Pleasurable Reading, Shaded Giants

The best thing I did as a reader in 2018 was intentionally refocus on reading what I like. For too many years, I’d been reading a blend of things that I thought I should be reading as a writer, trying to expand my horizons and do right on multiple counts. In the process I purchased books to support various authors, causes, etc… and developed a 100+ title TBR pile. Some I was more eager to read, some less, and I’d find myself “sneaking” books from the public library. Also, thinking longingly of re-reading old faves (I’m an inveterate book-revisitor).

Reader, something really had to give. This was more than vaguely clear in 2017, but by the end of 2018, it was no longer vague. Last year I finished reading 69 books and 37 graphic novels/trade collections, and I set aside unfinished maybe 10 books. Some months I was tearing through books, others limping. The slower months were overwhelmingly those when I was reading “shoulds.” Part of the slowness was lack of interest, part frustration at seeing weak writers praised or succeed, part simply a lack of desire to read.

That last part should have been a big clue. Many writers read quite a lot, outrageous quantities compared to the average American, and for a very long time I was one of them.  For a whole bunch of reasons, however, I reached a point in this decade where I was barely reading 2 books per month. Last year, giving myself license both to chuck books I wasn’t enjoying and to seek out authors and books likely to square with my interests, I read more like 6 books per month, 9  if you include comics.

Social media, the blessing/curse (blursing?) of our time, has been a blend of good and terrible in all of this. On the one hand, I’ve heard of books and authors that I wouldn’t otherwise have, some wonderful! One example of this is Matthew Bartlett, author of a host of genuinely strange neo-Decadent fictions. He can write, is a mensch, and is justifiably something of  a darling in contemporary weird fiction… but much of his work is self-published, or from small presses. And so, like many authors these days, he’s almost entirely absent from libraries. Without social media, and Facebook in particular, I would likely never have heard of him (check out Gateways to Abomination).

On the other hand, the literary market is beyond saturated, leading to endless PR and social media touting of “brilliant,” “important,” “essential,” “vital,” “outstanding,” etc. authors, and while I realize people want to help their friends and sell their own work, too often this is false advertising. (Ditto blurbs, in which I no longer place any stock whatsoever, as guides to whether I’ll like a book.) Whether it’s the literary fiction community, the weird fiction community, the YA community, or whatever, people ride high horses all the livelong day about this shit, and as someone wisely pointed out to me in 2018, literary communities are endlessly incestuous and precious. Paying too much attention to them can be fatal to taste and joy.

I thought about this much more this past year as I read and re-read various popular authors. These are folks with well-developed chops for carrying a narrative along: Stephen King, Karin Slaughter, John Sandford, J. K. Rowling, Neil Gaiman, etc., and of course I’m continually dipping back into Lovecraft, James, Machen, etc. Newer authors like Paul Tremblay or John Langan, or newcomers like Christine Mangan, have plenty of firepower in this regard, too. These are folks who have honed their craft and developed stories that work in the contemporary market.

marcus aurelius statueThere are so many different kinds of “good book,” or course, and the lists of authors you find in quality writing books like Delany’s About Writing include a host of different modes and styles. That’s a good thing! That said, as I focused in on heavier hitters, in terms of sales, reviews, etc., I likewise have been more apt to notice the green-eyed monster lurking under the faces of friends and writers I follow online, some bigger and some smaller.

Gaiman, King, Rowling, etc. are common targets for these complaints, and I get the frustration about the stiff competition to publish, but many people publicly and privately say boneheaded shit about authors who are titans in the field, as if the ability to win over readers is a bad thing. Part of that’s art-community nonsense, and building of various kinds of social capital, but to state the obvious, popular authors are successful in publishing. Luck, connections, family money, and so on do play into many literary careers, no question… and a lot’s been justifiably written about racism and sexism in publishing… but beloved authors are beloved. That you, Struggling Author, are not beloved does not mean that your favorite target is a literary shyster.

Reader, this blog post has grown unwieldy, and I’ve excised the 20% of it that would bring the wolves howling, in so far as anyone reads this blog. That, as a fellow writer I know who’s rarely online says, is part of the problem of talking about reading when you’re a writer. Anything other than glowing praise is at best going to result in silence. I offer no slings or arrows for anyone in particular here, but take it as you will that I no longer see “hidden,” “overlooked,” “obscure,” or “little-known” as signifiers of anything other than historical or market success.

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ICFA 39 & The Very Horrible, Totally Terrible Spreadsheets

iafa logoICFA 39 is almost here! I meant to post about this weeks ago, but the days ran away from me. Really looking forward to seeing friends and colleagues old and new. I’m doing a few things this go-round…

Thursday, March 15, 2018 8:30-10:00 a.m., Oak
(HL) Panel: Weird Tales and the Evolution of Weird Fiction
Moderator : Sean Moreland
[I’ll be a panelist at 8:30 in the morning! The horror, the horror!]

Thursday, March 15, 2018 10:30-12:00 p.m., Maple
(HL/FL/SF) The Ubiquitous Mr. Lovecraft
Chair: Andrew P. Williams
[I’ll be giving a paper during this session — “Lies, Damned Lies, and Eldritch Statistics: Toward a Quantitative Analysis of Lovecraft’s Literary Reputation.” Warning: there will be charts.]

Saturday, March 4:00-5:30 p.m., Vista B
Words & Worlds Prose
Host: P. Andrew Miller
[Long-running ICFA group reading series, in which I’m delighted to be included.]

 

Scratching & More Scratching

What’s new, pussycat? A couple of largely news-free writing months for me. As I expected a while back, I’ve spent a lot of time over the last couple months raising my voice, doing my best to help hold power accountable, etc., etc. No glory in it, but when your elected representatives don’t just disagree with you or ignore you, but actually lie to the media regularly about your existence… you have to speak up.

scratchAlas for missing AWP, given it was just a couple hours away, but I have other things on the go, and hours and dollars are finite. This year I plan to attend ICFA and NecronomiCon, both with my scholarly hat on (though I’m participating in a group reading at ICFA, and TBD about NecronomiCon). If things go as planned, I’ll also be participating in some group readings around Richmond this year. Details forthcoming.

Are you a writer? Do you aspire to make any money from your writing, but aren’t quite there yet? Read Scratch: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living, edited by Manjula Martin. It’s new out this year, and it’s got some really good stuff in it about aspects of the writing life that often go publicly unaddressed, and about which many people are not well informed. All sorts of good essays and interviews in it, and worth its weight in gold for the blend of windows it offers into the life of the “full time writer.” In some regards it’s of a piece with Nick Mamatas’ Starve Better, which I’ve previously mentioned, and Jeff VanderMeer’s Booklife.

ICFA 37 & The Horror of It All

iafa logoICFA 37 promises to be exciting, and the preliminary program has been posted. I’m looking forward to talking with friends and colleagues old and new. My activities are mostly horror-related, and include…

Thursday, March 17, 2016 8:30-10:00 a.m., Dogwood
(HL) Paranormal Publishing and Pedagogy
[Paper session. I’ll be giving “Anxiety, Nomenclature, and Epistemology after the Horror Boom.”]

Friday, March 18, 2016  10:30 a.m.-12:00 p.m., Oak
(HL/FL) Cosmic Panic: The Continuing Influence of Lovecraft’s Supernatural Horror in Literature (1927)
[Panel discussion on Lovecraft’s “Supernatural Horror in Literature,” chaired by the estimable Sean Moreland.]

Saturday, March 19, 2016 10:30-12:00 a.m., Cove
(HL/FL/VPAA) Folkloric Monsters Old and New
[Paper session I’m chairing.]

Saturday, March 19, 2016  2:00-3:30 p.m., Cove
Words & Worlds: Prose I
[Long-running ICFA group reading series, in which I’m delighted to be included.]

AWP15: A Librarian-Writer’s Con-thnography

Last weekend I attended #AWP15, AKA The Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference, which this year was in Minneapolis. I’d never attended before, and the last time I was in Minneapolis aside from the airport, it was for ACRL in 2015. The city’s lovely, though the weather was colder this time (wind! snow!) than in 2005. My tourist activity was limited to visiting the American Swedish Institute, where I saw many lovely and interesting things, including a Nordic Ware exhibit.

What did I make of AWP? It felt big, which is kind of funny, in so far as the annual conference of the American Library Association can swell a city by 25-30,000 people, and I think AWP was about 12-13,000, if that. The library comparisons are significant (for me, at least) here because I was attending with both my writerly and my work hats on, with the support of my employer, VCU Libraries. I work with creative writing students and faculty in various contexts at my university, and I have a research/publishing interest in the research practices of creative writers.

That said, what did I get out of AWP?

411. I scoured the internet for advice about AWP in advance of going, and the best I saw was from Daisy Hernández: one reading, one panel, one friend, one nap. Two of the three days I tried to do everything I possibly could, mostly panels about or tangent to research. It was fruitful but exhausting. On Saturday I used the 411 method, and I felt best of all. It really worked. (But, I also spent a lot of time on Saturday at the bookfair, which is full of people paneling, sleeping, socializing, and reading, so…)

The Bookfair. Many things are exciting, interesting, or useful about AWP, and others have covered them better, but if I could recommend one reason to go, it would be the Bookfair. Yeah, concentrations of panels, readings, etc., are useful, but I’ve never attended anything quite like the bookfair. Misleadingly, it looks not unlike other such fairs I’ve seen at ALA, ACRL, World Fantasy, etc., etc. Wrong. It’s an absolutely fascinating socio-cultural environment where people in writing, editing, publishing, marketing and other areas try and sell each other things, gauge status, and perform their literary personae. I’ve seen some of this before in one context or another, but I understand now why people buy bookfair-only tickets. (Aside: I planned to buy no books, because I’m a librarian and have enough, but I failed miserably; see below.)

Yes, Virginia, people love libraries. In a city full of writers, nobody cares if you’re a writer. Say you’re a librarian, however, and everyone tells you how much they love libraries. Not the first time I’ve encountered this, and I’m sure it won’t be the last.

They do travel in herds. As in the rest of human endeavors, the writing tribe definitely clustered by genre, publisher, etc., etc. The urge to classify rises up much quicker in conversation than it does at library conferences. (An aside for the folks who write in the same nook I do: nobody has a damn clue what the phrases “literary horror” or “literary fantasy” are. Nobody.)

Whoa alcohol-fueled parties. I didn’t go to a single actual party at AWP, apart maybe from the reading for Phantom Drift, which was held in a bar one night, and more party-ish than most everything else I did. Hangovers were obvious every day of the conference, both in a real and a performative (“haw haw! we drank so much!”) sort of way.

Small > large. For most of my life I’ve been a fan of smaller groups than larger, and AWP was no exception. The most interesting and productive interactions I had were one on one or in small groups. In the bookfair I finally had the pleasure of meeting Nick Mamatas in person, whom I’ve read for years, and he was as thoughtful, humorous, and straight-talking as I’d have expected (buy his books). I also had a very nice lunch with Laura Confer, a local (RVA) writer I serendipitously bumped into on Twitter as the conference was starting. Last but not least, I had the pleasure of meeting Stephen Graham Jones, who was both friendly and kind, and took a few moments to give me some thoughtful advice.

The unexpected ending. I like occasional chit-chat on a plane, but I generally dislike extended conversation while flying. On the first leg of my trip home, however, I had a truly delightful conversation with my seatmates on either side, Christopher X. Shade (Associate Editor at Epiphany) and Laura Kleinbub, both of whom had been at AWP. It was an unexpectedly meaningful conversation, and it left me well and truly energized.

More subject librarians should attend subject area conferences. I don’t blog about libraries qua libraries very much because there are already too many unread library blogs in the world, and I’d rather spend my energy on other efforts. Having said that, I will say that I’ve gotten many and interesting things from attending conferences like ICFA and AWP. I always enjoy and get a lot out of attending ALA, ACRL, or related events, but similar content and questions show up year after year. We work through important issues there and have valuable conversations, but I urge you (if you are a subject librarian) to find a way to go to conferences in your area. Not a library conference in your area, but a straight-up mathematics, geology, sociology, etc. conference. If you are in library management or administration, I urge you to send your subject librarians to conferences in the areas they serve. There is no substitute for engaging with the patrons in “your” area of service, on their own turf, for getting a good, solid look at what they are doing and thinking.

#AWP15, you were great. My only complaint is that next time I need to budget a little better. I said before I left that I didn’t think I was going to buy any books while there, and, well…

books

AWP Book Haul

ICFA 36

iafa logoThis year I’m attending and presenting at ICFA 36. My paper will be in Oak on Friday, March 20, 2015, 2:30-4 p.m. It’s entitled “Node, Edge, or Tentacle: Data and the Lovecraftian Literary Network,” and it’s part of a panel entitled “All Hail the King: Lovecraft and Nothing But,” chaired by Rhonda Brock-Servais. My fellow panelists look to be talking on interested subjects, including monster deities, and how we understand the Other in Lovecraft and Ligotti.

This is one of those events where the whenworldscollide tag is especially appropriate. I’ve been reading HPL for something like a quarter century, write fiction that often falls somewhere on the spectrum between Lovecraftian and the Weird, and will be presenting on a topic that I wouldn’t really ever have approached without exposure to the digital humanities through my work as a librarian. Here’s to life’s pleasant and useful confluences.

If you’re going to ICFA, I look forward to meeting you there!

Writing Year 2014: Into the Blender

Around this time last year, I wrote a lengthy post about my writing activities in order to kick myself into higher gear. It worked. I didn’t meet every goal I set, but that doesn’t really bother me, for reasons detailed below. Writing a “year end” sort of post now, rather than at the end of the year, was a boost to my production last year, and we’ll see if it happens this go-round.

What’s new, pussycat?

This year’s writing theme, if you can say a year has a theme, has been “blending.” For many years I pursued creative writing largely apart from what I do as a librarian. One of my colleagues at VCU, Jenny Stout (review blog), started a discussion series within our division this year, “Research and Learning: Living Up to Our Name,” where people talk about aspects of their work, conceptual developments in the field, etc. She got the series off to a start with an hour of micro-talks, and I spoke about hunting for overlap in activities from different parts of your life, in order to increase efficiency, work strategically, etc. This has been productive for me, as I’ve found myself more dedicated to and interested in both scholarship and creative writing. I have no intention of blogging about my career as a librarian (God forbid; the internet is already littered with unread biblio-blogs), but selected contents & activities are another story.

Intersections

This week I submitted an article to a high-profile professional publication about work I did with a creative writing class at VCU. A submission is not an acceptance, but I’m a heck of a lot happier with that than with the idea lying in unquiet repose in my brain.

Next semester I am co-teaching with Tom De Haven a semester-long class about writing research-intensive fiction. This is aimed at students interested in developing both research skills and a proficiency at incorporating research into their fiction. Course description (ENGL 437).

Next March I’ll be delivering a paper at the International Conference for the Fantastic in the Arts (ICFA 36). This paper will blend a lifelong literary interest and my more recent interest in digital humanities methodologies. Its title is “Node, Edge, or Tentacle? Data and the Lovecraftian Literary Network,” and it’s about a computational analysis of Selected Letters.

I have various future scholarly activities in the works associated with the above agenda(e). Just what form they take depends to some extent on how things go this spring, and realistically they aren’t going to be started until summer, but it’s good to have plans.

Into the field

This year I’ve read many good books, and some excellent ones. I’ve heard a number of people talking about a new golden age for the Weird, even a Weird Renaissance, and it’s hard to argue. From a score of anthologies, including the VanderMeers’ monumental The Weird, to continued excellence from Weird Fiction Review, to Mike Kelly’s establishment of Year’s Best Weird Fiction, things are coming up Weird all over. The kind of horror I like to read, which has a strong overlap with Weird, but not entirely, seems to have surged as well.

One of the best things I’ve read this year (am still reading, actually) is John B. Thompson’s Merchants of Culture: the Publishing Business in the Twenty-First Century. Ross Lockhart, who has himself been having an impressive year, was talking about the book a couple months back, and so I picked it up. So glad I did. Merchants of Culture is an analysis of contemporary publishing in terms of Bourdieuian fields, among other things. I’ve spent a lot of time over the last decade trying to wrap my head around publishing and writing, and this book was part of what reshaped my thinking about authorship this year, from the role of scholarship in my creative life to the places where I aspire to publish.

I regularly attend the Annual Conference of the American Library Association, but this academic year I’m attending or have attended various other meetings. I was invited to attend/speak at Digital Humanities and the Dartmouth College Library, a one-day event in advance of The Digital Crucible, a conference focused on computation in the arts and humanities. Last month I attended the James River Writers Conference here in Richmond, where I moderated a panel entitled “Write What You Research.” Last weekend I attended the 40th World Fantasy Convention, where I met people across the range of activities in the fantastic arts (more on that another day). Next year I’m pleased to be guesting at RavenCon here in Richmond. The list of people I’ve met as a result of all of these activities is in the hundreds, so I’m not doing a roll call, but I will say that in the process I’ve made new friends, met heroes, and gotten a better understanding of the ecosystem of the writing world. I did (or am doing) all of this for a host of reasons, but Merchants of Culture led me to view my activities through a new and improved lens.

What have I accomplished in 2014?

Let’s go to the data…

statistics for fiction

Fiction Statistics, 2005-11/14/2014

Blog Statistics, 2005-11/14/2014

Blog Statistics, 2005-11/14/2014

Fiction & Blogging, 2005-11/14/2014

Fiction & Blogging, 2005-11/14/2014

I could talk about this in various ways, but I think the easiest thing to say is that I feel like I’m back on track. If I’d tracked things by month, and only shown the last two or three years, the difference would be even more stark.

Old goals

Write at least 100,000 words of completed or truly “in progress” fiction rough drafts by December 31, 2014.
Didn’t happen. The last day I added to my count, it was around 18,000. Since then I’ve written three stories, substantially revised several stories, and started and abandoned a novel.

Place six pieces of fiction for publication.
Placed three, which was actually my “good enough” goal, so I’m fine with that. I’ve got four stories out right now, one of which is a “hold for consideration,” so that’s good.

Get back to blogging.
Check.

Read at least two books per month.
Some months it was only one, but some months it was four, so… check.

2015 goals, you say?

Some of this is going to sound familiar, but…

  • Write at least 100,000 words of completed or truly “in progress” fiction
  • Complete enough thematically similar short fiction for a strong collection
  • Place six pieces of fiction and one essay for publication
  • Find a home for my Seattle magical realism novel
  • Draft two new scholarly articles or opinion pieces
  • Keep blogging
  • Read at least two books per month

I have a few other things on the stove, as well, some on front burners and some on the back, some small and some large. Further bulletins as events warrant.

And last but not least, thanks are more than due to my friend, partner, wife, and sine qua non, Kyla Tew. Without her support and patience, it would be difficult to do this.