Sunday, September 26, 2010

Why I Write: The Battle of Right Hand, Left Hand By Alan Heathcock

Alan Heathcock's stories have been published in many of the country's best journals, magazines, and anthologies, including Zoetrope: All-Story, VQR, Kenyon Review, Harvard Review, Five-Chapters, Best American Mystery Stories, and others. He's the winner of the National Magazine Award in fiction. A native of Chicago, Illinois, he lives in Boise, Idaho, where he teaches fiction writing at Boise State University, and is a Fiction Fellow for the state of Idaho. His story collection, VOLT, will be published by Graywolf Press, March 1, 2011. You can find him at

                                                Why I Write:                         The Battle of Right Hand, Left Hand
            My writing studio is a 1967 Roadrunner travel trailer, packed with books, trophies, and random oddities.  My favorite piece is a vintage movie poster from the 1955 Charles Laughton classic, The Night of the Hunter.  The picture is of Robert Mitchum, who plays Harry Powell (a.k.a. The Preacher).  In the poster, the preacher is leaned forward, his eyes locked on the viewer.  His right hand rests atop a porch post, and across his knuckles are the tattooed letters: L-O-V-E.  His left hand is down the railing, held close to his heart—those knuckles read       H-A-T-E.
            In a famous scene from the film, the preacher holds court in a little country diner, telling the patrons the “story of life”, the eternal battle between the left hand and the right hand. 
“H-A-T-E,” the preacher bellows, holding forth the spread fingers of his left hand.  “It was with this left hand that old brother Cain struck the blow that laid his brother low.”
He lifts the right hand.  “L-O-V-E.  You see these fingers dear-hearts?  These fingers have veins that run straight to the soul of man.  The right hand.  The hand of love.”
            The preacher then interlocks the fingers of his two hands, twisting them, wrenching them back and forth.  Which hand will claim victory?  At first, it looks like the left hand, but then, “HOT DOG, loves a-winnin’!”  The right hand puts ol’ brother left-hand down for the count.
            It’s a strange and brilliant scene, and one that on its own merit tells the story all of us hope is true: love wins out over hate.
            I believe in the right hand.  I live my life, raise my kids, travel about with my wife through the world at large, all with a fervent, evangelical, belief in the enduring might of love.  My greatest hope is that the preacher’s tale is true.
            Yet the movie, like life (my life, at least), is more complex than the parable would have us believe.  The truth of the movie is that the preacher is not a preacher at all.  He’s an ex-con, a thief and murderer masquerading as a preacher to win favor with a widower and her two children, in the hopes of stealing a large sum of money he knows they have hidden somewhere on their property.  So where does that leave us?  Can we believe the preacher’s pitch, knowing the man is not, in fact, “good”?  Can a message of love be delivered via the left hand?
            When I was young, maybe seven or eight, my Grandpa Heathcock sat me up on his lap and told me a story about a time he was working as a foreman for Sinclair Oil.  He said he was driving a one-lane road through the oil fields when his truck came nose to nose with another truck.  The road was too narrow, the ditches too steep, for either truck to turn around.  One of them would have to back up the way they came.  My grandpa said he got out of his truck and told the other driver he was trespassing on company land and had to put his truck in reverse.  The man refused.  I remember clearly that my grandpa balled a fist, and told me, “So I went and got me a tire iron and I hit that man.  Then that man backed up his truck.”
            Likewise, while growing up in the Southland area of south Chicago, I was confronted on almost a daily basis with situations that confounded my sense of moral truth.  I knew good people, people from church, who spoke of hate--racism, sexism, religious intolerance, homophobia.  I knew people who did bad things, terrible things, who were also generous and loyal, who did tremendous good for the community.  I’ve seen people beaten, stabbed.  I’ve seen gun play.  I’ve seen people robbed, been robbed myself.  I’ve seen everything you think would reside neatly in the right or left palm, and yet judgment has often been unclear to me, like looking in my grandpa’s eyes and not knowing what to feel, like looking at the palm of a thumbless hand, a hand with four fingers all of equal lengths. 
Once, a group of friends asked me to escort a guy out to an old rec. center at the end of a dark road, making him believe we were going to a party, but knowing I was leading him into a terrible beating.  The guy had done awful things, things I won’t describe here other than to say I thought he might deserve his fate.  Yet what I did still troubles me, one hand brutally wrenching back the wrist of the other.  But which hand did the wrenching, and which did the hurting?  Was I an instrument of justice?  Of right?  And what if I didn’t lead that guy out to the rec. center?  What if he went unpunished?  Doesn’t the right hand, sometimes, have to subdue the left?  Isn’t that the very definition of war?  But also, in that sheer ferocity with which the right attacks the left, do they not become the same?  In the moment I decided to take on the task, already knowing its end, did I not take on the role of Cain?
I long wondered why my grandfather told me the story of the oil field and the tire-iron.  For a long time, I thought he was somehow giving me instruction on the true nature of man.  But now that I’m older, I don’t think he was giving instruction at all.  Instead, I believe he was asking a question he couldn’t answer, one he hoped some day I might understand.
            Every story I’ve ever written ponders such questions, trying to make sense of the world described to me by my grandfather, the world I’ve seen with my own eyes, and changed with my actions, struggling to parse out the left hand from the right.  People write for many different reasons.  I write to investigate, to seek out answers, to calm the hurt, to stroke the troubled mind.  Sometimes I’ve found clarity.  Many times I’ve discovered the questions to be unanswerable.  Either way, each morning I take sanctuary in my trailer and scrawl out new words, words I hope take me deeper into the murky lake of truth, the preacher glowering down from the wall, challenging me, daring me, to reveal what’s right and righteous.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The Importance of Community

Susan Henderson’s debut novel, UP FROM THE BLUE, will be published by HarperCollins on September 21st, 2010. (That's today, folks!) She is the recipient of an Academy of American Poets award and grants from The Ludwig Vogelstein Foundation and The Lojo Foundation. Her work has — twice — been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Publications include Zoetrope, The Pittsburgh Quarterly, North Dakota Quarterly, Bellevue Literary Review, South Dakota Review, The MacGuffin, Arkansas Review: A Journal of Delta Studies (nominated for a Pushcart Prize, 2004), North Atlantic Review, The Green Hills Literary Lantern, Opium, Other Voices, Amazon Shorts (nominated for a Pushcart Prize, 2006), The World Trade Center Memorial, The Future Dictionary of America (McSweeney’s Books, 2004), The Best American Non-Required Reading (Houghton Mifflin, 2007), Not Quite What I Was Planning (HarperPerennial, 2008), and Online Writing: The Best of the First Ten Years (Snowvigate Press, 2011). She blogs at;, and The Nervous Breakdown. Her husband is a costume designer, filmmaker, and tenured drama professor. They live in NY with their two boys.

Buy Her Novel On Amazon: -;

The Importance of Community
by Susan Henderson

Today is the launch of my debut novel. It’s been a long journey—about six years since I decided I had a novel in me, and twenty years since I graduated with a degree in Creative Writing and a collection of awards that made me think this road might be easy.

To my non-writer friends, these numbers are utterly ridiculous. In any other field, numbers like these send a very clear message: You don’t have what it takes. You must not have anything important to say. What you call your “career,” others call “unemployed.”

This is why a community of writers is so invaluable. Because there’s nothing logical about this field. We are trying to tell our stories even when it hurts to write them, even when the rejection is devastating, even though we are paid nothing along the way, even when we can’t be sure our stories will ever be accepted for publication. We’re in this for reasons we may not even understand.

In my six years of trying to write, revise and sell this novel, I’ve had so many reasons to give up, and it’s you guys, my fellow writers, who’ve carried me here. So let me say thank you for the company. For believing I had something to say. For encouraging me to send out my manuscript. For helping me shake off the rejection. For standing by as my revisions began to unravel the story. For believing I could get it right. For telling me hard truths and beautiful lies. For pushing me to take risks and create bolder art. Thank you for being glad for me even as you are still waiting for your own validation in this field.

I have a book coming out this week because of you, and I’m profoundly grateful.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Reading Aunt Hattie, Writing Myself by Lisa Rivero

Lisa Rivero has published four nonfiction books about education and parenting and is the author of a middle-school historical novel, Planting Words: My Friend Oscar Micheaux, represented by Bree Ogden of Martin Literary Management. Her current writing projects include A Nice Bright Day: Reading Aunt Hattie, Writing Myself and a novel, Wherever Women Have Lived. You can visit Lisa at her website,

Reading Aunt Hattie, Writing Myself
By Lisa Rivero
“Do you keep a diary?”
            That’s the question I hear most often whenever I tell people about my project of transcribing over thirty-seven years of daily entries from my great-aunt Hattie’s diaries. Inevitably the conversation turns to family diaries preserved and read, and personal diaries begun and often abandoned.
            “I do now,” I say.
At first, I began to read the diaries out of curiosity. Harriet “Hattie” Whitcher was my grandmother’s oldest sister, and I was enchanted with the possibility of reading not only about my grandmother when she was a young woman and courted by my grandfather, but also the births and childhoods of my father and uncle and aunts. As Rebecca Rasmussen writes (with my warm appreciation for hosting this post), “I am interested in all things old and outdated. I love to think about hope chests and house dresses. Sideboards are big ones, too...I'm always on the brink of trying to put up jam like my great grandmother used to do.”
There is also Hattie’s fascinating personal history. She was born in 1881 in what was then Dakota Territory on the Great Sioux Reservation. She was the daughter of a Civil War veteran, the wife of a World War I veteran, and a member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe. Her father, originally from New York state, lied about his age in order to fight in the Civil War, and her mother was a half-blood Native American who could neither read nor write and who spoke of having seen General Custer marching toward what would be his last stand.
The more I continued to read Aunt Hattie, however, the more I fell in love with this woman I’ve never met, not because she was my ancestor, but because she was a writer. She paid attention. She used words not only to record her world, but to understand her place in it, to know her own thoughts, disappointments, and hopes.
Who was Hattie Elizabeth Whitcher?
I am still finding out. While I have transcribed portions of each of her sixty-eight volumes, I have only finished the first six years from start to finish, and those tally to over two hundred single-spaced typed pages. So far, however, this is what I know.
She was a woman who tried hard to be both a good wife in the tradition of her family, religion, and community and a good citizen according to her intellect, ambition, and conscience. For example, she grew frustrated when the American Legion Auxiliary women spent more time “fussing over” their children than dealing with business, and noted with impatience that the “men are right on to ropes of Legion stuff and continue to have their same officers” while the ladies often “just visited.” She often felt silenced and outnumbered by the male voices around her: “All the men were upset because I wanted a higher school at Hidden Timber, and I am in for making them prove their charges against the referendum, but I guess the day was spent in vain.”
She was very sensitive, and she wrote about her emotions with acceptance and without judgment:

June 7, 1928: Bright most of the day except for a few clouds and a sprinkle followed by a strong northwest wind, and a beautiful rainbow. Ben and Dave went to plow for cane at Dave's and took lunch for dinner. I just did ordinary work and hoed fruit trees, and when we were fishing, I got stalled on a steep sand bank, and there was a river below, so I couldn't move and was nearly frightened to death. Harriet and Jeanette braced me and ran for help. Mr. and Mrs. Curt Elshire were going by, so he pulled me out, and all evening I had laugh-spells and would cry when I was alone.

July 4, 1950:  We had to stay home this late p.m. in such a beautiful part of the day, and I had such a lonesome feeling, felt as if we were entirely out of the world.

And she loved to talk, perhaps more than almost anything else.

May 9, 1954, Sunday: Dick and Bud were in Harold’s car, talking, and Sadie came to our car and we talked and talked. Van Epps were at church, but came to the store, we talked there.

            I recently asked two of my aunts if Hattie’s diary “self” is the aunt they knew from their childhoods. One replied, “The Hattie that Mom would tell about is not the one who wrote the [diaries]… in all cases.” The other told me that the woman she remembers and the one she is reading are one and the same.
Their contradictory responses seem somehow just right. In the end, isn’t that why many of us write and read, read and write, almost to point of compulsion—to attempt to come a bit closer to knowing the complex and contradictory and, ultimately, unknowable self, whether that self is our own or someone “old and outdated”?
            Do you keep a diary?

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Pulitzer Prize Finalist Lee Martin

Lee Martin is the author of the novels, The Bright Forever, a finalist for the 2006 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction; River of Heaven and Quakertown. His new novel, Break the Skin, will be published by Crown in June, 2011. He has also published two memoirs, From Our House and Turning Bones, and a short story collection, The Least You Need to Know. His fiction and nonfiction have appeared in such places as Harper's, Ms., Creative Nonfiction, The Georgia Review, Story, DoubleTake, The Kenyon Review, Fourth Genre, River Teeth, The Southern Review, and Glimmer Train. He teaches in the MFA Program at The Ohio State University. If you're on Facebook, you can find the Lee Martin Appreciation Society at!/group.php?gid=14139544589&ref=ts                                                                              

            I wasn’t a joiner when I was in high school. I was a shy boy who for the most part stayed clear of groups. I wasn’t a member of the Pep Club, the Student Council, the Future Farmers of America (I went to a very small high school in a rural part of southeastern Illinois), the baseball team, the track squad, the band, or the chorus. I limited myself to the basketball team and the school newspaper club—the first because I loved the game; the second because I loved to write.
            My freshman year in college, I figured out that being a newspaper reporter would require me to talk to people, most of them strangers, and that’s when I decided to change my major to English. I preferred to spend my time with characters in novels and stories and plays—people who would only require my company in my imagination. From there, it was a short step to creating characters and stories of my own, spending a good deal of time alone in a room, pen and paper in hand, or later sitting at a typewriter, and still later facing a computer screen.
            In the years that followed high school, I pretty much overcame my shyness, but I’m still not the sort to seek out a group, a clique, a network, an association, a guild, an organization, an alliance, and certainly not a society. How ironic, then, that I now have a society of my own, one I didn’t intend but one I feel responsible for now that it exists. A few years ago, two of my students asked me if they could start a Lee Martin Appreciation Society on Facebook.
             “Sure,” I said, not stopping to think what this might require of me if they actually did it. Which they did.
            “Do I have to join?” I asked when one of the students emailed to say that the LMAS was up and running. I suppose I subscribed to the Groucho Marx philosophy of not wanting anything to do with a club that would have me as a member. I didn’t even belong to Facebook at the time.
            I don’t recall exactly what my student said, but her response made it clear that in order for the LMAS to have any weight, yes, I would have to join.
            So I did. I got on Facebook, which I swore I’d never do, and I joined my own fan club. For the first couple of years, it seemed that the LMAS operated under the principle that when you truly appreciate someone you don’t need to call attention to that fact. I posted a few things. Some other people posted a few things. For the most part, though, it was a pretty laid back appreciation society that topped out at seventy-four members, most of them students, past and present, and colleagues. In other words, people who sorta had to join.
            The point of all this is to say that the LMAS got me onto Facebook, where I had my own spurts of activity, sometimes posting status updates daily and sometimes not posting any for weeks or months at a time.
            I was often content to be a voyeur, keeping tabs on my “friends,” without them being able to keep tabs on me. Just like a fiction writer, wouldn’t you say? Curious as all get-out about the lives of others, but not particularly eager to share the details of his own life. Over the last few years, I’m certain I’ve gone to the grocery store, had lunch, wanted to watch football, went on a trip, thought it was too hot or too cold outside, wished someone happy birthday, taught a class, gone to the dentist, had a splinter in my finger, yadda-yadda-yadda, without any of my Facebook friends knowing.
            Soon, though, I began to feel compelled to come up with something interesting, or witty, or else so trivial that it would be both interesting and witty, to say in my status updates. When I did, I was surprised at how anxious I was about the way my friends would respond. Would they post a comment—oh, how I envied those friends who got comments to their statuses—or would they click on “Like” to give their approval? Would they notice me? Would they like me? I couldn’t believe how eager I, the non-joiner, became for affirmation.
            Perhaps that’s why I eventually decided to do more with LMAS. At the encouragement of a friend, I began to take a more active role. I posted news of upcoming books, photos that connected to my books, old school photos of the author as a  young man, photos from readings, interviews. I even posted an old picture of the Sumner High School Newspaper Club to prove that I had once joined something and was capable of joining groups again if I so wished.

            Now here’s a funny thing about me. Shy as I was in high school, whenever we had to sell items to raise money for my class, I became obsessed with selling as many as I could. I hit the streets and peddled candy bars, candles, magazine subscriptions. I hit my own neighborhood, and then I started expanding my territory. I went into other neighborhoods, hoping that my classmates who lived there had been too lazy to get many results. I drove down into the country and stopped at farmhouses. I even drove to neighboring towns and said I was selling something for the junior class, conveniently failing to identify the school. I knocked on doors and intruded on the lives of strangers, and it didn’t bother me a bit. I wanted results.
            I don’t know how to reconcile this driven, aggressive part of my nature with my more timid side. I only know the former came from my father and the latter from my mother. I guess at times my father’s side wins out, as it has this summer when I’ve been posting more things to LMAS, and, like the “gotta-close-the-deal” high school salesman I was, I keep a close eye on the bottom line. As sad as it is to say, I keep track of how many people are joining LMAS. We’re up to 294 members now, but only a few days ago, we were at 295. I have to confess that I have a momentary sinking feeling each time I see that we’ve lost a member. I always wonder who that person was and why he or she decided to give me the heave-ho. 
            If I could only figure out who the defector was. . . 
            Why didn’t he or she continue to like me? I hope it wasn’t anything I said.
            Which leads me to this. Let’s say a novelist begins to write a novel based in fact, a story of a family and a tragic event. And let’s say the novelist changes the story up quite a bit, but still has a curiosity about the real people involved and how they’re either getting on with their lives, or not, in the aftermath of the tragedy. Maybe those people don’t have their Facebook security settings ratcheted down, and, therefore, even if you’re not their friend, you can read the posts on their walls, look at their photos, and otherwise follow their comings and goings via your computer even though you may live hundreds of miles away from their drama.
            Let’s say that I’m that novelist. Okay, I’m that novelist. All summer, I’ve been following the twists and turns in this family’s life via Facebook, and I’ve been using that as a way of getting deeper into the characters that I’ve created in this novel. The characters aren’t literal representations of the real people, but there’s no doubt that those real people have provided models for the characters I’m inventing. I’m curious about the real people, primarily because I’m eager to see what they’re saying just in case it proves useful to the book I’m writing. Sometimes I feel creepy about that, and sometimes I don’t. But always, never far from my consciousness, is the question of whether I have a right to do what I’m doing—not a legal right, but an ethical one. I wonder about the nature of privacy and what we have a right to these days. I’m particularly interested in what we writers have a right to once we’re a member of the Facebook family. To be honest, I’ve used very little of what I’ve read from the real family members, but I’ve certainly used what they’ve written to get a flavor of voice and a deeper understanding of what they lived through and how they’re living beyond it.
            I was telling a friend about this at lunch today, and I said that I supposed in the days before Facebook and the like (even blogs such as this), I would have relied on gossip for my information. I would have talked to someone who knew someone who knew the family, and I would have listened to their stories. I would have taken all that and used it as I saw fit as I wrote my novel. Is it any different to be a voyeur to these people’s lives via Facebook? Is there a difference between asking for gossip and eavesdropping on the people involved?
            I really don’t know how I feel about this. Sometimes I’m fine with it, seeing what I’m doing as just another way of conducting research, but sometimes I feel guilty. My novels (The Bright Forever and the forthcoming Break the Skin, for example) are based in fact, and they usually involve people caught in dire circumstances of their own devising. Those types of stories are abundant in my part of southeastern Illinois, and I’ve often latched on to newspaper reports, interviews, and the such to help me craft their narratives. I tinker with the facts. I create new characters and events that never really happened. Still, when I’m finished, it’s clear to anyone who knows the real story that the center of the novel is indeed that story and the real people involved with it. Sometimes people get incensed. They let me know that they don’t believe I have a right to do such a thing. Why put someone else’s difficulties and sufferings onto the page? I think I know why I do it, and I think it has something to do with why I’ve never been inclined to be a joiner. An only child, I like to stay on the periphery. I like to be the one who documents, the one who tries to understand more than the facts can carry, the one who uses story to think more deeply about how people rub up against one another and what that rubbing means, both for the individuals involved and for the groups to which they belong.
            In the end, I suppose we all belong to a common group—that human group that gets all out of whack sometimes, but remains, I truly believe, a noble lot when all is said and done.
            The storyteller has always crafted narratives to show us to ourselves. Those storytellers have looked at the people in a community and then represented them either in oral or visual or written form. People in neighborhoods, in cities, on farms. People with their lives on display. Perhaps Facebook is merely a new form of the human community. Maybe it’s as simple as that.
            Do I have a right to people’s stories if those people willingly or unwittingly make them available on Facebook? Sometimes I think I do, and sometimes I’m not completely convinced. Perhaps some members of this group—the readers of this blog—will help me think more about the questions I’ve posed and the thoughts I’ve expressed. What’s private and what’s not? Is the novelist who looks in on the lives of real people and then transforms those lives into narrative guilty of a sin against the group? Or has that novelist performed something necessary to the group and its further steps through time?

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Friendship by Beth Hoffman

Beth Hoffman is the New York Times bestselling author of Saving CeeCee Honeycutt; foreign rights have sold to Italy, France, Germany, Israel, Poland, and Korea. Hardcover is on sale now, and the paperback will be released on October 26, 2010. For a list of Beth’s upcoming author events you can visit her website: You can also find her on Twitter (@wordrunner).  

Beth grew up on a farm in Ohio and now lives in a quaint historical district in Kentucky with her husband and several furry, four-legged children. She loves animals, feeding the birds, gardening, and laughing with friends. She’s also a self-proclaimed nut for handbags.

Friendship by Beth Hoffman

Where would we be without friendship? From time to time I’ve pondered that question, and my answer is always the same—a big fat nowhere!

I think friends are the unexpected diamonds in life. One of the themes in Saving CeeCee Honeycutt is the importance of cultivating and maintaining meaningful friendships. When I made the decision to leave my career in interior design in order to write a novel, I wanted friendship to play a vital role along with themes of mother/daughter relationships, loss, anger, laughter, joy, and forgiveness.

CeeCee lives the first 12 years of her life trying to hide from the curious stares and snickers of neighbors and the hurtful teasing from her classmates. But with a psychotic mother who parades around town wearing a tattered old prom dress and a tiara, it’s impossible. Early in life CeeCee develops a strong friendship with an elderly neighbor woman who is her only confidante. It is this one friendship that gives CeeCee ballast. But when tragedy blows off the door of CeeCee’s fragile world, she must leave her friend when she’s sent to live with a relative in Savannah.

As the story unfolds, CeeCee’s longing for a friend is illuminated. When Oletta Jones, a middle aged African-American cook arrives in CeeCee’s life, not only does Oletta become CeeCee’s unlikely friend, but she teaches her that friends can come in all ages and colors, and can also be from different cultures. CeeCee becomes enormously important to Oletta as well, and their unusual friendship is as easy as breathing and yet profound in its depth and complexity.

Like CeeCee, I’ve enjoyed friendships with women from all walks of life, and one of the things I know from experience is that the more diverse our friends are in age, race, and culture, the more enriched our lives become. Friendship is one of my favorite classes in this great University of Life—I believe that through our friends we expand our values and strengths. I have girlfriends who are two decades older than me and two decades younger, and they all have opened my eyes and heart in immeasurable ways.
An email was forwarded to me not long ago. I have no idea who wrote the passage I’m sharing, but it sums up what I feel about friendship.

Time passes.
Life happens.
Distance separates.
Love waxes and wanes.
Hearts break.
Careers end.
Parents die.
Colleagues forget favors.
Marriages collapse.

But ...

Girlfriends are there no matter how many miles are between them. A girlfriend is never farther away than needing her can reach.

When you walk that lonesome valley and you have to walk it for yourself, your girlfriends will be standing on the rim, cheering for you, praying for you, and waiting with open arms at the valley's end. Sometimes, they’ll even break the rules and walk beside you. Or, they’ll come in and carry you out.

The world wouldn't be the same without them, and neither would I.

When we began this adventure called womanhood, we had no idea of the incredible happiness and sorrows that lay ahead. Nor did we know how much we would need each other.

Every day, we need each other still.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

The Hipster Club for White Boys: Is Getting Reviewed by the New York Times the New Penis Envy? By Gina Frangello

Gina Frangello is the author of two critically acclaimed books of fiction, Slut Lullabies (Emergency Press 2010) and My Sister's Continent (Chiasmus 2006).  The longtime editor of the literary magazine Other Voices, she co-founded its book imprint, Other Voices Books (, in 2005, where she is now the Executive Editor.  She is also the Fiction Editor of the popular online literary collective The Nervous Breakdown (, where she contributes a regular book review column and blogs.  Her short fiction, journalism and reviews have appeared in such venues as the Chicago Tribune, the Huffington Post, Prairie Schooner, Fence, and the Chicago Reader.  She teaches at Columbia College Chicago and can be found online at

The Hipster Club for White Boys: Is Getting Reviewed by the New York Times the New Penis Envy?

Lately, there has been a flutter of activity surrounding the race-and-gender-biased reviewing practices of the New York Times Book Review.  As reported by NPR, in just over a year’s time (2009-2010), political authors covered by the NYTBR were 95% white and 87% male.  While this study was specific to books with political themes, it’s commonly held that the numbers for book reviews of fiction and creative nonfiction—while not as dire—are at least similarly skewed. 

Commercial fiction author Jodi Picoult took up this issue on Twitter a couple weeks back, tweeting her lack of surprise that the NYT raved about Jonathan Franzen’s new novel, Freedom.  Quipped Picoult: “Would love to see the NYT rave about authors who aren’t white male literary darlings.”  She later wrote a more in-depth note about her comments, adding that, while women and writers of color do get reviewed, if you are “white and male and living in Brooklyn you have better odds, or so it seems.”

I don’t have any specific stats on the NYT’s gender or race proportions . . . I do not even, though this is still treason in some circles, read the NYT anymore on a regular basis.  Therefore, it would be fair to say that I am not an authority on how their reviews are assigned (NPR reported an even bigger schism in the race/sex of reviewers than of the authors of books reviewed, incidentally.)  However, I have an instinctive sense, from years of hungrily devouring the Sunday Book Review section as the ultimate taste-making authority, that Picoult is correct to at least some significant degree.  A few years ago, the writer Elizabeth Merrick came out with statistics on gender and publishing on her blog (the now-retired Grace), analyzing the practices of the New Yorker and the New York Times in particular, stating that the New Yorker bylines were nearly 80% overall, and that NYT regularly gave 72% of their review space to male writers.  So if it is not quite true that, as Picoult claims, “for every Danticat/Diaz review, there are ten Lethems and Franzens,” it is nonetheless true that the top literary media of New York is distinctly out of step with the gender proportions of the actual human population.

In fact, this is one of the reasons I stopped following the NYT to begin with, though my reasons had less to do with gender and more to do with the kind of “celebrity” culture such New York based publications seem to reinforce.  For as I became more and more entwined in the independent publishing community, and met more and more writers, it became increasingly apparent to me that the writers I personally viewed as important, and who received much buzz elsewhere, particularly in the vibrant blogging community, were infrequently noticed by the NYT, whose coverage seemed a bit more akin to social pages in which wedding announcements were made: writers who were already New York publishing celebrities were given space they scarcely seemed to need, whereas newer writers, especially those from smaller houses, were, in any given week, given little to none.  This is, of course, a far cry from the grievance expressed by Picoult, who is a bestselling author well able to laugh her way to the bank in response to the NYT’s shunning of her commercial—i.e. lucrative—fiction, so perhaps I digress. . .

Unfortunately, as is often the case when somebody points out an inflammatory truth, the conversation from there began to veer in directions more “controversial” than “informative.”  Picoult was accused by some of griping because her own books are not frequently reviewed by the NYT, and publicly went on record saying that she did not expect them to be because her writing is “commercial,” while the NYT strongly prefers “literary” work.  Oddly, venues such as the UK’s Guardian found Picoult’s personal Twitter griping fascinating enough to report on in-depth, and then returned to the Big Scandal again when Jennifer Weiner concurred with Picoult and proceeded to cover her opinions too.  These discussions tended to focus on the fact that Picoult and Weiner write “chick lit,” to which Linda Holmes then wrote a response calling for the end of that dismissive and imprecise term—an argument with which I generally concur.  Holmes, however, did not seem to take Picoult’s own distinction between her commercial fiction and the literary work the NYT favors at face value, and at times seemed to be disputing whether there is any quantifiable difference between popular women’s fiction and literary fiction, at one point arguing that Weiner’s work is terrific and shocking because it suggests that not all women’s troubles can be “solved by a makeover and diet.”  (At the risk of being glib, if Holmes is under the impression that this is what most books by women do suggest, she may be drawing from a very narrow pool by which to measure what is either “shocking” or “terrific,” and is certainly undermining her own argument that women’s writing should be taken more seriously!)  Yet Holmes makes the valid case that such “shoe fiction,” about relentless consumerism and man hunting, is not the same genre as popular women’s fiction, which often tackles serious issues such as relationships between mothers and daughters, loss, adoption, and many other real life circumstances to which women readers can emotionally relate.  Certainly I would concur: there is a pretty big difference between Anne Tyler’s Digging to America (one of the novels cited in this debate) and The Devil Wears Prada, and the publishing industry’s lumping of such wide-ranging books by women writers into one essentially meaningless category can be maddening.

But . . . but.  Something, to me, still feels slippery or elusive in this discussion.  We seem to have gotten off the rails somewhere along the way.  Because if the NYT really does have a gender and race bias, and Picoult and Weiner happen to have high enough visibility that their pointing it out drew some much-needed attention to the matter, that does not mean that it follows that the works that should be included more frequently in the NYTBR are works like what Picoult or Weiner write, when Picoult herself consents that the NYT, for better or worse, has set itself up as something of a smartypants literary venue, not as concerned with popular or genre fiction.  In fact, popular authors ranging from Picoult to Dan Brown to Grisham to King to Rowling scarcely require the trumpeting of the NYT anyway.  These writers are millionaires or better thanks to the popular consumption of their work.  The public has spoken on the matter of their readability, and in a world where money talks, all they need to do is send out a single grievance on Twitter and the freaking Guardian is ringing from the other side of the pond, begging for a quote . . .

The issue, then, seems to have deeper, more convoluted roots.  It raises a myriad of questions that have been lost in the shuffle, but that actually feel important to address—or readdress for the still-new millennium before we go pronouncing Freedom the “novel of the century.”  Some of these questions might be:

1)   What constitutes the difference between popular and literary fiction, anyway?  Eschewing genres from “shoe fiction” to “romance” to “cozy mystery,” what is the dividing line between work that is considered “commercial” and work that is considered “literary?”  I would argue that, while subject matter easily differentiates true genre work from more literary work, this is not as true when discussing popular women’s fiction in general.  Women’s fiction writers like Sue Miller, Ann Hood, Anne Tyler and Jennifer Weiner do not necessarily write about more “shallow” material than their literary compatriots—in fact, many popular women’s novels specifically engage with deeply real and painful issues like the death of a child or spouse, divorce, traumas of the past, and other fodder not in any way quantifiably different from what is covered in work regarded as more literary or less oriented strictly towards women readers.  The differentiation, then, must lie with the writing itself.  But what are the perimeters for “literary” vs. “popular” writing?  Literary writer Jane Smiley says that much popular women’s fiction takes great risks with subject matter, but can be overlooked by the critical establishment because it is “so straightforward, and because the payoff is emotional rather than intellectual.”  In this vein, I would suggest that what most reliably differentiates popular vs. literary writing is the level of ambiguity (emotional, moral, factual) permitted, a lack of explicit explanations to serve as guideposts for the reader, more focus on nuanced characterization, psychology and atmosphere than on a flawlessly tight story arc, and more freedom to innovate with language wherein the prose is as important as the story itself, rather than merely a vehicle for relaying plot.  But are these universally held, or do they differ widely?  What standards is the NYT holding?  And who decides what makes the cut?

2)   Within perimeters of what is considered “literary” by venues that favor that type of work, do more men than women write such work?  If we are to assume (and in a world in which authors like Mary Gaitskill, Margaret Atwood, Francine Prose, Lorrie Moore, Alice Munro, Jennifer Egan, Toni Morrison, Jhumpa Lahiri, Nicole Krauss, and the list goes on, are absolutely in no danger of being referred to as “chick lit writers,” I think we must assume the following:) that what is constituted as “literary” has a much deeper meaning than whether the person who is writing it possesses a penis, then if indeed more male writers than female writers are producing said work, what is the reason for this phenomenon?

3)   What does it “take” to be a literary writer?  In our current publishing Armageddon, Ta-Nehisi Coates in The Atlantic acknowledges that publishers these days may be eschewing women and minorities because everyone is going for the jugular of the crowd-pleasing “bestseller” in order to save their own financial ass, so to speak.  If literary writers are less likely to find publishers for their work than popular or genre writers, and even when they do find publishers, are likely to be paid less, then is a certain degree of economic privilege almost a prerequisite for pursuing a highly literary career in all but exceptional cases?  If so, how might race and gender intersect with this issue?

4)   Perhaps most importantly of all, as Chris Jackson points out in The Atlantic, and as I discussed in a piece for She Writes at the onset of this year, how does the fact that male readers are so hesitant to buy books by women writers factor in to what books prestigious venues select for review?  Why are male readers so unlikely to buy books by women, when women readers do not hold the same bias?  What can review venues, editors, agents, writers, high schools teachers, the academy, and others in the literary world do to help rectify this issue, and what are the many reasons that such rectification is worthwhile, above and beyond who gets covered in the NYTBR?

And so, I would like to thank Picoult and Weiner for drawing attention to an elephant that’s been in the room for a damn long time, that many of us like to pretend departed a few decades ago but is actually still there, taking up more than its share of space   I would like to urge those interested in these issues to stop discussing the problem in terms of Picoult or Weiner having sour grapes, or even in terms of chick-lit in general.  Instead, if you are a woman, give a male reader in your life a favorite book by a female writer and urge him to read it.  If you are male, buy or review a book by a woman.  If you are a bookseller or editor, consider how you are classifying books, and whether you are categorizing them based on prose and philosophy, or by more simplistic standards like the sex of the writer or the book’s protagonist.  If you are a writer who cannot make a living writing literary fiction and have been urged by your agent, friends and family to write something “more commercial,” speak out and bring this issue to the forefront, whether or not you decide to take the suggestion.  And if you are a publisher, for god’s sake send every book you publish by a woman or writer of color (or better yet, both!) to the NYT and other media, and press them to cover these titles.  Because I think that, whether Freedom is the greatest novel of the century or just another pretty good book, we can all agree that our boy Franzen does not need a whole lot more media space.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

A King Dethroned by Michael Siward

Mike Siward is a full time banker and a part-time photographer.  He and his wife have been living in Hong Kong since 2006 when they moved there from Chicago due to Mike's job.  Since that time Mike has been travelling extensively throughout the globe and his passion for photography has quickly transformed it from a mere hobby to commissioned work. In 2009, he became a Getty Images and Reuters contributing photographer with work ranging from photojournalism and current events  to travel and wildlife.  The two areas of photography which fascinate him the most are wildlife and portraiture.

Work credits include:
South China Morning Post, Time Out Hong Kong, Bloomberg, Lifestyle Asia, Reuters, The Economist, Aware magazine, Asia Money, The Standard


A King Dethroned

“Just one last shot! I almost got it” - I screamed out in desperation to a Chinese minibus driver (who although I’m pretty sure couldn’t understand me, was turning bright red and swearing in Mandarin).

“Mike, don’t be stupid!” – was the last thing I heard as my wife and fellow passengers dragged me back through the open window.

As the guide slammed the glass window shut, this cub’s mom leaped right up against it, leaving condensation from the warm breath and scratch marks from the heavy paws.

This was a perfect example how easy it is for photographers to occasionally lose themselves in a moment while being completely oblivious to the action around them.  As I was shooting pictures of this curious young tiger cub, I was actually being hunted by his mom (who crawled underneath the bus window)!  The fellow passengers who pulled me inside at the very least saved my camera gear and most likely my arm.

Welcome to the real Jurassic Park!

Near the northernmost part of China, on a southern border with Russia’s Siberia, lies a city which every winter gets its five minutes of fame in the international headlines.  The Reason: Harbin International Snow and Ice Festival.   Ever since I began living in Asia, Harbin has always been near the top of my list of “must see” destinations.   There are several reasons for this. First, I always wanted to have a first-hand look at those magnificent ice castles glowing brightly with colorful neon lights embedded within. Second, having Russian ancestry I was always curious to see a Chinese city which was once under Russian rule and still owes much of its culture, architecture and diet to those influences.  Lastly, I needed a good excuse and really cold weather (which often goes down to -40 C below at night) to use my North Face Gore-Tex extreme weather gear which has been gathering dust in my closet.

Attending the Snow & Ice festival and touring the city of Harbin is indeed an incredible experience.  The impressive achievements of human creativity & cheap manual labor not to mention the sheer magnitude of these creations is truly a sight to behold.   However, not far away from all this beauty and monuments to the advancement of human civilization lies an institution which displays humanity’s darkest side.

One of the city’s top attractions for locals as well as tourists is the Harbin Siberian Tiger Preserve.  This “wildlife refuge”, which sits on nearly 360 acres of land, sells itself as a conservation institution preserving the endangered species.   This indeed sounds commendable as there are less than 450 of these animals left in the wild.   However, just after a few minutes…you get a feeling in the pit of your stomach that things are not as they may seem.   At the first glance, the park seems like an incredible achievement.   They boast about their successful breeding program which produced more than 500 tigers held in captivity in Harbin.  However, when asked if any efforts are made to re-introduce the species into the wild or sharing the animals with other preservation areas around the world; a silent blank stare comes across the face of the guide.   To be fair, an animal bred in captivity probably does not have the necessary skills to survive in the wild, but being bred in the Harbin preserve is a bit different.   After a being on the tour for some time one begins to get a feeling that this in nothing more than a farm used for entertainment of locals and tourists and later (when animals get “sick” or die) for harvesting tiger body parts for use in traditional Chinese medicine.

Once they are old enough to leave their mothers, cubs are segregated into areas according to their age groups.   This tends to avoid hostility among the instinctively solitary animals.   These areas are separated by electric fencing and multiple gates though which the vehicles drive through while the drivers ensure that no animals follow.

“Do we have to keep riding the brakes?”  - I yelled out not able to contain my frustration.  Every time I was getting ready to snap a shot, the driver would suddenly hit the gas only to break a moment later.

“We have to keep moving” – explained the guide translating for the driver.  “The animals think we’re just a buffet on wheels and have learned to attack the tires, we almost lost a few trainers here last month.”

Leaving the last tiger area our minibus drives through another set of electric gates.  Out of the corner of my eye I saw something which took my brain a few long seconds to interpret…

“Aren’t those lions?” - I asked in bewilderment.

“YES!  They sure are!” – exclaimed the excited tour guide.  “Although in Chinese culture we consider the Tiger to be the king of the beasts in Western culture you consider the king to be the Lion, so we decided we needed to bring them here as well.”

“But it’s -35 C outside!  These animals are from Africa, can’t you see they’re shivering in the snow?!”

“Don’t worry sir, most of them were born here” - she said “they are used to the weather” – the confident ignorance in her tone send shivers through my spine.

The misery seen on the faces of the animals cannot be adequately described in words nor fairly represented by a picture.   The real reason the lions were brought here would be revealed shortly and it was even more disturbing than originally imagined.

“A few years ago we got an idea of trying to cross-breed lions and tigers to try to create the ultimate king of beasts – The Liger” –explained the guide as the minibus pulled into an area where lions and tigers of mating age could be seen sitting side by side.

 They were indeed successful in crossbreeding the two cat species. However, the sterile offspring which is larger in size than either a Lion or a Tiger, is doomed to spend its days in a small cage.   This is perhaps one of the more depressing sites of this place.  The cages which contain these sad creatures are barely big enough to hold them.   They have to be kept separate from either Lions or Tigers as they will be killed off as the animals instinctively destroy such genetic anomalies.

After finishing the guided mini-bus tour the visitors are invited to re-enter the park through the main entrance and observe the animals from elevated walkways.   However, prior to entering,  all are presented with a menu of live animals which can be fed to the tigers.   These range from small game like chickens and ducks (which start at around 40RMB or $6USD to larger animals like goats, cows and even oxen which can cost up to 1,500RMB or $220USD).  It is not unusual to see the local families all taking part in the “feeding” festivities.   I watched one father proudly purchasing a chicken for his 8 yr old son and demonstrating to him the proper way to throw the doomed animal into the tiger den (in order to give the tigers the greatest challenge to obtain their meal).     The voracity with which these tigers go after these skinny birds makes one really appreciate their malnourished state.

In 2010, it was reported that several Siberian tigers died across China’s parks from starvation.    Sadly, this animal cruelty based entertainment industry is not unique to Harbin; it strives throughout China and other parts of South East Asia.    From bear boxing to staging of shows where animals fight each other until death is very much a common practice.    Much of this stems from lack of education and pure ignorance on the part of the public.    It is only by bringing awareness and education that hopefully one day we can eradicate this ugliness from our society.

"These are the days when Birds come back/a very few/a Bird or two/to take a backward look."

"These are the days when Birds come back/a very few/a Bird or two/to take a backward look."