Here’s my contribution to Shome Dasgupta’s On Reading project, in which 130+ authors have expressed some of their thoughts about the act of reading. Check out contributions by the terrific Anthony Doerr and Gina Frangello, among others. Sandra Beasley‘s essay is especially wonderful, as well.
Read the post at Shome’s blog, or below.
There’s a lot of complaining and judgment these days concerning the act of reading — about the demise of the physical book and traditional publishing, in particular. And yet, everywhere I look: Readers, reading!
I’ve visited more than twenty book groups in the past year. I’ve joined, in my adult life, half as many (I always stop going — for a writer, especially, I think reading tends to be a solitary experience). I am not at all concerned about the future of the book, in whatever form it takes.
My one concern about modern reading isn’t that it’s on the wane — all evidence to the contrary — but that it is homogenizing. There have always been popular books, of course, but it seems that with the rise of book group culture, two things are true:
a) More books have room to be popular at once (a good thing)
b) People who read are expected to read all the same books (not a good thing)
When I visit book groups, I ask what they’ve been reading, because I’m genuinely curious. In a ten-book-year, seven or eight titles will be repeated across every group. These titles filter through the public consciousness like weather. There’s nothing abjectly wrong with this, but it leads to a way of thinking about books that I believe is misguided.
Many people seem to believe these days that a book should be consistently appreciated or even liked, as if every book strives to take its place on a universal reading list (and if a book doesn’t, it’s failed). This is a misapprehension not only about books but about humans, who experience everything in the world — the written word included — individually.
Recently I was taken to task when I said I hadn’t read a wildly popular series of novels. I think there was a time when a person might have said, ‘No, I haven’t read that,’ and that would be the end of that part of the discussion. These days, the follow-up question is more likely to be, ‘Why? Is there a particular reasonyou’ve neglected this book [that everyone else has read and liked]? Are you taking a particular stand against reading this book?’
It’s disconcerting. Despite the difficult publishing climate, books continue to be released in numbers much greater than one can reasonably consume. (And of course there’s literature’s backlist, all the books we wish we’d read but still haven’t.) Considering this alone, there should be no expectation — none at all — that we all read the same books.
This naturally leads to the question of how to find books to read, which brings up the demise of the brick-and-mortar store and the pastime of browsing. The one path left to lesser-known books? Word of mouth.
So my answer to the question of why I haven’t read monumentally popular books X, Y, and Z is this: I want to be part of the word of mouth, not one voice in a million but one in a dozen. I want to be able to say: If you liked that, you might really enjoy this little-known author and his little-known body of work. And if you like it, you can recommend it to your book group. And so on
In other news, I’ve received bound copies of STILTSVILLE in paperback — and they are scrumptious. Available 6/28 in stores, or now for pre-order!
Post script — It occurs to me that I might include titles I’ve read lately, and enjoyed (considering word-of-mouth must start somewhere!) The books I’ve read in the past few weeks are:
CROSSING TO SAFETY, by Wallace Stegner. This was my late mother’s favorite book, and I can’t explain why it’s taken me so long to read it. It’s beautiful, and it reminds me of my book (I know how that sounds since Stegner’s is a classic, yes, and also it reminds me that my mother would have loved Stiltsville.)
THIS BEAUTIFUL LIFE, by Helen Schulman. This was a recommendation from my editor, who is also Schulman’s editor. Lovely novel about what happens to a family after what appears to be a minor crisis snowballs.
CUTTING FOR STONE, by Abraham Verghese. Yes, this is an oft-read book club book, but it’s exquisite. I’m not sure how Verghese manages to keep the narrator from seeming overwrought, but he does so beautifully.
LIGHT YEARS, by James Salter. I’ve only just begun this novel. I’ve been told approximately five million times that it is manna from heaven, so I suppose that should be enough for me to read it, no?
I’ve got a new piece up at Slate.com this week, about my decade-long effort to make a home in the heart of the heartland.
My excellent editor came up with the headers, by the way, and though I’ve found the clog response surprising, I love how editors always know exactly how to title a piece to maximize attention. I am no kind of headline writer, myself (though I was proud to contribute the line “What Took You So Long?” for my first Slate piece, last year.)
I remember buying my first Danskos, at a comfort-shoe warehouse store on Broadway and eighty-somethingth in Manhattan, 1994. I bought black, because back then there weren’t many options.
Today, on this chilly spring day, I wear my red patent leather Danskos. They are the sixth or seventh pair I’ve owned (including a misguided flirtation with Dansko boots a few years back, better left undiscussed).
Living in the Midwest: Does it make you complacent and likely to wear clogs?
My husband started a spreadsheet. In it he keeps track of “Things We Like” and “Things We Don’t Like” about the Midwest, where we live. This is part of his ongoing effort to sell me on my adopted hometown of Madison, Wisconsin, where he’s spent almost all of his life. Much of the time, the effort is unnecessary, but every once in a while—like now, as our governor proceeds with his sure-handed destruction of public unions, and what would normally be a quiet race for state Supreme Court grows ever more bizarre by the minute—I need reminding that the “Things We Like” column is winning. By a landslide . . .
December is the first month in four where I won’t board a plane even once, won’t drive to a distant city (forty minutes to my in-laws for Christmas Eve doesn’t count), won’t stand in front of friendly strangers to read from my book. Don’t get me wrong — I’ve been enjoying the attention, but it’s simply great to be home for a good long while, just me and the blank page.
First, I should announce — though I’ve announced it far and wide already — that Amazon.com named STILTSVILLE one of the 10 Best Debuts of 2010. I’m stunned and grateful. Amazon has been a great friend to my little book.
In September I read at my hometown bookstore, Books & Books Coral Gables, to an audience of about 230 — a personal record. I also read to a nice-sized crowd at Books & Books Bal Harbour. (This was my son’s first trip to Miami, incidentally, and his first four trips to the beach, which he loved.)
I’ve been on the radio three times in two months: once, for a segment produced by Martha Woodruff for NPR’s Weekend Edition Sunday, wherein I got to say the phrase “hot sex” for a national audience. Also, in an interview with Mark Hayes for his Passing Notes podcast, and a third time here at home for an hour-long LIVE feature about National Novel Writing Month on WPR’s Veronica Rueckert show. (Also, my older segment with Mitch Teich on Milwaukee Public Radio’s Lake Effect has rerun twice.)
Also last month I had the honor of opening the Friday Night Festival of Fiction at the Wisconsin Book Festival, along with Danielle Evans, for Sam Chang and Gary Shteygart. When I asked Gary backstage if he still gets nervous before going on stage (this was a very big venue, at least in my limited experience; I’ve seen They Might Be Giants on the same stage where we read) he recommended Atavan. I counter-recommended beer. I consider us bonded.
I’ve done a good bit of guest-blogging and essay writing this month, including a piece for Cynthia Newberry Martin’s excellent literary blog, Catching Days, called A Day in the Life of Susanna Daniel (la di da). Also, a brief essay about the process of getting published, for LuxuryReading.com, and a third essay, called Novelists: More Swagger, Less Stutter, about promoting a book, for Robin Antalek’s blog.
The paperback version of STILTSVILLE is in production, and will contain a P.S. section in the back. This section will include my interview with Curtis Sittenfeld on Amazon.com, my essay for Slate titled What Took You So Long?, and a new essay about Stiltsville, the real place, called “Why Stiltsville?”
I was recently invited by to put STILTSVILLE to the Page 69 Test. I’ve known about the Page 69 Test for a long while, and was very happy to do it. It’s not as easy as it looks — but basically, the idea is to look at page 69 (and only page 69) of your own novel, and explain whether it’s representative of the novel as a whole.
Here’s what I decided (you can read the full entry at The Page 69 Test’s website):Stiltsville spans three decades and is structured into seven sections, each of which covers a pivotal moment in the narrator’s marriage and South Florida history. The intervening years are telescoped at the start and end of each chapter. Page 69 covers the years between the second chapter (in which the narrator falls in love) and the third chapter (in which the narrator first recognizes the fragility of her own marriage) . . .
Read the full article at The Page 69 Test.
I was invited recently to be interviewed by Anna Leigh Clark for her site Isak, a terrific site devoted to all things artistic and literary, where I lurk from time to time as a reader. Here’s a taste, and you can read the full interview at Isak.
AC: One of the most surprising aspects of Stiltsville is that it is sustained, over the span of decades, by the first-person voice of Frances — who is the sort of quiet character that I rarely see centered like this. Was it a struggle to craft this inward voice into fuel for an expansive novel?
SD: For me as a reader, a narrator’s resume makes almost no difference in comparison to that narrator’s lens, which determines what is called into focus and what is expanded and contracted in a narrative. Frances has a keen, unrelenting gaze and uses it to illuminate the world around her, both in terms of what is beautiful as well as what is unnerving or discordant. I think there are plenty of novels from the point of view of a quiet male character — James Hynes’ wonderful NEXTcomes to mind, as well as almost anything by Charles Baxter — but fewer from the point of view of a woman who is, on paper at least, not all that different from many women of my mother’s generation, and even of mine.