The Power of Giving Up

We kind of fetishize persistence in this country.

Just keep going, we say. Never give up, we say. JK Rowling got rejected a lot! Michael Jordan was cut from his high school basketball team! Never give up!

What pernicious crap this is.  Because, like all our positive thinking bullshit, it implies that if you never became a professional basketball player, IT'S YOUR FAULT BECAUSE YOU GAVE UP. You know, you should have just worked really hard like Michael Jordan and believed in yourself and stuff, and then you could have been an NBA star! Superstar, even!

But the thing is, almost nobody makes it to the NBA. Here's some data from the NCAA on men's basketball:

Screen Shot 2016-01-10 at 8.31.05 PM

So three out of every ten thousand high school basketball players will play professional basketball. So, if you get cut from your high school team, giving up on that NBA dream is probably a good call. Indeed, even if you don't get cut but you are not the best player in your league, you should probably give up on the dream of going pro.

Ever watch the painful first few episodes of American Idol?  I followed one season, and the thing I really liked was in those painful auditions when Simon would tell the people who came in and completely couldn't sing, "this is not your thing. You should stop doing this and do something else. This is not where your gifts lie."  

Simon Cowell is famous for being a dick, but this always struck me as a great kindness. What good advice! What a refreshing antidote to the "don't give up ever because all it takes to succeed is wanting it bad enough" bullshit that pervades our culture!

In the educational realm, kids are now being asked to show "grit." What this means in an educational context is "continuing to work really hard on something even after you realize it's stupid bullshit."

Now, this is a skill that most employers value, to be sure, but it's not a character trait. But they pitch this kind of relentless obedience as a character trait. And then they penalize kids for not showing this. Because apparently you have to be persistent, even when the thing you're supposed to be persisting at is manifestly a waste of time and energy. (Shoutout to Alfie Kohn for this piece, which destroys the "grit" fad.)

Some people even carry this obsession with persistence into their personal lives. But despite what rom-coms would have you believe, you can't pester someone into liking you back. When your interest and/or affection aren't returned, don't persist. Give up and go find someone who will actually like you back.

Now obviously some things are worth working hard at and sometimes persistence is rewarded, but sometimes there's great power in giving up. It allows you to take charge of where your energy is going and perhaps pursue a different goal than the one you keep not achieving.

I'm thinking about this because I have given up on having a bestselling novel that becomes the basis for a hit movie. I'd like to have those things, and I spent years wanting those things really bad and even building up a substantial credit card debt against the gigantic payday that I believed was around the corner. (Because I really wanted it! How could "the universe" not grant my wish?)  But in something like this, wanting it doesn't matter. Hard work doesn't matter. You need a certain baseline level of talent, but after that, it's pretty much all luck.

Indeed, one publishing professional said of a guy with a few bestselling novels and a successful movie based on one of them: "He's not any better than Brendan. He's just had better luck." So, great. I could continue to beat my head against that brick wall until I die, but giving up on that dream was actually quite liberating.  Because then I didn't have to worry as much about what other people thought. I could write stuff that pleased me instead of worrying about how stuff was going to sell. I was able to make room for goals and dreams I might actually be able to achieve. And I was able to focus a little bit more on the stuff in my life that really matters. 

I haven't given up on writing because I like it a lot. But I gave up on longing for bestsellerdom, and, as a result, I've had more fun writing and I'm way less bitter--okay, okay, marginally less bitter--than I was before.

So if you've been wasting a lot of time and energy pursuing something that's just not happening, instead of redoubling your efforts, maybe consider giving up. It can really improve your life.

 


2015: The Year in Tweets

That's right, folks, it's time once again for my wrapup of the year 2015 via my fun-sized nuggets of wit and wisdom from Twitter! (I tweet a lot, so I'm selecting only the best for your reading pleasure) Let's get right to it, shall we?

January:

Basically Shonen Knife was still doing top-shelf stuff 25 years after they started. Name me one other band that's true of. I'll wait.

Can't listen to the Feelies too often because they provoke feelings of nostagia/grief that are almost physically painful. Great band, though

You know what's a perfect pop song? Madonna's "Cherish," that's what.

The boy, frying a hot dog in butter & bacon grease, proposes opening a restaurant called, "My Fat Greasy Sack."

He'll retire by 30.

I really hate the euphemism "passed" for "died." It makes the deceased sound like a fart.

is a disgrace. Shame on and every other "liberal" carrying water for big money on this.

People who are neither French nor in France trying to explain Charlie Hebdo: you know you don't have to chime in on everything, right?

Maybe it's just because I haven't heard it in a while, but Rebbie Jackson's "Centipede" seems to have aged very well

My choice of which of life's myriad horrors I choose to get upset about makes me better than you!--the internet

Dear God, please grant me the ability to keep believing that glob of goo on the locker room shower floor was conditioner.

Whilst wooing my wife, I proclaimed myself a jeepster for her love. Reader, she married me anyway.

Nobody in this house wanted to hear my thoughts about the brilliance of this reggae cover of "Safe European Home."

Really sad to hear about Egmont USA shutting down. Great people there who did a great job with & my books.

Listening to The Toxic Avenger Musical soundtrack. One of the top live performances I've ever seen. Great show that deserves many revivals.

Pat Benatar ruined me for other women: nobody else ever said I was the right kind of sinner to release her inner fantasy. And I've asked.

"laughing friends deride tears I cannot hide" is a great rhyme, but Christ, you have some shitty friends.

February

I get summoned by cell phone to drive people around & don't get paid at all. Clearly Uber's business plan was written by my kids.

We talk about how dogs have easy lives, but the search for the perfect place to poop seems quite arduous.
 
It's less our Christian theocrats, and more our Positive Thinkers that make me feel estranged from American Culture.
 
Just wondering if any Vermont rappers have explored the double entendre potential of "Queechee."
 
Middle child has taken to calling me "nuncle," as the fool does to Lear. Pride and horror in equal measures.
 
Systematic disinvestment in public infrastructure so "disruptive" private companies can make $ providing services at higher prices.
 
Boston is living the libertarian end game right now.
 
Probably unoriginal thought, but new to me: after the original creators leave, all comics are fanfic.
 
Worst transportation crisis in 25 years, our genius legislators & governor just cut 40% from transportation budget.
 
My favorite Lesley Gore song was always "Maybe I Know."
 
Question I like to ask people who think privatization=better service: do you have Comcast?
 
5 water glasses appeared in the bathroom overnight. It's like someone had the tamest party ever in there.
 
Pretty sure my family loves it when I clink bottles together, screaming "Warriors! Come out to play-he-yay!"
 
I should like to rock and roll. I assume it's a relatively short way to the top?
 
So John Fish has a mayor! What's it gonna take for the City of Boston to get one?
 
Here's a suggestion: read whatever the fuck you want for a year.
 
The Patterson Bigfoot footage is the Zapruder film of my generation. #InSearchOf
 
March:
 
Is it too late for me to cultivate that "he's always wearing a beanie" thing that The Edge has going?
 
Language isn't violence. Violence is violence.
 
You can be that guy insisting that a word doesn't mean what everybody thinks it means, but that's not how language works.
 
Heard a track from the new Van Halen live album today. Time is far kinder to guitarists than singers.
 
If "Blackbird" was the only song Paul McCartney ever wrote, he'd still be one of the great songwriters. Stop hatin'.
 
I always get gouache and ganache confused. You probably don't want me to make you a cake. Or paint anything.
 
Spotted on Milk Street: Keytar Bear doing a funked up cover of Sabbath's Iron Man. How I love that bear...
 
"Why? Why do these dice hate me?!"--teen D&D player in today's library game.
 
John Mayer: "Say what you need to say" Me: "You suck!" Daughter: "Hey!"
 
Kelly green is disgusting, boiled cabbage is disgusting, vomiting in the street is disgusting and St. Patrick's Day sucks.
 
Someone keeps opening coworker's jar of peanuts & saying, "I can't keep my hands off his nuts!" #itsme #hostileworkenvironment
 
Writers get rejected because "we don't see a market," then told not to chase trends. Don't listen to anybody. Write what you want.
 
When @efranklinauthor & I wrote TESSA MASTERSON, I wondered if our Indiana antigay bigots were too over the top. Guess not!
 
Nobody ever finds out about the brooding boy's secret hurt because he's kind of a dick & pushes everyone away. #VeryRealisticYA
 
A new thing I'm trying: listening to that little voice that occasionally says, "maybe you shouldn't tweet that."
 
Pro wrestling is the best sport because you know in advance that all the athletes are on PEDs and the league has fixed the outcome.
 
I'm totally doing tomorrow French style. #Aprilfish
 
April
 
May have been watching too much Mob Wives. Just asked a garbage-eating squirrel, "YOU WANNA [BEEP]IN GO TO WAR WITH ME?"
 
I used to go out to parties and stand around. Cause I was too nervous to really get down. So I stopped going to parties.
 
 I feel like singing "Crimson & Clover." Will somebody come over and pound on my back for the "over and over" part?
 
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is so freaking awesome.
 
Listening to something great & wondering why it's not more popular & then realizing if it were more popular, I'd probably like it less.
 
Quote of the night, from an unnamed family member: "Blake Shelton is a used condom."
 
Yesterday was given over to grief, so I did the cliched grieving activities: got a pedicure & bought comic books.
 
Kid was assigned Delillo's White Noise for school, so I looked it over again. What an unbelievable piece of shit that book is.
 
Grief is pretty multifaceted. Sure, there's sadness, but then there's anger and apathy too! It's a bargain!
 
People complain about how movie X "ruined" their favorite comic character. Shut up. My favorite comic growing up was Howard The Duck.
 
People...people who comment on celebrity Instagram posts....are the saddest people....in the worllllllldddd
 
Dog is licking his genitalia with uncommon gusto.
 
Rollin in my 03 Matrix, windows down, red polo shirt on, harmonizing with Taylor Swift. #Onmywaytostealyrgirl
 
What the hell is it with sensitive singer songwriters and 3/4 time?
 
Neighbors whose party woke me up at 4 AM Sunday got their cars towed for street cleaning today. Shame nobody woke 'em up to remind them.
 
High fives & real pride all around the table when my teen group at East Boston Library finished Horde of the Dragon Queen last night.
 
This is really what's great about tabletop RPGs. The action is imaginary. The sense of accomplishment is real.
 
I've been listening to The Time a lot lately. Turns out bellowing for Jerome to do stuff for you only works for Morris Day.
 
Celebrities: nobody gives a shit about your airline troubles. Welcome to the real world.
 
Heard the new Mumford & Sons song. Dare I hope that faux-roots beard pop is over?
 
Walking at lunch, I heard a woman say, "downloading dirty porn." I stopped and lectured her on avoiding redundancy. #englishteacherproblems
 
Google Music algorithm recommending Jethro Tull & Crosby, Stills & Nash to me reassures me that the singlularity isn't that close after all.
 
May
 
I implore you to visit your comic store today & buy stuff. And remember that every day is free graphic novel day if you have a library card.
 
Research topics for today's writing session included Faraday cages and chicken urine. #TheMoreYouKnow
 
Being good at something doesn't necessarily imply you'll be good at anything else.
 
I believe one can make a strong case for "She's Always in My Hair" as Prince's finest song.
 
Why the hell would we want to convince people that books aren't dangerous? Books are dangerous as hell--that's what makes them awesome.
 
When two hours go by between work emails, & you're like, "is the network down? Did I get fired? Did the world end?"
 
*spends $2.08 on cup of coffee* *spends next hour researching & debating purchase of $1.99 phone game*
 
I've noticed that most "disruptive technologies" are fundamentally aimed at keeping people with money from having to see the rest of us.
 
Meanwhile, on my slow jams station, Teddy Pendergrass just asked to be rubbed down "with some burning hot oils."
 
Which sounds horribly painful to me, but whatever, I guess. Do you, Teddy.
 
Goya has had pull tabs on their cans for YEARS. When is the rest of the world gonna catch up?
 
I give Microsoft a lot of well-deserved shit, but I will say this: Skype for Business has an animated puking emoji. All is forgiven.
 
All alone in my 12-person office. Bout to strip down to socks & undies and lip sync some Carpenters tunes. #Superstar
 
June
 
Kinda hoping to make it onto a "Top 100 Under 100" list before I die.
 
Ridin' against the wind: not as cool as Bob Seger suggests. Felt like I was towing a Uhaul behind my bike this morning.
 
It bugs me that the big reaction to the Caitlyn Jenner cover is "she's beautiful." Is that the best compliment we've got for a woman?
 
If the 4th season of Arrested Development taught us anything, it's that some wonderful things that ended should be left alone.
 
Rock and roll: is it noise pollution? Discuss. #ACDCFinalexam
 
The hi-hat and I have been friends ever since Nenah Cherry introduced us.
 
People in all-white towns like, "OMG that terrible racist lady on Facebook calling for segregation."
 
No, YOU go set a watchman! Do I have to do everything around here?
 
I dunno. On the one hand, those Jurassic World zookeeper photos are cute. On the other hand, fuck zoos.
 
Has anybody done a Rage Against Florence & The Machine mashup yet? Because someone should.
 
At a punk rock show in Central Square. Like I'm 22 again, except Central Square lacks the smell of danger & urine it had back then.
 
Quintessential boys at play moment happening in the park right now: 1 boy holds a truck tire while another beats it with a baseball bat.
 
July
 
The fuck is a "steak tip?" That's pretty much gotta be a euphemism for something horrific.
 
Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Gone Girl. Girl on the Train."Girl" in the title=besteller. My new thriller: Girl, You Know It's True.
 
I guess as a writer of books I should hate this stuff, but there's real pleasure in a well-written review that just shreds its subject.
 
Dactyl is a trochee. Anapest is a dactyl. Get your shit together, English.
 
Settlers of Catan: when Monopoly and Risk are not quite tedious enough.
 
Hard to remember how I dealt with shyness in social situations before I could stare at my phone screen.
 
Garrison Keillor is retiring? Who's gonna spin unfunny yarns for old white people now?
 
In Ptown? Come see me at 6:30 at the Fine Arts Work Center, 24 Pearl St! I'll be reading! Sophomoric humor is in the offing!
 
Hmm--maybe it was big egos & strong personalities in the pressure cooker of unprecedented fame that broke up the Beatles. Not freakin' Yoko.
 
Got my tix for Boston Comic Con. Who wants to make me a Power Girl costume?
 
Also, while my knowledge of playing the boogie is less than encyclopedic, it doesn't sound to me like Luther played it especially strange.
 
August
 
If I had a time machine, I'd go back in time and tell every rock band, "That Motown cover is a terrible idea." @TimeWatchRPG
 
Admittedly my hip hop knowledge is outdated, but I feel like if you're gonna start a beef, your name should not contain the word "meek."
 
I used to go out to parties and stand around. Just kidding: that's still what I do. Just kidding: never actually go to parties.
 
Maybe country's not your thing, but you gotta appreciate the genius of a title like "She's actin' single ( I'm drinkin' double)."
 
Also: I haven't seen my mother, baby, standing in the shadows. Probably because she's standing in the shadows. My mother is a ninja.
 
Theory, supported by some data: when Google killed Reader, they cut my blog audience in half
 
"odalisque": French for "side boob."
 
My phone just autocorrected "Darcy" to "Daddy," thereby saving bookish women years of therapy.
 
Art that is earnest and well-intentioned is not necessarily good.
 
Can't wait til swelling on my wasp-stung ring finger goes down. Cuz with no ring, the ladies are ALL OVER THIS.
 
K-cup coffee is ass. You all deserve better. Well, most of you do, anyway.
 
I got loved ones with OCD & bipolar, so when you use those words to describe yr non-pathological quirks, it bugs the crap outta me.
 
"I'm one of the good ones! Everyone pay attention to me!"--white people tweeting about Ferguson
 
Co-worker announced that the IT guys have a "bear cam" up at all times in their department. Really hope it's actual animals...
 
"Okay song, but let's drown out the guitars with horns and strings!"--every 70's pop producer, apparently.
 
Has Tony Orlando ever had his retro-cool revival? Because the 'stache. The tux. He was suave.
 
100 Books To Read Before You Die. Which could be tonight, for all you know. So you'd better start reading.
 
I like to think we shouldn't have guilty pleasures. We should just like what we like. But then "Two Princes" comes on. And I feel guilty.
 
Everybody has known for years how Amazon mistreats warehouse workers. But now that it's office workers people are suddenly angry.
 
Your periodic reminder that the Boston Common and the Boston Public Garden are both singular. There is but one of each, so quit adding an s.
 
Vegetarian, but if a fruit fly lands in my glass of Duvel, I'm drinkin the bitch.
 
One problem with identity politics is this naive idea that some kinds of people are less selfish and horrible than others.
 
When you see someone who might be a former student and you look at her trying to figure it out & then get the stank eye & can't explain.
 
Me, upon seeing a new sitcom premise: "I could literally poo that out before breakfast & still have a full day ahead of me!
 
September
 
Refresh my memory: where is groove again? Kidneys? Liver? Spleen?
 
The "ban bikes because cars sometimes kill cyclists" column is so dumb it took 2 different Globe columnists to write it.
 
You think Steve Winwood is salty that the other "Valerie" is the one everybody knows?
 
I actually like Steve Winwood's "Valerie." Nice chorus and not as much of that farting keyboard sound as most of his songs.
 
Cure for being jealous of kid going to college:spending an hour in this dark, hot, cramped dorm room. Get me back to my real grownup room!
 
Yeah, sometimes I walk like Voldo from Soul Caliber. What of it?
 
Move over, Facebook! Outta my way, Twitter! My social network White People Complain About Stuff is gonna make you all irrelevant!
 
That thing when teenage boys come into your kitchen and then the whole joint smells like feet.
 
Have never tried Sammy Hagar's tequila, as I assume it's just an inferior version of a tequila David Lee Roth used to make.
 
Theory: you can get a rough idea of the amount of leisure time & money people have by what they get outraged about on the internet.
 
I wrote 2 books in which kids go vegetarian as a way to push back vs. the cruelty of the world & JUST NOW realized that's why I did it too.
 
Bush told us to go shopping before lying us into perpetual war. Biggest failure of leadership anyone currently alive will ever see. I hope.
 
I think about this more than I should, but man, Marius chose the wrong girl. Eponine's a feisty badass, Cosette's kind of a simpering ninny.
 
Thought on Alanis Morrisette: "Hands Clean" is as brave and fierce as people mistakenly thought Jagged Little Pill was.
 
Apparent rip in the space-time continuum: saw a man in the locker room donning sock garters this morning.
 
A man said to the universe, "Sir, I have a 28-inch inseam!" "Too bad," the universe replied. "No pants for you, stumpy."
 
Got another (unearned) royalty statement today. You shitbirds need to start buying more of my books. That's all there is to it.
 
Curious George Takes One Last Job #crimeakidsbook
 
Non-comics writers' stunt runs on comics are almost never good. Posehn on Deadpool is the only one I remember not sucking.
 
Bob Mould was more influential muscially, but, on the other hand, half of all 20-something white guys now look like Greg Norton.
 
 Teacher's eternal dilemma: drink enough coffee to be alert, but not so much that you'll have to pee in the middle of class.
 
It may be time to accept that I'm never getting a MacArthur genius grant. So who's got a "reasonably intelligent" grant?
 
There's so much on the internet that outrage helps the article or site or whatever that you're mad at. What kills them is your neglect.
 
October
 
There are few genres lamer than 80's radio rock. Yet there are gems even there.
 
"Urgent" is top notch. Great song from an otherwise aggressively mediocre band.
 
me, to kid: "Ugh. Why must you play Buble?" Kid, to me: "Fuck off. You know he's angelic as fuck."
 
I may be feeling the Bern. Or perhaps it's the black olive pizza I had for lunch.
 
"Dammit, world, validate me! Preferably on an hourly basis!"--me, checking Twitter, email.
 
One mustn't respond to bad reviews. But one may insert "your mom" into them to oneself, e.g.: "your mom has an unsatisfying ending."
 
Just walked out of my office for the last time after 7.5 years. Excited for what's next; sad to say goodbye.
 
This ever-changing world in which we're living has made me give in and cry. Now what?
 
TFW you ride around the smoothest doody. #cocteautwins
 
I've been off Twitter for most of the day. Who should I be shunning?
 
I will stack The Evil One against any work of horror in any medium. Book, movie, whatever. It's fucking terrifying.
 
I still believe that my "Stand for the Fire Demon" shoutout in The Half Life of Planets is the only Roky Erickson reference in any YA book.
 
English: no words should end with "ible" Can we just make 'em all "able?" The current situation is risible.
 
I used to think it was "The love shack is a literal place," like, it's not a metaphor.
 
Brussels sprouts: so much better than Bruges sprouts.
 
Co-workers: "Let's do 80's costumes!" Me: "The 80's are just an idea to you, but that's my real adolescence!"
 
Used to consider myself an atheist, but that lady yelling incoherently into the megaphone in Dudley Square totally converted me!
 
Get a new Android phone: log into Google account. Done. New iPhone: log in to icloud: This backup requires an updated iOS. Launch iTunes...
 
Kid in a Star Wars group insisted she wasn't Chewbacca. With the bandolier & laser crossbow, you goddamn well are Chewbacca, kid!
 
If Mitch Mitchell hadn't played with the best guitarist ever, more people would be talking about what an amazing drummer he was.
 
November
 
Violence & misogyny are baked into the NFL's culture. If you support the NFL, you support that.
 
You will never convince me that stupid shit like what's happening at Yale isn't about rich people trying to deny their own privilege.
 
Sure people died on Halloween, but those are just poors. Think of the rich kids offended by costumes!
 
The cover of that first CSN album is pretty much how I remember every one of my parents' friends' houses in the 70's.
 
There were an unusual number of white people in Franklin Park this afternoon. Did it get mentioned on NPR or something?
 
Not overwhelmed by indifference, but I will admit that the promise of an early bed sounds great.
 
People complaining that the death of my wife ruined their enjoyment of my memoir: yeah, it was tough for me too, fucksticks.
 
TFW you have one eye in the mirror as you watch yourself gavotte
 
Feeling for all the wives caregiving for spouses suffering from CTE #BecauseFootball
 
Had never seen Friends until a family member started watching recently. That show is fucking terrible.
 
December
 
Serious question: is Nancy Sinatra's "Sugartown" about heroin addiction? Cuz I think it is.
 
At some point, Apple went from "we're intuitive and easy to use!" to "fuck you. This is how we do things." When did Apple become Microsoft?
 
Strategically slowing down so your fellow pedestrian reaches the fundraiser first.
 
Just saw Keytar Bear covering the Carpenters. And the world seems less horrible.
 
When people generalize about generations, they really mean "members of this generation of a certain social class."
 
Today on Twitter I learned that there is a real place called Cockermouth.
 
Glenn Tillbrook has taken great care of his voice. He still sounds fantastic. Also: dude can shred, which I didn't know.
 
OED fact: use of "service" in a sexual context dates to 1495 & originates with the phrase The Service of Venus.
 
Words in a book blurb that ensure I'll never read the book: "Lush." "Lyrical." "Atmospheric." "Wise."
 
Just lost a nerf pistol duel. #aaronburrsir
 
OH MY GOD. Hearing Erma Franklin's original "Piece of My Heart" for the first time. Amazing to hear this sung by someone who can sing.
 
I get that rejection is a part of this writing business. I really do. But consistent rejection since 2012 is getting tough to take.
 
Don't call new Star Wars TFA unless it's about a jedi who gets 5 weeks training, quits after 2 years & then becomes a "force reformer."
 
People will literally never tire of writing these, "oh THIS writer transcends genre" pieces about genre writers they guiltily admire.
 
So weird that people still feign shock that pro athletes are doping.
 
Cleaning up after dinner is a shitty anticlimax. It's The Scouring of the Shire of cooking.
 
66 2/3% shall henceforward be known as "The Meat Loaf Standard."
 
Wait--Lemmy died? LEMMY? No way. If Lemmy was capable of dying, he woulda done it some time in the 70's! I won't believe it!
 
 
 
 
 

 

 


Bookstores, Libraries, and Class

Over the last several years, I've come to feel quite estranged from my socio-economic group. This has a lot to do with the students I was working with, many of whom were really struggling economically. It also has something to do with my own brush with penury, occasioned by the collapse of my writing career as a source of income. 

I spent a lot of time feeling angry at my fellow college-educated, middle- and upper-class liberals. Part of this was jealousy, of course, but another part was resentment at how little anybody seemed to care about what people with no money go through in this country. (It's constant anxiety peppered with despair and served with a side order of humiliation. I don't recommend it.)

And so this is why, in 2013, I lashed out at Sherman Alexie when he, on behalf of the the American Booksellers' Association, asked writers to volunteer at bookstores on Small Business Saturday, sponsored by American Express. Dennis Abrams at Publishing Perspectives reprinted my blog post in its entirety without linking to my website (well, he offered a broken link, so I guess his heart was in the right place), and Jill at Book Riot added  a couple paragraphs to the Publishing Perspectives piece without linking to me or Publishing Perspectives. Which I guess was okay because it meant I was mostly abused in the comments sections on those sites rather than here in my little space.

One of the things that bothered me about both Alexie's appeal (and he's since been joined by other writers every year, and I still think it's an offensively dumb idea, for the record) and the response to my screed was this idea that bookstores are some sort of wonderful community center. This is a staple of the middle class, NPR-listening worldview. Here's another piece from just a couple of days ago about this.

Now, I got nothing against bookstores. And I get what it's like to feel a sentimental attachment to a business. I loved 3rd Street Jazz & Rock in Philadelphia (RIP)--probably the best record store I ever went to, and I went to a lot. I've written a few books at Ula Cafe, and they have great coffee and a killer egg and biscuit breakfast on the weekends. (I get mine with mushroom gravy, and it is divine.)

But those are businesses. They exist (or, existed) not to serve the community, but to make money. And most independent bookstores don't even serve the whole community of readers. Go into an independent bookstore and ask where their romance section is. I dareya. Then ask for the horror section. Most independent bookstores exist to serve a certain subset of the community. And this is why white, middle-class, NPR-listening liberals love them so much. Because it feels like a community gathering place, but you're probably not going to bump into anyone who makes you uncomfortable with their difference there. It's a place where you can connect with people like you. Which is fine. But it's not the same thing as a benefit to the community.

But libraries are actually a benefit to the community. I spent a year volunteering at the Boston Public Library, running a weekly Dungeons & Dragons game for teens at the East Boston Library (which is one of the most beautiful libraries in the area) and, for a short time, at the Egleston Square library (which is a hideous building where wonderful things happen.)

Let me tell you what I saw in these places: kids and teens. Tons of them. Exercising their creativity playing Minecraft, getting help with their homework, and just sitting at tables with their friends. Also adults: people looking for jobs and trying to straighten out some thorny immigration problem, using the free public internet because they don't have internet at home. Or just sitting in a chair and reading books. Or checking out DVDs. Or sitting at a table scribbling in a notebook. And me, getting to take books home and read them for free. And librarians, who, it turns out, need to be experts in almost everything.

You get the idea. Libraries are actually the community benefit that people imagine bookstores to be.  Why does this distinction matter so much to me?  I guess because we live in an era where the very idea of the public good is under attack. And so things that actually serve the public are gutted, and comfortable people with money just opt into something they can afford. Unreliable public transportation? Take an Uber! School falling down? Send your kids to private school?  No place to get free access to information? Who needs it? I've got a bookstore where I can buy books and a five hundred dollar phone that I pay 80 bucks a month to use! 

Libraries are part of the lifeblood of our communities. They make the entire place better and stronger. They allow people without the resources to afford internet access or regular book purchases access to all the information in the world.  They provide kids with a safe place to do something positive after school. All this stuff is absolutely critical to a functional community, and what's more, it's the kind of stuff that liberals are supposed to believe in. 

And yet even in the bookish corners of the internet, precious little is said about the immeasurable value of libraries, and someone is rhapsodizing about a bookstore every ten minutes. Bookstores are great--but libraries need you more. They are under constant attack, and they need the community to stand up and proclaim their importance so they get the funding they need to maintain and staff the buildings and to keep providing resources to everyone who walks in the door.   

Some people will probably say it's not an either/or thing. I agree. I guess I'm just saying this: bookstores will take care of themselves. Part of the job of a business is to attract customers.  Libraries need all of us if they're going to survive. We all have limited time and attention, so I guess I'm saying if you're blogging, tweeting, or volunteering, please take care of the library. You need it. And it needs you.


The Four Pop Songs I Hear Every Morning

Every morning, whilst driving my younger daughter to school, I hear the same four pop songs. This is because she controls the radio during this drive, which is really an unconscionable violation of the universally-understood "driver picks the music" rule, but I let it slide because she is much tougher than I am.

And when I say I hear the same four songs every morning, I mean I literally hear these same four songs every morning. I can't stop it, but at least I can fight back in my own petty way by writing this. So here are my thoughts:

Adele, "Hello" 

First of all, I hate that you can talk about "Hello" now, and it doesn't lead to a bunch of jokes about a blind sculptor creating a bust of Lionel Richie. Sic transit, blah blah.

But let's talk about this song. I kinda hate it. I mean, look, stalking the ex is a time-honored pop song trope, from "I Want You Back" through "Every Breath You Take," "You Oughta Know," and, of course, "Someone Like You." And that's my issue here. It's a complete lyrical retread of Adele's biggest hit, and, as such, it seems awfully cynical.

There's no question that Adele is a fantastically talented singer. But perhaps, like Eric Clapton, she's a master of her instrument but not much of a songwriter. Or perhaps, like Elton John, she's a great composer but not much of a lyricist. In any case, these lyrics blow: they're generic and bland throughout, given weight they don't deserve by Adele's amazing voice. Pretty much like "Someone Like You," to be honest.  

Adele can actually sing and writes great melodies, which already puts her ahead of most pop stars, so maybe I'm asking too much, but someone with such a magical voice should be working with someone who can write lyrics that aren't pedestrian retreads of pedestrian originals.

Drake, "Hotline Bling"  Oh, Drizzy. Are you a rapper who doesn't rap, or a singer who doesn't sing?  In either case, this is a giant steaming turd of a...tough to call it a song. Chant, maybe? Complaint? Boring beat behind..well, again, it's not a rap, really. Nor is it really a song. It's just kind of Drake bitching about how the girl who used to be his booty call is over him.  Which is an okay subject matter for a song, but "used to always stay at home, be a good girl"?? What fucking decade is this? So good girls, apparently, are the ones who stay home and then call Drake when the clubs close. Whereas bad girls are ones who go out dancing and drinking champagne. Seriously, though, this is some textbook misogyny. Which, to be frank, I could overlook if this song had anything else at all going for it. I have no idea why this is a hit. I suspect payola.

Justin Bieber, "What Do You Mean".  Well, at least someone has put out a halfway decent Drake song this year. Oddly enough, it's Bieber. This is the only one of the four current pop songs that isn't about stalking an ex, as Justin smoothly complains about getting mixed signals. Not a great song by any means, but it's the kind of semi-melodic muttering that Drake is apparently no longer good at, and it's at least inoffensive.

Justin Bieber, "Sorry" So Justin's actually singing in this one, and if it's yet another morose number about lost love, or booty call, or whatever (Bieber sounds more than a little surprised that he's "missin' more than just your body"), at least it's got a pop hook and a catchy chorus and a not-completely-somnambulent beat, which is what I think we all expect and, frankly, deserve from our pop music. The best of a bad bunch.

Overall: what a dreary fucking place top-40 pop is these days. I know it's wintertime, but doesn't anybody want to party? Am I crazy to think pop music should be fun?


No More Wraps

Some time in the 1990's, American chefs discovered wrapping stuff in a tortilla. 

Yes, there had been burritos for years, but this--this was something different! This was cold, and it was a wrap! 

When wraps started, I think there was this idea that they were somehow healthier than a regular sandwich. I guess because you could throw a bunch of lettuce into one and it wouldn't leak out the sides. Of course, then people typically drown said lettuce in dressing to make it taste like something, thereby negating any of the alleged healthy effects. Also, tortillas have just as much carbs and calories as regular bread.

So wraps are not healthier than a regular sandwich.  But the idea that they are somehow a healthy choice persists. I think this is because they are terrible. Because here's the thing: cold tortillas are gross. That's why they heat 'em up, either in a lovely little steamer or by filling them with piping hot rice and beans, at burrito places. But when you get a wrap, you can count on your tortilla being room temperature at best, and sometimes ice cold. I suppose the thinking is that anything this unpleasant must be good for you, because why else would anybody eat it?

Sometimes you can get a wrap served in a spinach tortilla. Again, I suppose this is supposed to connote health. But while cold tortillas are gross, cold spinach tortillas are next-level vile. They used to sell these in supermarkets, but you really can't find them anymore because everybody knows they are awful.

Everybody, it seems, except for institutional chefs, who at some point got ahold of the idea that a groovy vegetarian option would be a bunch of roasted vegetables, heavy on the summer squash, inside a spinach tortilla. Preferably served ice cold. 

Nobody wants to eat this. Put this horror show on a real menu and see how many people order it. Also: summer squash? Summer squash is zucchini's even more boring cousin. Becoming a vegetarian does not suddenly make you like bland, limp vegetables. In fact, it actually tends to make you a little more critical of vegetables because you're eating more of them, and you've had them prepared right. Except for summer squash, which cannot be prepared right because it is terrible. I dunno--I had some that was baked with some herbs and feta cheese or some shit once and it was edible because herbs and feta cheese. But mostly it sucks.

The freezing cold spinach tortilla stuffed with roasted summer squash is a cowardly middle finger to vegetarians. I'd much rather get a little card that says, "I am a professional chef, and if I can't put a pint of chicken stock in it, I don't actually think it's food. I'm not making you anything because I hate you." At least then we'd all be on the same page, and I wouldn't be staring at this thing going, "do they think this is a real food that anyone wants to eat?"

The invisible hand of the market has pretty well killed the wrap in most retail outlets. (true! Here in Boston we had a restaurant called "The Wrap," that changed its name to the incomprehensible "Boloco" because they realized years ago that wraps are an abomination and nobody who wants to stay in business should associate themselves with them.)

But the institutional chefs still cling to the wrap. They like it for some reason. Perhaps because tortillas take up less space than bread, and they're so bad when they're cold that nobody really notices if they've gone stale. And maybe they never get the feedback, so here it is: literally everybody hates wraps. Meat eaters, vegetarians, it doesn't matter. We would all prefer a real sandwich on real bread.

No more wraps. Ever. 


7 Most Appalling Songs About Underage Groupies

It was a different time.  A time when rock stars not only committed sex crimes on a regular basis, but also boasted about it in their work, and were never ever prosecuted for it. (Except for Chuck Berry, because racism).

It's kind of weird to me now that I grew up with this stuff on the radio all the time and just felt like it was normal. 

It wasn't normal! It was gross and appalling! So here are the worst of the gross and appalling songs about sleeping with underage fans. And may I add, shame on every artist below!

7."Sweet Little Sixteen"--Chuck Berry. 

 

Barely cracks the list because Chuck is not explicit about his desire for the titular girl, though I suppose we could argue that since all the cats wanna dance with her, and Chuck Berry qualifies as a cat, he at least wants to dance with her.  But given the fact that Chuck Berry spent time in jail for transporting a 14-year-old girl across state lines for "prostitution, debauchery, or other immoral purposes" as the statute he violated has it (he said she was, "anything but innocent," which is a pretty common sexual predator thing to say), then got sued for secretly filming women in the bathroom of an establishment he owned, I think we can say he's a loathsome human being and his interest in sweet little sixteen probably extends beyond a dance. Also he was 32 when he wrote it. Gross.

6."Mellow Yellow"--Donovan. 

 

Tough call as to where to put this one. "I'm just mad about 14," earns Donovan the dubious distinction of having the youngest object of his...whatever of any artist on the list. But the song isn't really all about glorifying this. Given that it starts with being mad about Saffron, who I assume is a girl and not just The Most Expensive Way to Turn Rice Yellow, and then gives way to something about electrical banana, being mad about fourteen can really be seen as just a symptom of the drug-addled hippie decadence that infuses the whole song. Hell, it might just be a hallucination for all we know. Also he was only 20 when he wrote it, which is still gross, but somewhat less gross than a lot of the other folks on this list.

5."Edge of Seventeen"--Stevie Nicks.

 

So someone who's on the edge of seventeen is, legally speaking, still sixteen. When this song came out in 1981, Stevie Nicks was 33. And okay, the song takes place in the past tense, but still. Just because 16 year old boys are pleasuring themselves to your image in Rolling Stone (ahem) doesn't mean you get to actually sleep with them. Ick.

4."Hot Blooded"--Foreigner.

 

"Are you old enough? Will you be ready when I call your bluff?"  I mean, I suppose he's at least asking the question, so points for that, but the rest of the song makes it pretty clear he's not all that concerned with the answer.  And at the end he proclaims, "I'm so hot for you child," which, I mean, okay, I guess we could look at child as a term of endearment like "baby," but, mmmm.... not really. Gross. Why do I suspect that the "you know who" they have to get away from is this girl's parent? 

3."My Sharona"--The Knack.

 

Musically speaking, the best song on the list.  But "I always get it up for the touch of the younger kind" has to be one of the squickiest lyrics ever. And Wikipedia informs me that the song was inspired by a 25-year-old's affair with a 17-year-old.  (Also, peep the lead singer's facial expressions in the video. If you saw this guy on the street, you'd cross to the other side. Especially if you were a teenage girl.) Sharona now sells real estate to the stars and uses the domain name mysharona.com, so I guess she wasn't too scarred by the whole thing, but still. Gross. People who are 25 should not date high school students. Also: the Knack's famous dud of a second album was called "But the little girls understand," which is a reference to "Back Door Man," but in that song it's a little more like he's referring to grown women as "little girls," which is problematic, whereas the Knack seem to actually be talking about little girls.

2. "Christine Sixteen"--KISS.

 

Then-28-year-old Gene Simmons sings about a 16-year-old girl. Gross. Also the spoken word part is deeply creepy--"I don't usually say things like this to girls your age, but when I saw you comin' out of school that day, that day I knew, I knew I got to have ya. I got to have ya!" 

Jesus Christ, Gene. You're a rock star. Why are you perving on girls walking out of school? Also: you don't usually say things like this to high school students? But, you know, sometimes you do? So what you're saying is that this is not like a one-time deal. But sometimes you just happen, as a guy pushing 30, to hit on high school students. Blecch. 

Catchy as hell, though, and Tone Loc sampled it for "Funky Cold Medina," which I guess is also problematic but way better than this.

1."Young Girl"-- Gary Puckett and the Union Gap. 

So the song was  written by a 30-year-old, and the age of the young girl isn't specified, but she's "just a baby in disguise." I suppose one could argue that the guy knows the girl is too young for him, but, as with "Hot Blooded," I'm not at all convinced by his concern. Also, he's all, "better run, girl." Something wrong with your legs, Gary Puckett? (Gary did not write the song, but he chose to record it, so no mercy for him.) Why are you demanding that the young person correct the situation? Again, the  kind of putting the onus on the kid to stop the situation that is kind of typical of predatory adults. 

The hypocritical sanctimony is somehow even more grating than Gene Simmons' straightforward creepiness. Oh, you're so tormented by your sexual desire for someone you know is too young for you! You poor dear! If only she'd leave you alone! Also, whereas most of the other songs on the list have some kind of redeeming quality in terms of being catchy or rockin' out,  there is absolutely nothing redeeming about this song. The appalling lyrics are couched in a treacly arrangement and cheesy vocals. It is a piece of shit about a piece of shit. I did not embed a video because this song is trash and should never be listened to by anyone ever again, even to condemn its awfulness.

 

 


The Annotated Ramones: Leave Home

About a year ago, I annotated the first Ramones album. Tonight I feel like doing the second. At this rate I will get through the entire catalog by the time I retire! Maybe!

Here we go with Leave Home!

1. "Glad to See You Go"-- As delightful a song about murder as you'll ever find.  A just about perfect blend of the Joey and Dee Dee aesthetics. You can hear Joey break into Dee Dee's murder ballad at the "I need somebody good"part. Also a good example of how people don't get the Ramones. Apparently people were horrified at the Charles Manson reference, and the modern take is that the Ramones were these kind of idiot savants who had no idea what they were doing with that line.  But it's actually a decent critique of media culture: "In a moment of passion/get the glory like Charles Manson." Morrissey attempted the same thing 11 years later and wound up with this ham-handed, obvious verse: "In our lifetime those who kill/The news world hands them stardom." I'm not suggesting that we should look too deeply into Ramones songs, but I think they were far more clever than they usually get credit for.

2. "Gimme Gimme Shock Treatment"-- A flippant exploration of mental illness that doesn't quite hit the high level of "Teenage Lobotomy."  I like the shock treatment sounds in the chorus though. Also: "heard about this treatment by a good friend of mine" is pretty funny.

3."I Remember You"-- Definitely second- or possibly third-tier lovelorn Joey. Lots of reverb on the vocals here. And Joey's vocals are double tracked on every song on the album. Interesting, kind of inexplicable choice. Not bad, just a little odd.

4. "Oh Oh I Love Her So"-- Now this is top-shelf Lovelorn Joey. It really sounds like it could be a forgotten pop gem from the 60's. Love the "oooo-weee-oooo" backing vocals during the Coney Island part, and this might be the first harmony on a Ramones song.  In any case, it's one of the very rare harmonies on an early Ramones song.  And that guitar strum at the end!  

5. "Carbona Not Glue"--Was taken off the album because the Carbona people objected, but I guess they don't care anymore, so it's now widely available. Doesn't really hang together, in my opinion. Great verses, meh chorus. Definitely should have been a B-side anyway.

6. "Suzy is a Headbanger" -- This might be the best song on the album. Pretty much perfect. I'm kind of interested in Suzy's mom--is she an actual bite-the-heads-off-chickens kind of geek?  

7. "Pinhead"--Did I say "Suzy is a Headbanger" was the best song on the album?  I mighta meant this one.  First we start with the Freaks reference, and then "I don't wanna be a pinhead no more," which is perhaps a little more tragic than we initially thought because if one is born with microcephaly, it's a permanent condition. Well, at least he met a nurse he could go for. They used to close shows with this, and a roadie in a pinhead mask would come out with a "Gabba Gabba Hey" sign.

8."Now I Wanna Be a Good Boy"--Eh. The same lyrical ground is going to be coverd in a much more interesting way on "I Just Wanna Have Something To Do." I guess it's a little bit plaintive, though, as it seems to embody Dee Dee's lifelong struggle. It also has this bit that sounds just like the D-U-M-B part in "Pinhead," but maybe they couldn't think of a chant to go there because it's just the drums. 

9."Swallow My Pride"--A really underrated gem, in my opinion. A great example of how the specific can be universal. "Winter is here and it's goin' on 2 years," Joey says. What the hell's he talking about?  Doesn't matter! The sad melody and the chorus belie the parts where he's trying to be hopeful. One of those songs that resonates more with me now than when I first discovered it. Because being an adult pretty much involves swallowing your pride on a regular basis.

10. "California Sun"--Just another example of how The Ramones could take any song and make it sound like they wrote it.  Having said that, I like the Dictators' version better. Question: are the girls in Frisco actually frisky? I've known many people who've lived and spent time there, and nobody's ever mentioned this.

11. "Commando"--This is some wonderfully irreverent stuff. Funny because Johnny seems to have taken all the military imagery pretty seriously, but this absurdist take on gettin' them ready for Viet Nam seems pretty satirical to me.  A couple of questions: is "eat kosher salamis" really a rule for commandos?  And isn't saying that "the laws of Germany" constitute one rule kind of cheating?

11."Babysitter"--I guess this replaced  "Carbona Not Glue" on some pressings before they put "Sheena is a Punk Rocker" into that spot.  I seem to remember it appeared on a Sire Records B-side compilation. But this deserves better than B-side status.  It's a completely genius pop song, and much more of a traditional pop song than most early Ramones songs. Verse chorus verse bridge (!) (How many Ramones songs have a bridge? Not many!) Key change (!) verse chorus verse. And, a pretty straightforward, clever take on frustrated teen horniness.

12. "What's Your Game"--Pretty forgettable. Back to back with "Babysitter," it sounds like a less-developed version of that song.  I mean, I guess the lyrical pot shot at the popular kids is fine, but overall this is a bit lacking. Should've been a B-side.

13."You're Gonna Kill That Girl"--You know what's great about the Ramones? Many things, but one of them is that they can make an amped-up 60's-style singalong with a beautiful ballad intro about a murder. Dee Dee's backing "kill kill kill kill that girl" at the end is great.  Also--sounds in the headphones like there are two people doing that part. Who's the other one?

14."You Should Never Have Opened That Door"--Kind of another attempt to make a 2 and a half-mintue horror movie, but unlike "I Don't Wanna Go Down to the Basement," this one falls flat.  Maybe it's Joey's delivery--I just don't buy him sacrificing someone on an altar. Wonder if this would work as a metal song. I think  it's a mistake to close the album with this, especially after the much stronger "You're Gonna Kill That Girl" which covers similar territory.

Well, there it is. See you next summer, or maybe sooner, for Rocket to Russia!


Hubway, Boston's Bike Sharing Service, Reviewed

A certain young person recently borrowed my bike and returned it in less-than-ideal condition. While it is in the shop getting repairs, I decided to try out Hubway, Boston's bike-sharing service.

Renting a Bike

Memberships are 6 bucks for a day, 12 bucks for 3 days, and 85 bucks for a year. (If your employer is a partner, you can get the annual membership for much cheaper. Look on the website.)  You get unlimited 30-minute or less rides during your membership period. 

Head up to the kiosk, press "rent a bike" on the touchscreen, and swipe your credit card. Then use the incredibly laggy, ponderous touchscreen to put your phone number and zip code in. This is the only part of the process that isn't awesome. Fortunately you only have to do it once. For every future ride during your membership period, you just swipe your card and get a code.

The kiosk will then give you a 5-digit code which you can memorize or get printed out. Pick out your bike, punch the code in the rack, and when the light turns green, pull your bike out and go. 

Returning a Bike

Drive up to any Hubway station, put your bike in the rack, making sure the triangular piece of metal above the front wheel locks in place, and when the light turns green, you're good to go.

The Bikes

These things are tanks. Think beach cruisers, but less zippy. I find them fun to ride, but not in the same way as my regular bike. These are big, solid bikes with step-through frames and chain guards, so you can ride in your work clothes without getting grease on 'em. The tires are wide enough that you can handle all the bumps and holes that our neglected road infrastructure throws at you with ease and comfort.

They're 3-speeds, and the internal hub gears work really well, so despite the considerable heft of these bikes, they aren't ever hard to pedal, even going uphill. What they don't do very well is go fast. You'll need to stand on the pedals and go like hell to get the bike up to high speed. My advice: don't bother. It's a comfortable, stately ride in an upright position.

When to Use It

Hubway bikes work really well for short hops. So, let's say you're visiting Boston and you want to go from the Common (not the Commons! Singular! Same with the Public Garden!) to the Aquarium. It's probably 20 minutes on foot or via the T, but that would be about a 5-minute Hubway ride. (I wouldn't fret about riding in downtown traffic. It's some of the slowest in Boston, and because there are so many pedestrians, drivers tend to be a bit more alert.) So if you're visiting Boston and want a really convenient way to get around all the downtown and Back Bay hotspots, I give this my highest recommendation.

But what about those of us who live here? Well, for me, commuting from Jamaica Plain, there are some pros and cons. The biggest con is probably the speed. It just slows down my commute. But this is mitigated a lot by the convenience. Not only is someone else maintaining the bikes, but when I get to work, I pop the bike in a rack and forget it. I don't have to worry about it tethered to a pole or a rack downtown. Better yet, if it starts to, oh, I don't know, hail or something, I can take the T home without having to worry about my bike. Or if it's raining in the morning, I can take the T and still bike home.

Also, let's be perfectly frank: the speed reduction may be good for me. I try to always ride cautiously, but because my hybrid bike is relatively fast and maneuverable, I sometimes get caught up in the moment and do something dumb on it. This never happens on Hubway bikes. When you see that light turn yellow, you know damn well you can't make it through, so you slow down and stop.

But, as I noted before, Hubway really excels for short hops. If you are trying to find ways to get more exercise, I think a Hubway membership is a great investment. (A better investment than a little computerized spy that is tracking your movements and heartbeats and sending the data to a central computer, in my opinion. Not to mention cheaper.) So here's my story: My house is 35 steps up from the street. I don't always haul my bike out for local errands because it feels like big deal. But last time I had to go to CVS, which is just over a mile away, I walked to one Hubway station near me and biked to one near CVS. I was able to add a little exercise into the errand running and didn't have to worry about parking. I also didn't have to devote as much time to the errands as I would have if I were walking.

But Hubway's best use for Boston residents, in my opinion, is replacing bus rides. If you routinely take a bus to get to a train and you have a Hubway station nearby, you can not only get a little exercise but also save yourself the frustration of waiting for and riding a bus.  So if you're taking the 22 from Egleston to Jackson Square, for example, the Hubway is a quicker and better option. There's a Hubway in Dudley Square, so you could zip over to Roxbury Crossing in just a couple of minutes and not have to deal with buses. Or , if you're headed downtown, you could just ride down Washington Street in the bike/bus lane and pass about five Silver Line buses. 

So there it is.  Overall it's a great service that works exactly the way it's supposed to and helps you to get around and to get active at a bargain price.

 

This post brought to you by me. If you like what you read, please consider signing up for my mailing list, above, or buying one of my books listed at the left, or signing up for my awesome new Young Adult writing class over at the right. And thanks!


On That Story About Querying With a Man's Name

So there's a story making the rounds about a woman who submitted her manuscript to agents under a man's name and got much better responses than she did submitting it as a woman. 

 I don't know how much of the story is true, but I'm pretty sure that this part isn't: after she supposedly sent out six queries under her male pseuonym--on a Saturday, yet--this "happened": I sent the six queries I had planned to send that day. Within 24 hours George had five responses—three manuscript requests and two warm rejections praising his exciting project. 

This is the part that marks this story as fiction.  I mean, yes. It's not unheard of to get a response within 24 hours. Usually a rejection. It's just rare. (I checked my list for the crime novel everybody hated even though my name is unmistakably male: I heard back from 3 agents out of 33 I queried within a day. I did not receive correspondence from any agents on the weekend.)

My experience querying agents under a male name suggests about 10% of agents respond to queries within a day and 0% respond on the weekends. But of course my sample size, though five times bigger than that of the original article, is probably still too small to draw big conclusions. If you, unlike me, understand statistics and want to take a stab at explaining this, please comment!

So: while technically not impossible, this story is incredibly improbable. It reads to me like there was probably a nugget of truth in there that got embellished. Because getting a better response under the male name is a good story. Getting a shockingly better response--on a weekend!--is a fantastic story.

(In the unlikely event that this did happen, it shows that she got lucky enough to contact a bunch of agents in that small group who typically respond within a day on the same day. Which really shows that we need a larger sample size if we're gonna draw any kind of conclusions at all.)

So: it's a good story, and it reveals something I, and a lot of other people, believe to be true: you'll get a better response for your "literary" novel if your name suggests that you're male. 

So why is it bugging me so much that people are repeating this completely uncritically? I guess I feel like if you're presenting something as factually true (as opposed to the kind of emotional truth you can get in a novel while using made-up events), it should actually be true. If you're going to draw conclusions about the way something in the real world works, you should get actual data and not somebody's too-good-to-be-true unsubstantiated anecdote.

 Most of us are pretty good at being skeptical of claims we inherently don't want to believe. But that's not how con artists work; they sell you something you don't need, or something that doesn't exist, because they tell you something you really want to believe.

That's why I think it's especially important to be skeptical of stories that confirm your opinions; it's how you avoid being taken. This is true on a personal level (wow! I can get an amazing body with very little effort if I just buy this device!) and on a public policy level: (Wow! All you had to do was get rid of those pesky teachers' unions and those amazing educational entrepreneurs who run charter schools were able to get great results!).

Now, I don't think the author of this piece is selling anything particularly harmful; she's done a good job of creating some name recognition that may help her when her novel comes out.  In a sense, I don't blame her. The frustration she talks about in her piece, the humiliation that comes with unending rejection of your creative work: yeah, I've been there. Maybe she wrote this embellished story to sell something to herself: the idea that there's an explanation for her difficulty, that the world (and the publishing world in particular) fundamentally makes sense.

The internet has given everyone a platform and a voice, and this is a good thing. But I'd like to suggest that this requires that we all ramp up our skepticism of everything we read (this is doubly true of anything that comes out of the listing ship that is Gawker media right now). Especially when it's something we'd really like to be true.

 


My Week at the Fine Arts Work Center

Sometimes I feel like my life is a Dickens novel. Usually it's because bad news keeps stacking on top of more bad news, but this summer it was because, like Pip, I had an anonymous benefactor!

I got an email back in November saying that someone (was it you? Thank you!) had requested that I teach a summer class at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. It sounded just a wee bit too good to be true--teach writing for a week, get paid, and get put up in Provincetown, where it is ridonkulously expensive to stay?  

All true! So a few weeks back, I took the ferry from Boston to Provincetown and embarked on one of the best experiences of my creative career.  

My class consisted of a lot of writing and a lot of talking about how to write great young adult fiction. My students all brought extraordinary pieces of writing to share, and we had great conversations about how to write great young adult fiction.  This part was incredibly refreshing to me. I have writer friends who I value tremendously; but when we get together, we hardly ever talk about writing. We talk about the business and gossip about people we don't like--er, I mean, celebrate the wonderfully supportive YA community. So teaching this class was really the first opportunity I've had to spend a lot of time talking with perceptive and talented people about writing, and especially writing YA. 

So this was great on its own. But there were lots of other classes going on in addition to mine. So every day I was surrounded by people involved in an intense week of making art--either visual art, or written art, or in the case of the comics class, both.  Every night a writer and a visual artist would share their work,and the reading I did was the best one I've ever done. The room was full, and I got tons of nice compliments at the end, and because it wasn't at a bookstore, I wasn't bothered about how many copies I was selling and whether it would be enough for the store not to hate me.  Like my class, it was about the art rather than the business. I can't stress how rare and how cool this is.

The last presentation was all student work, and it was really thrilling to hear so much great work at the same time.

Now, don't get me wrong. Business is important.  (as my creditors remind me on a monthly basis, sometimes with red-tinged envelopes that say FINAL NOTICE, it's very important.) But art is important too. I mean, it's important not just for me as a writer to be able to talk about writing; art is important to my life. I'm listening to music as I write this.  Art --my art and other people's--has gotten me through the worst times in my life and has illuminated the good times. We all spend a lot of time chasing money, and that matters, but just making the art matters. Whether it sells or not. It makes us better people. It makes our lives better.

If you've got the time and money, I really recommend you check out a class at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. You will have a wonderful experience.

Also, if you'd like to take a YA writing class with me, I'm teaching one online this fall.  (At a special introductory rate!) But it's a different kind of online class--it will actually meet on Tuesday nights, and we will all be able to see and hear each other at the same time, so it'll have most of the advantages of a face-to-face class without the disadvantage of having to leave the house. Please check it out, and tell anybody you think might be interested.  Thanks!