Anybody who denies the sheer convenience of being able to put hundreds of books on an e-reader versus lugging around physical books is deliberately deluding themselves. Oh what’s that? Books don’t require batteries, you say? Oh ok, I didn’t realize I was talking to Henry David Thoreau.
Shred The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, read Smilla’s Sense of Snow (Peter Høeg)
Forget computer hacking, Smilla Jasperson is part Eskimo and can read snow. Unlike Lisbeth, she doesn’t need some journo hack to solve crimes for her: she’s got this one in hand, even if she has to break a few bones and expose a few truly messed up politico-/scientific conspiracies. Høeg’s prose is exquisite and the story—well, it gets weird. Something about those long and sunless winters in Scandinavia breeds some very dark and twisted detective fiction. (Above: Julia Ormond in the 1997 film adaptation.)
Shred Twilight, read Sunshine (Robin McKinley)
The only explanation for Twilight being more popular than the talented McKinley’s easily digested, smart, pacy writing is some kind of cosmic brain fart. The alternative, that people actually prefer writing that tastes like cardboard soaked in cheap strawberry syrup, is not acceptable. Rae “Sunshine” Seddon has a lot in common with Bella Swan: pale vamp love interests, rebels, loners—but with the key difference that you would love to go drinking with Rae, and you would like to put Bella Swan in the drink.
Shred Harry Potter, read the Abhorsen trilogy (Garth Nix)
Like the Harry Potter series, Abhorsen Trilogy is also YA fiction, but it’s dark stuff. Nix’s fictional world is plagued by the dead, from zombie crows and parasites that feed off your life to the chilling Greater Dead. They can be controlled by a necromancer called the Abhorsen. Does the necromancer use a wand? A pointy phallic stick to poke at things to make the magic happen? Nope. The Abhorsen wields seven bells. So cool. I promise you will want a bandolier of bells by the end of the books more than you ever wanted a letter from Hogwarts. Like Harry, Lirael has a birthright that she doesn’t fully understand, Unlike Harry, she doesn’t take seven books to go out and grab it with both hands. Try Chapter Two.
Shred Game of Thrones, read The Assassin’s Apprentice (Robin Hobb)
If you are thinking of reading the books because you liked the Game of Thrones TV series, let me stop you right there. I hear George R.R. Martin can write, but he does not demonstrate this ability in the Game of Thrones books. Back away slowly now. Pick up the Assassin’s Apprentice series. Now read the series in one go because that, ladies and gentlemen, is how you do epic fantasy with impeccable plot and character development. Hobb is irritatingly talented and very original, except to the delicate head nods to the genre. Here be dragons.
Shred 50 Shades of Grey, read (better) Internet fanfic
There’s a great swath of fanfic out there that is better written than anything that’s come within shooting difference of the New York Times bestseller list, because it’s written by lawyers who sold out their creative writing dreams to earn a buck and are now repressed six ways from Sunday.
The Book Clubber. This person can’t stop talking about The Kite Runner, The Devil in the White City, The Help, and Gone Girl. Airport bookstores meet all her needs. You suspect that books not containing discussion guides terrify her.
The Fast Reader. He likes books that you can read quickly, and he reads them quickly. He goes through a dozen different mystery series a year, and dips into science fiction when he has to. He has lots of positive things to say about books, but only in the most general terms.
The Hyper-Relevant Reader. If it’s on the cover of the New York Times Book Review, it’s on her nightstand. Whenever you mention an author, she asks what you think about the author’s newest book. She never thinks it’s as good as the author’s previous book.
The Used Bookstore Guy. This guy is notable for his questionable personal hygiene and his outrageously esoteric, strangely random tastes. He’ll be in line in front of you at Half-Price Used Books, carrying a Bruce Chatwin first edition, a Joyce Carol Oates paperback you’ve never heard of, a field guide to South American insects, and an analysis of the 1988 Presidential election. You wonder whether he’s read every other book in existence and these are all he has left.
The Book Hoarder. She only reads books in hard copy, and she keeps every one of them in her one-bedroom apartment. She can speak intelligently and passionately about her books, but it’s impossible to concentrate on the conversation because you’re constantly afraid that you’ll step on a long-forgotten cat, a bookshelf will fall and crush you, or a spark from the oven will hit the cookbook shelf and send the whole place up in flames.
The PBS Person. Every episode of Scientific American Frontiers, Ken Burns American Stories, Masterpiece, or Mystery! sends him running to Barnes & Noble for a stack of books he’ll never read. If you ask him about any book he owns, he can talk with vast enthusiasm for exactly 30 seconds.
The YA Freak. She thinks books for young adults are the best, and she raves about all the books your 12-year-old cousin complains about having to read for school. She loves to talk about how complex teenagers are and how fascinating their lives really are, according to 43-year-olds who write books about them.
The Incongruous Philosopher. You only discover this bro is a book person when, in the middle of a conversation about college football, he mentions his alma mater and then starts going on about the history teacher who introduced him to Spinoza. Have you read A Short Treatise on God, Man and His Well-Being? No? Well, you should. It’s fucking awesome.
The Lit Scenester. She’s typically found smoking American Spirits outside all the hottest readings by local authors and by national authors whose pants she thinks she can get into. Ask her about any of their books and she’ll blow smoke out of the side of her mouth, then say, “It’s all right.”
The Writer. When you compliment his newest book he nods and politely thanks you, then takes a cigarette from the lit scenester and asks her what she’s doing later.
I was recently sent a copy of a literary magazine; it’s published by a nonprofit organization, so it’s not technically do-it-yourself, but it has a classic DIY feel to it: the pages are photocopied and stapled, and there’s a tiny little book of poetry rubber-banded inside. The cover is fastened with velcro. It’s absolutely adorable…and boring.
The stories and poems inside aren’t bad, they’re just presented in a context that’s started to feel as predictable as the Loeb Classical Library. Are there whimsical little line drawings? Yes. Are there tiny ads for indie bookstores in the back? Yep. Are there free-verse poems about bodies and birds and seasons? Voila. Are there winners of a fiction contest? Need you ask?
There’s nothing wrong with any of this—it’s just that the whole concept of a literary magazine right now feels stuck between stations, and the more an indie magazine screams integrity and scrappiness and sincerity, the more pointless it seems. Why not start a blog and save your Xerox money for bottom-shelf whiskey?
Before the Internet, things were different. When distribution was only on paper, writers who didn’t have access to conventional publishing had to get creative. There were mailing lists for photocopied fanfic, and the zine table at your local bookstore was an essential stop if you wanted to find writing that would actually surprise you.
This cute little literary magazine feels like a relic of that era. If you’re interested in adventurous writing, why replicate the conventional publishing structure—editor, publisher, customer—in miniature? Why not climb entirely outside that box?
Today you can post a story on Tumblr, you can format and distribute your own e-book, you can write an endless free-verse poem in the form of tweets. Curation still happens, but in a decentralized way: through retweets and reblogs. Everyone is a writer, and everyone is an editor. Distribution is instant, and free. Money is hard to come by, yes—but if you’re working outside the conventional publishing world, is it really harder to come by than it is offline? Now you can launch a Kickstarter, or sell your own stuff on Amazon, or offer to send writing or art in exchange for a few bucks of Adderall money via Paypal. No copier expenses, no begging booksellers for table space.
Best of all, creative writing—fiction, poetry, nonfiction—has become more diverse and exciting than ever. You genuinely don’t know what you’re going to get on Tumblr or Twitter, because anyone can use that space. You know who you’re following, but they’re constantly retweeting and reblogging people you don’t know. You can follow your favorite writers from anywhere in the world, and you can follow them right now—you don’t need to wait for them to be discovered by The New Yorker or Tin House.
I appreciate the impulse to make tangible products. It’s another way to present your work, and it adds a tactile dimension to the experience of reading. I’m glad there are still books and magazines along with the Internet, just like I’m glad there are movie theaters along with YouTube. That said, the Internet has raised the stakes for hard-copy publications: they have to add value. They can’t just exist as vessels.
To me, a lo-fi literary journal says, “Hey, isn’t it cool that I exist?” My response is, increasingly, just to shrug.
We’re excited to announce that our Future Cities book release party will be sponsored by Tumblr. Where would we be without Tumblr? That’s too scary to think about. It’ll also be sponsored by our publisher, Hillcrest Media.
Please join us at the Nomad World Pub in Minneapolis on February 27th for a book release party and Tumblr meetup. For just $10 you’ll get entry, a copy of the book, and a free drink ticket while supplies last.
Other fun deets:
- The Golden Bubbles (featuring Tangential editor Chris Vondracek)
- Koo Koo Kanga Roo
- DJ @jimfrick of Wak Lyf (Curator of technodrome.tumblr.com)
Here’s what’s going to go down:
7:30 p.m. - Doors open
8:30 p.m. - A reading by the contributors
9:00 p.m. - The music begins
Please bring your party shoes. We can’t wait to see you.
Future Cities contributors, in order of appearance in the book:
Jason Zabel—a Tangential editor, formerly editor of the late great Twin Cities A.V. Club.
Katie Sisneros—a Tangential founding editor and a Ph.D. candidate in English at the University of Minnesota.
Heidi Schatz—a Tangential editor.
Kelsey McDonough—a Tangential staff writer.
Christopher Vondracek—a Tangential staff writer.
Book cover and flyer design by Caroline Royce
Not near Minneapolis? Order your copy of Future Cities here—just $7.99 for a hard copy or $3.99 for an e-book!
I’ve been listening to the audiobook recording of J.K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy, but I had to take a break from it. In Rowling’s first novel for adults, she gives us a small town full of Dursleys: jealous, insecure people who connive to land a vacant seat on a parish council. I switched The Casual Vacancy out for a few discs of Garrison Keillor’s “News from Lake Wobegon” monologues, which was like slipping into a warm bath of safe, simple comforts.
Why was Keillor such a welcome respite? Rowling’s book wasn’t particularly well-reviewed, but she’s at least buzzworthy—unlike Keillor, who at least one Minnesota magazine put on a thou-shalt-not-name list because he makes for such a boring story.
For all the success of Rowling’s Harry Potter epic, though, Keillor is still her better when it comes to simple storytelling. Keillor’s style is cinematic; beginning every monologue with “It’s been a quiet week in Lake Woebegon,” he then sketches his milieu in deft gestures—mentioning a few local traditions and a few unusual occurrences, and of course giving a weather report—before gradually zooming in on one particular person whose story he proceeds to tell. His tone is gently omniscient: he sees all and offers a bit of context, but he remains an observer more than an interpreter.
By contrast, Rowling is clinical. She sets each scene by telling us precisely what’s in a character’s head and then noting relevant details from the character’s personal history, so that we are prepared to precisely interpret the significance of unfolding events. She’ll often flip perspectives among different characters in a scene, so that we understand exactly how the characters are bringing their different viewpoints to bear. Little is left to the imagination—a technique that was helpful when Rowling was describing the unfamiliar fantasy universe of Hogwarts and Voldemort, but that becomes tedious when applied to mundane middle-aged middle-class lives.
One of the things that makes The Casual Vacancy “adult” is Rowling’s relentless fixation on the manipulative little games people play among their family members and friends. A husband gets himself a cup of tea, but significantly fails to offer one to his wife. A boyfriend agrees to go to an dinner his girlfriend arranged, but makes a point of accepting the invitation in such a way as to be able to say afterwards that he never really wanted to go. A wife drinks a bottle of wine while her husband is out, then quickly hides the empty bottle when he returns.
Certainly, things like this happen routinely in adult relationships, and not infrequently undermine those relationships to the point where they break. Keillor surely knows this; he’s on his third marriage. In all the 16 monologues included in the More News From Lake Wobegon set, though, the only whisper of divorce comes when an elderly man absent-mindedly forgets his wife at a gas station and she takes it as a sign that he’s fed up with her; at the end of the monologue, they reconcile and the man silently muses on the mysteries of marriage.
That’s the kind of thing that causes some listeners to detest Keillor, and it’s a reason why his stories are best served by being told aloud, one at a time—Keillor’s novel-length Lake Wobegon books sell well among his fans, but they’re long slogs to read from cover to cover, and despite his literary pretensions (he hosts the daily Writer’s Almanac on NPR), his prose in print has never received a fraction of the acclaim his radio work has earned.
Still, Keillor’s vision of small-town life is no less honest than Rowling’s. Keillor looks at Lake Wobegon and sees a population of people who are fundamentally kind and generous, whose ambitions and pleasures are modest but real, and who treasure their local community. Rowling, by contrast, looks at Pagford and sees a roiling kettle of resentment and bitterness, with residents forever grasping at a level of contentment they rarely achieve.
Each picture is incomplete, but each also represents a choice. When you look out at your neighbors—whether you’re in the country or in the city—do you choose to see people who are basically good and basically happy despite their inevitable frustrations and foibles, or do you choose to see people who are struggling every day to trust their lovers and friends and whose life represents the sum of the compromises they’ve been forced to make?
Personally, I’d prefer to see the world as a place where the women are strong, the men are good-looking, and the children are above average—rather than as a place where the men are weak, the women are ugly, and the children are constant disappointments.