How Should A Novel Be? Genre And Sheila Heti’s Motherhood

By Kristen Holt Browning

“So, what do you write?” It’s an often heard question at Get Lit. I have my go-to answer of “short stories and poems.” I don’t mention the multi-part essays I’m working on that draw on events from my own life interspersed with musings on historic events (on a good day, I think of these pieces as “elegant” or “lyrical,” on a bad day, “rambling” or “utterly incoherent”). I don’t bother to mention that I write things that mix autobiography, history, mythology, fiction, nonfiction, the made-up, the concrete. It’s much easier to say, “short stories and poems. What about you?”

As writers, we’re supposed to fit into genre slots. Literary magazines, agents, contests, editors—they all focus on poetry, or fiction, or nonfiction. But what if your work falls between the genre cracks?

If you’re Sheila Heti, you draw extremely heavily on your own life, people your novel with characters who share the names of your actual friends, and subtitle your work “A Novel from Life,” as she did with her first novel, How Should A Person Be?

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Heti’s new novel, Motherhood, also barely confines itself to the constraints of the genre. Over the course of 300 pages, the speaker, a writer named Sheila who is the same age as the author, and lives in the same city as the author, debates whether or not to have a child. She talks to her partner, her mother, her childless friends, and her friends with children. She meanders; she posits; she interrogates; she wavers. In other words, nothing happens, except life. This “novel” contains little in the way of traditional plot, climax, or resolution.

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The central question of the narrative—should I have kids?—is the focus of most of the many articles and reviews that have already been written on this book. But for me, as a writer, what I find so invigorating about Motherhood is how unconcerned it is with genre, and with adhering to the rules of what a novel should be. If the genre doesn’t support one’s writing, she seems to suggest, the work—not the category—comes first. So, inspired by Sheila Heti, I’m going to keep writing my messy, slippery little pieces, and I’m going to follow them across whatever boundaries they may transgress.

Interview with Literary Agent Linda Pratt: Pros and Cons of Self-publishing

by Julie Chibbaro

LindaPratt

After hosting a number of traditionally published authors, we recently had a self-published writer as a guest at our Get Lit Beacon literary salon. Many writers in the audience were curious about the self-publishing process, and how it might affect their chances of eventually having their writing traditionally published.

I asked agent Linda Pratt to answer a few questions on her perspective regarding the benefits and setbacks of self-publishing, from her point of view as a 20-year veteran of the publishing business.

GLB: When does self-publishing work well for a writer?

Linda: Self-publishing has created a more democratic space to connect with potential readers similarly to how MySpace transformed the music industry in allowing musicians to offer content widely without being attached to a label. I draw the analogy because self-publishing has the potential to work well for authors whose models are comparable to bands. What I mean is bands play gigs to audiences who have come specifically to hear them. Their business model offers them a consistent means to connect with a target audience who are likely to purchase their recordings. Self-publishing can be the same for authors who have businesses that offer them this kind of consistent opportunity, i.e. life coaches, chefs who offer cooking classes, yoga instructors who run retreats, etc. It can also work for books about a specific place or event that may be seen as having too limited a market for a traditional publisher to acquire. For example, if an author wrote a book about some aspect of Beacon, and that author was able to connect with local newspapers and get enough shops on Main Street to carry the book, their goals for the book could potentially be met through self-publishing vs. not pursuing publication at all.

GLB: As an agent, what have you seen regarding self-published authors?

Linda: Most queries I receive from authors who’ve self-published start with “I wanted to see how the book would be received” or some version of that. For us in traditional publishing, this translates as it didn’t go as well as hoped so now the author is interested in the resources offered by a publisher, which is fair. But essentially the pitch to the publisher at this stage is a failed experiment, which all would agree isn’t the strongest sales tool. There is also a perception that the author may not be as open or committed to accepting editorial feedback and other publishing considerations.

That said, self-publishing can be a valid form of bringing books to readers. Just be clear about what only some of the costs include:
• the cost of an editor and/or a copyeditor
• the cost of a designer for cover and interior
• the cost to offer it on the platform of choice
• the cost of having an industry periodical review your book
• the cost of a publicist or publicity.

Ask yourself what your short term and long term goals are:
• Why are you publishing this work?
• Is this the one book you have in you, or is your goal to ultimately publish traditionally?
• How many copies do you realistically hope to sell?
• What are your financial expectations?
• How equipped are you to promote your work?

I suggest you research all aspects of both self-publishing and traditional publishing before leaping.

GLB: How has publishing changed over your time as an agent?

Summer2017headerimage-1Linda: I have been a literary agent for the past 20 years. The conglomeratization of publishing houses is probably the most significant change I’ve seen over that time period. While there are still individual imprints within many houses, there are only 5 major publishers at present, which equals to fewer competitors among publishers so fewer alternatives for authors. However, I’ve also seen a rise in smaller independent publishers.
The other major change has been the importance of an author’s sales track record. When I started in publishing, once an author connected with an editor at a house, it was pretty much understood that the author had found a home not only for that first work, but everything that would come thereafter. There was a loyalty on both sides. Now, an author’s sales track can make them ripe for poaching by other houses if they have very high sales, or on the opposite end, can make it necessary for authors to face the challenge of finding other houses.
Good luck to everyone on their literary journey!

Poet & Essayist Cynthia Cruz

By Flora Stadler

In this series, I’ll ask writers a question about “the one.” That one thing could be about their writing process, their personal experiences, or even writers they admire. The idea is to focus on a detail that (hopefully) reveals more about their writing life. My first installment in this series is with a friend and writer who I greatly admire, Cynthia Cruz. She is a poet, essayist, professor and critic who seems to flow seamlessly between many forms of writing. I first met her nearly 20 years ago as a poet, and that lyricism has always felt like the backbone of her work. This is why I asked her:

What’s the one thing writing poetry gives you that essays or prose cannot?

“I write about things I don’t know the answers to—both with essays and with poetry—but that doesn’t mean I come to any clean conclusions or answers in the end. Both allow me to pursue questions I don’t know the answers to, to move a tiny bit nearer to knowing. Having said that, poetry allows me to use gaps, ruptures, and space which in turn allow for a folding in of hesitation and silence; a kind of troubling and haunting that prose does not allow or at least does not allow to the same extent.

What has consumed me from the start is the question of how to write about experiences either personal or historical that cannot be said. Here, I am thinking of experiences that can’t be articulated either because they can only be expressed through space, gaps, or ruptures. Trauma, for example, fractures and fragments experience by definition. Any attempt at explaining trauma through concise syntax in which there occur beginning, middle and end, will fail. Prose insists on the complete sentence. When it does not, it veers into the lyric which I call poetry.

So poetry, like visual art, with, for instance the montage or collage or film still, does allow for these fragments and stutters, these ways of simulating silence or stammering. Poetry also allows for what I call a haunting—for allowing a space or rupture for what cannot be articulated but must be acknowledged. In my forthcoming collection, Dregs, for instance, I am using space on the page, as well as iterations of the stutter or other hesitations to enact these places where what must be said but cannot be must remain as gaps to allow for the acknowledgment of their absence.”

Find samples of Cynthia Cruz’s poetry here, and look for her fifth book of poems, Dregs, this fall.

Craft Book Recommendation: BIRD BY BIRD by Anne Lamott

By Ruta Rimas

My first post features one of my personal favorite books about writing. Every month, I will recommend a craft book for our wonderful literary group, one that I’ve suggested over the years to various writers with whom I’ve worked on a professional basis. There’s a lot of shelf-space dedicated to the craft and I hope that by offering up books that I’ve found insightful, helpful, practical, and inspirational, they will help you become the writer that you’ve always wanted to be.

Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, by Anne Lamott

In Bird by Bird, Lamott, a bestselling novelist and creative writing teacher, invites you to join her for a one-on-one creative writing workshop. She asks that you to put in some work. The point of writing is to write and Lamott shares useful ideas like using short assignments to jumpstart your process. She jokes about the inevitable — and important — shitty first drafts, all while providing encouraging tidbits like this gem: “Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere.”

The chapters are short and digestible, filled with self-deprecation, writing exercises, humor, compassion, and wisdom. Lamott’s style of narration is relatable and unpretentious as she uses life-affirming and often hilarious anecdotes to relate the, ahem, pleasures of writing (it’s “like bathing a cat”) while also candidly sharing with us her struggles as a human, her failures as a writer, her compulsion to never stop writing. She’s honest and raw about her journey, sometimes sad, but also uplifting and always wry.

Lamott provides practical exercises and writing prompts about developing character, plot, setting, as well as observations on dialogue (“You’re not reproducing actual speech—you’re translating the sound and rhythm of what a character says into words.”). There’s mention of the importance of writing groups and beta-readers, as well as a brief note on publication. But this book isn’t about getting published, it’s about writing, and so not much time is spent on questions like “Do I really need an agent?” because that’s not the point of writing.

Lamott’s book is a good reminder to us all: Take it word by word, writers. Just take it word by word.

Reading Like A Writer: The Female Persuasion by Meg Wolitzer

By Kristen Holt Browning

My inaugural post for Get Lit Beacon is the first in a series I’m calling “Reading Like A Writer.” Each month, I’ll briefly discuss a book of fiction or poetry that I’ve just read—but rather than a traditional book review, I’ll share my thoughts on what I learned from this book as a writer myself.

So, on to Meg Wolitzer’s The Female Persuasion.

I admire Wolitzer for situating “women’s issues” as the central theme of a large, ambitious novel. Although, unlike Wolitzer, I write short works—stories, poems, essays—like her I’m primarily interested in writing stories about women. Even in a shorter work, I want the experiences of my female characters and subjects to be central, not secondary, and to resonate as big, essential narratives that speak to and reflect the world.

This novel covers feminism, ambition, idealism, money, sexuality, aging, death and grief, and generational divides. The story centers on Greer (a college freshman when we meet her, a celebrated 31-year-old author by the novel’s end). Wolitzer uses this focus character from which to dive deeply into the lives of Cory (Greer’s boyfriend, who suffers a massive tragedy that throws his life off its comfortable course), Zee (Greer’s best friend, who stumbles through jobs and a variety of activisms before she finds meaningful work), and Faith (a star of second-wave feminism who runs a foundation financed by a venture capitalist, and struggles to balance her activism with her funder’s bottom line).

As a writer, I’m impressed by Wolitzer’s ability to not only trace, but delve deeply into, the storylines of all of her characters, each of whom have full storylines of their own, beyond their relationships to the central character of Greer. Wolitzer clearly cares about all of her characters, and believes they each deserve a full story. And, she trusts herself to write a wide variety of characters: young and old, male and female, straight and queer.

We may write in different forms, but Meg Wolitzer provides an excellent roadmap for writing women’s stories as the complex, essential narratives they are.