The ‘great and cursed work’ that was the Encyclopédie – Ideas – The Boston Globe

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Here’s the great difference between the Encyclopédie and the Internet, between what reading meant then and what it increasingly passes for today. While Diderot encouraged differences of opinion and perspectives among his closest contributors, he knew that all of them — from Voltaire to Rousseau, Baron d’Holbach to the Chevalier de Jaucourt — took the act of writing as seriously as did those who read it. No activity was more noble.

via The ‘great and cursed work’ that was the Encyclopédie – Ideas – The Boston Globe.

Who’s intimidated by Virginia Woolf?

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Well, I am, for instance.

Am reading Julia Briggs’ Virginia Woolf: An Inner Life, and am impressed by the woman’s energy and devotion to — obsession with — writing. Despite being beset by frequent headaches, debilitating illnesses and awful depression, she managed to crank out brilliant short stories, books and reviews throughout her relatively short life. I loved that to her, the work was the most important thing. She saw her art as her profession, her vocation, something to take seriously. I struggle with this myself, sometimes imagining people telling me that writing is but a hobby, a frivolous activity that should only take place outside of the restricted hours of a real job. Woolf absolutely believed not only that her writing was her gift but the work that she was put on this earth to do. Would that I could have so much self-confidence.

I knew that she had created a publishing company with her husband Leonard (Hogarth Press) but didn’t know much about it until recently. Apparently much of her work was actually published by Hogarth Press, making her one of those “self-published authors” so many people disdain nowadays. (I have a dear friend who still looks down on self-published books as a bunch of drivel written by ignorant amateurs who couldn’t hack it with a real publisher. Yes, we’re still friends, but we definitely don’t agree on that point.) I’ve always wondered what it would be like to have my own publishing company, not just for my own work but for others. Now would be the absolute worst time to be a publisher, of course, not with all these consolidations and bankruptcies, but wouldn’t it be something? Mine would likely focus primarily on works by women, both fiction and nonfiction, biographies, literary essays, philosophy, feminism, that sort of thing. Not so much the academic volumes but the more accessible work that can reach a broader, mainstream audience, the people who wouldn’t ordinarily visit a feminist bookstore, for example. I’d love to work with writers such as Jessica Valenti and Amy Richards, writers from my generation and younger who have such exciting ideas about politics and social and global issues.

Maybe someday, if I win the Texas Lotto. Awfully nice to dream about it, though.

Who's intimidated by Virginia Woolf?

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Well, I am, for instance.

Am reading Julia Briggs’ Virginia Woolf: An Inner Life, and am impressed by the woman’s energy and devotion to — obsession with — writing. Despite being beset by frequent headaches, debilitating illnesses and awful depression, she managed to crank out brilliant short stories, books and reviews throughout her relatively short life. I loved that to her, the work was the most important thing. She saw her art as her profession, her vocation, something to take seriously. I struggle with this myself, sometimes imagining people telling me that writing is but a hobby, a frivolous activity that should only take place outside of the restricted hours of a real job. Woolf absolutely believed not only that her writing was her gift but the work that she was put on this earth to do. Would that I could have so much self-confidence.

I knew that she had created a publishing company with her husband Leonard (Hogarth Press) but didn’t know much about it until recently. Apparently much of her work was actually published by Hogarth Press, making her one of those “self-published authors” so many people disdain nowadays. (I have a dear friend who still looks down on self-published books as a bunch of drivel written by ignorant amateurs who couldn’t hack it with a real publisher. Yes, we’re still friends, but we definitely don’t agree on that point.) I’ve always wondered what it would be like to have my own publishing company, not just for my own work but for others. Now would be the absolute worst time to be a publisher, of course, not with all these consolidations and bankruptcies, but wouldn’t it be something? Mine would likely focus primarily on works by women, both fiction and nonfiction, biographies, literary essays, philosophy, feminism, that sort of thing. Not so much the academic volumes but the more accessible work that can reach a broader, mainstream audience, the people who wouldn’t ordinarily visit a feminist bookstore, for example. I’d love to work with writers such as Jessica Valenti and Amy Richards, writers from my generation and younger who have such exciting ideas about politics and social and global issues.

Maybe someday, if I win the Texas Lotto. Awfully nice to dream about it, though.

Writing blues

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The first time I thought I could possibly write a book someone might actually want to read was probably the first time I read a really badly written book. I’ll refrain from naming it to protect the innocent — okay, fine, it was The Celestine Prophecy — but it doesn’t really matter because the book went on to net the author kajillions of dollars, not just in royalties but in subsequent book-related gigs like speaking engagements, not to mention the sale of its film rights and the various sequels it spawned. (I think there were two, which are two too many, but I digress.)

Anyhoo, I remember thinking, Hell, even I could do better than this! And so I did. Well, I tried.

I’ve since learned that good, even great writing doesn’t necessarily guarantee publishing. A few months ago I reviewed a chick-lit novel for another of my blogs and was appalled by the horrible, horrible writing. I’ve nothing against chick-lit, mind you. One of my favorite authors is the brilliant Irish writer Marian Keyes, who takes puts the “lit” in that phrase. And I actually think that Bridget Jones’ Diary is a great book.

I was furious not with the novel’s writer — I mean, the world is full of bad writers — but rather with the editor for allowing her employer (one of the world’s biggest publishers) to invest even a dime in this piece of crap. I’ve read rough drafts of fellow writers’ manuscripts that were infinitely better than that “polished” work, and yet I’m also aware that few of my colleagues will ever find publishing nirvana, at least in this lifetime. Nowadays it seems that publishers crave “buzz” more than they do good literature, that nonfiction self-help books guarantee sales while a literary author should consider herself lucky if her debut novel’s numbers hit four figures. If you want to be an author, publishers want to know your “platform,” how many subscribers you have to your (and they assume you have one), and what famous author you can get to blurb your manuscript. Writers are now expected to spend part — if not all — of their advance on their own marketing and publicity, from scheduling their own book tours to buying copies of their own book to pestering local radio stations to interview them. Too bad if your book doesn’t lend itself to talk radio. Can you imagine Somerset Maugham discussing Of Human Bondage with a DJ who didn’t even take the time to read the first chapter? Or Mark Salzman trying to discuss Lying Awake (one of my all-time favorite modern novels) with a perfectly-coiffed-but-clueless blonde TV anchor in some podunk Midwestern town?

I read a quote from a famous Hollywood actor who said that, in order to succeed, you really have to be a little clueless about the challenges you’ll inevitably face. In other words, you can’t know too much about how hard your life is going to be, how sick you’re going to get of mac-n-cheese dinners, how many days you’ll have no more than ten dollars in the bank. Having even a bit of that knowledge can strain the faith of even the most passionate writer/artist/musician.

I think he also should have added (and maybe he did, I just don’t remember) that you shouldn’t know too much about the success of others either. Thanks to the Internet, we now know more than ever about how much an author or screenwriter got for her latest novel/script, and what kind of publicity tour her publisher is planning for her (which of course the latter will completely pay for). In spite of myself I still scan the pages in Script magazine that announce the advances first-time screenwriters nab from studios. Like stories in Self and Shape about how so-and-so lost X pounds and kept it off for a decade, these little tidbits leave a painful knot of envy in my stomach. I know I shouldn’t torture myself and should instead use these examples as inspiration, but I can’t help it. The horns just come out without any extra help from me.

Funny thing. I think I get more inspiration from those aforementioned awful books that I occasionally still “accidentally” read. (That chick-lit book was given to me by the publisher to review in my blog. What can I say? I wrote how much I hated it. Never ask me to review something without expecting full honesty.) I like to believe that if shit like that gets published, my novel has a tiny, tiny little chance of finding a good home somewhere. Hey, it’s free to dream.