Category Archives: Writing

Revision pays off

Good news — I got word that an article of mine will be published next year. This is an article I sent to another journal a year or two ago, which got rejected because they weren’t terribly impressed with the argument, and which I then sent out to another journal immediately without changing a single word. This journal asked me to revise and resubmit it, and, interestingly, the reader’s report didn’t say a word about the argument, but instead asked me to work on describing the argument more fully in the introduction and then revising the prose, cleaning up sentences and wording and such. I just needed to find the right place, apparently. I got word today that they’re accepting this revision, and the report included these marvelous sentences: “I think the author has done an admirable job of revising this essay,” and “I would like to congratulate the author for working so hard to revise the essay to bring it to its full potential.” Woo-hoo!

Actually, I should change the post title to “Sometimes revision pays off,” as I’m glad I didn’t revise the essay after the first journal rejected it but happy I revised it for the second journal.

Oh, if you’re interested, the article is on Laurence Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey.


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Novel writing

T.S. Eliot wrote a Preface to my edition of Djuna Barnes’s novel Nightwood, and I thought he had some interesting things to say about fiction:

… most contemporary novels are not really ‘written’. They obtain what reality they have largely from an accurate rendering of the noises that human beings currently make in their daily simple needs of communication; and what part of a novel is not composed of these noises consists of a prose which is no more alive than that of a competent newspaper writer or government official. A prose that is altogether alive demands something of the reader that the ordinary novel-reader is not prepared to give.

This comes from a section where Eliot is comparing Barnes’s prose to poetry — he says those who are trained on reading poetry are better prepared to fully appreciate Barnes’s work.

I feel ambivalently about Eliot’s claims here. On the one hand, I do want to read fiction where the author pays attention to the writing. I certainly don’t want to read prose that might come from a government official or newspaper writer — unless we’re talking about particularly talented officials or journalists of course. But, really, when I sit down to read a novel I’d like to read something well-crafted, and something well-crafted as fiction.

On the other hand, though, I don’t like the elitist tone of Eliot’s comments. Why separate out “ordinary novel readers” from some special group of readers whose faculties are supposedly sharper than the rest and who pick up on so much more? I’m not sure this category of “ordinary novel reader” actually exists. Can’t just about any novel reader — someone who seeks out and enjoys novels — appreciate prose that is alive? Not to say that they do, necessarily — perhaps they read for other reasons than to enjoy the prose — but they are capable of it.

That point aside, though, Djuna Barnes’s prose is certainly alive, and I’m enjoying it. I’m working my way through it very slowly, but I feel like it’s starting to take shape as I near the end, and I’m still planning on reading it again right away to see what it’s like on a second go-round.


Filed under Books, Writing

The Five Writing Strengths Meme

I saw this first over at Charlotte’s, and have enjoyed reading her answers and answers from all the other participants.  I’ve felt ambivalently about calling myself a writer, but I do write, so that’s really the end of that question, isn’t it?

1. I write clearly.  To the extent that I have a natural voice — which if I do I don’t have a strong sense of it — I think it’s a clear and simple one.  I would have to work hard to be complex and difficult.  I think that comes through on my blog, but also in my academic writing.  I was never one for densely theoretical, jargon-laden prose.  I suspect my teachers appreciated this.

2. I love to revise and I do it well.  This isn’t the case with blog writing where I don’t revise at all (I’ll edit, but not revise), but certainly is for the academic writing I do.  I remember getting praise from my professors for being one of the few people willing to revise a paper in a serious way, so much so, at times, that I’d end up arguing the opposite of what I originally thought.  When I get readers’ reports back from journals asking for revisions, I cringe at first, and then dive in, and I end up enjoying myself.  I love seeing how a piece can take on a new form and end up much better than what I started with.

3. I want to keep learning about writing.  I teach writing, but I by no means think I’ve figured it all out.  I like reading books that talk about how words and sentences and paragraphs are put together (as in, for example, Francine Prose’s book Reading Like a Writer, even though that particular book was unsatisfying).  I like noticing how great writers work their magic with words. I like finding new ways to explain things to students.

4. I know my limitations and don’t let them bother me.  I’m completely uninterested in writing fiction or poetry, and I accept that about myself.  Instead of beating myself up for not being able to write the things other people can write, I enjoy what it is I can do.  I’m so glad I discovered blogging because it’s a form that has me writing regularly and that I’ve come to love.  Any writing I’m going to do will be of the nonfiction essayistic sort, which, as that’s a sort of writing I love to read, I’m fine with.

5. I am very good at slow, steady production.  In other words, I’m good at the writing process — I don’t write fast, but I can be steady and methodical and can get things done.  This is how I wrote my dissertation while doing tons of teaching and full-time administrative work.  I wrote a little bit each day and eventually all the little bits added up and I was finished.  This has taught me that I don’t need to be afraid of big projects; if I want to take one on, I have the persistence and endurance to finish it.  I think you can see this trait of mine in my blogging — the daily 500-700 word posts suit me just fine.  I’m nothing if not steady and reliable.

You might note that I’ve said little about my writing itself; it’s hard for me characterize it, and so I’ve focused on the way I go about writing.  But it seems to me that how we go about doing something is sometimes just as important as what it is we produce.


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Blogging personas

Litlove’s fascinating post on Borges and on her relationship to her blogging alter ego has got me thinking about my own relationship to Dorothy, how I am and am not her. When I first started blogging, I thought in terms of a persona; I thought that I was creating one, and that that persona was not me, and that I was happy to be creating a persona because it would give me more freedom, freedom to write in ways that the “real-world me” might not, and therefore freedom to explore parts of me that I don’t normally express. This is partly why I chose to take on a pseudonym, so that my online self could be substantially different from my regular self, if I wanted it to.

But that hasn’t happened really — I feel instead like Dorothy is really me, just with a different name. She’s not a separate person, a mask, or a persona; she’s me, but she’s not quite the “me” I think of as my real-world self. The writer of this blog doesn’t feel like a fictional creation at all, although, in a sense, she is a fictional creation, because our selves are all fictional creations of sorts. Writing this blog has made me more aware of how fictional the various versions of myself are, since it is so easy to shape my online self by giving out certain bits of information and not others, and this makes me realize that I’m always communicating different versions of “myself” to the people I meet, online or in-person, and I’m even communicating a version of myself to myself. The mental image I have of Dorothy is incomplete — I see one version and you see another — and this is also true for image I have of the “real-world me.” My image of myself matches no one else’s image, and who is to say whose image is the more accurate one?

Anyway, Dorothy is calmer than I am, than the version of “me” I’m familiar with. She’s much less busy than I am, and more certain, less nervous, and more chatty. She’s nicer and more open. She’s not as critical and she’s much more optimistic. She’s a little less self-conscious and more willing to try new things. She’s more of a group person, more willing to participate. She likes people more. She’s just as serious, but occasionally more willing to be silly. She’s more willing to talk about herself (or she wouldn’t blog of course!), and less concerned with what people think of her.

All that sounds quite nice, doesn’t it? It makes me want to be Dorothy … and perhaps the interesting thing about blogging is that it might help me become a little more like her. Perhaps after our online selves have been in existence for a while, we begin to merge with them.


Filed under Blogging, Writing

Johnson and writing

I’ve gotten to the part in Boswell’s Life of Johnson where Johnson is writing twice-weekly essays published as The Rambler.  This is what Boswell says about it:

The first paper of the Rambler was published on Tuesday, the 20th of March, 1749-50; and its author was enabled to continue it, without interruption, every Tuesday and Saturday, till Saturday the 17th of march, 1752, on which day it closed. This is a strong confirmation of the truth of a remark of his, which I have had occasion to quote elsewhere, that “a man may write at any time, if he will set himself doggedly to it;” for, notwithstanding his constitutional indolence, his depression of spirits, and his labour in carrying on his Dictionary, he answered the stated calls of the press twice a week from the stores of his mind, during all that time…

I like the idea that you can write at any time, if only you really set your mind to it. Although I’ve never done much creative writing (defined narrowly as fiction or drama or poetry) and don’t know if I’d get writer’s block trying to do it, I’ve done a good bit of other kinds of writing — letter writing, course-paper writing, dissertation writing, blog writing, email writing, administrative report writing — and tend to agree with Johnson that the words will come if I just “set myself doggedly to it.” I’m not a writer’s block sufferer. In fact, for me, there’s nothing so pleasurable about writing as sitting down with pen and paper or a computer having little idea of what I will write and watching ideas come to me as I start to work. Which is not to say that Johnson’s feat of writing essays twice weekly for so long isn’t remarkable, but that I can see why he would want to do it and why, with that attitude, he’d do a good job of it. Well, being a genius had something to do with it too, of course.

The Boswell passage makes me think that blogging is a little like writing periodical essays — perhaps not always with Johnson’s brilliance (in my case, never with Johnson’s brilliance): it’s about producing a public piece of writing on a regular or semi-regular schedule, which means, if you do follow a schedule, even a loose one, you are privileging regularity over inspiration. One of the reasons I’m attracted to blogging and why I’ve come to love it so much is the regular productivity it requires, inspiration or no.

And, as a blog-reader, there’s nothing I love more than a regular feature on someone’s blog, poetry Friday, say, or Stefanie’s Saturday Emerson post, or Danielle’s daily book chat. There’s something very reassuring about knowing writers are out there who will produce words regularly. I would have eaten up Johnson’s twice-weekly essays if I’d lived then.

However, this passage about Johnson’s writing habits does not strike a chord with me:

Posterity will be astonished when they are told, upon the authority of Johnson himself, that many of these discourses, which we should suppose had been laboured with all the slow attention of literary leisure, were written in haste as the moment pressed, without even being read over by him before they were printed. It can be accounted for only in this way; that by reading and meditation and a very close inspection of life, he had accumulated a great fund of miscellaneous knowledge, which, by a peculiar promptitude of mind, was ever ready at his call, and which he had constantly accustomed himself to clothe in the most apt and energetic expression.

Oh, for some of that “promptitude of mind”!


Filed under Books, Nonfiction, Writing

Book reviews

In light of Bloglily’s recent post on book reviews (if you go there, make sure to check out the comments too), I found this passage particularly interesting — it’s by H.L. Mencken and I found it in Michael Dirda’s book:

A book review, first and foremost, must be entertaining. By this I mean that it must be dexterously written, and show an interesting personality. The justice of the criticism embodied in it is a secondary matter. It is often, and perhaps usually, quite impossible to determine definitely whether a given book is ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ The notion to the contrary is a delusion of the defectively intelligent. It is almost always accompanied by moral passion. But a critic may at least justify himself by giving his readers civilized entertainment …. If he is a well-informed man and able to write decently, anything he writes about anything will divert his readers.

I agree — if I like a writer, I’m willing to read him or her on any subject whatsoever, and I also agree that it’s impossible to pronounce for certain whether something’s good or not, so perhaps that shouldn’t be the point. A much more interesting point, as far as I’m concerned, is how the reviewer has made sense of the book from a personal point of view. I don’t mean the review has to be personally revealing, but rather what I find most interesting is watching a reviewer’s mind grapple with someone else’s words and ideas.  When this happens, the “this is good” or “this is bad”-type pronouncements don’t matter as much. That, in my opinion, is good entertainment.


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Poetic inspiration

The Hobgoblin posted on what it’s like when his unconscious mind takes over in the writing process, and then I came across this poem by Jane Kenyon, entitled “Who”:

These lines are written
by an animal, an angel,
a stranger sitting in my chair;
by someone who already knows
how to live without trouble
among books, and pots and pans ….

Who is it who asks me to find
language for the sound
a sheep’s hoof makes when it strikes
a stone? And who speaks
the words which are my food?

She’s talking about the same thing the Hobgoblin is, I think — what it’s like when another part of the writer, the unconscious mind perhaps, takes over. Oh, and I just remembered that this same thing happened to the main character Ka from Orhan Pamuk’s novel Snow. Ka is a poet and periodically throughout the novel he’ll feel a poem coming on, like a sneeze, so he’ll stop whatever he’s doing and write. He writes a whole book of poems this way.


Filed under Books, Poetry, Writing

On Writing

I most likely will never write a novel or even a short story, but this post on Kate’s Book Blog tempts me just the tiniest bit to give it a try — not because I think I can write a good novel or story, but because it makes me realize just how much I’d learn from the attempt. If I did it (which I almost certainly won’t — I’m just playing with ideas here), I wouldn’t show it to anybody, but would do it solely for my own educational purposes. Because Kate’s post makes me realize how little I pay attention to the technical details of what I read. I’m aware of some things like plot structure, point of view, creating scenes, showing vs. telling, etc., but I don’t really get into the nitty-gritty of it. If I tried creating my own scenes, though, or if I had to worry about how to get characters from one place to another or had to choose what details to include and what ones not or if I had to struggle to get the point of view right, I’d be seeing the matter in another way entirely. I’m a believer in the value of learning by doing; don’t you think this would be a fabulous learning experience?

Kate is writing about Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer, which I haven’t been interested in up until now, because I’m not that kind of a writer, but now I’m intrigued. Perhaps I’d learn a lot about reading even if I’m not exactly Prose’s intended audience, although Prose’s subtitle, “A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write them,” leaves open the issue of audience, implying that the two groups of people mentioned might not necessarily overlap completely.

The Hobgoblin is writing a novel, of course, and I’ve got a good friend who’s a novelist, and I read other bloggers who write fiction, and I’m interested in the insights they have into the craft of fiction and I find myself wanting those insights too.

And one more point about writing, unrelated to the above: I’ve been thinking about Litlove’s post on the way we compare ourselves to others and how easy it is to get jealous of what other writers can do. I don’t get jealous of fiction writers or poets, as I don’t write in those genres, and although I write academic criticism now and then, I don’t get jealous of other people’s ability to write that sort of thing, maybe because I don’t feel like that kind of writing is all that important to me, but I sometimes get jealous of what other bloggers can do. When I began blogging and spending a significant amount of time reading other people’s blogs, I’d get overwhelmed sometimes because I found so much good writing of the type I could never do myself. I really don’t understand those who think there’s no good writing on blogs, because if you look around just a little bit, you’ll find tons of it.

Blogging has been interesting for me because I’ve found I care about my writing in a way I haven’t before. I’ve had moments of feeling so inadequate as a writer that I’ve thought to myself, either you stop writing entirely to get rid of the bad feelings or you accept that you will never be able to do what those other people do and instead begin to enjoy their ability. And it’s possible, at least in moments, to accept that some people are just outrageously talented and to appreciate that rather than get jealous. As I wrote in a comment over at Litlove’s, surrounding oneself with fabulously talented people makes it easier to get to the point of no longer wanting to compete because the effort is just too exhausting. And it’s probably at that point that a person can do their best work.

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Spare language

I keep coming back in my mind to a passage from Nick Hornby’s The Polysyllabic Spree about writing that gets praised for being “spare”:

Anyone and everyone taking a writing class knows that the secret of good writing is to cut it back, pare it down, winnow, chop, hack, prune and trim, remove every superfluous word, compress, compress, compress. What’s that chinking noise? It’s the sound of the assiduous creative-writing student hitting bone.

Hornby uses J.M. Coetzee to illustrate what he means by the “spare tradition” and it turns out that while he admires Coetzee, he’s actually not a fan of super-pared-down language. The passage above comes at the beginning of a long celebration of Dickens, the most un-spare writer there is, and Dickens clearly comes out ahead in the comparison. Here’s what he says about pared-down writing:

There’s some stuff about the whole winnowing process that I just don’t get. Why does it always stop when the work in question has been reduced to sixty or seventy thousand words — entirely coincidentally, I’m sure, the minimum length for a publishable novel? I’m sure you could get it down to twenty or thirty, if you tried hard enough. In fact, why stop at twenty or thirty? Why write at all? Why not just jot the plot and a couple of themes down on the back of an envelope and leave it at that?

As I was typing this passage, I realized that I don’t like it, although I think I share Hornby’s taste for wordy, talkative fiction. Working toward spare, pared-down language doesn’t mean one is working toward nothingness, of course. This is Hornby being churlish and unfair.

But I do love long novels and digressive, wordy prose; while I also admire writers in the “spare tradition,” I tend not to love them. Prose that begins to veer toward poetry begins to feel like work to me, and while I’m often happy to do that work, I’m not going to get absorbed in the story. Here’s what it is — I often read novels with that spare, poetic, pared-down prose and I enjoy the experience, but it’s not quite as visceral or thrilling as a novel that isn’t overtly drawing attention to its own language.

But then Hornby gets even more annoying:

The truth is, there’s nothing very utilitarian about fiction or its creation, and I suspect that people are desperate to make it sound like manly, back-breaking labor because it’s such a wussy thing to do in the first place. The obsession with austerity is an attempt to compensate, to make writing resemble a real job, like farming or logging.

The first line is fine; I agree that fiction isn’t utilitarian in the least. But then we’re back to the gendered language I’ve complained about before. Okay, he’s joking, but still — writing as wussy? My feeling is that people’s desire to write in a simple, pared-down manner has nothing to do with whether writing is a “real job” or not. Hornby seems to be reading his own uncertainties about the seriousness and manliness of writing into other people’s aesthetic tastes.

But I really didn’t mean to turn this into a pick-on-Hornby post. I’m interested in these passages because I’ve felt ambivalently about the “spare tradition,” which leads me to thoughts about what I look for in a novel. Am I looking for a story so absorbing it makes me forget I’m reading, or do I want to be immersed in language itself, aware of the ways an author is using it? Do I want a flood of words on the page, or do I want carefully-measured, crafted prose that suggests more than it actually says? All of these things, obviously, at different times and to suit different moods. But I feel most comfortable with the Dickensian tradition, and I wonder what that says about me as a reader.

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Musings on writing

Courtney has this great post on running and writing where she compares the two and concludes that they are more alike than she thought. She says, “Like writing the novel, running is all about showing up, going further than you think you could, under circumstances you previously never would have considered.” Now that strikes me as absolutely true. I don’t have experience writing a novel, but I do have experience writing a dissertation, and I learned from it that there’s nothing more important than just showing up every day. Or even just showing up most days.

I got through the dissertation one hour at a time. I realized fairly early on that I’m terrible at working long hours on an intellectual task as difficult as scholarly writing, and so I didn’t ask myself to work long hours. I just asked myself to work for one hour, or sometimes even for a half an hour. That worked. Even a pace as slow as 5-7 hours a week will get you a dissertation eventually, and the novelists will probably tell you it will get you a novel too. Now I wasn’t a stellar dissertation-writer, and I took longer to graduate than I should have (I never had to ask for an extension, but that still left me with years and years of time available), but I finished.

I expected that I would have to work long hours at the end; I have the impression that most dissertation-writers have to go through a crazy period where they are frantically making revisions and finishing up that last chapter and furiously hunting down references, but it wasn’t like that for me. I kept working an hour a day, a page or two a day, and I kept doing it and doing it until I reached a point where I didn’t have any more revisions to do and then I stopped. At that point my dissertation advisor and I set a defense date, and then I waited a month to give people time to read things, I defended, and that was that. I did have to add on a short conclusion, something like 8 pages, before I turned in the final copy, but that wasn’t difficult. It was rather anti-climactic, really. I was writing an hour a day and then I wasn’t. Simple as that.

Actually, what happened is that my hour of dissertation work a day became my hour of blogging a day.

As I was writing I kept cycling and backpacking metaphors in my head. Showing up at my computer for my hour of writing was like taking a ride. It doesn’t seem like a big deal, but take enough rides, and at the end of the year, you’ll have ridden something extraordinary like thousands of miles. Or it’s like a day of backpacking. One day’s walk doesn’t get you very far. But walk every day, and you can walk the entire Appalachian Trail, from George to Maine, and you’ll finish in a matter of months. You’re not doing anything extraordinary each day; if you walk 10 miles a day, you can finish the Appalachian Trail in about 7 months. Healthy, able-bodied people can walk 10 miles a day without working too, too hard, especially once you’ve given yourself time to get used to it. Walk at a meager 2-mile-an-hour pace, and it’ll take you 5 hours. Do that every day, and you’ll have walked across a continent.

Similarly, write a page a day, and you’ll have something 365 pages long at the end of a year. And how long does it take to write a page?

Well, okay, sometimes it takes a while to get to the point where you can write a page; certainly I had to do an awful lot of reading before I was ready to write my pages, but even so, when it comes to dissertations if you do an hour of preparation a day, you’ll be ready before you know it. Or if, in writing your novel, you decide you need to discard half your pages, you’re still left with 180 at the end of the year.

So for me, writing is an endurance sport. How about other writers – what metaphors do you use?

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For some reason, I have a block against writing narrative. I was reminded of this when Litlove wrote in a comment on her blog something about being able to write anecdotes and reminiscences but not “proper storytelling.” I won’t speak for what Litlove can and can’t do (and everyone who reads her blog knows not to underestimate her!), but that rang true to me — I feel that while I might manage an anecdote, a short story or a novel I could never do.

I’m not sure why this is. I remember having to write stories in high school and not succeeding all that well. I clearly remember one teacher wanting to know why I had some extraneous detail in a story of mine — although I don’t remember the story itself. I remember a lot of anxiety about her comment. As a junior in high school, I worked on another story, this time turning to something science fiction-like, as I’d been reading in the genre recently, and it got some rather odd reactions from classmates. I have no idea what the final thing I turned in was. And that’s it for my story-writing career. I had to write a few poems in my senior year of high school (and read them out loud in front of the class!), and I remember my teacher approving of what I wrote, but somehow I knew it wasn’t that good. I was good at following meter, but not particularly imaginative.

So I’m not sure if it was a lack of early practice and encouragement that turned me off story writing, or if I’m just genuinely not good at it. These days, I find that if I try to think of a story idea, my mind is blank. If I wanted to get serious about it, I could probably try some freewriting or other idea-getting technique and maybe come up with something, but the thought fills me with such anxiety that, since no one is making me write fiction, I won’t try it. And I don’t mean to imply that I think this is a failing of mine; I’m just interested in why I’m this way.

I think early on I got this idea in my head that I’m not creative. To some extent I still believe that, but I’m more inclined to think that it’s not that I’m not creative, but that I don’t show my creativity in traditional ways. And I’m interested in trying to get past whatever block I have when it comes to creativity and to let the creativity I do have out a little bit. Having a blog is a great way to do that, I think.

If I were ever to write a novel, or if, in some bizarre hypothetical situation where I’m forced to write one, or I’d get a million dollars if only I’d write one, or some such scenario, I would have to write something like what Nicholson Baker writes. By that I mean it wouldn’t be traditional narrative. It would have to be some mix of story and essay, like Baker’s story of the man riding up the escalator, which is the entire novel’s plot, with the rest of it made up of the narrator’s meditations. Something about the arc of a story eludes me, and this is where Baker is so brilliant — he replaces the metaphorical story line with the literal line of the escalator climbing from one floor to another, freeing up the novel to wander elsewhere.

I did have more success at personal essay writing; I took an advanced writing class in college where we worked on an essay over the course of half a semester, and I remember enjoying the process and getting really enthusiastic reactions from my teacher and classmates. I wonder if I’m drawn to this genre because that’s the way my brain works, drawn to an essayistic kind of logic or vision, or because with the essay I don’t have bad memories of anxiety and failure. Maybe the freedom of the genre frees up my imagination in a way traditional fiction doesn’t.

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Anarchy Soup

I’m having a whole lot of fun reading the Hobgoblin’s novel. Something about writing one’s novel on a blog strikes me as really, really cool. Part of the fun of reading it for me is recognizing some of the settings and characters from our real life. I won’t discuss those details because you probably wouldn’t know what I was talking about anyway, but the locations and some of the characters sounded quite familiar to me, and I was right: the Hobgoblin confirmed that he used some places we’ve spent time in and people we’ve spent time with as inspirations for his writing. One of the professors we both knew from grad school quit her job to write academic mysteries, and I remember people in the English department speculating about which character corresponded to which faculty member. In that department the “cookie key” was well-known — the key that got you into any office — and it made an appearance in this professor’s novel, which delighted us all.

I also think it’s very interesting to be writing a novel and getting feedback on it as he goes along. I’ll probably never write a novel, so I won’t know about these things first-hand, but it must be very, very different writing a novel in the usual way and publishing chapters online as they get written. I doubt any of the reader comments will change the way the Hobgoblin is writing his novel, but those comments have an influence anyway — the encouragement that comes from the comments must have an impact, and simply knowing that people are reading the chapters as he produces them must influence his motivation to write. It makes novel-writing a less isolating endeavour and a more communal one. I guess people working on novels in writing workshops can have a similar experience, but the reader/writer relationship is different, and the way readers encounter the novel is different too.

This kind of publication is like the old 19C way of serializing novels, so that the author could get reviews and other forms of feedback before the end of the novel is written. With a blog, however, the feedback can be more immediate and direct. I’ve come to see how blogging is a form of journal-writing gone public, so that one’s journal becomes more communal than private, but to apply that model to novel writing seems to be a different thing. Journals lend themselves to daily or at least frequent publication, where it seems more natural to be able to see the process of living and thinking and writing at work. But readers rarely get a glimpse of the process of novel writing (check out Bloglily’s excellent post on the subject if you are interested).

Okay, let me go and ask the Hobgoblin when I can expect his latest chapter …

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A whiny post, revised for less whining

Okay, so I just wrote a couple of paragraphs whining about being tired, and then I deleted them. Who wants to hear me whining, after all?

What I’ll write about instead of whining is what it’s like to write in my blog every day. I’m curious how people who blog decide how often to write and what inspires them to write when they do, and if they feel guilty for neglecting the blog for a while, and, if they write regularly or every day, if they long for a break at times.

For the most part, I love writing every day. I find writing a good way to start my evening — to create a break between my work day and my evening (assuming I’m not doing some work in the evening, which isn’t always the case). What I’ve been doing lately is writing something in the evening and then posting it in the morning. That way, I can look it over and make sure I didn’t say anything ridiculous and maybe change a few things if I feel like it. I like waking up in the morning and having a brand new blog post waiting for me to publish it.

I worried when I started this that I’d run out of ideas. But mostly I don’t. Mostly I have a couple ideas for blog posts lurking in my brain somewhere, waiting their turn to get out. Okay, today is maybe an exception; if I were still in a whiny mode, I’d write about being too tired to read much and get much out of it, too tired to concentrate and therefore too tired to keep the blogging ideas flowing. Hence this random post. But, really, almost always there’s something in my reading that triggers the thought, “blog post!”

I do sometimes feel that because I’ve established the pattern of writing every day, I have to keep writing every day. The fun part of blogging is having people read me, and even though people who read me would understand if I don’t post on a certain day, I’m sure, I do feel that if I don’t post, something is missing, something is wrong, something is lacking out there and I have to fix it, people are checking my blog, and there’s nothing new. I don’t feel that this is a burden, and if I did, I’d do what litlove did, and declare that I’m going to follow some new pattern, one that gives me more flexibility.

Rather, it’s a discipline that keeps me thinking critically about what I’m reading and how my cycling is going. And it’s not a burdensome discipline, but a delightful one. It’s kind of fun to think that there are a bunch of blog posts that I’ll be writing in the coming weeks and months, and I have no idea what they are about, but they will get written, and I’ll come up with an idea every day, reliably. Maybe that’s what makes the discipline of writing every day so delightful: I’m showing myself again and again that I have stuff to say. Given my uncertainties about my interest in writing and my writing ability, that’s a good lesson.

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Writing and authenticity, part II

I got such great comments in response to yesterday’s post, I thought I could respond to some of them here instead of responding in the comments. This is what I don’t like about complaints that there is too much “meta-blogging” — obviously, people like blogging about blogging, based on the response it gets. So why not do it? Why not do a little thinking-through of this new genre occasionally? Bloggers are experiencing some new and interesting things, and it deserves some thought and discussion.

One of the most interesting things people talked about (it feels natural to say that people “talk” on a blog rather than or in addition to “writing” on a blog — commenting on a blog is a mix of talking and writing?) is the way they like who they are on the blog, and this “blog self” helps them deal with their “real self.” It’s like the blog is a chance to create or recreate yourself in a space that’s more easily controlled than any “real-life,” physical situation. In that space — with a pseudonym or not — you have more freedom to experiment with who you are without all the usual markers that label you in some way — one’s body, clothes, possessions, job, etc. And what you learn in the space of a blog can be carried over into the rest of your life.

For me, I’ve been learning a lot about how much fun writing is. The writing I did in grad school did not teach me that lesson. Well, that’s not entirely true; I learned that, for me, critical writing is satisfying in the way that riding a century (100 miles) is — it’s hard and painful and I wonder why I began at all, and then I find moments of exhilaration and pleasure. Sometimes those difficult-but-rewarding things are worth it — the pleasure outweighs the pain — sometimes they’re not. But the blog is teaching me that writing can be like an easy spin on a sunny, spring day: a little effort, and a lot of joy.

I like the story of Dr. Crazy, who wrote a blog and created a voice she decided she didn’t like and that didn’t suit her, and who then decided to create a new blog with a new persona to find a more flexible, more “authentic” voice (see Casey if you want to discuss that troubling term “authentic”). She carried her readers along with her from one blog to another, so it wasn’t the kind of starting over that involved cutting all ties to the old self; it more about claiming a new “space” in which to write in a new way, declaring that she’s starting over. I love it that on a blog a person can say, okay, now I’m giving you a different version of myself than the one you saw before, and readers will understand and appreciate what’s going on.

Thinking about how one’s blogging self can change one’s “real” self makes me curious about how people deal with having family or friends read their blogs. Because if the blog self is in some sense an experiment, then what do you do if people who know you know about your experimentations? Does that bother you? This is a difficult question for me, since I tend to be extremely self-conscious about how others see me (more so than other people? I’m not sure). I don’t really want to be “caught” self-consciously experimenting. People wrote about this yesterday actually, about feeling self-conscious when family or friends read them.

I’ve got a few friends whom I’ve told about the blog; I felt both that the blog is something important that’s happening in my life and that my good friends should know about that and that the things I write about are the things I want to discuss with them, and I can’t do it naturally while pretending I don’t write about those things here. I’ve dealt with this largely by declaring to myself that this space is my space and I’ll do what I want in it and I’ll refuse to feel the need to defend anything I write here or to explain what I’m up to. No one is asking me to defend anything going on here and I don’t expect them to, but that’s not really the point — the point is the declaration I’ve made to myself that this is a space to get a little free of the usual constraints I place on myself. Doing so under a pseudonym is easier, even when I’m dealing with people who know the real “me.”

Finally, Danielle, the great asker of questions, asked me about the origin of my pseudonym, and Stefanie guessed it correctly. I was looking for a woman writer or a character from one of “my” periods, 18C or early 19C who was writerly but also athletic in some way. I’m not finding any cyclists from the period, for obvious reasons, and women weren’t often known for being physically strong in the time period, or if they were they were “amazons” or something similar (yes, there’s Mary Wollstonecraft who theorized on the importance of physical strength for women, but I didn’t want to call myself Mary W.). I settled on Dorothy Wordsworth as someone who wrote (and who wrote a diary, no less) and who was known for her amazingly long walks. I’d like to be known for my amazingly long walks too, so she seemed perfect.

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Writing and Authenticity

Litlove’s post from yesterday on self and image, intimacy and authenticity has sparked some great comments. Litlove discusses our image-obsessed celebrity culture and then considers what happens in blogs, arguing that while blogs often contain images, they don’t tend to become places to enshrine images of the self in the manner of our celebrity culture, but instead are places to explore identity and voice, places, in fact, that resist the reduction of people to image. Blogging is a way to explore an authentic voice and “reconnect with a more complex, genuine sense of self.”

And in the comments Litlove says this: “I think that fiction is very much the friend of truth and authenticity, and to create a fictional personae may well be a circuitous route to telling a more genuine truth about the self.” There must be bloggers who are making it all up – who aren’t in the least interested in telling any kind of truth about themselves – and bloggers who write in order to create or foster celebrity. But most bloggers, surely, write to explore a subject, or to connect with other people, or to practice writing, or to write for some reason that would strike readers as genuine and authentic.

I’m interested, though, in the ways fiction and authenticity connect in blogs. I feel that my own blog is very much “me,” it feels genuine and authentic, and yet I’m also aware that I have a blog “persona,” that it’s a specific part of me I reveal here, or perhaps I should say it’s a version of me I reveal. And hiding myself a bit is a way, paradoxically, of being able to write more openly.

I decided to use a pseudonym when I first began blogging, and I made that decision mainly because I wasn’t sure what the blog would be about, and I wanted to protect my ability to write about anything. For example, to have a pseudonym meant that I could complain about work if I wanted to and (probably) get away with it. I pretty quickly figured out that I wasn’t going to write about that sort of thing, and I think the posts here are such that I wouldn’t mind just about anybody reading them. I’m retaining the pseudonym now mainly because I don’t want people to be able to google my real name and see the blog at the top of the list (I don’t imagine there are many people googling me, but I’m thinking about hiring committees or other people who have some power over me in some way and who might not “get” blogging), but I don’t mind telling people my real name if I have a reason to do it. A couple bloggers mailed me books recently (thank you!), and I had a strange moment when I had to decide if I was going to give them my real name along with my address. It didn’t take long to decide to go with the real name, but it was a moment of two worlds crossing that felt strange.

But my point is that I’m somehow mixing the “real me” with the blogger pseudonym version of “me,” and that mix feels perfectly natural.

Of course, there’s a limited number of things I write about here. I had to go through a process, when I first began to blog, of deciding what I would include and what I wouldn’t, and I’m guessing every blogger has to do something similar. I thought I could make it just a book blog, or I could make it a book and academic blog, or maybe a personal blog that included a lot of book talk. I feel like I’ve mostly settled on what I like to write about – mostly books, now and then on the nature of writing and reading, occasionally on bikes, because cycling is (one of) my other obsession(s) and it gives me a bit of variety.

Somehow establishing these limits feels freeing to me. I’m not even trying to give a complete picture of myself; it’s clear to everyone reading me that I’m not giving a complete picture of myself – if such a thing were possible. Creating boundaries enhances the feeling of authenticity, at least from my end of things; I can write about books and reading with openness precisely because I’ve closed off other subjects. Strangely enough, creating some artificiality, saying I’m going to make up a name and write about only two subjects, lets me write authentically.

So, kind of like in a personal essay, a blog can be about experimenting with identity – playing around with what you’ll reveal and what you won’t, deciding what voice you’ll use among the voices you have available to you, shaping your experiences and thoughts based on what you want me to know – and I can know you’re experimenting but still feel like I’m reading something authentic.

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More on “the writer”

I got a lot of interesting comments on my post yesterday about how we define the term “writer” and whether we consider ourselves writers, which tells me that I’m not the only one interested in the problem. A lot of people (including me) said something along the lines of, “well, a writer is anyone who writes and cares about the quality of the writing, but even though I do those things, I still don’t call myself a writer.”

Two of the comments helped explain this phenomenon. Kate says, “we tend to think of being a writer as something more exalted than writing when in fact it’s the reverse.” I think this is absolutely true. I have an image of “the writer” as someone much smarter, much more creative, much more driven, and much more talented than I am, and so I will never live up to those standards and be a writer. And yet this is the wrong way to think about the situation; Kate says, “It’s the writing that’s important, not the standing back and taking credit for it. ‘Being a writer’ without the activity of writing is just a pose.”

Victoria explains the skittishness of many when it comes to calling themselves writers by asking, “Perhaps it’s because we want to distinguish ourselves from the authors whose books we read and who we come to idolise/idealise? For example, even if, when I pushed, I admitted that I ‘wrote’ I wouldn’t feel like I *wrote* in the same way that Ishiguro, McEwan and Rushdie do.” This gets to the point a lot of other people made, which is that everyone writes in one way or another, even if it’s just email or a grocery list, so there is a huge range of writing activity that goes on, and calling ourselves “writers” rather than “people who write” places us a little too close to the “writing genius” end of the spectrum that great novelists or poets occupy. Who wants to do that? I think we do, as Victoria says, want to keep some distance between ourselves and the writers we admire; we enjoy idolizing writers from afar and we maintain that hero worship by maintaining the distance. And we also preserve ourselves from accusations of pride and an unrealistically high self-image by maintaining that distance. A number of people said that even though they do get published, they still don’t call themselves writers. The label “writer” is, it seems, most comfortably bestowed upon someone else, not upon oneself.

I like, also, what Kate says about how “we give fiction the exalted place at the top of [the writing] hierarchy even though it is one of the least lucrative types of writing. Or poetry, which is less lucrative still. I’m not sure why that is — perhaps some sort of mystique around the typic of creativity that is involved in these forms.” I think we do privilege forms of creativity used in fiction or poetry and overlook the creativity involved in writing nonfiction and in other less lauded forms of writing such as blog posts. Students in my writing classes tell me sometimes that they hope to do “creative writing” in my class, and I tell them that the class isn’t “creative writing” in the sense of poetry or fiction, but that they can bring creativity to whatever they write, including academic essays. It’s easy to forget that most forms of writing (excluding things like grocery lists) require creativity. I have a strange block against writing poetry or fiction — I couldn’t do it if my life depended on it, I’m pretty sure — but I like nonfictional forms of writing because they allow me to draw on my creativity in a way that feels natural.

Danielle commented on writing in a chatty, informal way, and says that because of this she doesn’t feel she can call herself a writer. And yet it takes talent and creativity to write in a chatty, informal way, and not everyone can do it well. This makes me wonder about the role of hard work in writing. Just because someone can dash off a few paragraphs quickly doesn’t mean that person isn’t a writer, right? Some people we have no trouble calling writers claim that they write quickly and don’t revise (examples are eluding me now … but I know they exist).

Finally, Victoria says she’s a “reader” before a “writer.” Yes, I’d probably say the same thing about myself, but … aren’t the two linked? Don’t we, when we write about books, do our reading as we write? Don’t we, when we think critically about our books, do our writing as we read? That’s the fun of being a lit blogger — it’s a way of connecting the reading and writing we do more closely and deliberately.

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On labels

What is your definition of a “writer”? This question interests me because I’m someone who writes regularly, and yet I feel uncomfortable claiming the label of “writer.” I’ve read other bloggers who say they are not writers, and I’ve retorted, “yes, you are!” and yet I’ve said the same thing about myself, quite recently even. It feels easy enough to call someone else a writer, but to call myself one is different.

I think claiming the label is difficult because of all the associations I (we?) bring to the term — a writer is someone who writes for a living, or someone who aspires to write for a living, someone, at least, who is working toward that status. A writer is someone who gets published, or who aims to get published, in print or online places that have some kind of selection or peer review process. A writer … I don’t know … is a much more serious person when it comes to language and writing habits than I am.

And yet, what does it mean to be a blogger exactly? Bloggers write regularly, many of them take a lot of care with their language, some of them aspire to write for a living. Can one call oneself a writer, if writing is a hobby? If it’s done purely for fun, with no professional interest? I suppose claiming the label indicates a kind of seriousness and a certain self-regard that I, and I suspect others, tend to shy away from.

I have the same question about the term “athlete.” I don’t feel like I’m an athlete, exactly, and yet … I compete and I train and I take my riding seriously. I devote a lot of time to it, and I care about it. But I’m not a professional athlete, and there’s the trouble with claiming the label. It’s not a career or something I do full-time.

I have no problem saying I’m athletic, or saying that I write; the problem is saying “I’m an athlete and a writer.” It’s the amateur status, the fun of it, the free time I use for it that makes both endeavors seem not quite serious enough to justify the label.

As far as blogging goes, I wonder if this discomfort with the writer label has something to do with the strange and new status of a blog. When someone blogs, it can be for a range of reasons — from keeping in touch with friends to honing a writing voice or attracting new readers, sometimes to the blogger’s published writing — to increase sales of a novel, for example. And people can write fiction this way too — purely for personal pleasure and kept private or for the sake of publication. But blogs are available to the public from the beginning, and so bloggers are blurring the line between writing done for private pleasure and writing done for a reading public. And every time I post something, Blogger calls it “publishing.”

So does blogging automatically make one a writer? Is being a writer the same as writing regularly?

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I keep writing about diaries even though I don’t keep one

And that’s because I’ve been reading such interesting examples. I began Frances Burney’s Journals and Letters over the weekend, and I’m only about three entries in, but already I am coming across some wonderful passages. I wrote a while back about feeling uncertain about audience and having trouble finding a voice that felt comfortable and honest while trying to keep a journal. Burney has something to say about this as well. This is an entry from 1768, when Burney is not quite sixteen:

To whom, then must I dedicate my wonderful, surprising and interesting adventures? — to whom dare I reveal my private opinion of my nearest Relations? the secret thoughts of my dearest friends? my own hopes, fears, reflections and dislikes — Nobody!

To Nobody, then, will I write my Journal! since To Nobody can I be wholly unreserved — to Nobody can I reveal every thought, every wish of my Heart, with the most unlimited confidence, the most unremitting sincerity to the end of my Life! For what chance, what accident can end my connections with Nobody? No secret can I conceal from Nobody, and to Nobody can I be ever unreserved. Disagreement cannot stop our affection, Time itself has no power to end our friendship. The love, the esteem I entertain for Nobody, Nobody’s self has not power to destroy. From Nobody I have nothing to fear, the secrets sacred to friendship, Nobody will not reveal, when the affair is doubtful, Nobody will not look towards the side least favorable ….

From this moment, then, my dear Girl — but why, permit me to ask, must a female be made Nobody? Ah! my dear, what were this world good for were Nobody a female? And now I have done with preambulation.

I think this is a pretty good way around the audience problem (if, indeed, you have an audience problem, which I know many of you don’t). I am always happy when I find that the writers I’m reading have the same problems and preoccupations I do. She’s both keeping the journal private by writing to “nobody” and creating a sort of character, “Nobody,” to whom she can write. This character is one who appears in her fiction as well: Evelina is a “nobody” too, with no name and no place in the world. She refers to herself as a nobody, and she signs her first letter, written to her guardian:

“Evelina —-

I cannot to you sign Anville [a made-up name], and what other name may I claim?”

And her journal entry identifies “nobody” with women, pointing out that women have no real legal or political status. They are both necessary to the world and without any stable identity in it. (For a critical treatment of this theme, see this.)

Here’s a bit of wisdom from Burney, now just barely 16:

Those who wander in the world avowedly and purposely in search of happiness, who view every scene of present Joy with an Eye to what may succeed, certainly are more liable to disappointment, misfortune and sorrow than those who give up their fate to chance and take the goods and evils of fortune as they come, without making happiness their study and misery their foresight.

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More on diaries (commenting on the comments)

So Danielle from A Work in Progress wrote this comment yesterday that intrigued me:

I have always been afraid to keep a diary. Either the contents would be so boring that anyone reading it would be bored to tears, or so private that I would hate for anyone to read it. Do you think diarists really do keep these journals only “for their own eyes”? Or do you think a part of them writes for some later unknown reader? And does that affect how they write and the contents?

I have tried a lot of times to keep a private journal. I’d succeed for a while, and then would write less and less and finally stop entirely. I always blamed my laziness for this. I was partly right, I suppose. Now that I think about it, I’m lazy about journal writing in the same way I’m lazy about cycling, which is to say, not lazy at all if I have the right motivation. If my husband didn’t ride, I probably wouldn’t either. I can consider this a failing, or I can just realize that riding my bike as much as I do is hard, and be thankful my husband rides too. And about the journal – I wonder if I didn’t keep it up because I had to do it by myself, and if, now that I’ve turned to blogging, I’m more likely to keep up the blogging because I have you all around to motive me. I admire people who can write journals regularly and not succumb to my kind of laziness, but I’m not like that.

But back to Danielle’s comment – I wonder if part of my problem with writing a journal came from an uncertainty about audience. Do diarists write for themselves alone? It seems to me that all diarists must have in the backs of their minds at least the possibility that people will read them, sneaking peaks while they are alive or reading them in some slightly more legitimate way after they are dead. I always knew – not that I’d become famous and people would read my diary wanting to understand the “real me” better – but that someone I knew might read the thing. That made any serious personal revelations difficult. If I tried to forget that and just write for myself, I would get self-conscious about it. It was me there, trying to put me on the page, with me as the reader, and that was just too much me around. Writing felt strained and awkward. And re-reading what I wrote was painful. I never found a way to be honest and never found a voice I was happy with, which is what I think I wanted from the journal. I’m curious what you real diarists out there make of this.

So I’m wondering if blogging might help me solve my audience problem. I mean, I’m not planning on writing anything all that personal (don’t worry!), so I won’t get that satisfaction out of the blog, but I will be able to write my thoughts on books and this and that and have an audience out there besides me. You all will help me legitimize my writing to myself. Isn’t this weird? One would think dealing with the issue of audience would be easier in a private journal than a public blog, right? I thought I would resolve what I thought about Danielle’s comment in this post, but I end up more uncertain. I guess what it comes down to is that for me, knowing there are readers out there does affect what and how I write, and I’m better off writing a blog where I can deal with that directly than a diary, where the audience issues overwhelm me.

Maybe this post is just a not-so-subtle way to guilt you into reading me?

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Book reviews

Thanks to Ella and her post introducing some new book bloggers (including me — thanks again Ella!), I went over to check out Eve’s Alexandria, a cool blog with lots of great book reviews. I saw this post on Zadie Smith, her book On Beauty, and Victoria’s review of it. The story is that the review was negative, people left comments agreeing with the negative response, and Zadie Smith, or someone claiming to be Zadie Smith (impossible to tell), left a comment defending herself — not defending the novel per se, but clarifying that she doesn’t consider herself “the great young genius of the contemporary English novel,” a phrase from one of the comments. Victoria’s follow-up post is a discussion of negative reviews and the responsibilities of a book reviewer.

Victoria argues that a person has a responsibility to respond to reading honestly. She says:

I’ve often heard it said that a citizen’s democratic duty is to question its government and to speak out when said government loses its way (that way, inevitably, being subjective). As I see it this is also a reviewer’s duty: to engage with the written word thoughtfully at a visceral level, to question its values and its purposes, and then to *write* back.

I remember reading at least one blogger arguing something different, although I can’t remember who it was — that in a world where (some would argue) reading is a threatened activity, where getting published is difficult, where writers should be encouraged, the best response when one doesn’t like a book is to keep quiet about it. To ignore a bad or mediocre book, in this view, is to help ensure that it disappears and that better books get attention. The idea here isn’t to be false to one’s opinions, but simply to keep quiet about the negative ones.

Ultimately, I think, I come down on Victoria’s side — that it’s best to say what I think, positive or negative or mixed, and thereby take part in and encourage a debate. I’m no fan of scorching Dale Peck-type reviews that are more about showing off one’s ability to insult than about real engagement with a book, but I think lively debate about books is the best way to keep interest in reading alive. Only the kind of full engagement with reading that includes voicing negative opinions as well as positive ones will keep that debate going. Victoria says it beautifully:

I want to be energised by my reading. If we don’t write back with all our energy how will they, the novelists and the future novelists, know what we’re looking for?

I would, however, freak out if I thought an author had read my negative response to a book. I don’t want to discourage any writer. I want to make everyone happy. Zadie Smith’s comment — if it really was her — sounded pretty hurt. This is difficult. But I think the value of analyzing one’s response, be it positive or negative, outweighs the hope of encouraging reading by focusing on the positive (unless we’re talking about a book by a friend — in that case, preserving the friendship is more important).

One could also argue that negative reviews should have some kind of larger point to them — the negativity should serve the purpose of illuminating what it is that makes good writing or how the writer could improve. This argument is stronger, but I’m still not fully convinced. I guess I don’t like dictating the terms — for myself or for others — under which negativity is acceptable. I don’t think we need to treat books as delicate things that need preserving.

The subject is complicated by the fact that this is a blog and not a formal book review site — I think that the responsibility to be honest about negative opinions is greatest for someone who is paid to write reviews and those reviews get published in places where people look to get honest opinions about books (yes, maybe I’m naive — I know things don’t always work that way, but that’s the idea). Here, it’s not my “job” to give my best assessment of a book — no one’s paying me to do it — people who happen to read the blog have no reason to trust me or to think they are getting my full opinion. I choose what I want to write about and what I want to say about it and I don’t pretend to be complete or completely objective about anything.

But still — if another book blogger wants to keep quiet about books she doesn’t like, that’s fine, but I’d prefer to think through — by writing about it on my blog — why I like and don’t like certain things, recognizing that my view is subjective and others might not agree. I think to expend energy on books in this way ultimately helps out all writers.

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