categories: Bad Advice / Cocktail Hour



As we move away from traditional publishing, what are we moving toward?  Half of the top-ten bestselling print novels in Japan recently were originally cell-phone novels [LINK MOTOROLA], full-length, sent out to millions of subscribers text-by-text, fifty or a hundred words at a time, mostly dialogue. And several groups are vying to write the first novel created on Facebook—a line or two and pass it along, with no editorial influence, and certainly no commercial potential.  [CONSIDER PARAGRAPH BREAK] Twitter can’t be far behind.  Part of the new aesthetic seems to be speed—drop the transitions, break it all into bits, describe nothing, rest your characters on shorthand cultural assumptions, rocket through plot points, or, in the essay, points of thought, all while keeping your paragraphs rilly short, as if literature were a news story [USE SHORT, DECLARATIVE SENTENCES].  If you can have two or three hundred books loaded into a reading device (I thought a book was a reading device)(some 140,000 books were published in the US last year—so much for the death of publishing)[LIMIT PARENTHETICALS], then you can channel surf through the great works.  No more waiting fifty or a hundred pages for Middlemarch to take hold—move onto the next text.  Same with the writing—check out Writer’s Café on the web.  It’s a program to help with matters of character and plot and so forth as you build your fiction, guaranteed to speed up the creative process.  Soon, in fact, computer fiction-writing programs will be, um, viable [TONE?].  And not just interactive fictions, in which the story is generated by your actions inside a computerized world, but books custom written for you as you scan with your eyes (formerly called reading).  Soon we’re going to be up against whole generations of genuinely avid readers who’ve never cracked a book, and writers who’ve never written one.  Search “sex,” say, or “murderer,” thereby save all that time working your way into the story through masses of fancy writing, just get to the action: Jack [SELECT CHARACTER TYPE] whacked Carol [SELECT CHARCTER TYPE] with a pipe and killed her; detective Smith [SELECT CHARACTER TYPE] caught him; but not before making love [LINK PORN SITE] with secretary [SELECT CHARACTER TYPE] Mindy in a sensible red dress [LINK ANN TAYLOR], the end.

Click here to pay for the experience I just gave you.

Be embarrassed about art—It’s all just content.  Sesquipedalianism is out.   Get confused about what Strunk and White are saying, and never use an adverb again.  (If you’re an editor, strike out every adverb you come across forever).

Young or new writers often describe characters thus: “Detective Smith looked just like Jack Black in School of Rock.

Just like him!  No need to say he sounded, smelled, felt, tasted like him too!

Student paper, elite college: “As it turns out, Charlotte Bronte made everything up in this book.  Nothing is even true, and so how can we trust her?”

Not many smells or tastes in fiction anymore, I’ve noticed—cuz you can’t smell or taste anything that happens in a movie or on TV [TONE].

“She looked just like that girl in the Captain Morgan ad!”

[PROPOSAL LINE (insert proposal here)]:  I want to propose a sort of slow-food movement for writers [PRODUCT LINK HEINZ].  Not write by hand, not eschew the laptop, but dump minimalism, linger over things like eye contact, body language, the color of a couch [LINK IKEA], memory, emotion, idea.  Care about the air between people, the mood in a room.  I mean, make it interesting, make it good, but make it complete.  Aspire languorously to print [HYPOCRISY ALGORITHM ENGAGED].  Consider a handful of good readers sufficient [HYPOCRISY ALGORITHM ENGAGED] .  Work as a gardener.

[INSERT MOTTO]:  Lentior!

[INTERACTIVE INVITATION FEATURE]: How do we draw in the new technologies and the new consciousnesses and the new illiterates without withering to fit them?  That’s a real question—please feel free to answer at length.  [WORD LIMIT REACHED]

  1. LazarusPiot writes:

    random comments on the above random comments…
    in the universe of writing as food, updike would be broccoli flavored bubble gum.
    i love books but am considering an ipad because it’d be nice to have 10 of them with me and some movies for my daughter to watch and when she gets a little older, some childrens books–which, i hear, are very cool on ipads.
    i’m reading a novel on my kindle for iphone right now. “Forty Years Later” by Stephen Griffel. It’s an e-book only release. He’s talking at the Soho library branch in NYC on the 18th or 19th of May about ebooks.
    I don’t think the medium matters.
    I don’t think “literary” or “commercial” matters. Would anyone here not take a $100,000 advance to write a particular commercial book? What if you could use a pen name for it?
    What committee assigns these labels, anyway? In my experience, literary agents–and when they say “literary” they mean, “it might be good, i can’t tell, but i sure as hell can’t sell it.”
    it does seem more and more people will be reading books electronically, so why worry about it. and cutting out the press is a better deal for writers. instead of a tiny advance, you just get half the gross; instead of a book sitting on a shelf for 3-6 weeks and then disappearing forever, it just exists. i love bookstores, i love books, i won’t stop using them. but writing is a business. the point of stories is to be heard or read. so get your story out there. let other people worry about “literature” or “fluff” or whatever.
    richard wright, born in a shack in alabama, cut out large portions of Native Son so it would be accepted to the book of the month club. was he a sellout?

    • Bill writes:

      Yeah, I’ll bet the i-pad is really great for children’s books–except for the radiation… but that’s another matter… As for Updike, I like the Rabbit Books very much–they’re pretty old school in some ways, but. Where do I go for the better flavors of chewing gum? I’m interested in these e-book only releases–and his talk–wish I were going to be in town… I lived on West Broadway in the late 70s. The interesting thing about commercial is that we don’t know what’s commercial till it is. Meanwhile–who’s paying 50% for e-rights now? My old contracts said that, but the publishers are rescinding and revising clauses–standard now seems to be about 20%. Or have I been sleeping too long? The money’s still in advances, as far as I can see. $100,000 doesn’t seem like much. I’d rather work on Wall Street if I’m going to sell my hours to someone…. Trimming your own book isn’t selling out–writing someone else’s is… But hacking’s a time honored way to get along…

  2. Tommy Taylor writes:

    How’s a kindle at the beach? can you see the verbiage through the screen? Is sand a problem? How about salt water? Or fresh water? The hot sun?

    Shoot. So many questions, so many good paperbacks on the shelf.

  3. Rick Van Noy writes:

    Glad to find you both out here. Like a literary version of Pandora Radio (if I can be permitted to draw in a new technology). if you like _____ than you’ll like _____ (I only wish we could chat over an actual beer).

    And I like the slow food movement for readers and writers, lingering and savoring rather than “hits.”

    One supposed promise of the new technologies, according to the New Yorker article by Auletta, is that writers may be able to get straight to the delivery system, bypassing publishers, but I don’t know that this is such a good thing. Publishers can help nurture, market, edit, edit . . .

  4. Dori writes:

    Bill, thanks for writing about this. How technology changes us is a profound question.

    I think you are right – the superfast, at-a-glance information technologies (e.g., Twitter and the Facebook newsfeed) that allow us to get information quickly and efficiently seem to have changed our standards for generating information. Maybe the fast technologies set up an expectation that generating information (through thinking and writing) should be equally as fast and efficient. But it can’t be (at least not when humans are doing the generating) – so we change our standards for what we create (because slowness is confused with inefficiency, and inefficiency is SO intolerable). Or maybe we change simply because most of what we read is now unrich and abbreviated.

    Below are links to 1) an excerpt from an essay by Edward Tufte (a well-known expert in data/information design) on the Cognitive Style of PowerPoint, and 2) a review of the essay. In the essay Tufte writes that cut-to the-chase slideware presentations have begun to replace the in-depth and content-rich “technical reports” that were previously the norm for fields like scientific and engineering (kind of like the in-depth content-rich norms of creative writing in times past). He argues that PowerPoint’s spare and hierarchical format (headings–>subheadings, bullets–>sub-bullets) forces information into an “architecture” that is artificial and filtering. A consequence of this approach to presentation (says Tufte) is that it weakens verbal and spatial reasoning. The piece is interesting, in part, because Tufte uses the story of the demise of spaceshuttle Columbia to make his case.


    Fair warning to potential readers: Both articles are lengthy and detailed…

    • Bill writes:

      Dori, thanks… I just saw an article about powerpoint presentations making the military stupid, not that military is often synonymous with smart… Anyway, it’s a similar thread…


      • Dori writes:

        Hi Bill,

        Wow – that I might agree with something the military higher-ups think makes me terribly nervous…

        I was thinking about your comments re fiction writing programs – and remembered that I saw this complaint generating program a few years ago:


        Ironically, this technology tool was not at all a time saver (not that it was actually intended to be that) because it was addicting and caused me (and many others in my circle) to WASTE boat-loads of time!


        • Bill writes:

          okay, there goes the afternoon…

          • John Jack writes:

            Ideas are not alike in how complicated they are. It’s interesting to me to see how and why complicated concepts take up more discourse time and space than simpler ones. PowerPoint slideshows and the like are visual mnemonic talking point presentations when they’re well-crafted outlines. Twitter patter tends to be simplisitc social networking shorthand.

            About a year ago now, I had a hunch about a type of narrative that I especially liked. I felt something was simmering at the edges of perception. A year later on now, and I’m coming to terms with it by having a name to hold onto and exhaustive study and application. It’s been named Free Indirect Discourse. Talk about a complicated idea.

            Introduction of the FID method has been attributed to Chaucer, full application to Jane Austen and Gustave Flaubert, and arguably, mastery to Hemingway. FID is not something I’d care to illustrate in short discussion snapshots. I don’t think it can be grasped in a long discussion session either. Complex ideas, once the rudiments are in hand, require lengthy fermentation time and frequent sampling of to be sufficiently grasped and used effectively.

            I don’t consider myself the brightest lightbulb on the planet, just another 40-watt bulb in a 40-watt world that’s always burning. I do worry at puzzles and riddles until I’ve deciphered all their mysteries, though. Which is why I like deeply meaningful narratives.

            Some things have taken years for me to fully master understanding, ie, the import of “Salao” in Hemingway’s _The Old Man and the Sea_. Four decades and many, many readings later, its meaning to me is _worthless old salt_. Its literal meaning is salted, simple past tense from the Spanish verb salar, to salt, an irregular verb. Deciphering unfamiliarly unknowable local idioms is one of my funs.

            Mommock took me several years to unravel. I’ve lived for fifteen years where it’s used by the locals to mean tattered or shredded or mangled or fragmented, like the wornout clothing collected in days of old to make cotton bond paper. Mammock: fermenting pile of cotton rags composted for papermaking, dialect usage circa 1529. Thems young-ins and theys beepin’ and bonkin’ ‘lectric toys have bout mommocked my last nerve.

            • Bill writes:

              The narrowing reply columns have turned your comment into a long-form poem, nice… James Wood has a thoroughgoing discussion of free indirect style in his book “How Fiction Works.” It’s what others (James Joyce, for example, who I think coined the phrase) have called subjective third person. Also limited third person. Which is practically first person, the narrative taken on the language and personality of the point of view character, but with the luxury for the writer of being able to pull away to a more detached writerly viewpoint, usually at the beginning and end of sections and chapters… And it causes a lot of problems for new writers working in third person… James Wood is also good ballast to have on board as you get into David Shields’s new “Reality Hunger.”

  5. Dougles writes:

    Interesante, no va a continuar con este artнculo?


    • Bill writes:

      hola, Dougles–El “límite de palabras” al final es una broma. No es una broma muy buena. Perdona que te confunda!

  6. For my two cents on the matter (not that anyone asked for it), I personally believe that “the serious novel” isn’t teetering on extinction as so many would suggest (regardless of what new mediums writing is being hammered into). The simple fact is that much of what we’re seeing now–in terms of short attention spans, large “fluff” readerships, etc.–has been the status quo for ages (as we all know).

    How many of us have really sat and read such epic, serious novels such as Moby Dick, Ulysses or War & Peace without first having it be required reading in one of our undergrad or graduate courses? Sure, I’d heard their names as a boy and, most likely, would have sat and read their works on my own in due time (I’ve always had good reading habits I’m proud to say). But, statistically, such “serious novels” have always been the stomping grounds of college students and college graduates. The “pop” novel has always held the largest readerships. Why? Not because of changes in technology or changes in reading habits, but simply because “pop” novels are easy reading.

    I think we have to understand that we literary types–with our proud specialization in the written word–are a minority. Just as physicists–with their proud specialization in the behavior of the mechanics of the universe–are a minority. Just as we rabble rouse and tremble at the thought of “great writing” going the way of the dodo, they sit at home trembling at the thought of “great physics”–in the form of unique, contrary and unpopular, yet valuable, theories–dying a silent death in favor of more trendy and palatable theories.

    But people are still doing damned good physics. And people are still doing damned good writing.

    Reading is a “diet,” with Updike, Gardner, Alighieri and others presenting us with the fruits, vegetables, proteins and other essentials we need in our main meals to live healthy, happy lives. But there will always be the dessert makers.

    And when’s the last time you saw someone choose vegetables over ice cream at the end of a hard day?

    • Bill writes:

      What’s true on Krypton is true on Earth, apparently… all well said… I’ve long aspired to something close to impossible, a novel (or any written thing) that’s at once literary (whatever that means), and commercial (we know what that means…). There are plenty of nutritious main courses that everyone loves after all… Falafel?

    • Vicki S. Bird writes:

      Not to offend, but the food metaphor of popular fiction providing the yummy desert while the “literature” give us our much needed, but yucky veggies seems a bit tired and too parental for me. If food metaphors must be used, how about that popular fiction is bad bologna (those off brands), and processed pre-packaged vending machine meals. The good stuff of literature, then, is that perfectly prepared filet of Angus beef, the just picked from the woods morel mushrooms, and for desert, a honey dripping piece of pastry made with love. But then you have vegetarians, so no cow slaughter for them, and then there are those who say honey is too sweet, and those who say mushrooms have a funny texture, and they say, “what’s wrong with bologna anyway?; they say “I learned how to spell, My baloney has a first name, it’s O, S, C, A, R. Baloney’s not too bad fried and burnt with dollop of mustard on white bread. It’s got to be the kind of bread that makes glue when wet. So is that baloney sandwhich a metaphor for the number 1 on the current NY times top ten?–mass market–or trade?

      • Bill writes:

        It’s all Good, as Long as it’s Good
        (A Cocktail Hour Sonnet for Vicki S. Bird)

        Right, really… A better metaphor might
        be music–I love good rock, I love good
        opera, I love good rock-opera, I love good
        country music (give me Bob Wills!),
        I love the music in Mamma Mia (via my
        daughter), though I always loathed ABBA,
        go figure… But taste is involved, so food might
        not be so far off. The wild-mushroom bread
        pudding at Fore Street in Portland? Oh, my
        God… The little tasting plates at the opening
        of a meal at Telepan? Red beans and rice anywhere?
        Corn chips and salsa in the car on the way to
        an early movie? Popcorn at the movie? A carrot in
        the garden, dirt and all? And chocolate, generally.

  7. Nina writes:

    Sesquipedalianism isn’t in the free Merriam-Webster on-line dictionary, only on their premium website. So I had to walk upstairs to David’s study and look it up in the actual dictionary. Did you do that on purpose? It really took my reading experience beyond the virtual.

    • Bill writes:

      no, not on purpose… but it’s true that on-line dictionaries and thesauruses and book archives and on and on are fairly shallow…

  8. Bill writes:

    Okay, I had fun with this, but I see I’m just riding several hobby horses at once, all related the dissolution of culture, or maybe of everything. Still, John Jack makes me think harder about what reading actually is. I have had a number of blind students over the years who listened to our assigned books on tape (a couple of them on special players that could be sped up far past my ability to apprehend anything). Once in class a sighted kid joshingly corrected a blind kid for saying that he’d read the book… You mean you listened to it. No, I read it all right, the blind kid said. His point being that his experience of “All the Pretty Horses” was the same as anyone else’s in that room. This should not have been a revelatory moment for me, but it was. Reading is reading, right? No matter the technology? And print is a technology, too. And so however writing is delivered the relationship is reader and writer… Or am I wrong here?

    I’m unhappy with myself for seeming to diss cell-phone novels, or, in fact dissing them. Because I actually think the concept is pretty cool. I’m not actually scared for the book or worried about our whole enterprise disappearing: there’s always going to be a serious audience of a certain size, moving amorphously to where the most literary pleasure lies. A few years ago the NEA did a study of serious reading in the US and found that numbers had dropped steeply. But the hunger for narrative hasn’t abated, remains pretty well universal. It’s all about delivery systems.

    So, another proposal: let’s start calling anyone seeking narrative a reader. And as writers find ways to co-opt the delivery apparatus.

    • John Jack writes:

      Here here! I’m all for co-opting the delivery apparatus. Take back the light! Just because we poets rarely deliver in person is no reason for commercially interested speculators to parasitize our life’s blood. Who’s a vampire? A social parasite by any figurative connotation.

      Poet and reader then are the two involved interacting relationships of narratives? Lest I neglect the secondary discourses of review, analysis, and criticism–critics–and mentor-teachers, who all each faithful to their own creative disciplines create original creative narratives themselves.

      On a side note, theres a quip making the rounds about the second book published by Gutenberg’s press predicting the demise of print publishing.

      • Bill writes:

        Critics are readers, yes… And I’ve always thought of writing as a very slow form of reading… And on an even more pedantic note (but relevant to the discussion?) the phrase is Hear-Hear.

        • John Jack writes:

          Bless my breaches and call me tarred and feathered. I make the simplest mistakes that occasionally come off as accidentally brilliant rhetorical schemes. Here here and hear-hear is one that patently went awry. And here I am working with a convenient-to-hand Webster’s loaded on my laptop. Shame on me.

          • Bill writes:

            Didn’t mean to shame you–it’s just interesting, I think… I’ve also seen Here, Hear and Hear, here.

  9. pharmacy tech writes:

    Wow this is a great resource.. I’m enjoying it.. good article

  10. geo logo writes:

    U sure u dont want 2 b up 2 d8 it’s EZ!
    LOL. 🙂

    • Tommy Taylor writes:

      Hmmmn. Give me a good science fiction novel by Greg Bear or Connie Willis or Niven/Pournelle with the tactile smooth cover and rough paperback pages and I’ll crawl off to my Barcolounger or Sealy Posturpedic.

      Hey, just how comfortable is it to have a Kindle or laptop in bed with you, anyway????

  11. John Jack writes:

    I’ve pondered long and dark, late of night, and in broad brightly daylit streets what is quintessential about a reading experience. At one time, I was all in favor of e-readers’ for their interactivity potentials. Since e-ink and a barrage of the nefarious devices have come along, I’ve changed my mind for my personal preferences. In general though, if readers are reading, children are coming up reading, it doesn’t matter what device it’s on.

    I rejected e-reading for one reason. Awareness of the technology adds unnecessary alienation effects. The experience isn’t as immersing. Electronic devices keep me from having a fully immersed secondary world participation mystique with a narrative. Its about the same depth of experience as watching a movie in a rambunctuous theater. I’m aware the experience isn’t just for me. I’m spoiled that way, noteably from narratives that vicariously explore controversial and/or normative society’s taboo topics.

    I first realized the distancing tendency of technology while attending a public reading at DSU. The narratives read aloud that captivated me most had appeal from involving me in the narrative through emotional rapport, resonance, empathy, tension, etc. Oral narratives are by and large little different from reading in a library along with a mob of fellow patrons. But when a narrative transports me into an intimate, individual–almost voyeristic-like–experience in a realm other than the immediate alpha one of my everyday routines, I’m elsewhere, orally read to me or read from print.

    I’ve been studying of late for naratives that don’t translate well from oral to written and vice versa for what makes them so. I suspect it has something to do with show versus tell, but don’t see much contemporary that translates as well into oral presentation as the classics of yore translate from oral to written. Anyway, my awareness of being a nameless part of an audience blunts my experience.

    My conclusion is, literature in print offers the most intimate, individual entertainment experience that current technology allows–virtual reality is just too close for comfort, in my opinion.

    Deeper experience is the direction I’m going with my writing. I’m experimenting with a narrative voice that flouts writing wisdom conventions, yet hopefully will result in a deeper audience rapport than what’s come before. One of the challenges of intended outcomes is creating an interaction rapport between an author’s subconsciousness and a reader’s. Mental, I know.

  12. Steven Stafford writes:

    Very funny, but, like the last post, scary. I have a Kindle and it’s the best material present I’ve ever got. I have over 700 books on that thing–all the classics are free. So it’s not all bad–maybe reading will become “cool” due to such high-tech, cutting-edge devices. But then again, maybe not.

    As a side note: I have no idea why the short story form is not taking off commercially in this age of low-attention spans. It seems, though, that the opposite of the case–novels are getting longer. People must be, as you indicate, just skimming. How else could a human being sit through hundreds of pages about vampires and virgins?

    I have a perhaps naive faith that what is truly aesthetically good eventually rises to the top. These computerized things will never be mistaken for a Tolstoy.

    But on the other, Philip Roth’s haunting prophecy about (serious) novel-reading become like “reading Latin poetry” in 25 years seems to fit the data. *Panic attack*

    Either way, I want to write the things. They bring me joy even when the rest of the once-civilized world is glued to reality TV.

    • Bill writes:

      Thanks Steven–I’m very interested in your Kindle experience. And everyone’s. Anyone reading on I-Pad yet?

      • Venita writes:

        Well, I think I love you all, but no guarantees. I sent my Kindle back btw. It just didn’t look shiny. The iPad is shiny, but I have a netbook and an iPhone and insurmountable debt. I must say no to something this year. So no, Steve Jobs. No. Next year when you have put in the usb port, probably. Keep drinking and reading people!