Then I decided I was bored and that I must, MUST!, become an academic again.  And so I enrolled in a literature PhD program, which is what my area schools offered at the time–no nearby MFAs and no creative writing PhDs, which I would have preferred.  Still I plowed through the program, always optimistic that if I just Believed I Could, I would finish in no time, receive my accolades for Getting a PhD, and start the rest of my magical life.

Of course, right now everyone in academia is laughing at me for being such a naive little twit.  Because, you see, PhDs aren’t things you plow through till you finish them.  Possibly you can take that approach to the first part of your program, when you’re doing coursework, taking qualifying exams, and generally learning everything you can before the serious shit sets in.  But serious shit does indeed finally happen, and when it does, if you’re still in Hold My Breath and Write It the Night Before mode, you ain’t gonna get very far.

Somehow, I missed the discussion on what writing a dissertation consists of, which is: original research, analysis, and argumentation about literary questions that either NO ONE has posited before OR that no one has ever answered in the WAY you’re answering them.  Why I never seemed to have learned this definition–if I missed a class or just wasn’t listening when the material was covered–is lost to the mists of time.  BUT it DOES go a long way to explain why I decided, hey, know what I want to study for an enormous chunk of my life!  The only author in the world who’s been studied by everyone for the past four hundred years–Shakespeare!

Yes, that was perhaps the single dumbest decision I’ve ever made in my life.  Yet the stupid tenacity of my stubborn, stubborn brain is such that, as I waded into the morass of learning and could see how difficult my brilliant plan was turning out to be, instead of giving up and moving in a different direction I doubled down and plunged in.  Nothing was to difficult for me!  I was back on that friggin’ ski lift, and I wasn’t getting off until I was at the pinnacle of Academic Awesomeness.  As the years bled into another, I kept telling myself I was gonna make it, I was going to figure something out about Shakespeare that NO ONE ELSE had figured out before, yessirree bob I was!  And I kept pushing and pushing and pushing that rock up the hill until I had a single chapter (out of five, maybe? Plus an introduction and an afterword?) that was ready to be looked at by the rest of my dissertation committee, and guess what?  It still needed work.

At that point, my brain broke.  I gave up, or so I thought.

Nope, today showed me that some little part of me is still, in fact, clinging to the hope that I can do something–anything–with the information that took so many years of my life to collect.  At the same time, I think the sense that today I was going to plunge into a topic I’d been putting off for a Better Day, a day when I’d have More Time and could compose with a Clear Head, brought back those old terrible anxieties and the rituals that went with them, the I’ll Just Read One More Article, Do One More Google Search, Play One More Stupid Computer Game, Go for One More Walk, approach to procrastination, or as it’s also known, Not Writing.

It sorta makes me want to cry that I could derail myself this badly.  I tell myself that anything written down is usable material, that even getting random, disconnected thoughts down on a page is a productive use of my time.  But then I worry, worry, worry about my mind cruising off into Bizarre Idea Land, into the Oceans of the Unreadable, and so on and so forth and I feel like I’m wasting my life on something that no one cares about but me.

That, I guess, is the risk that every writer takes when he or she starts throwing words down and daring the world to read them.  Are you producing something of value, or are you tilting at windmills?

Cross your fingers that tomorrow brings something better.

Demographics of Major Nonfiction Book Prizes: The Why Am I Not Surprised? Edition


Suppose you wanted to win a nonfiction book prize, not the attractive but obscure medal awarded by your local Rotary Club but something more illustrious. A Pulitzer, let’s say. And let’s also say you’ve already written a pretty good book, even a great one. What else might you do to improve your odds?

First, you could relocate to that stretch of the East Coast between Washington, D.C., and Boston, Massachusetts. If possible, you’ll hang your hat in one of the regional metropolises, extra points for New York City, likewise for landing a job at a prominent newspaper or magazine, though if your leanings are more academic, similar advantages can be gained by joining the faculty of an Ivy League college. After that, things get tricky. For example, it’ll help, a lot, if you’re a white American, though I suspect you need to be born that way. Similarly, if you have a superfluous X chromosome, you’ll want to exchange it for a Y, or at least display the expected phenotypic traits. These are not uncomplicated strategies, though neither is writing a great book.

This is the opening of Josh McCall’s excellent (and eye-opening, and outrage-confirming) essay “This Guy Is the Next Pulitzer Winner…And We Don’t Even Know His Name!”  McCall’s findings are hard to dispute, seeing as how they’re supported by statistics.  Isn’t it amazing what you can do with statistics?

Of course, prize juries do not pluck winners and finalists from the literary wilds simply because a writer happens to be white or male or occupy a rent-controlled walk-up in the East Village. And yet there is something about these characteristics that radically affect one’s odds of being plucked, at least for the awards we examined: the Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction, the National Book Award (NBA) for Nonfiction, and the National Book Critics Circle Award (NBCC) for General Nonfiction. […] What we found was grim, unsurprising and conclusive. For the past 20 years, more than three-quarters of Pulitzer Prize finalists and winners (the category is nonfiction throughout) called the East Coast home, 80 percent were male, 95 percent were white, and a whopping 57 percent scored the hat trick. In contrast, according to the most recent census, only 19 percent of Americans live in what we’re calling the East Coast region, just over half are female, and 64 percent self-identify as non-Hispanic white.

Grim indeed.  I’ve always thought literary awards were a lot of trumped-up bullshit, but I also thought that was simply Writer Me grousing about the fact that I’ve Never Won a Literary Award.  Not even a little one.  I’ve long thought that the Literary Fairy suspiciously grants fame and accolades to the writers of New York City.  I mean, even in this article by Katie Roiphe , the best literary “outsider” Roiphe can think of is a woman with a white-sounding name (Carla Krauss) working in a coffee shop in Brooklyn.  It’s like Roiphe can’t imagine any writer in the world living outside of the greater New York area.  But according to McCall, the entire Northeast Corridor gives you a point in your favor.  Who’d a thunk it?

For me, this bit of the article is most damning:

On the other hand, the Pulitzer has never, not once, given its prize for general nonfiction to an African-American, and during the 20-year period we examined, it did not even name one as a finalist.

Holy crap, that’s depressing.  I know this has been said many times in a thousand different contexts, but come on, literary prize boards: it’s the year 2014.  Twenty years ago was 1994.  The Great PC Movement began in the 1990s.  I remember.  I was there.  So in all that time, while we college students and assorted young’uns were fretting over language and identity and what ought to be included in college lit syllabi, you couldn’t find ANY African-American nonfiction writers to elevate to fame and fortune?

This is the bait-and-switch game of cultural power.  When under-represented and/or oppressed voices in a society suddenly gain a little bit of a platform, debate starts raging about micro-issues, like terminology and college courses, so that the people in power can pay lip service to “diversity” while not actually changing their well-established practices.

All the more reason for authors to ignore the award system and strive to be read…

Shakespeare Is Everywhere: Quotations

Chief Justice: But since all is well, keep it so: wake not a sleeping wolf.

Falstaff: To wake a wolf is as bad as to smell a fox.

Henry IV, Part Two, Act 1, Scene 2

A comeback from my old boyfriend, Falstaff.  Love ya, big guy.  Someday I’ll figure out how best to package my dissertation findings and wow the world with you.