Hello My Name is Sarah and…

… I’m a compulsive book buyer. (Hi, Sarah.)

This is something I’ve suspected about myself for a while, mostly because I can’t walk by a bookstore without going inside. Or, if I really do have somewhere to be and don’t have time to go inside, I’ll slow down my pace so I can least linger in its aura.

This week, however, is when the label “addict” first entered my brain. You see, I was walking by the Strand and well, one thing led to another… I ended up finding Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles on their $1 rack and got VERY EXCITED. The cover was pretty awesome looking and it had that “old book” smell. I knew it had to be mine. So I bought it (along with a book that was more than $1…) and brought it home. Only, when I went over to the sci-fi section of my bookshelf, I found, exactly where Bradbury was supposed to go, a copy of that very same book.

The one I already owned also looked pretty beat up, but it had a different cover that wasn’t nearly as fun. Still, I imagine I once found it at a thrift store and had much of the same reaction go through my head. So, now I have two copies of The Martian Chronicles. This is not the first time this has happened to me.

My first accidental duplicate was Coming Up For Air by George Orwell. I bought a new copy at a Barnes and Noble about two years ago because I hadn’t read it yet (at the time), but then when I brought it home I found a small, ripped up, identically titled copy (the cover was literally hanging off of it) that I immediately liked 100 times more than my character-less new copy.

As far as compulsions go, buying books is hardly debilitating. It can get expensive, but that’s my problem, right? I’m not hurting anyone but me. I can quit any time I want. You’re not the boss of me!

Sigh.

Have “accidental duplicates” happened to anyone else? I can’t be the only bibliophile out there who buys so many books that I don’t even know what I have anymore. Please share with me.

We don’t have to go through this alone.

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The Pros and Cons of Being a Snob

A few months ago, my sister asked if I’d be interested in a guy who read Tom Robbins. I told her I hadn’t really thought about it before (truth). Then I thought (to myself), what does that even mean? Are Tom Robbins fans certain types of people, the way Tucker Max boys are? I didn’t think so. Then I thought that maybe she was asking me about Tom Robbins because, simply, he’s popular. This, to me, was a sad thought.

I admit there was a period in my life where I judged people based on the type of music they listened to and genres of books they read. I’m happy to report that these days of complete and utter superficiality are now behind me. (Well, for the most part: I’m still pretty sure I wouldn’t be able to marry someone who listens to Nickelback. But that’s just common sense.)

As far as books are concerned though, basically I’m just happy if the person reads at all. You only read Carl Hiaasen? Fine by me. Dante in Latin? Excellent. Candace Bushnell fan? Little weird, but sure, I’ll take it. And yet. There was a time when I was a snob, and this time wasn’t too long ago. Studying creative writing during Da Vinci mania and James Frey controversy made it easy to turn up my nose at those who read mere commercial fiction. Mostly because everyone around me was turning up their noses too. Just the word – commercial – I mean, ugh. Right? The word was dirty to my liberal arts educated writing community.

Then I made the jump to an even more exclusive literary circle – the MFA program. In New York City. In Greenwich Village. I was doomed.

I was recently out to dinner with two other former MFAers (one from my alma mater, The New School; the other from Sarah Lawrence). We, of course, had a long chat about books and agreed that our MFAs have ruined us, but possibly in a good way. Explanation:

You see, in writing programs, the last thing writers are ever taught is how to get published. It’s all about craft, craft, craft. And in order to hone that skill, we must read, read, read. But again, we are not told to read New York Times bestsellers. We are told to read the few masterpieces of literary fiction that publishers were kind enough to took a chance on. Most of these authors are dead. Or insane. Or reclusive. Or have been long since considered “classic” or “genius,” two titles that the average student will probably not be able to attain upon graduation.

Literary fiction remains a go-to choice for when I read for fun (that is, when I have time for such things!). However, the David Foster Wallaces, Italo Calvinos, Marcel Prousts, and the Thomas Pynchons are hardly beach reading. Yet writers in MFA programs are told that this is the only form of writing worth doing. To me, there is accessible literary fiction (Lorrie Moore, Jonathan Lethem, Michael Chabon…) and there’s the authors I mentioned I above (let’s call them the Uberliterary).

The Uberliterary, to me, are the writing equivalent of fashion designers. There are those who design clothes you buy at the Gap and there are those who design clothes strictly for the runway. Walking art projects made by designers for designers, saying “looky what I can do!” There is nothing wrong with this, by the way. But sadly, since I’m not in the fashion club, it all just looks like a mess to me. I am, however, in the literary club. So when the Uberliteraries write for other writers, I smile and wink back.

So, why has my MFA “ruined” me, as I said? Well, remember I also said “in a good way.” I can be as snobby as I want because I was practically trained to be. Yet, I couldn’t choose not to be pretentious if I didn’t have this training. (Make sense?) Working in publishing has de-MFAed me. Not only because high concept literary fiction isn’t exactly a moneymaker, but because it’s surrounded me with book lovers who love the written word. No matter what it is. So, I left my snobbery at the door and didn’t look back. I can choose to pick it up again, but why would I want to?

What do you all think? Any former or current writing students care to share your experiences?

Age Ain’t Nothin’ But a Number

Lately I’ve noticed a trend in query letters that does not involve overused supernatural beings or the dreaded rhetorical question. This trend is new to me, but maybe other agents have experienced it. In several letters, the authors, those who happen to be teenagers, are apologizing for their ages. 

As far as query trends go, this is probably the least annoying, but writers – young writers – don’t do this! Apologizing for yourself not only weakens you right out of the gate, but it’s also completely unnecessary. I mean, did Mozart ever say “Sorry guys, I know I’m only six years old, but I’m about to blow your mind?” No. All he did was blow people’s minds! No apology offered or needed.

Evidence of amazing teen writers is everywhere. S.E. Hinton, Amelia Atwater-Rhodes, Nick McDonell, and Christopher Paolini were all successful teen authors. And the new class featuring the likes of Steph Bowe (GIRL SAVES BOY) and Kody Keplinger (THE DUFF) looks pretty impressive too! (Both writers were highlighted during the Glass Cases “Teen Writers Week” back in April – see Steph’s profile and Kody’s profile for more info on them!) I doubt today’s young writers feel as if they don’t deserve recognition for their work just because they never had to write it on a typewriter. Just as I’m sure the former teen all-stars don’t feel guilty or ashamed of their early successes.

When I am reading queries, I never wonder how old the writer is. Honestly, I don’t care at all until they tell me, and even then I just say “hm.. that seemed unnecessary.” If you want to stick in at the end of your pitch that you are a freshman in high school (well, only if this is true), then go ahead. It might catch my eye ONLY if the novel is of any interest to me. And if you are a freshman in high school and researching agents at all, I think that’s pretty impressive, so please don’t apologize for it!

Likewise, I’ve received queries from people in their sixties and seventies who have also felt the need to tell me their ages. This, I understand even less. As with their younger counterparts, these writers also ask for forgiveness for being “so old,” especially if they do not have previous writing credentials. But when they’re not apologizing for things they cannot control, they are attributing various obstacles involved in completing their novels to their ages, as if being sixty-eight years old is somehow akin to having no legs, arms, or eyes.

If I reject a ninety-year-old, it’s because the novel wasn’t for me, not because the writer is ninety. And if I make an offer to a twelve-year-old, it’s because I loved his or her work, not because I love the idea of exploiting their wunderkind-ness to my advantage. The writing is what matters, and good writing transcends age. Always. 

Sure, I might be impressed if I read what I think is the next Gatsby, only to find out the writer is eleven, but age will never be a deal-breaker, whether positive or negative. On the flip side of that, sometimes it is obvious that a writer is not quite mature enough to tell the story he or she is trying to tell, but again, it has nothing to do with their actual age. In the same way a memoirist requires distance and perspective to create a truly effective piece, young writers need time and space and, more often, practice to create an objectively “good” story. Just like the rest of us.

So whether you were born in the Clinton administration or the Hoover,  please stop being so sorry and let your writing speak for itself.

Some Fun Stuff

It’s Friday. It’s summer. Here’s some fun stuff!

Friend-o’-blog, josheverettryan brought this site to my attention: I Write Like. It’s highly addicting and very fun, but I warn you NOT to take their word as bond. They told me my blog posts are in the style of Edgar Allen Poe. I’ve been told I have a dark sense of humor, but there are usually no beatings of hideous hearts on the blog. Usually.

Flavorpill judged us based on our favorite websites this week – here – and I have to say, their assessments of some of my faves, Jezebel, HuffPo, and Twitter are pretty accurate. (What’s TweetDeck???)

This is by no means something that just came up this week, but if you are not reading Slush Pile Hell, you are missing out on an hilarious education. And yes, these queries are real. I’ve even gotten some of them.

Speaking of the slush pile, The Awl offered a brief history of that term we’ve all come to know and hate.

And finally, to start your weekend off awesomely, please enjoy the funniest thing ever – an audio query to Janet Reid, from Batman – I’m Batman.

Have a good weekend everyone!

Soccer = Publishing (Because it’s the Only Way I’ll Care)

The World Cup ended yesterday. Once again, Gryffindor beat Slytherin by 150 points after the snitch was caught in the final thirty seconds. Very exciting!

While this past month has had my very European neighborhood of Astoria, NY quite literally buzzing with excitement, I felt mostly bored. That is, until, I came up with this analogy. Soccer = Publishing!

Both have…

Winners. You know, those teams that will obviously make it far. (I’m told Brazil is one of these teams. And now apparently Spain.) In publishing, these teams are called the Big 6 (the top six publishing houses). Or they are stores like Barnes & Noble and Amazon.com, or agents like Andrew Wylie. (If you don’t know who he is, read this or this. Then feel free to be terrified.)

Underdogs. The United States, for example, which is probably the only time we will ever be the underdog in anything, other than a “Can You Speak Two Languages?” contest. Publishing’s underdogs are the indies. The locals. The ones you root for and support even when it’s hard to do so. 

Competition. Publishing is insanely competitive (agents vying for clients, editors vying for projects, price wars, etc.). But, at its core, it’s really just all for the love of the game. I don’t think there is another sport as unifying as soccer. 

Divas. We call them “writers.” (But we still love you.)

A Tiny Fan Base (if you are in America). While publishing appears to be our whole lives – with blogs and tweets and personalities who become like celebrities to us – it is still a very small, very specific world that most other people don’t know anything about, and care about even less. I’m pretty sure other countries still refer to us as the publishing industry though, rather than, say, football.

So, writers, when you get that request or sign that contract, sound your vuvuzelas because even though most people don’t understand the things that we do or the words that we say (query? recoverable? galley?), there ARE people who care! And we want you to win.

Happy Birthday, America!

In honor of July 4th weekend, a patriotic question:

What is your favorite Great American Novel? 

While it’s not my favorite book, I’d say The Great Gatsby because that’s always the first book I think of when I hear that phrase.

Have a good, long weekend everyone!