Top Ten Self-Deprecating Quotes from Authors

The literary world is a pretentious place, right? You wouldn’t think so judging by these ten quotes from authors playfully poking fun at their success. Who knew the Paris Review was such a popular venue in which to be self-deprecating?

Know of any others? Tell us in a comment below.

1. Vladimir Nabokov

Lolita is famous, not I. I am an obscure, doubly obscure, novelist with an unpronounceable name.” — in The Paris Review, 1967

2. Mark Twain

“I must have a prodigious quantity of mind; it takes me as much as a week sometimes to make it up.” – The Innocents Abroad

3. Ray Bradbury

“A conglomerate heap of trash, that’s what I am. But it burns with a high flame.” — in The Paris Review, 2010

4. Kurt Vonnegut

Slapstick may be a very bad book. I am perfectly willing to believe that. Everybody else writes lousy books, so why shouldn’t I? What was unusual about the reviews was that they wanted people to admit now that I had never been any good. The reviewer for the Sunday Times actually asked critics who had praised me in the past to now admit in public how wrong they’d been. My publisher, Sam Lawrence, tried to comfort me by saying that authors were invariably attacked when they became fabulously well-to-do… I had suffered, all right — but as a badly educated person in vulgar company and in a vulgar trade. It was dishonorable enough that I perverted art for money. I then topped that felony by becoming, as I say, fabulously well-to-do. Well, that’s just too damn bad for me and for everybody. I’m completely in print, so we’re all stuck with me and stuck with my books.” — in The Paris Review, 1977

5. Stephen King

“I am the literary equivalent of a Big Mac and Fries.”

6. David Sedaris

“At the end of a miserable day, instead of grieving my virtual nothing, I can always look at my loaded wastepaper basket and tell myself that if I failed, at least I took a few trees down with me.” — Me Talk Pretty One Day

7. Jonathan Lethem

“Listen, you can’t imagine what a freak I was. I worked in used bookstores as a teenager. I grew up with hippie parents. I lived in a ten-year cultural lag. At all times. I had not the faintest idea what was contemporary. When I got to Bennington, and I found that Richard Brautigan and Thomas Berger and Kurt Vonnegut and Donald Barthelme were not ‘the contemporary,’ but were in fact awkward and embarrassing and had been overthrown by something else, I was as disconcerted as a time traveler. The world I’d dwelled in was now apocryphal. No one read Henry Miller and Lawrence Durrell, the Beats were regarded with embarrassment. When all that was swept away, I stopped knowing what contemporary literature was. I didn’t replace it; I just stopped knowing.” — in The Paris Review, 2003

8. John Grisham

“I can’t change overnight into a serious literary author. You can’t compare apples to oranges. William Faulkner was a great literary genius. I am not.”

9. Dorothy Parker

“I fell into writing, I suppose, being one of those awful children who wrote verses. I went to a convent in New York—the Blessed Sacrament… I was fired from there, finally, for a lot of things, among them my insistence that the Immaculate Conception was spontaneous combustion.” — in The Paris Review, 1956

10. And the self-deprecating author who took it to the highest extreme? That’d have to be Gary Shteyngart, who created a five minute parody of himself to promote his book Super Sad True Love Story:

“He really wants to cash in on this whole Hollywood vampire thing, but with werewolves… But they’re not wolves, they’re bears. Werebears.”

Images and quotes courtesy of Flavorwire.


Catcher in the Rye To Be Dropped from Curriculum? Puh-lease

New Common Core Standards drop classic novels in favor of “informational texts.”

The US school system will undergo some big changes within the next two years, chiefly due to a decision to remove a good deal of classic novels from the curriculum, or so the recent media reports would have you think.

The idea behind discouraging or reducing the teaching of old favorites like The Catcher in the Rye and To Kill a Mockingbird is to make room for non-fiction “informational texts” in the curriculum. These should be approved by the Common Core Standards of each state. Suggested texts include, “Recommended Levels of Insulation by the US Environmental Protection Agency, and the Invasive Plant Inventory, by California’s Invasive Plant Council,” among others.

Mmmm, I just love me a good read on insulation levels while I soak in the tub.

So, the idea behind this is that children who pass through such a school system will be better prepared for the workplace, their brains packed with useful, practical knowledge rather than brimming with literary fluff (my personal summation). It has the backing of the National Governors’ Association, the Council of Chief of State School Officers, and even the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which partially funded the directive.

But is that estimate correct? Will reading more non-fiction in favor of fiction breed better writing, or more informed graduates? The discussion is extremely divided. One Arkansas teacher wrote in this Telegraph article,

In the end, education has to be about more than simply ensuring that kids can get a job. Isn’t it supposed to be about making well-rounded citizens?

Meanwhile, another reader weighed in for the pros of teaching more scientific texts:

I don’t understand how adding non-fiction books to reading lists REDUCES imagination.  Hard science is all about imagination–the “what ifs” of nature and the universe… I am sick of English professors acting like English Literature is the only bastion of imagination/critical thinking/culture.

When I first read that article stating that The Catcher in the Rye and other novels specifically would be gone from curriculums nation-wide, I was alarmed and frightened, though I now know it was needlessly so. The reactions of protesters are a tad hyperbolic, given that the two soporific texts I named above are found amongst a long list of alternate suggestions in various subjects, for instance Circumference: Eratosthenes and the Ancient Quest to Measure the Globe by Nicholas Nicastro, and The Hot Zone: A Terrifying True Story by Richard Preston, interesting and well-written books in their own right. English Literature classes will not be barred from teaching certain classic novels, as some of the reports would have you believe, though they may have more limited time to teach them than before. Yes, the school system will be changed and possibly not for the better, but Salinger and Lee aren’t going anywhere.

All in all, the arguments for both sides make overblown assumptions: on the one, that students will miraculously be better prepared for the job market, on the other, that all imagination and creativity will be drained from impressionable young adults. So, which side do you stand on, if either? Is the teaching of informational texts merited, or best left to vocational studies? Tell us in a comment below!


#twitterfiction Worthy of a Retweet

Literary festivals come to town and go, and for whatever reason you just couldn’t make it out to all you wanted to see this year. Fear not! Now the festival can come to you.

Today is the first day of Twitter’s very own Fiction Festival, an event that draws writers and readers from around the globe together on one page. Literature has never been so instant, accessible, or succinct, as authors craft stories from afar in real time, sometimes as short as 140 characters.

The Festival showcase will be a completely virtual event, taking place on Twitter with participants from five continents and stories in five languages. For five days, Wednesday, November 28 to Sunday, December 2, you’ll be able to find creative experiments in story-telling on Twitter around the clock.

Want to get involved? At this festival, you’re not relegated to the sidelines. Jump in with your own fiction, and use the tag #twitterfiction for all to see your work. You could:

- create a character and tell a story in his or her voice
– tell a story from your own account
– tell a story in a single Tweet
…and of course, any other creative ideas you have.

A showcase page of all the festival’s entries can be found at this link. Missed the daily live retweeting of Hamlet? Don’t worry, all of the selections are collated for you like this. You’ll never miss a lit festival again.

To give you a heads up on the happenings, here are a few highlights. No need to grab a map and traipse from tent to tent! You can also head to Twitter’s blog for a complete schedule:

  • Starting with the idea of a Twitter feed used as evidence, author Elliott Holt (@elliottholt) will tell the story of a crime. The audience will see that story unfold via three different perspectives, and then will have to weigh the presented evidence for themselves. Wednesday at 7pm EST
  • Perhaps no story is more powerful than a myth. Lucy Coats (@lucycoats) from Northampton UK, will re-tell 100 Greek myths in 100 Tweets. Wednesday 21 Nov. till Sunday 25 Nov. 9am EST
  • Emmy Laybourne (@emmylaybourne) and Anna Banks (@byannabanks) will put a humorous spin on the paranormal young adult story with love affair between a teenage girl and a…Sasquatch. Wednesday through Sunday at 4pm EST (21:00 GMT) 
  • For author Kurt Crisman (@unpublishedguy) online descriptions of TV episodes tell a story all their own. He’ll weave a whole story together out of these to describe five seasons of a science fiction show with an absurdist twist. Every day, updated hourly
  • Ifeoluwapo Odedere offers a satire, written in the style of the King James Bible, about a Nigerian community whose attempts to find a sustainable power source are continually thwarted by a saboteur. Thursday through Saturday at 8am EST
  • In a tense psychological thriller, Andrew Pyper (@andrewpyper) re-tells the classic Henry James ghost story “The Turn of the Screw” — set in a present-day White House. We will follow the Tweets of the new nanny, who is increasingly convinced something strange is afoot. Thursday through Sunday at 7pm EST
  • A group of four authors in Paris plan to work together to build collaborative sonnets in French, which they call #TwitRature. Thursday to Sunday at 5am EST
  • AND if you’re lucky enough to be in New York, the New York Public Library will be hosting the festival’s only non-virtual live event this Saturday.

I love that all of these creative people have embraced the idea of “twitterature.” I’m sure it’s a challenging way to stretch (squeeze?) one’s writing skills, and really brings the audience something innovative. What are your thoughts on how Twitter is changing the literary world?

Check back next week for a summary of the festival’s highlights!


The Truth About Youth and Books

Young people today just don’t read enough, right?

If you’re under the age of 30, you’ve probably been accused of this at some point in your life. In fact, it seems that every upcoming generation is stereotyped as lazier than the one that came before it. We’ve all overheard the same complaints: “always up to no good with their fancy devices,” “always at their computers or watching too much TV.” “Why, back in my day…” You know the drill. In the end both sides come to believe that kids in the old days were both more capable of entertaining themselves and walked uphill both ways while they did it.

But what if the public perception of youth culture is just a little bit wrong? What if young people actually turned out to be the age group that reads the most, and frequents the library the most? Could that be? A survey conducted by Pew Research Center aimed to find out the truth about youth and books. Their results show that not only do 18-24 year-olds read more than any other age group, but that many are more open to it because of the availability of e-readers and e-books. So before you curse the decline of print publishing, think of how it might serve the next generation of iPad, Kindle, and Nook readers, and read on to find out more about the Pew Center’s findings.


Some Pig, Some Book: Charlotte’s Web Turns 60

How E.B. White loved spiders before the rest of the world fell in love with his.

Some children’s books are truly timeless.

When you think of their titles, the very smell of their pages seems to seep from your memory, and you find yourself once again feeling those same emotions you felt on the first reading, or indeed any reading thereafter.

Charlotte’s Web is one of those books.

E.B. White’s classic tale has played a pivotal role in many a child’s upbringing. In fact, in a Publisher’s Weekly poll it was ranked as the most popular children’s book ever published. Today marks its sixtieth year in print.

The tale is so familiar to so many of us that I hardly feel the need to raise a spoiler alert. All the same, don’t read on if you don’t yet know the ending…

The body of the novel may concern a pig, a girl, and a series of barnyard animals to fill the backdrop, but at its heart is a remarkable spider, Charlotte A. Cavatica. Though a spider to many may seem like an unlikely creature to feel empathy for, the author obviously saw differently.

Charlotte’s Web had its beginnings in the Maine farm White ran with his wife Katherine Angell. One October day, White noticed a spider’s web in the corner of his barn. He watched as, over a manner of weeks, the spider in it spread her net wider and wider, eventually laying a tiny egg sac at its center. The spider was never to be seen again. When the time came for White to leave Maine for New York (and the farm for his steady job at The New Yorker), “he put the sac in an empty candy box, punched some holes in it, and absent-mindedly put the box atop his bedroom bureau in New York.”

Some weeks later, that precious egg sac began to breathe life. The author watched as tiny eight-legged spiders crawled out of the candy box, through the air holes he’d made for them.

White was delighted at this affirmation of life and left the hundreds of barn spiderlings alone for the next week or so — to spin webs from his hair brush to his nail scissors to his mirror — until, finally, the cleaning lady complained.

Thus also hatched White’s idea for Charlotte’s Web.

Interestingly, his fascination with and emotional attachment to spiders went back further than those first stirrings of the novel in 1949. White once wrote of the arachnids that “once you begin watching spiders, you haven’t time for much else.” Even one of his love poems to his new bride concerned a spider. This one he wrote in 1929 is titled “Natural History”:

The spider, dropping down from twig,
Unwinds a thread of his devising;
A thin, premeditated rig
To use in rising.

And all the journey down through space,
In cool descent, and loyal-hearted,
He builds a ladder to the place
From which he started.

Thus I, gone forth, as spiders do,
In spider’s web a truth discerning,
Attach one silken strand to you
For my returning.

So White was no novice in making a spider appear beautiful and regal rather than something to be feared. In Charlotte’s Web, he instilled all of the attributes in Charlotte that made us fall in love with her; she was kind, honest, a truly loyal friend, and of course a great writer, too. It wasn’t long before she spun a web around children’s hearts everywhere.

And when we cried at Charlotte’s death, White was right there with us.

So great was the author’s love for his character that in 1970, when it came time for him to record the audio book, he had a difficult time reading the passage wherein his beloved spider passed. In the end, it took 17 takes for White to get through the following paragraph without his voice “cracking or beginning to cry.”

The fairgrounds were soon deserted. The sheds and buildings were empty and forlorn. The infield was littered with bottles and trash. Nobody of the hundreds of people that had visited the fair knew that a gray spider had played the most important part of all. No one was with her when she died.

It wasn’t the first time a reader cried over Charlotte, nor will it be the last. Wilbur may have been some pig, but Charlotte was certainly some spider, and White’s story is one very special book. If those who remember her now have anything to do with it, Charlotte’s story will be celebrated in another sixty years as one of the most beloved children’s novels of our, or indeed of any time.

To hear White read the passage above, head to NPR’s Morning Edition story, which includes an interview with Michael Sims, author of the biography The Story of Charlotte’s Web. You can also listen to E.B. White read an excerpt of Charlotte’s Web via an NPR recording at this link.

Charlotte’s Web on eNotes:

Charlotte’s Web Study Guide

Lesson Plan

and Q&A

 


A Promising Payday, a Petulant Penguin

Lena Dunham scores with Random House while Penguin seeks repayment on book deals gone sour.

If you’ve evaded living under a rock this past week, you’ve probably also heard about the bidding war over Lena Dunham’s forthcoming book of essays that resulted in a $3.5m payout for the author (slash director, slash actress). Yes, now aspiring young authors can join the ranks of aspiring young film makers made green with envy by the talented Miss Dunham. But all we can think of is that, for her sake, it better be good, given the example that Penguin set in court last month.

At the end of September the Penguin Group New York filed lawsuits to recoup losses made on advances to several of its authors who never delivered. With the filing of these suits, the details of these authors’ paydays have become public knowledge. Though none are as hefty as Dunham’s, the size of a few of these advances may surprise you:

The largest advance of the list went to Ana Marie Cox, who founded the political blog Wonkette. In 2006 she signed a contract that totaled $325,000 to write a “humorous examination of the next generation of political activists.” Now, because she didn’t deliver, Penguin is suing to reclaim the $81,250 advance it paid her, plus $50,000 in interest. Hopefully her correspondent jobs at GQ and The Guardian compensate her as handsomely (we’re guessing that they probably do).

A controversial plaintiff in this series of cases is Holocaust survivor Herman Rosenblat. In 1996, Rosenblat and his wife appeared on Oprah to tell the miraculous story of their meeting and falling in love. Per the story, Herman survived his imprisonment as a child in the concentration camp Buchenwald thanks to a young Roma, his future wife, who threw apples to him from the other side of the fence. Years later, the two met again in New York on a blind date and fell in love. Unfortunately, their tale is as implausible as it sounds. When news of the faked story broke, Rosenblat was due to release a memoir through Berkley Books, an imprint of Penguin. The publishing house then cancelled the release of the book and now aims to collect the would-be memoirist’s advance of $30,000, with an additional $10,000 in interest.

Penguin is also seeking repayments from Elizabeth Wurtzel, author of Prozac Nation, for a teen book on depression that she never produced; New Yorker journalist Rebecca Mead for a $50,000 deal she agreed to in 2003, and never fulfilled; and Conrad Tillard for the $85,000 paid to him for the memoir of his “epic journey from the Ivy League to the Nation of Islam,” also never completed. The Smoking Gun has more on those.

Here’s hoping Lena Dunham never ends up in the same hot water, given the massive amount she’d be held accountable for. We’re pretty sure she’s doing just fine, though.

On another note, um Penguin, how bout sending advancements some other writers’ ways? I know several who’d fulfill their contracts for you. Just sayin’.

Thoughts on advances, the repayment of advances, and celebrity book deals in general? Sound off below!


Ruh Roh, JK Rowling Upsets Middle England and Sikh Community

It seems that when beloved Harry Potter author JK Rowling departed Hogwarts with her latest novel, she strayed a little far from her adoring public, too. The new book, A Casual Vacancy, has been published for all of a week and is already shrouded in controversy. Though it was never intended to be for a young audience, its mature content was the first apparent no-no that sent some readers over the edge. Next, she offended her home county of Gloucestershire by depicting its inhabitants as snobby bigots. Now, the author battles allegations that her novel is offensive to Sikhs, and may actually face a nation-wide ban in India. Deary me. Before we’re all caught up in the sensationalism of these allegations, here are the straight facts of the book:

1. This is NOT Harry Potter and the Casual Vacancy, people.

Anyone expecting this book to be a follow-up to the Harry Potter series, or even in the same vein, has quite the shock coming. Clearly, when she wrote The Casual Vacancy Rowling was looking to her next project as a departure from the world of fantasy that she dwelt in before. I think I would be too if I had been writing in the same world for nearly two decades. She has been quite clear from the start that this is not one for the kiddies.

Unfortunately, the writer will have a hard time shaking the identity associated with her name, as parents now have the tough task of explaining to their kids that they can’t read the latest Jo Rowling creation. For one thing, her self-described “rural comedy of manners” has some quite mature content. While the most deplorable word uttered in Harry Potter was b****, in this one Rowling gets a little more, um, creative… In fact, some of the scenarios and colorful vocab seem to have been heightened by the sheer fact that Rowling couldn’t write them in her first seven published novels. She explains her need to write the rude bits in an interview with The New Yorker:

She was ready for a change of genre. “I had a lot of real-world material in me, believe you me,” Rowling said. “The thing about fantasy—there are certain things you just don’t do in fantasy. You don’t have sex near unicorns. It’s an ironclad rule. It’s tacky.”

Quite right. In any case, you’ve been forewarned–this one is rated R.

2. This book should be placed under the Fiction section.

Rowling comes from a small village in the English countryside called Tutshil. While she probably used the quaint Gloucestershire surroundings as inspiration for the backdrop of her story, I doubt the plot of a parish council election gone haywire is anything but the figment of her imagination. However, the book’s fictional town of Pagford, “a hotbed of cruelty and snobbery,” has tongues wagging all over Middle England, saying Rowling has shed an unflattering light on her home county, probably for “the novel’s bleak subject matter, which includes child abuse, prostitution and drugs.”

Does nobody read that fine-print reminder that everything and everyone contained in the book is a work of fiction, and not based on facts or real people? I suppose that message flies out the window when your hometown’s feelings are hurt. Still, this is a little blown out of proportion.

3. The characters’ thoughts do not reflect the author’s.

This goes for any book. One doesn’t read American Psycho and assume Bret Easton Ellis shares the views of deranged serial killer Patrick Bateman. But for some reason, perhaps because of the grand scale that this novel has debuted on, readers are offended by the derogatory views expressed by a select group of unsavory characters in The Casual Vacancy. In particular, the language used in reference to an Indian girl in the novel has members of the Sikh community in an uproar.

In the novel, Sukhvinder is a young Sikh girl who is bullied by some of her peers. In the dialogue (NOT in the third-person objective narration) she is meanly called “the Great Hermaphrodite,” a “hairy man-woman,” and finally “mustachioed yet large-mammaried.” It’s these descriptions of her that out of context have Sikh spokesman Avtar Singh Makkar calling for a widespread ban of the novel. Note: the important words to reiterate there are out of context.

From The Telegraph,

Rowling has said she included Sukhvinder’s experiences as an example of “corrosive racism”. She has spoken of her admiration for the Sikh faith and said she was fascinated by a religion in which men and women are “explicitly described as equal in the holy book”.

A spokesman for Hachette, Rowling’s publisher, said the remarks were made by a character bullying Sukhvinder. “It is quite clear in the text of the book that negative thoughts, actions and remarks made by a character, Fats, who is bullying Sukhvinder, are his alone. When described in the narrative voice, the depiction of Sukhvinder is quite different to this,” the spokesman said.

However, Rowling’s statement of defense may not be enough to prevent a country-wide boycott of The Casual Vacancy in India, if the members of the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee deem it derogatory once they’ve finished reading it.

                                                            

The whole controversy surrounding this novel has obviously been brought on by the massive expectations set for Rowling. She certainly wouldn’t have had to face such scrutiny had this novel been published before her famed fantasy series. I can’t help but think that it’s not really fair for her to be accused of such things; it’s as though everyone holds Rowling to a higher standard than other fiction writers. Is it possible for her to shake the Harry Potter image and create a new fan base? Mixed reviews for the content of the book aside, do you feel this criticism is warranted or not?


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