Book Smarts

Guest blogger Rebecca Hoffman asks: Is Lena Dunham’s new memoir feminism for a new generation? Or something else?

Not that type of girl coverIt has been said by women’s historian Laurel Thatcher that “well-behaved women seldom make history”.  Lena Dunham’s new book, Not That Kind of Girl, depicts early womanhood as a time fraught with adventures that dance with danger, emotional upheavals that rival any that a woman could imagine and an overwhelming immaturity that is perplexing to the central character of the book – Lena Dunham herself.

As I wrote this review, Dunham was ensnared in a media frenzy regarding the question of whether she had engaged in sexual misconduct with her younger sister.  The public and media were reacting to passages from this book in which Dunham describes interactions with her sister that struck the public as being unusual or inappropriate.

In case you may have missed it, a few links to current coverage to help give a context to the brouhaha here, here, and here.

It would be easy to say Dunham is badly behaved but it is more like she is filled with a self-loathing that allows her to get plunged into various circumstances which imperil and injure her emotionally and sometimes physically.  It’s almost as if she finds herself so unattractive and unimportant that the world just acts upon her and her role as a writer and thinker is to process these experiences without ever demanding something better for herself.

Dunham may or may not be making history but she is creating a highly readable, relatable story of her life that is often hard to read – especially the passages where she is interacting with her sister in ways that are generally deemed socially inappropriate. She’s like a tall glass of water spilling over its edges and puddling on the fine wood table below it.   The same cringe we have for the water on wood we have for Dunham as she recounts her various misadventures to the reader.

If this is feminism of the 2014 era, then I am scared for young women everywhere.  How will they survive their younger years, gain insight and correct their life courses to make a strong mark without destroying everything around them?  How does a strong woman emerge from such a variety of traumas?  Or are we confusing strong women from damaged, hurt women who have a capacity to endure any unpleasant circumstance that life throws her way. I’m not sure which way the text is pointing.

Had I merely picked up this book without knowing about Dunham’s successful show, “Girls”, I might have stopped reading partway through as her narrative, while very easy to read and very well written, traces the path of a person who simply does not seem to ever gain insight from her actions nor of their repercussions.  What’s particularly fascinating to me is how the show so closely mirrors the passages in the book and I wonder how much is truth and how much is fiction both on television and in the book.  Perhaps it does not matter but it is hard to separate an artist from her art and not wonder at least a little about truth versus creative license.

Curiously, this volume is a good read.  I found myself reading it with a hopefulness that Dunham would finally turn an emotional corner, find true love, contentment and settle enough to enjoy a life she deserves and gain all the power, credit and fame she is so hungry for.  Yet the narrative bumps along from one uneasy story to another tracing her emergent sexuality, her confusion about the world of work and how to build herself a good career and her “art” which could roughly be defined as her dogged determination to remain her “authentic self” while presenting her life without any filter to the audience.  What lays exposed are her tales of family, her relationship with her parents, her sister, her friends and with men who often treat her so badly one wonders how she manages to remain upbeat about each subsequent relationship.

Dunham is a good writer.  She writes in a beautiful, plain language that completely brings a reader close.  But would she lose more audience than other authors would were she to write about other topics besides sex, family dysfunction and her inner psyche?  I bet not.

What she is providing, I fear, is a perspective on early womanhood today and the true confusion many young women feel when they are trying to define themselves, make it in the big city, hone their skills, present themselves in the workforce and more.  What appears is a person who seems sort of half-baked, she seems like a terrific person who would benefit from a trusted mentor who could guide her to make choices that will not injure her and help her find the types of success and adoration she so deeply craves.

What insights did I gain from this book?  More than anything I am reminded that early womanhood is filled with conflicting societal expectations:  that women can be highly educated but a biological clock ticks louder and louder as years go on for many, that women and men are equal yet men often get the better of women when emotional or physical abuse enter the equation, that family often does not protect and boost a young woman into a position of power for her life to come, and that friends often will encourage each other to do outrageously stupid things.  Dunham shares so much with the reader, without filter, and I’m grateful to her for her viewpoints. However I am not certain her intimates will be equally delighted with her book.

Reading this book galvanized my thinking about girlhood to womanhood.  As a working mom with a daughter and a son, I see a real need to imbue each of them with a sense of personal self-respect and respect for others so that when they start to head toward adulthood they do it with heads up and awareness of the troubles they could encounter along the way.

I give Dunham credit for taking big chances by writing this book. Yet I do wonder by writing this what she has gained.  Perhaps it is relief from unbearable memories—memories that may resonate with more women than we can even imagine.

Rebecca Hoffman is Principal at Good Egg Concepts. Rebecca-RMP6463-HRShe’s passionate about fostering creativity wherever in every aspect of life.  In her spare time Rebecca loves fine art and low culture, sketch comedy and travel to anyplace with better weather than Chicago. Follow her on Facebook.

It’s an interesting political moment for women and girls as we enter the countdown to the election.  Outrage around the shooting of 11-year-old Malala Yousafzai is still going strong and I want to be hopeful the outpouring of reaction will serve as an impetus for change. The story of the imprisonment of the band Pussy Riot is still unfolding and just a week ago was the International Day of the Girl.  It was deeply heartening to see how widely this was celebrated although each rallying cry highlighted the gross injustices and discrepancies girls still suffer.

Awhile ago I had the chance to interview Sara Marcus whose book Girls to the Front chronicles the Riot Grrrl movement.  It was a different sort of revolution, but one whose effects are still rippling forward.  Here is my review and conversation with her.

Sara Marcus’s history of the Riot Grrrl movement, Girls to the Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution, was published in 2010 by Harper Perennial. Since then, the book has been widely praised, and Marcus’s nerve in taking on the famously controversial 1990s punk-feminist movement has been noted as well.  A Los Angeles Times critic prefaced an admiring review by stating, “I wouldn’t go near that hot mess of brilliant idealism and tragic dysfunctions with a 10-foot publishing contract.” As reviewers note, Marcus does go into this cauldron – with meticulous research, engaging narrative retellings of what it was like to participate directly in the Riot Grrrl movement, and reflections on her own experience of stepping into the fire as a teenager and realizing she had found her people.

Her portrayal of the tumult, excitement, breakdowns, and revolutionary zeal that rollercoastered through the movement in the early to mid-90s also includes, as she writes in the epilogue, “the unfortunate parts of the Riot Grrrl story — the parts I didn’t expect to find, the parts I would have preferred never to write.”  But, she concludes, “I had to tell the truth as I saw it.”  The result is that Marcus wraps her head (and arms) around the complicated, messy, yet passion-filled highs and lows of a span of years that left a lasting mark on the history of feminism.  Girls to the Front offers an admirably complex, nuanced view of a movement both from inside a writer’s lived experience of it, and from outside, through a researcher’s honest view.

As more writing comes forward about the Riot Grrrl years, it’s exciting to think back on a movement that is both recent and still revealing its legacy.  New York University’s Fales Library & Special Collections now houses a Riot Grrrl Collection, and Kathleen Hanna has endorsed Girls to the Front on her blog, writing that since she was on tour through much of the movement, she learned a lot from reading the book. At the book’s New York release party, Hanna also gave a first-person tribute back to Marcus, (which can be viewed on YouTube), in which she mentions the way Marcus captured the split responses to the movement. In an eloquent review published last fall in Bookforum, Hanna’s Le Tigre bandmate Johanna Fateman offered her own acknowledgment that Marcus addressed the thornier sides of Riot Grrrl’s legacy: “Any stab at defining Riot Grrrl still feels dangerous,” Fateman wrote. Riot Grrrl’s distrust of mainstream media’s representation of the movement, along with the splinters that unsmoothed its potent rage for change, make writing about any of it a tricky feat.  In a phone interview Marcus addressed some of these challenges, discussing her process and Riot Grrrl’s legacy.

Here is my conversation with her:

EL: What was the most radical thing about this movement?  What do you think is its legacy?

SM: One of the most radical things was that it was really fully youth-led, and not created along the model of services or programs designed by adults.  It was not without its shortcomings and drawbacks, but we were crafting a movement that exactly conformed to our needs, our passions, and our strengths.

The legacy [it left] is partly a recognition of the need for communication and critique as activist activities.  New feminists place blogging at the foundation of their activism and move outward from there, creating communities with each other.

EL: How is this different from creating zines?

SM: There are ways it’s better and ways in which it’s worse. The loss of the handmade thing and that intimacy is different.

Blogging is not a detriment to political organization, but when it comes to personal relationships, it pales in comparison with zines — it’s not as intense.  Within the Riot Grrrl movement there was an utter entwinement of politics with really intimate community building.  There’s this aspect that you see running through Riot Grrrl literature, of people needing to take care of each other, and these things can’t be disentwined: political action, self-actualization, and taking care of each other.

EL: In your introduction, you mention the parts you wish you hadn’t had to write. What were these difficulties?

SM: Not everybody had the blissful experience with Riot Grrrl that I had. The mainstream media attention really wrecked it for some people, even as it drew new people in, and so some new people felt judged—“What, I’m not cool enough for you?” This dynamic played into some people’s preexisting insecurities about fitting in, even as for other people the movement absolutely allayed these anxieties and was tremendously healing and empowering and led to lifelong friendships. Later on, some girls used radical politics as a pretext to treat each other pretty terribly. Radical one-ups(wo)manship is not unique to Riot Grrrl; any time you have people assiduously staking their identities on elaborating a political philosophy, there are going to be competitions about having the correct line, or about occupying the optimum subject position from which to claim authority on an issue. Even the nastiest behavior here, though, came out of a truly sincere desire to move feminist thinking forward, to incorporate thinking about multiple differences (race, class, ability, sexuality, and so forth, in addition to gender)—which as any student of feminist history and theory knows is no easy job. We were very young women with little to no training in political organizing, some of whom were recovering from significant childhood trauma, all of us just making everything up as we went along: It’s no wonder that we didn’t get everything right. I still think it’s to everybody’s great credit that we tried so hard to change our lives and change the world and build communities that would support us in these endeavors.

EL:  How do you see the Riot Grrrl movement tying in to issues that were raised around girls in the 1990s, such as the prevalence of the Reviving Ophelia “girls in crisis” story?  Did Riot Grrrl serve to counter this or to work with it?

SM: What was going on in the mid-’90s [when Reviving Ophelia was published] was the result of a renewed attention to adolescent girls’ lives, an attention that had already borne fruit in terms of media hunger about Riot Grrrl. But we were living these things — they were our lives. We were putting things into our zines about it, but it wasn’t as if the books and articles were waking us up to this crisis.

EL: Why do you think Riot Grrrl arose when it did?

SM: Riot Grrrl emerged in tandem with—and, I suggest in the book, rather as a cultural vanguard to—a renewed passion for feminism in the US that was coming about in response to some serious attacks on women, attacks that are looking pretty familiar right about now. When Riot Grrrl was getting started, Susan Faludi was just finishing up work on Backlash; that book was published in October 1991, two months after the first Riot Grrrl meeting, and it became a massive best seller. The Anita Hill hearings took place that same month, sparking a new wave of feminist rage. By the following spring the Supreme Court had agreed to hear Planned Parenthood v. Casey and the feminist movement as a whole was bracing for the end of Roe v. Wade. Although of course Roe was spared, restrictions on reproductive freedom for girls under 18 were widespread. Then in the summer of 1992, you had three conventions: the Democratic National Convention, nominating Bill Clinton and gearing everybody up for the so-called Year of the Woman in Congress; the Republican National Convention, declaring a culture war and labeling Bill and Hillary’s politics “radical feminism”; and the first Riot Grrrl convention. It was an intense time.

And in the midst of all of this, you had the aggravating fact that girls of my generation were growing up with the promises of the women’s liberation movement—promises that we could do anything we wanted, be anything we dreamed of—while sexist stereotypes and double standards, objectification of women in the media, and rigid gender roles were all still as powerful as ever.

EL: What was the most surprising thing you learned about Riot Grrrl during the process of researching and writing this book?

SM: The most surprising thing to me was, as I mentioned, how young we all were.  When you’re 17 and tapped into this revolutionary movement psyching people up so that you can change the world, you don’t feel young, but we were. It’s amazing how much we did with so little. We just gathered up whatever we could within reach and we made something beautiful of it. It had its flaws and shortcomings, but it also had its accomplishments.

EL: What do you think was responsible for the end of the Riot Grrrl movement?

SM: People just grew up. It was pegged to a certain point in development and the creation of the self.  We took what we had gotten and we moved forward.


National Poetry Month, or April, as it’s also known, prompted me to immerse myself in the newest work of renowned poet and feminist figure, Eavan Boland.  Cast over my reading was the shadow of the recent and sad news of Adrienne Rich’s passing. Rich’s work was an inspiration to so many within the field of poetry and beyond.  I was cheered to see her obituary prominently displayed on the front page of the New York Times. The wonderful series up at the VIDA site, “21 Love Poems to Adrienne Rich” riffs on her series of the same title and shows how deeply her influence was, how keenly her loss will be felt.

Years ago, when I was an MFA student in New York City, I had the chance to hear Eavan Boland read with Adrienne Rich.  I remember well the reverence in Boland’s introductory comments as she said that she would remember the honor of being paired with Rich, foremother to so many feminist poets, for the rest of her life.  I sat in the audience, amazed by her awe, as I thought of Boland as no less a radical figure, and realized how clearly each was offering a baton to the next generation to pick up and carry on.

Boland, who holds several prestigious titles as a professor at Stanford University, has single-handedly changed the conversation about women’s position within the canon of Irish poetry (and outside of it) through her dedicated work over the past thirty years. Her latest contribution, A Journey with Two Maps: Becoming a Woman Poet, picks up where her first nonfiction book, Object Lessons: The Life of the Woman and the Poet in Our Time leaves off.  In Journey, Boland traces the genesis of her identity as a poet while growing up in and outside of Ireland, always aware of the heavy weight of canonical history which has relegated women to a far corner of the conversation and how its press informed her education and first attempts at writing. Her intelligence is diamond-sharp, her arguments are both original and complex, and her prose reflects her true sensibility as a lyrical writer.  Her characteristic gift for taut, clear statements, rendered with rhetorical force, is evident throughout the book as she makes her case for how women poets need to reapproach history and reappropriate tradition.

The title’s inclusion of the word “maps” is both metaphorical and literal — Boland explores the known territory of literary history she has been taught (and is still taught) to create a palimpsest which includes a feminist viewpoint that can permanently broaden what subjects enter into a poem, nevermind which writers enter the canon.

Divided into three parts, the first, “Journeys,” traces Boland’s personal path into her career.  She writes movingly of the masters — all men — offered to her throughout her education in England, America, and her home country of Ireland, and how she recognized there wasn’t room within these poems for a female presence who wasn’t decorative or objectified, and the effect this had on her emerging poems.

Gradually, as she outlines in the book’s next section, “Maps,” she finds a matrilineal legacy that connects with the subject matters central within her own life and that she no longer wants to deny.  This section leads with her tribute to Adrienne Rich, followed by Elizabeth Bishop, then Charlotte Mew, and then Sylvia Plath.  She also explores the work of Edna St. Vincent Millay, Denise Levertov, Anne Bradstreet, and Gwendolyn Brooks.  Most interestingly, Boland offers a chapter on the Irish poet Paula Meehan, and Boland’s attempt to translate an anonymous “dream-vision lyric” written in Latin, Foebus Abierat, presumably written by a woman, which has haunted her for years. Boland also signals her commitment to recovery of women’s voices within “Translating the Underworld,” a chapter that describes her intensely moving project translating the work of post-war female German poets, anthologized in her volume After Every War: Twentieth Century Woman Poets.

The book ends with the section “Destinations” which consists of just one chapter, “Letter to a Young Woman Poet” — a riff on the Rilke title of similar name, but is an address to the aspiring female writer. In this chapter Boland proposes that the young woman poet learn to change the past —”Not by intellectualizing it.  But by eroticizing it.” By this Boland means that women should claim a past that has traditionally excluded them.  Boland states:

After all, stored in that past is a template of poetic identity which still affects us as women.  When we are young poets it has the power to make us feel subtly less official, less welcome in the tradition than our male contemporaries.  If we are not careful, it is that template we will aspire to, alter ourselves for, warp our self-esteem as poets to fit.

Of the past she writes, “It is, after all, the place where authorship of the poem eluded us.  Where poetry itself was defined by and in our absence.  There has been a debate since I was a young poet, about whether women poets should engage with that past at all.” She recognizes this challenge, but continues, “We need to go to that past: not to learn from it, but to change it.  If we do not change that past, it will change us. And I, for one, do not want to become a grateful daughter in a darkened house.”

Her edict to rewrite, remap, and remake is constant throughout the book, as seen in variants of her exhortation:

Can a single writer challenge a collective past?  My answer is simple.  Not only can, but should.  Poetry should be scrubbed, abraded, cleared, and re-stated with the old wash stones of argument and resistance.  It should happen every generation.  Every half-generation.  In every working poet’s life and practice.”

Challenging tradition and refusing inequality underpins all of her work, as A Journey offers examples, models, and urgency to not believe this work has yet been fulfilled.

Correspondingly, Boland’s other touchstone throughout the book is how to admit more into the sphere of the poetry world — specifically themes, images, and ideas that allow women to write more fully about their lives.  Boland vividly describes living in a suburb, with two young children in a young marriage, and recognizing rituals within her life that were ordinarily excluded from celebrated poems.  She writes of inheriting the mantle of poetic tradition, yet:

The difference was that as a young woman I did so in circumstances which were relatively new … in a house with small children. With a washing machine in the background.  With a child’s antibiotic on a shelf with a spoon beside it.

After long struggle, Boland came to realize, “… the fact is the words of poets and canon-makers — but more canon-makers than poets — had determined the status of my machines and my medicine bottles. … They had made the authority of the poet conditional upon a view of reality, which then became a prescription about subject matter.  They had debated and subtracted and reduced that relation of the ordinary to the poem so that it was harder than I thought proper to record the life I lived in the poems I wrote.”  Boland writes, movingly, of wanting there to be an ownership within the poem so that “whatever I lived as a woman I could write as a poet,” to hold within her writing “a way to have the child’s medicine and … darkening room in the suburb” sanctioned within the canonical poetry world.

Through this fusion, Boland finds a way to join her voice as a woman and as a poet; through her activism and commitment she has fostered change within the academy and rewritten a relationship to history.  In her insistence, she holds the door open wide for other women to pass through.

Boland closes the book by thanking the women poets in the generation before her whose strength bolstered her when she started out.  She writes, “But I believe words such as canon and tradition and inheritance will change even more.  And with all that, women poets, from generation to generation, will be able to befriend one another.  And that, in the end, is the best reason for writing this letter.”

It is deeply pleasurable, nevermind galvinizing, to feel the weight of Boland’s strong intelligence and deep conviction. Her contributions have been invaluable. In the early summer of 2011 I again had the chance to hear Boland read, and again, her insistence on feminist activism within the literary world and insistence on a new legacy for women writers radiated just as strongly as when I heard her years ago.  She concluded by reading her beautiful poem, “Anna Liffey” which ends with the speaker’s simple phrase “I was a voice.”  The reverberations of this phrase for Boland’s poetry and her feminist commitment will be far-reaching for generations to come, and have made an essential and inspiring difference.

book I just hung up the phone with a new author who has a book project that I’m very excited about. I can’t tell you much about her project just yet—I’m trying to keep it on the down low for as long as possible—but I’ll say this: it kicks some serious bottom, and I can’t wait to work with her on it in the next handful of months.

I was telling her exactly this when she asked me The Question. “So,” she asked, “are you my editor?”

I don’t like this question. It makes me feel stuck somewhere between Kierkegaard’s Who am I?! and that PD Eastman book where the bird falls out of the tree and thinks the bulldozer is his mother.

I also don’t like the question because I tend not to handle the answering of it very well. I usually say something like, “Well, yes and no … ” Sometimes I say, “Well, no and yes …” Because that can be true, too.

Being a writer and all, I know my author can handle irony. But she didn’t seem too happy with me. So I did what I often do when I get asked The Question: I launched into an excessively detailed exegesis of the variations on Editor, and I’ll share it with you now so you never have to suffer the way my poor author did today.

As an author, you will likely have many editors. Some of them will edit your manuscript—that is, they will actually read what you have written and make suggestions for improvements to the language, pace, tone, and scope of your writing. Other editors will not edit your manuscript, but they will still be your editors.

The first editor an author meets is almost always the acquisitions editor. This is the person who is responsible for making a contractual offer for your project and negotiating the terms of the contract until it’s agreed upon by the publisher and the author. Some acquisitions editors only acquire, while others do other kinds of editing as well. Therefore, your acquisitions editor may or may not also be your …

Developmental editor. The developmental editor is the person who works with you to shape your project into a final and complete manuscript. A DE might make comments such as, “Have you ever thought about adding directions for a knitting project to the end of each chapter? Knitting is very in” or, “Chapter 12: more sex.” This is the most intensive/creative edit your book will get, though not all books even require a developmental edit. If yours does, your DE may or may not also be your …

Project editor. The project editor—also called your “in house” editor, or your shepherding editor, or your championing editor, or more often than anything else, generically “your editor”—may or may not actually do any editing of your book. She will, however, be the publisher’s point person for your project and, hopefully, an advocate for you and your book. She’ll discuss with you such things as cover design, deadlines, and your pub date, and she’ll convey any feedback the other staffers may have about your book (i.e., “Marketing says that Eat, Pray, Schlep isn’t really working for them as a title.”) Your project editor will likely oversee the descriptive copy that’s written about your book for publicity and catalog purposes to ensure it’s in line with what your manuscript will be delivering. Your project editor is most likely not also your …

Copyeditor. The copyeditor reads your manuscript and makes edits in accordance with such wonkiness as house style, grammar, and consistency. She may also ask you questions such as, “Re Charlotte Sometimes reference on page 233: Is this a reference to the time-travel YA novel by Penelope Farmer or the B side of The Cure’s Splintered in Her Head? Please clarify.” The copyeditors are actually the most underappreciated of the bunch—they are the unsung heroes of the editorial team, often a freelancer who polishes your manuscript until it shines and then disappears into the night. A tip: Ask your project editor if you can write a brief memo to the copyeditor before she begins her pass. That way you can flag any special words (“please stet spelling of golldangit”) or styles (“I prefer to refer to characters by a single capitalized letter and a long dash, as in ‘M—’, even though critics will likely find me affected for doing so. Please stet.”)

One more editor who will get her hands dirty on your book is the proofreader, who will review your book for accuracy after it’s been laid out. (Another tip: Ask your editor—you’ll know which one to ask when the time comes—if you can see the pages after the proofreader has taken her pass. Your editor may hate you for it, but it’s the only way you’ll see the absolutely final pages before they’re printed. She may say no—there often isn’t time for this extra step—but if you ask very, very nicely and promise to return with edits within, say, 24 hours, you might just get a yes.)

And now you know why The Question is so stressful. Why yes and no is accurate, as is no and yes. My recommendation: offer each so-called editor at your publisher a checklist and ask them to check all that apply.

Man, Twitter has taking some serious hits in the media this week. First Barbara Walters tries to explain Twitter to her cohosts and provokes an explosion of eye rolling and insults, then Jon Stewart mocks not just the Twitter posts themselves but shakes his fist at those who dare to tweet.

Go ahead, joke it up, I’ll just say this: We mock that which we do not understand, friends. And also this: I think Twitter is brilliant—especially for anyone who wants to be published.

One of the biggest worries I hear from aspiring authors is that they don’t have contacts in the publishing industry. Sure, I understand that, it definitely helps to be at least on a name-recognition basis with someone before asking her to take you and your blood, sweat, and tears seriously.

That’s the part where Twitter comes in: In less than 10 minutes, you can connect directly with agents and editors, authors and publicists, all in a socially egalitarian and non-hierarchical kind of way. You can read their comments on the industry and their jobs, and you can comment right back, no sweat, no formality. (My mom recently exchanged tweets with Rachel Maddow, how cool is that?) It won’t be long before you’re on each other’s radar, your name on their computer screens and theirs on yours. It’s not intimacy, or friendship even, but there’s no denying it — you’re in contact.

Twitter is more immediate than Facebook, but with less of a need to encounter irrelevance and overshare, especially if you’re using it as a professional conversation starter. Not only are you in contact with others who have like-minded interests, but you can learn about your contacts’ lives in a way that will personalize them to you to your advantage. Consider: You’ve just finished your book proposal and are ready to query literary agents when you see that Lucy Agent, whom you’ve been following on Twitter, has posted a comment about a client of hers who just won a prestigious book award. Now, instead of querying her with a standard query form letter, you can write something far more personal, and more likely to get her attention: “Dear Lucy Agent, Congratulations on your client winning the Prestigious Book Award! Entirely deserved—I found the book both beautifully written and insightful. I have a book on a similar topic I’d love for you to consider representing … ” You’ll show that you’ve done your due diligence in learning what’s important to her as a professional, which is bound to earn you some take-me-seriously credit in return.

You can also read tweets (posts, to the uninitiated) from a range of agents about what they love and hate about queries from other writers, so you’ll know what mistakes not to make yourself. Here’s a snippet from agent Colleen Lindsay (@Colleen_Lindsay), who’s worth joining Twitter for alone:

Query #1: 1st paragraph talks only about the multiple themes in the book. There is no second paragraph. Reject.

Query #2: Great query, but book is too similar to something I already represent. Personalized rejection, ask to see other work.

Query #3: YA fantasy, 175,000 words. Reject with educational note about word counts.

Query #4: Loves me. Loves my blog. Has MFA. Won contest I’ve never heard of. Three paragraphs in and it’s still not a query letter. Reject.

You can follow book publishers (@ChronicleBooks has the best book giveaways), book editors (follow me! I’m @lauramazer) and anyone else who tweets about subjects that interest you, from indie crafts to your local elected officials. (On my faves list: @threadless, @iphonenovice, @freakonomics). There’s a long list of pub industry Twitterers, and you can follow as many as them as you like.

And if you’re worried that using Twitter is confusing, well, yeah, OK, it actually really is — for about five minutes, and then it all becomes clear. I’ll remind you that my mother Twitters (@thelmasan, follow her, she’s a rock star! And I bet @maddow thinks so too). Here, I’ll shame you into it: If you can write a book, surely you can figure out a social network that 50 million Elvis fans have already mastered.

I’ll be looking for your tweets, peeps.

8:25 am. Drive to the office after dropping off preschooler and third grader at respective schools. Discover abandoned baggie of stale cereal on passenger seat under pile of manuscripts. Resist urge to eat. Feel bad that manuscripts are riding shotgun instead of getting read.

8:46 am. Arrive at office. Turn on computer. Read email from accountant, who needs to reschedule appointment (again) but meanwhile wants to know if I have any contacts in children’s publishing who might want to see a book she’s written … Delete. Read email from agent wanting to know if I’d like to look at a proposal for a book about Zen golfing. Close. Read an email from a friend of a friend who met me at a party who has a book that’s just like Eat, Pray, Love only different, would I like to publish it …

9:11 am. Read my google alerts: six about the company, seven about authors or books that are pubbing, one about me. Click on the one about me. Discover there’s another Laura Mazer who took first place in her high school district’s 100-yard dash. Delete all.

9:25 am. Get coffee. Eat Luna bar. Scan RSS feeds. Read Romanesco. Twitter a link to an article that pronounces indie publishers to be the future of literature. Feel smug.

10:00 am. Editorial meeting. Title brainstorming—once again, can’t help but wonder if we’d have better ideas if there were alcohol involved. Listen to debate over whether or not a novel needs to say “A novel” on the cover. Keep a tally in the margins of my agenda of how many times the editorial director mentions books I haven’t read but should. Realize how poorly read I am. Feel crappy about it. Try to redeem myself by offering to ask a past author for a blurb for a new author. Present new cover for lead fiction title. Consensus is it’s perfect but could use some changes.

11:55 am. Meeting over. Three tally marks. Not bad!

12:04 pm. Back in office. Open mail: four brochures from stock agencies, two from photographers, one from an indexer, three invoices from freelancers, and five submissions, including a hand-drawn children’s book with an SASE and a typewritten letter that begins “Dear Mr. Mazer.”

12:18 pm. Read pitch letter from agent for a sports anthology with recipes.

12:25 pm. Go to kitchen to microwave frozen Lean Cuisine for lunch and reheat coffee. Add a little sugar so I can think of it as dessert.

1:18 pm. More email: Manuscript arrives from supercool new author. Read revised intro. Love it. Write effusive email saying so. Delete some adjectives so I don’t sound fawning. Make notes for copyeditor (“Please retain all instances of the word vomitudinal.”) Glance at last page to see if I am included in the acknowledgments. (I am!) (Not that it matters or anything.)

1:35 pm. Phone rings. It’s the cover designer working on the lead fiction title. Tell her we love her design and we want very little changed, in fact she should pretty much keep it exactly the same, maybe just play with the type and the color scheme, and possibly experiment with the cover image, and could she change the title treatment hierarchy? But really, that’s all, it’s gorgeous just as it is …

1:50 pm. Launch Excel so I can start charting out editorial schedules for the fall titles. Set deadlines for each stage of each book, taking into account authors’ schedules, copyeditors’ schedules, proofreaders’ schedules, cover designers’ schedules, interior designers’ schedules, sales reps’ schedules, printer schedules, shipping schedules, national holidays, religious holidays, three-day weekends, and Mercury’s chances of going retrograde. Get halfway through before computer crashes. Resist urge to cry.

2:55 pm. Take Alleve. Eat another Luna bar. Tell myself it’s OK because they’re healthy.

3:08 pm. Read email from agent shopping a self-help memoir with recipes.

3:45 pm. Get intern to recreate my excel doc. Spend more time explaining how to recreate it than it would take to actually do it. Give her a submission from slush pile to review for the rest of the afternoon as reward for babysitting me.

4:10 pm. Work on catalog copy for new acquisition. Won’t have a manuscript until after catalog goes to press, so will have to crib from proposal but sexy-up the language. Wonder if “breathtaking narrative” is too generic. Wonder if it will have a breathtaking narrative.

4:18 pm. Take call from copyeditor wondering if she should apply standard or secondary rules pertaining to endnotes in reference to works in the public domain, and by the way do I prefer to hyphenate standard vernacular compound phraseology? Make up an answer to the first, tell her to use her judgment for the second, and offer her another project since she clearly knows CMS better than I do.

4:27 pm. Read query letter from author shopping a book of essays about her “musings, meanderings, and observations on life—with recipes.” She is sure it’s perfect for Oprah.

4:48 pm. Remember page proofs needed to go to author overnight, also realize FedEx pickup was an hour ago. Crap! Email author, asking if he could print the pages from an emailed PDF. Make vague reference to “working green” so he’ll think it’s for the environment.

5:22 pm. Run out the door for school pickups, late as usual. Drive a block, remember manuscript for tomorrow’s author call is still on desk. Curse at steering wheel. Risk illegal U-turn, run inside office, grab MS, get back in car. Add MS to pile on passenger seat. See cereal baggie. Eat cereal on way to preschool, wondering if there are any recipes in the passenger seat that might be good for dinner.

* Several months ago, Publishers Weekly printed a very funny piece called “A Day in the Life of a Book Publicist.” Thanks go out to the author of that piece for inspiring this post.

Hi and a happy January to all! I, for one, am having a very good month so far. My authors are all getting good reviews, my Fall 09 catalog copy is almost finished, and I’m close to acquiring a project I’m especially jazzed about. I’m a happy editor.

Still, I keep hearing that I should probably be more nervous about my job stability than I am. Maybe so. But then again I’m a not as distressed as many others are about the state of affairs in my beloved, yet admittedly whiplashed, industry, either. I figure, hey, sometimes it takes a good crisis to shake things up so they can settle back down in a better place. And if, in the middle of the hurricane, you end up making lifelong friends with your neighbors because you have a flashlight and they have bottled water and together you can find your way to the Dixie cups, then all the better for everyone in the end.

When things do settle, I’m hopeful that this is pretty close to what will shake out:

    — The recognition that books are intellectual property and not just merchandise. Now, Borders Inc. doesn’t seem to buy into this theory—the new CEO just hired to orchestrate a turnaround comes from Pathmark grocery stores, the ultimate in big-box shopping models—but the rest of the publishing world seems to be gleaning the notion that a book isn’t just black letters on a white page—a story can be digitized, contextualized, reproduced, reconfigured, and repackaged to best serve the audience and the author. Anyone out there in love with a Kindle, or an iPhone, or even a fake twitter character’s storyline? That means more products, more ideas, more opportunities for authors.

    — Fewer middle(wo)men. As the social networking capabilities become and better equipped to lead us to the content that most interests us, the less we’ll need to rely on Barnes & Noble product placement and big-budget publicity promotions to connect reader to author. As Richard Nash, the editorial director of Soft Skull Press, said this week in the Harvard Business Publishing online magazine: “For most of human existence, the output of art could never keep up with the demand. I believe that is now changing, and that’s why we’re seeing the great intermediaries in this process—record labels, movies studios, book publishing companies, Borders, etc.—start to shrink, or even fail. They relied on demand being so pent-up they didn’t really need to work very hard to match tastes, to connect artist and audience. But now that demand can in fact be sated, their lack of connection to either artist or audience may doom them.” As they say, ad posse, ad esse.

    — More books, and better books. Independent publishers have long been able to produce quality books on thrifty budgets, and big houses are quickly going to have to pick up these think-small skills as well. With all this low-cost, efficient publishing, there should be more room, not less, for great ideas to reach their audiences. In other words: It’s OK if your book isn’t going to sell 60,000 copies, because your publisher won’t need it to to recoup the cost of its creation. You’ve got a 5,000-sales niche-driven book idea? Let’s hear it.

See you in February,


Sad times over here in the publishing world. The news reports come one after another: layoffs at Simon & Schuster, jobs cut at Random House, a freeze on acquisitions at Houghton Mifflin and layoffs as well, and plenty more to come, I’m sure, as the fiscal year comes to an end.

With the economy flailing, it’s no surprise that readers aren’t buying as many books. But is that really what’s causing all this distress?

Depression or no, it seems to me that publishing has been going in this direction for a long time. With the money that the big publishers have been spending on books in the post-Internet Age, in which content is otherwise cheap and plentiful, it seemed that it was just a matter of time before the old budgets couldn’t sustain themselves.

To make my point, here’s a generic case study from pre-economy-crash days: Let’s say Big House Publisher A offers a book deal to Author B for six-some-odd-figures. And then, to show its support for the book, Publisher A spends another 20,000 on publicity, marketing, and the like, making the overall expense on Author B’s book somewhere in the range of, let’s just say, $150,000. Throw in plant costs and overhead and manufacturing and shipping and that number gets even higher.

Now, Author B’s book is pretty commercial—not celebrity commercial, but an interesting topic that’s relevant to a good-size audience—and it gets some terrific reviews, and winds up selling, let’s say, 25,000 copies. Terrific! Well, come to think of it, the book is actually a little more nuanced and sophisticated and attracts a slightly more targeted niche audience and sells more like, say, 15,000 copies, but that’s 15,000 people who just read this book, and that’s fantastic too. An accomplishment any author can be proud of, no question.

Except. If you’re like me, this is where you stop and check your mental back-of-the-envelope P&L. Where, exactly, is the sustainable profit after spending six figures on a book that, like many wonderful books in your local bookstore, sells 15,000 copies? Or less? A scenario like the one above, for a book that costs $20, would mean losses for the publisher that would easily exceed $100,000.

The publishing industry, and the big houses in particular, have been headed for a housing-bubble-like crash for some time now, and we’re only starting to think about what a new mortgage might look like. A peek at a new writer-publisher model could be found, I’m betting, by looking at the independent presses, which tend toward savvier spending and more realistic expectations of what a book can do in the marketplace. The economy isn’t doing these indies any favors these days, either, but I’m betting these tight-and-lean operations are taking the hits with a little more stability.

If you’re a writer with publishing aspirations, I hope you don’t think I’m being a Cassandra. In fact, I’d say this isn’t necessarily bad news. I have to confess that I’m a little bit excited to see what’s next for literary America. If the rubric of yesterday was Big House = Big Advance = At the Mercy of the Big Three (Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Borders) Only to Almost Earn Out Your Advance but Not Quite, then maybe the new rubric will allow for More Houses offering More Realistic Advances which could lead to More Generous Profits which will create a More Open Marketplace that advances A Wider Range of Authors and Ideas.

A girl can hope.

It’s a long way from here to there. But sometimes we need to take something apart in order to put it back together again in a better and smarter way, and if you’re an aspiring author, I’m rooting you on to take advantage of the time we’re living in by pitching your book to editors and publishers who understand the new economy and the value of your intellectual offering: indie houses, small and medium publishers, and boutique agents who are committed to your message and mission, not (only) to your bottom line.

More on the bottom line — and what this means for YOUR bottom line — next month.

Meanwhile, a few nights ago I got a chance to hear literary great Gary Snyder read letters Allen Ginsberg wrote to him about getting high and getting naked and sitting zazen and circumambulating mountains, and it reminded me why I’m in this book publishing business: I’m in it to be in it, to be a part of the public exchange of ideas and the intellectual development of our era.

What about you?

Laura Mazer

I’m pleased to bring you Laura Mazer’s monthly column on publishing in the trade world, particularly if you’re an academic. This month she gives important tips on translating your style and structure for your popular audience. –Kristen

Hi all,

Good to be back up here on GWP! I’ve been getting a lot questions lately from academics who want to write for a trade audience but aren’t sure how to translate their scholarship into a style and format that’s suited for a wider audience. Here are few things you can expect to hear from your editor should you decide to publish your book project with a trade house:

— Be sure you’re writing in a plainspoken, accessible voice. That does not—repeat not—mean “dumb it down,” I promise! It means write conversationally, intimately. The academic world, understandably, pays a great deal of attention to precision in accuracy—in the trade world, you’ll need to find a way to be accurate but without using insider terminology or complicated concepts. Example: You may be writing an auto-ethnography, but you’ll need to call it a race memoir. And if you’re thinking of writing a book about longterm neurologic transformation, try saying that you’re writing a history of the brain.

— Show how your expertise is relevant to the life of today’s reader. How does your topic play out in the world of 2009? Find something current from which to launch your own findings. For example, if you have studied the rise of prostitution in 17th century France, start with an examination of
the sex trade today, and then connect the contemporary state of affairs with those in the 1600s in a way that reveals something fascinating.

— Convert your footnotes into endnotes. A trade book can’t be weighed down with long lists of small type at the bottom of each page, so you won’t be able to use footnotes to clarify and augment your narrative. If readers want to know your sources and read your comments, they’ll find them in the back.

— If you have credentials other than your academic degree, highlight them.
A well-rounded author is one who’s more likely to surface from the slush pile.

— Make your title catchy and clever, and your subtitle simple and clear.
It should be immediately obvious from reading your title and subtitle exactly what the book is about, without excessive gravitas.

That should get you started! If you have specific questions about translating the technical into the trade, send ’em to me and I’ll do my best to answer them. Looking forward to hearing from you!

Laura Mazer

For all those who’ve been working furiously on their Election 2008 book, here are a few tips on getting that book to the editor from a real insider, Laura Mazer. We’re lucky to have Laura here monthly with her column, “BookSmarts,” but she needs to hear from you: what do you want to know? -Kristen

Hi again Penners,

I’m back after a wee bit of a hiatus (read: several months during which I idiotically took on way too many books and paid for it by having to work long hours while everyone else was at the Hamptons). I’m very excited to be back now and to be writing the BookSmarts column in GWP’s new incarnation — and especially to be posting alongside the other amazing and talented GWPers here. Hi, ladies!

This month I’d like to pass on a few creative but common sense tips that I think can significantly increase your book’s chances of being considered seriously by editors or agents, and ultimately help you match up with one who wants to champion your project. Consider these strategies:

— Pitch wide. When pitching agents, go wide. Why query five agents if you can query fifteen? Why query fifteen if you can query fifty? Every agent who sees your proposal is another agent who could fall in love with it. The same goes for querying editors directly — unlike pitching newspaper or magazine stories, it’s perfectly fine to query multiple publishing houses at once. If you’re lucky, you’ll get interest from more than one editor, and if you’re really lucky, those editors will fight over you in a bidding war involving multiple zeros.

— Polish it up.
I’ve said it before, but it’s worth repeating: Make your proposal look as good as it reads. A dense, single-spaced, multipage document is a slush-piler for sure. Instead, make your proposal read as efficiently as a magazine: Include a table of contents, subheads, different typefaces, sidebars, pull quotes — anything that will make it more user-friendly for the editor or agent reviewing it. And write in the tone you’ll be using within the book itself. If your editorial voice is satirical and quirky, your proposal’s should be, too.

— Be open to options.
Love your book idea, but be willing to change it if it’s not selling. If your book is about a historic world event, you may be able to recast your analysis in terms of current events and give it a fresh marketing angle. If you’ve written a memoir, you could give it an editorial makeover and resubmit it as a novel. Send your new (and maybe even improved!) package to a new crop of agents or editors, and to those you’ve approached before who sounded even somewhat enthusiastic about your book, especially if your changes address specific feedback they’ve given you.

— Get out and get social. Go to book readings, launch parties, and literary events. Not only are they fun and interesting, but they’re a great place to meet editors and agents. Plus I swear it’ll bring good juju to your own projects to get out there among other authorial types.

And, finally, not a tip but a request: Will you send me your questions about the publishing industry? I want to know what you want to know, and I’ll do my very best to tell you. So write, post, comment, or query!

Cheers for now,

-Laura Mazer