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Literatura de Azi (Today’s Literature): Perpetuating culture in the Internet age

design by Laurentiu Midvichi

design by Laurentiu Midvichi

Literatura de Azi (Today’s Literature): Perpetuating culture in the Internet age

by Claudia Moscovici

The notable Romanian literary critic Daniel Cristea-Enache recently launched Literatura de Azi, a  literary and culture blog that features essays by Romanian critics, fiction writers and artists.  The blog includes sections on literary criticism by Daniel Cristea-Enache himself, Alex Stefanescu, Dan-Liviu Boeriu, Ovidiu Nimigean, Lia Faur and Anca Goja; poetry by Emil Brumaru and Radu Vancu; creative writing by Selian Turlea; artwork selected by the painter Laurentiu Midvichi, music selected by Gabriela Pop, and my own section of book reviews on the Holocaust.   The list of contributors will continue to grow as the blog expands. Literatura de Azi also benefits from an excellent and energetic team of editors: Odilia Rosianu (Editor-in-Chief), Anca Goja and Romina Hamzeu (Managing Editors), Irina Ionita (Editor), Nona Carmen Rapotan (Junior Editor) and Adrian Pop (Web Master). Promoting culture via the Internet is no easy task: first of all because many consider “culture” and “the Internet” to be a contradiction in terms; secondly because it’s easy for whatever is considered “culture” to get lost in the deluge of all kinds of information. In fact, this is a problem the world of publishing faces in general.

Both publishers and authors are becoming increasingly concerned with the question of how to promote books effectively, capture the interest of readers and generate sales. Given the number of books out there, without an outstanding publicity campaign, each given book risks passing unnoticed. The competition for readers is tremendous given that an astronomical number of books are published each year. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) cites that roughly 2,200,000 books are published annually. Out of curiosity, I looked up the two countries I write about most which, not coincidentally, are also those where I’ve lived: the U.S. and Romania. In 2010, 328,259 were published in the U.S. and in 2008 14,984 books were published in Romania. Given this large number of books published in the U.S. alone, it’s difficult to believe how difficult and competitive the process of publishing can be (as I explain in an earlier article on the subject):

in English:

in Romanian:

And yet publishing your manuscript is only the beginning of the gargantuan task of rising to the surface in an ocean of information. On the one hand, the mass media and the Internet in particular makes sharing our cultural products easier in some ways, by facilitating access to an audience. For instance, anyone can self-publish and promote a novel nowadays, through blogs, twitter,  youtube and other popular venues on the internet. But this apparent democratization of culture also makes it a lot tougher to stand out from the crowd. Each cultural product–be it a novel, a collection of poems, a song, a film or a painting–competes with tens of millions of others. It’s hard to find or discern anymore what we value and what we don’t in this tidal wave of information that assails us from all directions on a daily basis. So how do quality books, and culture in general, rise to the surface? 

noise

To draw another analogy, it’s as if we heard talented classical musicians playing their instruments at the same time as others howl, scream, talk and yell in various languages. Or, if you prefer to avoid making any value judgments, as if we heard them playing at the same time as other talented musicians practice other songs. Either way you look at it, what reaches our ears will sound like a maddening cacophony, to the point that we can no longer discern the music we prefer from  the surrounding noise we’d like to ignore.

Daniel Cristea-Enache

Daniel Cristea-Enache

In a world of information (and publication) overload, publicizing culture becomes both a necessity and a challenge. This is precisely what Daniel Cristea-Enache explains in an editorial called  “Romania of the Year 2014″ (Romania Anului 2014) on Literatura de Azi (Literature of Today): 

in English translation:

“Today, almost a quarter of a century after the anti-communist revolution, it’s clear that the Romanian people and their social sphere have changed. The internet first registered this transformation, then it accelerated it. Readers–especially the younger generations–don’t obtain their information from traditional channels (it’s noteworthy that newspapers have declined even more dramatically than cultural journals) but from the Internet. We can protest this reality; we can be nostalgic; we can pull our hair out; we can laugh with a sense of superiority; we can sigh with regret: but this is the reality we face and it won’t change just because we want it to. It’s not reality that will adapt to us, in an open and pluralist society. We have to adapt to the increasing predominance of the Internet. The immediate question that arises is: if we notice this predominance, do we oppose it or do we make use of it?” (Daniel Cristea-Enache)

in Romanian:

“Astăzi, la aproape un sfert de secol de la Revoluție, e limpede că lumea românească și spațiul ei social s-au schimbat. Internetul întîi a constatat schimbarea, apoi a accelerat-o. Cititorii – mai ales cei tineri – nu își mai iau informația de pe canalele tradiționale (e semnificativ că ziarele au căzut încă mai dramatic decît revistele culturale), ci de pe net. Putem să protestăm împotriva acestei realități, putem să fim nostalgici, putem să ne smulgem părul din cap, putem să rîdem cu superioritate, putem să suspinăm cu jale: aceasta este realitatea și ea nu se schimbă după cum vrem noi. Nu realitatea are a se adapta la noi, într-o societate deschisă și pluralistă. Noi avem a ne adapta la realitatea dominației, tot mai accentuate, a internetului. Întrebarea care se pune imediat este dacă, o dată ce constatăm această dominație, ne împotrivim ei sau o folosim.” (Daniel Cristea-Enache)

Daniel Cristea-Enache goes on to argue that the first strategy is utopic. Literary production can’t avoid the Internet. Nor can it combat singlehandedly its vast and growing influence. He states that perhaps with great effort a single writer can impose upon himself isolation from the contemporary world of mass media; a kind of Rip VanWinkle hibernation. But the whole field of cultural production–literature in itself–certainly can’t follow this strategy. What Daniel Cristea-Enache proposes, and what the entire project of Literatura de Azi epitomizes, is the adaptation of “high culture” to the age of the Internet. This goal abandons the binary opposition between Culture (with all the implicit hierarchies of judgment and value that Pierre Bourdieu and others analyzed) and the Internet (mass media, without standards of value). Cristea-Enache adopts a pragmatic and modern approach to cultural value: namely, that of “transforming the Internet not in the goal of literature but in its cultural instrument, through which literature can reach as many readers as possible.” (“Chestiunea, după mine, este să transformăm internetul nu în scopul literaturii, în ținta ei – ci în instrumentul cultural prin care literatura poate ajunge la cît mai mulți cititori.”)

Being a practical person, Daniel Cristea-Enache practices what he preaches. Literatura de Azi, a blog that has already become in a matter of months a very prominent conduit of literature and culture in Romania (and that has the potential of growth internationally through syndicated columns in several languages) shows that literature, art, film and poetry can, indeed, survive the age of mass media information. But they won’t reach readers and viewers on their own. Holding on to the past or hoping for the best in the present aren’t workable strategies for promoting culture in our times. Promoting culture takes a lot of organization, energy and team work by editors, critics, authors, publishers and readers who still believe in the value of good books and do their best to help them rise to the surface in the sea of information. For more information, see Literatura de Azi‘s website, http://www.literaturadeazi.ro/

Claudia Moscovici

Literature Salon

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Filed under Adrian Pop, Alex Stefanescu, Anca Goja, book review, Claudia Moscovici, contemporary fiction, Dan-Liviu Boeriu, Daniel Cristea-Enache, Emil Brumaru, fiction, Gabriela Pop, Irina Ionita, Laurentiu Midvichi, Lia Faur, literary criticism, Literatura de Azi, Literatura de Azi (Today's Literature): Perpetuating culture in the Internet age, literature, literature salon, literaturesalon, Nona Carmen Rapotan, Odilia Rosianu, Ovidiu Nimigean, Radu Vancu, Romina Hamzeu, Stelian Turlea

Finding (the elusive) Room of one’s own: Interview with Bookblog about being a writer

A room of onee's own

Finding (the elusive) Room of one’s own: Interview with Bookblog about being a writer

Claudia Moscovici

In 1929 Virginia Woolf published a series of lectures that she delivered in 1928 at Newnham and Girton colleges (the women’s colleges at Cambridge University), which we  know under the title “A Room of One’s Own”. She argued that women don’t have their own creative space, both figuratively, in the male-dominated tradition of male writing, and literally, meaning the time and space to write. I think that nowadays few writers, both male and female, have a room of one’s own. For the vast majority of creative writers, writing is a passion, a talent, even an identity, but it is no longer a profession. To put it bluntly, most writers can’t earn a consistent living from it. Even journalism is barely hanging on, as the major newspapers in the U.S. are bought at low prices and blogging has taken over what used to be professional journalism. Ever since I was in college, at Princeton University, I’ve dreamt of being a fiction writer. Knowing, however, that writing isn’t a full-fledged profession, I didn’t take the plunge until my family and I achieved some level of financial stability. I studied and got a doctorate in Comparative Literature at Brown University and became a literary critic and professor for nearly 15 years. Although I had some financial stability at that point, I wouldn’t say that I had a room of my own, either literally or figuratively. I was busy raising a young family, my lovely kids Sophie and Alex, so I didn’t have much time to write fiction.bookbloginterview3

Professionally, for many years I wrote scholarly essays and books. To give voice to my creative side, in  2002 I founded an art movement called postromanticism (http://postromanticism.com), devoted to some of the aesthetic values that I thought were being neglected in contemporary art: verisimilitude, passion, sensuality and beauty.Cover of Romanticism and Postromanticism

The internet became, to some extent, a room of my own: a space where I could discover and interact with artists from all over the world (France, the U.S., Switzerland, Taiwan, Romania, Hungary, Italy, Mexico, Brazil, etc.) who shared my aesthetic vision. But I still didn’t have the time and space to fully express my own creativity as a writer until I became a full-time writer in 2008 and subsequently published my first novel, Velvet Totalitarianism, in 2009 (translated as Intre Doua Lumi, Editura Curtea Veche, 2011) and my second novel, The Seducer (2011). At that point in my life, my children were old enough that they no longer needed to be nurtured in the same way, or in the same space with me at all times. My space as a writer changed again and I could finally have the time and place to write.

Bookbloginterview1

I write at my desk on a Mac computer, with my cat Jewel serving as a constant companion (and, I’d say, also muse). As all my Facebook friends know from the cat pictures I post, I’m a big cat lover. This is why I chose a picture of Jewel in my library as one of the photos included for this interview. This picture of my cat perched on my books also shows that even when I write fiction I still follow some of the research habits  that I acquired as a scholar. I research throughly every novel I write. To write Velvet Totalitarianism, for instance, I read dozens of books on communism, the Ceausescu dictatorship, the political history of Romania and the revolution of 1989. To write The Seducer, a novel about psychopathic seduction that follows the structure of my favorite novel, Anna Karenina, I researched psychopathy, narcissism and other personality disorders. The plots of my novels may be fiction, but to write about anything that has a basis in history, psychology or sociology I believe that one has to have some foundation in facts.

Seducer Cover

We are used to thinking of writers as being occupied mostly with writing. I believe this too has become a fiction. If the writer has a family, then a large part of his or her life revolves around that family’s needs. Second, a writer has to wear many hats, so to speak: researcher, writer, and publicity director all in one. As a literary critic, fiction writer and founder of an international art movement, the publicity hat is very large for me. I not only have to publicize my own books, but also the postromantic movement and the art of the dozens of artists I collaborate with (you can see some of my essays about them on my art blog, http://fineartebooks.wordpress.com).bookbloginterview2

This is why for this interview I’ve included a press photo of me during my visit to Romania, taken by Claudiu Ciprian Popa, for the launch of my novel Intre Doua Lumi, in 2011. Book publicity has become almost as important to me as the computer at which I write. And this isn’t just because nowadays publicity has become a necessity: without effective publicity most writers wouldn’t be read. It’s also because I’m trying to find a place in the publishing industry that isn’t that of simply being a writer. I’ve witnessed enormous changes in this industry in the U.S., as most of the small and medium publishing houses have died, or been swallowed by the large publishers. Even the large publishing houses have had to merge to survive. Most authors are left without a publicity budget, which means with less consecration and access to readers and reviewers. The final picture I’m including of this room of my own is a still shot from the movie video book trailer for my novel “Velvet Totalitarianism,” called “Velvet Love,” made by Andy Platon.

bookbloginterview4

This photo indicates the direction I believe the publishing industry will take: namely, producing relatively inexpensive, creative and cutting-edge ways in which individual authors and publishers will publicize books in the future. In the past few years my writing space, or room of my own, has changed yet again, to encompass a network of collaborations among the various arts, including music, film and literature, which I believe will become increasingly important to authors and publishers alike.

Claudia Moscovici, Literature Salon

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Filed under A Room of one's own, Andy Platon Velvet Love, book review, Claudia Moscovici, contemporary fiction, fiction, interview with Bookblog, Intre Doua Lumi Claudia Moscovici, Intre Doua Lumi Curtea Veche Publishing, literary criticism, literature, literature salon, literaturesalon, Velvet Love, Virginia Woolf A room of one's own

Interview about my novels The Seducer and Velvet Totalitarianism with Ziare.com (in English)

photo credit Romani Celebri

photo credit Romani Celebri

I’ve translated below parts of my interview with Diana Robu, which was originally published in Romanian in Ziare.com (Newspapers.com).

1. Tell us a little bit about when and under what circumstances you left Romania.

1. I left Romania in 1981, at the age of 11. I haven’t returned until 2011, for the launch of my first novel Velvet Totalitarianism in Romanian translation, Intre Doua Lumi (Editura Curtea Veche). My father defected from the country two years before my mother and I legally immigrated to the U.S. He was a world-class mathematician and his boss was Zoia Ceausescu. She had let it be known that he wouldn’t be able to travel abroad to mathematical conferences anymore (because Nicolae Ceausescu was tightening the Iron Curtain). So he decided to take his chances, as several mathematicians had before him, and defect to the U.S. in the hopes that we would rejoin him soon. I filter aspects of our struggles to unite our family in my first novel, Intre Doua Lumi, as well as describing aspects of the adaptation to the U.S. (even though I fictionalize everything, of course, since I wrote a novel not a memoir).

2. What was your reaction when you returned to Romania, so many years later?

2. When I returned to Romania for my book launch decades later, in 2011, I was shocked and impressed to see how much the country has changed in its physical aspects, in its modernization, and in the standard of living. Of course, I only caught a privileged glimpse of Bucharest, from the perspective of an author on a book tour. So I didn’t get an inside glimpse, nor a global view of the country. It was a very brief and limited, but also very positive experience.

einstein2

3. Tell us about your professional life and impression of the American academia.

3. In the academia, I taught in several departments–philosophy, art and comparative literature–since I love all of these fields. I tried to focus on the aspects of the profession that emphasize love of art, love of literature, and clarity of expression. Personally, I subscribe to Albert Einstein‘s wise saying: “If you can’t explain something clearly, then you don’t understand it well enough.”

4. What would you advise Romanians who might be interested in moving to the U.S.?

4. I’d advise any Romanian who is thinking about immigrating to the U.S. to visit the country for a considerable period first and find out about professional opportunities and day to day life. Just as it was easy for me to idealize Romania when I was a tourist there in 2011, it’s easy for anyone visiting the U.S. as a tourist to do the same. You never know how you’ll feel in a country until you actually live there, and find a place to work and a place to live. There are some professions, like medicine, where the degrees from one country don’t automatically get accepted in another. Many doctors from Romania have had to start from square one (medical school) or do something else related to medicine. It’s always more prudent to know exactly what you’re getting into before you make any drastic move.

Cover of Romanticism and Postromanticism

5. Do you wish to visit Romania again?

5. Yes, I hope to return to Romania for the book launches of my art criticism book, Romanticism and Postromanticism, translated by the writer Dumitru Radu Popa, and for the launch of my second novel, The Seducer, which hasn’t been translated yet. During this period I hope to get to see more of the country outside of Bucharest, such as Drobeta Turnu Severin and Timisoara, where some of my family lives.

Cover Intre Doua Lumi

6. Is your first novel, Velvet Totalitarianism, autobiographical? If so, in what ways?

6. Velvet Totalitarianism, translated into Romanian by Mihnea Gafita under the title of Intre Doua Lumi, does incorporate some of our family’s struggles with the Romanian Securitate and the challenges of immigrating to the U.S. However, I fictionalized the entire plot, included a fictional spy thriller element (the Radu/Ioana plot line) and changed everything structurally to make the story work as a novel. Reality was only a point of departure (and research). But the novel is, after all, fiction.

Cover of The Seducer

7. You write books in several different domains. What leads you to do so? 

7. Since I was young, I loved several fields: art, literature and philosophy. The arts are, in fact, conceptually very closely related. They’re separated only by institutions and how they’re taught. But it’s natural to look at them, and appreciate them, together, which is exactly what I do. I write about the international art I appreciate on my art blog http://fineartebooks.wordpress.com. In 2002, I founded an international art movement, called postromanticism, devoted to celebrating verisimilitude, sensuality, and beauty in art. It was intended as an alternative, not a replacement, to more abstract and conceptual traditions in art. I believe in pluralism, not dogmatism, in the art world, particularly since matters of taste and definitions of art are more or less subjective. I also spend part of each week working on my new novel, Fractals of a Murder. This will be my first murder mystery, but it’s not going to be genre fiction. I still prioritize strong and realistic characterizations. Finally, I write literary reviews from time to time about books I really like. I also enjoy learning about and writing about different fields related to my areas of specialization. My ideal is of the salonnieres and philosophes of the eighteenth century, who could write and converse about all aspects of the arts and humanities, often even mathematics, physics and natural science. I’ve lost any hope, however, in being able to know much about science or math. My parents, Henri and Elvira Moscovici, are both mathematicians, and I saw how different (and difficult) these fields are from the arts and humanities. But even in this day and age, of focused specialization, we can still do our best to expand our horizons.

8. How do you see Romania’s future?

8. I see Romania’s future as being increasingly open to international collaborations and the country as being more visible internationally. Of course, success stories like Herta Muller and Cristian Mungiu add to the country’s visibility. I predict that there will be more success stories like this. In the field of journalism and literature, Romania already has collaborations with Conde Nast Publishing, Forbes Magazine and others. I think such international collaborations in journalism will expand. Culturally, in every country groups and individuals create worthy art and literature and compete for limited consecration and power. The content of the art or literature are often inseparable from the institutions competing for influence. This is part of human nature and won’t change. The politics in Romania is the wild card. I don’t know enough about the ins and outs of politics in the country to make any predictions about it. It would be best for the country and its people, needless to say, if the infrastructure and laws of a democratic nation are taken seriously.

Claudia Moscovici, Literature Salon

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Filed under book review, Claudia Moscovici, contemporary fiction, Diana Robu, fiction, Henri Moscovici, Intre Doua Lumi Curtea Veche Publishing, literary criticism, literary fiction, literature, literature salon, literaturesalon, Velvet Totalitarianism, Ziare.com, Ziare.com Claudia Moscovici

How writers write fiction: Marching to the beat of your own drum

Seducer Cover

How writers write fiction: Marching to the beat of your own drum

by Claudia Moscovici

In an earlier article, entitled Why writers write, I explored some of the reasons why writers write fiction by looking into common misconceptions. I argued, for instance, that most writers don’t write in order to achieve fame or fortune, both of which are cosmically unlikely and therefore equally unlikely to last as primary motivations for writers past a very young (and naïve) age:

http://literaturesalon.wordpress.com/2012/09/12/why-writers-write-common-myths-about-being-a-writer/

Now I’d like to explore the process of writing (and misconceptions about it as well), by relying on my own experience as a novelist as well as by using as examples a few of my favorite fiction writers. Basically, I believe that there’s no rule, regimen or standard way of writing fiction: not only in terms of content and style (the diversity of fiction speaks for itself and renders this point quite obvious), but also in terms of the writing process itself.

The diversity in styles and approaches to fiction writing makes the job of those who teach Creative Writing un-enviably difficult. I’ve often read interviews with fiction writers and advice given writers offered by Creative Writing seminars, courses and websites that indicate certain standard procedures of writing fiction. Those usually include making a plot outline; writing a scheme for the structure of the short story or novel; disciplining and pacing yourself as a creative writer in specific ways. Some teachers, writers and courses even suggest that fiction writers need to isolate themselves from social media, email and other external “distractions” in order to concentrate better on writing fiction. Don’t get me wrong, I think such advice can be very helpful to many writers. Yet, at the same time, I still maintain that the creative writing process is as individual as writing styles. Each writer writes at his or her own pace and requires specific conditions.

Anna Karenina

There’s no doubt that all fiction writers need some uninterrupted periods of time to write fiction and a good place to do it, or A Room of One’s Own (1929), to allude to Virginia Woolf’s famous essay.  The reason for this is quite obvious: fiction writing requires stepping into imaginary situations and entering the minds of imagined characters. This delicate creative process would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to achieve in short spurts of time or with constant interruptions. Speaking from personal experience, this is part of the reason why my first novel, Velvet Totalitarianism (2009), which I wrote when I was an academic teaching philosophy and literature and a young mom of two small kids, took me ten years to write. Once my children became older and more independent and (especially) once I became a full-time writer and art critic, I had the right conditions to finish The Seducer (2011), my second novel, in only three years. But I wouldn’t take this common denominator of fiction writers—needing some uninterrupted chunks of time, a space to write and periods of peace and quiet—to an extreme, to suggest that fiction writers need to isolate themselves from social media or external input in order to write fiction. There’s a delicate balance between needing external input and isolating oneself to write fiction (or to create art, a similar creative process). Nobody can dictate to any writer or artist what that balance is because it’s as individual as the personality of each writer and his or her writing style.

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In fact, probably many creative writers and artists find themselves in the position that Pablo Picasso describes to his  partner, Françoise Gilot: namely, that of needing external stimulation and contact with others as a rich source of inspiration for art, yet also, because of that, not having enough time to focus on each work of art. As Gilot recalls in her autobiography, Life with Picasso:

“Sometimes Pablo would begin a canvas in the morning and in the evening he would say, ‘Oh, well, it’s done, I suppose. What I had to say plastically is there, but it came almost too quickly. If I leave it like that, with only the appearance of having what I wanted to put into it, it doesn’t satisfy me. But I’m interrupted continually every day and I’m hardly ever in a position to push my thought right up to its last implication.’ […] I asked him why he didn’t shut out the world, and with it the interruptions. ‘But I can’t,’ he said. ‘What I create in painting is what comes from my interior world. But at the same time I need the contacts and exchanges I have with others.’” (Life with Picasso, Françoise Gilot, Anchor Books, New York, 1989, p. 123)

Cover of Velvet Totalitarianism

In our times, this balance between external contacts and inspiration and the solitude necessary to perfect any art form is probably even more difficult to reach because we live in an era of inundation from social media on a daily basis. Nowadays, fiction writers and artists rely upon the social media—Facebook, blogs, interviews with journalists–not only to speak about their art and share with readers (or viewers) what they’ve already produced, but also to find new sources of inspiration. For some fiction writers–particularly those who write historical fiction, true crime novels and psychological–  research and external input may be indispensable. Once again speaking from my own experience, when I wrote the historical novel Velvet Totalitarianism (Intre Doua Lumi), I had to read literally dozens of books on the history of Romania and about Romanian communism in order to be able to draw a historically accurate fictional depiction of that era. I couldn’t rely simply on inspiration or on fading childhood memories, since I had left the country at a relatively young age and wanted my novel to be partly based on actual facts, not only about invented characters and situations. When I wrote my second novel, The Seducer, on the subject of psychopathic seduction, I became even more dependent on external sources of information. I relied especially on blogs, since at the time there were relatively few books published on the subject of psychopaths and other social predators. Most of the information on the subject, particularly testimonials by victims which were extremely helpful, could be found on blogs such as lovefraud.com, which I read with great interest as background for writing fiction about a psychopathic seducer.

I believe that how you write—the process of fiction writing itself, starting from the space you right in; how fast or slow you pace yourself; the conditions and interruptions you choose or that are imposed upon you—does NOT determine the QUALITY of your fiction. But these conditions, and the balance you find as a fiction writer between isolation and external input—has a significant impact upon the QUANTITY and even the style of your fiction.  The best advice I can offer any fiction writer is to find his or her own balance that works for them rather than rely upon generic advice. I guess that’s a paradoxical way of saying the best advice I have is not to follow any general advice and choose instead what works for your situation, personality and style.  To support my case for the importance of marching to the beat of your own drum, I’d like to offer examples from some of my favorite writers.

balzac-la-comedie-humaine

1. Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850) and La Comédie humaine

As a scholar of Comparative Literature specializing in 19th-century French fiction, it’s not surprising that my main examples will come mostly from the French classics. One of my favorite novelists, Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850), rivaled Napoleon in his ambition. In his wide-ranging work, La Comédie humaine, Balzac aimed to paint a literary portrait of “all aspects of society” during the period of the Restoration and the July Monarchy (1815-1848).  He wrote about 91 finished stories, novels and essays that capture almost every facet of French society and culture following the fall of Napoleon in 1815. Like many writers, his creative genius was spurred on by failure. After finishing school, Balzac apprenticed to become a lawyer, but decided pretty early on that he didn’t like the field. He then experimented with publishing, printing, becoming a critic and even a politician. All of these more traditional professions didn’t suit him, however.

Ultimately, Balzac decided to follow his dream of being a fiction writer. Given the scope of his literary ambition, he set for himself an extremely rigorous routine. He wrote at all hours of the day and night, staying awake by drinking many cups of strong coffee that ultimately damaged his health.  Throughout his life, Balzac’s difficult writing schedule—and lack of financial stability—strained his relationship with his family and even with friends. Despite writing dozens of novels and short stories, Balzac didn’t write quickly. He just worked long hours. Biographers document that he wrote approximately 15 hours a day. He took a nap after supper from 6 p.m to midnight, then woke up to write during the evening and night again. The author’s novels are greatly influenced by his life experiences, even though they’re not exactly autobiographical. Like Zola did after him, Balzac uses his observations of society to create fictional characters that offer a sweeping sketch of his era. His writing is a reflection of the balance he found between living and interacting with so many people from very diverse social backgrounds and the strenuous discipline he imposed on himself in order to fulfill his vast literary ambition.

2. Gustave Flaubert (1821-1880) and Madame Bovary (1856)

Of course, writing a little may take just as much discipline and time as writing a lot. At the other end of the spectrum (at least in terms of quantity of writing), my favorite French writer, Gustave Flaubert, was far less prolific than Balzac, even though he was equally ambitious. Flaubert achieved international fame for his unforgettable novel, Madame Bovary (1856), as well as for a beautiful, innovative yet starkly honest (and even cynical) mode of writing that the author polished to perfection. For Flaubert, style was everything.  Avoiding all clichés, he edited fastidiously his short stories and novels, pursuing what he called “le mot juste” (the right word). Perfecting style in a few works took as much work for Flaubert as sketching an entire era in nearly 100 works did for Balzac. In his correspondence, Flaubert states that this perfected style didn’t flow naturally out of him. He had to work hard, and edit constantly, to approximate it.

Like many writers, Flaubert encountered his share of challenges and setbacks. By the time of his death, however, he became known as the master of French realism (despite his lyrical style, which is also regarded by critics as the last echo of Romanticism). The publication of Madame Bovary (1856), the story of the disillusionment and eventual suicide of a provincial doctor’s wife who (fruitlessly) seeks love and meaning through a series of adulterous affairs, was greeted by the public with scandal rather than admiration. When chapters of the novel were published in La Revue de Paris (October 1956 to December 1956), Madame Bovary was attacked as “obscene” by the public prosecutor. Flaubert became acquitted, however, the following year. Afterwards, the novel quickly became a best seller, going far beyond a succès de scandale. By the time of his death, Flaubert was considered as one of the greatest French writers of the century (and he still is).

No rule, advice or measure could apply equally well to a writer like Balzac as to a writer like Flaubert, except perhaps the very general tenet that each found his own balance and discipline in the process of writing to suit his writing style, personality and literary ambition.

rubato1

3. Snippets of the interview with Romanian writer Razvan Petrescu: Marching to the Beat of your own Drum

Perhaps no writer shows the relativity of the writing process—and even casts doubt upon the boundary conventionally drawn between fiction and nonfiction, or fact and imagination—as my friend, the Romanian writer Razvan Petrescu. I have already written about his latest collection of short stories in the following article:

http://literaturesalon.wordpress.com/2013/01/09/razvan-petrescus-rubato-the-coordinates-of-world-class-romanian-fiction/

This article has been translated and published in Romania on Editura Curtea Veche’s blog:

http://www.curteaveche.ro/blog/2013/01/15/rubato-de-razvan-petrescu-coordonatele-unei-proze-romanesti-de-clasa-mondiala/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=rubato-de-razvan-petrescu-coordonatele-unei-proze-romanesti-de-clasa-mondiala

To continue our discussion, I recently interviewed him about his books, his life and the writing process for a series of articles published in the Romanian magazine Scrisul Romanesc and the blog Agentia de Carte. To my mind,  Razvan Petrescu exemplifies the meaning of the English expression “marching to the beat of your own drum,” both as a person and as a writer (since the two aspects are, after all, intertwined). What struck me most about his interview, from which I’m translating only a few bits and pieces here, is the fact that his nonfiction (meaning his answers to my very traditional, journalistic questions) reads like some of the best fiction I have ever read. His first answer, to my very standard question “When did you begin writing fiction?” reminds me of lines from one of my favorite novels, Lolita (1955), by the man I consider the greatest American novelist, the Russian-born Vladimir Nabokov. In this beautiful and lyrical passage of the novel, the narrator, Humbert Humbert introduces Annabel, his first love and the precursor to Lolita: “All at once we were madly, clumsily, shamelessly, agonizingly in love with each other; hopelessly, I should add, because the frenzy of mutual possession might have been assuaged only by our actually imbibing and assimilating every particle of each others soul and flesh; but there we were, unable even to mate as slum children would have so easily found an opportunity to do” (Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov, New York: Vintage International, 1997, p. 12).

Although Petrescu has a style of his own, of course, like Nabokov, he’s a master of style, whether he writes fiction or nonfiction. Speaking of which, if you believe that any course, author or teacher can draw a sharp distinction between fiction and nonfiction or tell any creative writer how to write, you may change your mind after reading parts of this humorous, honest, chaotic and–above all—unique and original interview with the writer and editor Razvan Petrescu. Enjoy the (non)fiction!

razvan-petrescu-foto-attila-vizauer

Claudia Moscovici: When did you begin writing fiction?

Razvan Petrescu: Around the age of 15, when I fell in love for the third time. She had long, wavy red hair and well-formed breasts. My wonder knew no bounds when I was faced with this enigmatic pyramidal structure. I was fascinated by other zones and became absent-minded. Which didn’t provoke any particular happiness, given the fact that I was still expected to do various practical things, which included painting the walls, as I was dreaming with my hand shielding my forehead. I was thus overcome by a terrible love. It was autumn, the leaves were falling, the baby birds were hatching, while I was meandering in front of her house in my high school uniform with the number of my school inscribed on my left arm, my face turning melancholic-green with despair. She wasn’t in love with me yet. She would become swept in the feeling only at the moment when it left me and, because I had already read a whole slew of books (especially police thrillers and stories about submarines), I started writing her verses with an eye makeup pencil on a little notepad. I would read them alone at home and would cry seeing how much pain those words stolen from maximum suffering could provoke. When I read them again three years later, I couldn’t believe that I was able to write such idiocies and was overcome with a boundless sense of shame.

CM: What inspires you to write fiction?

RP: Almost anything. The blade of grass upon which climbs a little insect. The insect falls over, moves its little legs, I step on it with my shoe, a shoe meant for such events. The purplish clouds crossed by planes at sunset on the Paris-Slobozia route awaken in me aviatico-poetic catastrophes. I see the terrified passengers placing on their oxygen masks, screaming in them, waving their arms. The oxygen doesn’t work, the airplane changes course at the last moment exactly above IOR Park, over a little pond upon which floats a little ship with a hole in it. They all die of asphyxiation on the plane, while those on the ship drown in the greenish waters. … Usually I transform banal events with regular people into tragedies, or vice versa. I’m attracted to the dramatic, the grotesque, the painful. I describe what I observe, adding as many imagined things as possible to make the story more plausible, or conversely, more absurd.

CM: Who are the writers that inspire you most?

RP: Bach, Chekhov, Céline, Salinger, John Osborne, Raymond Carver, Mozart, Miles Davis, Donald Bartholomew,  Joyce, Faulkner, Schubert, Mahler, Lester Young, Cortazar, Buzzati, Garcia Marquez, Truman Capote, Coleman Hawkins, Chopin, Ben Webster, Oscar Peterson, Haneke, Pachelbel, Fellini, Tarkovsky, Beethoven.  The harmony of the piano. The king of the flies. Friday or the languages of the Pacific. … In order not to become mixed up, I’ve gotten into the habit of including my answer to this same question, which I’ve been asked by others and asked myself in other contexts, adding to it nonsensically titles, names, kinds, in order to leave an impression of culture pure and simple. But, above all, I do this in order to avoid boredom…

CM: No fiction is strictly autobiographical, but did you express any personal elements in your fiction. If so, which ones?

RP: I didn’t express anything, for the simple reason that everything I write and experience is fiction. In other words, if I included autobiographical elements in my fiction, they’re fictional. Example: the fact that I studied medicine. I didn’t. I wasn’t a doctor. I never lived in Bucharest. I didn’t go to high school number 43. I didn’t try to sleep with the high school beauty queen in ninth grade. I didn’t have a friend in kindergarten that died, and I didn’t go to her funeral. … I wasn’t a writer, I didn’t have a job, and thus I didn’t work at the magazines “The Word,” “Amphitheater,” the “Literature Museum,” the “Ministry of Culture,” All Publishing, Rosetti, Brukenthal and Curtea Veche Publishing….

CM: To follow-up my last question, what is the relation between your personal life and your life as a writer?

RP: It’s one of total harmony. They overlap. Any object or being that overlaps with another is happy. Given that I don’t need a job in order to make a living, I write all the time, especially at night. I’ve dedicated my life to literature for well over two decades. My personal life has been fulfilled in being a writer and vice versa. I had the good fortune of receiving good money by selling books and, also, through translations. Last month, when I signed a contract for the translation of my most recent book in Macedonia, they offered me almost 150 Euros. I had to renounce the retribution, since I know my value and it’s not quite so big. If I had accepted the payment for the author’s rights I’d have lost it completely, so I asked the editor to allow me to give him money.

Claudia Moscovici, Literature Salon

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Book review of Edward J. Ahearn’s Urban Confrontations in Literature and Social Science, by Edward K. Kaplan

Urban Confrontations by Edward J. Ahearn

Urban Confrontations by Edward J. Ahearn

Edward J. Ahearn, Urban Confrontations in Literature and Social Science, 1848-2001: European Contexts, American Evolutions. Surrey, England: Ashgate, 2010. ISBN 978-0-7546-6882-4;

ISBN 978-0-7546-9538-7 (ebook), 236 pp.

Edward Ahearn has developed a truly comparative, interdisciplinary investigation of representations of the modern city in literature and sociology (which he also calls social science). This is an excellent model of committed scholarship, extending stretching from mid-nineteenth-century Europe to the present-day United States. The author draws us in by explaining that the book “reflects my personal and professional life. Born in Manhattan in 1937, I grew up in Brooklyn in the 1940s and1950s, stimulated by New York’s vast spectacle and the enormous energy and variety of crowds in streets and subways” (1).

Baudelaire

Baudelaire

A specialist in nineteenth-century French literature and author of a book on Rimbaud, Ahearn opens with Baudelaire’s prose poem, “The Bad Glazier,” as a metaphor of his critique of ideologies, both political and academic, characterized as “a hegemonic battle between literature, psychology and social theorizing,” in Baudelaire’s terms, “breaking the glass” (loc. cit.).

The entire book is organized around two domains of research: academic or politically engaged urban sociology and literature, mostly American. Given the wide variety of examples, Ahearn assumes that most readers would not have read the majority of works he cites. So he structures each of three parts to highlight the continuity of his focus on Chicago, Paris, Los Angeles, and New York.

In each part he first examines the writings of social science and then he interprets literary exemplars. Part I, “The Heroism of Modern Life? Baudelaire, Brecht and the Founders of Urban Sociology” (9-64), provides a pedagogical model, highlighting Baudelaire’s Parisian modernism and Brecht’s theatrical radicalism through his Chicago drama, “Jungle of Cities.” Part II, “Chicago Black and White: Immigration and Race in Native Son and The Adventures of Augie March” (67-112), deals with American identity in major works by Richard Wright and Saul Bellow. Part III, “Power, Governance and the Struggle for Human Realization” (113-179), introduces woman authors who portray struggles with ethnic and immigrant identity, and gender roles, Jazz by Toni Morrison, Sandra Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street, and Fae Myenne Ng’s Bone.

A substantial Epilogue, “DeLillo’s Global City” (181-203), carefully examines Cosmopolis, “a novel of world quality” (181) published in 2003. Ahearn returns to Baudelaire’s “The Bad Glazier,” as he recalls his other literary examples to explain the “space-time” compression of Cosmopolis (183). Throughtout the book, the author accompanies his careful analysis of each work with a respectful, and often laudatory engagement with other critics, lending a generous dialogical dimension to his exposition.

Ahearn’s parallel (or complementary) theoretical analysis systematically studies the development of urban social science, lending a greater coherence to the otherwise scattered variety of literary interpretations, some of them quite detailed. I found the study of Robert Moses to be the most dramatic: chap. 6, “Bureaucracy and the Lone City Dweller: James Q. Wilson – and Michel Foucault – Meet Bartleby” (121-35), continuing in chap. 7, “Jazz and The Power Broker: Urban Tycoon versus Real Lives of Ordinary Black People” (138-60).

The reading experience is usually friendly but sometimes arduous. Ahearn provides deft plot summaries, and strategic reminders of his process, to clarify his interpretations and critiques.

This is an exemplary pedagogical work, the fruit of a life-time of award-winning teaching and co-teaching at Brown University. From the perspective of literary studies, it could be said that Baudelaire, and to a lesser degree Rimbaud and Balzac, comprise the foundation which justifies Edward Ahearn’s defense and criticism of urban sociology, a social science that illumines the sad, complex facts of big cities such as Paris and Chicago – the two prominent places of interest in this richly documented, militant but hopeful, and clearly argued book.

Edward K. Kaplan

Brandeis University

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Filed under American literature, book review, by Edward K. Kaplan, Edward J. Ahearn, Edward J. Ahearn Urban Confrontations, Edward K. Kaplan, French literature, literature, society and culture, Urban Confrontations in Literature and Social Science by Edward J. Ahearn

Why Writers Write: Common Myths about being a Writer

The Seducer by Claudia Moscovici

In my career as a writer–of both fiction and literary/art criticism–I have encountered many myths about why writers write. Some of them I even believed myself when I was younger. It is tempting and glamorous to believe that writing is a profession that brings with it fame and fortune. In fact, the Romantic movement disseminated such a myth, presenting the writer as a free spirit that achieves greatness and immortality via his art or fiction. The reality of being a writer is, in most cases, very different and therefore so are the main motivations of contemporary authors. I’d like to describe some of those motivations by going over a few common misconceptions about writing.

Myth 1. Writing is a profession.  It’s true that full-time writing takes as much time as any profession does. Moreover, writers seldom take breaks or vacations from writing. It is often an all-consuming enterprise. Ideas and inspiration don’t have a set schedule, even if the writer is very disciplined and writes regularly. Furthermore, a profession implies a more or less steady salary. However, few writers receive a steady income–enough to support themselves and their families–by writing. So, in that sense, writing is not a profession, at least not in the conventional sense of the term. It’s more of an all-consuming passion and a way of life in which the monetary rewards are uneven and uncertain. In the United States, where I live and publish, writers receive about 5 to 10 percent royalties from the profits made by their books. The percentage depends upon how many copies of their books are sold, how much they cost, and what kind of contract their literary agent (or they, themselves) have negotiated with the publisher. Generally speaking, the more books they sell the larger the author’s royalties, but it seldom exceeds 10 percent.  Needless to say, unless your books sell as well as the Harry Potter or Twilight series—and sell movie rights on top of book sales—it’s difficult to imagine making a steady income for an entire family just by writing and publishing books.

Myth 2. Writers want to be famous. As they say here, good luck with that! As far as popular culture is concerned, you have much better chances of becoming famous if you’re an actor or pop star. We can take the Harry Potter series as an example, since it’s so well known internationally. The principal actors of the films—Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson—are far better known than the author of the series, J. K. Rowling, who is nonetheless one of the best known contemporary authors. Generally speaking, far more people would recognize in the street the actors as opposed to the authors of very successful books that have been made into movies. So if you want fame or external recognition, it’s best that you select a profession that is more visible in mainstream culture, such as singing or acting. 

Myth 3. Writers want immortality. This is a very tempting Romantic thought for anyone who aspires to achieve greatness. But most professional writers are quickly disabused of this notion. “Immortality” is not a pure Romantic ideal; it’s more of a political and pragmatic reality. It depends upon the processes of cultural consecration. One of the best authors I have read on this subject is Pierre Bourdieu. His books, The Field of Cultural Production: Essays on Art and Literature and Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste, explain all the politics and social hierarchies involved in making it into the canon, be it in art, music or literature. Attaining this kind of artistic “immortality”—which is so human and ephemeral after all—depends upon a very complex and heavily politicized process that does not favor most authors or lie within their (or their publisher’s) control.

Myth 4. It’s easy to publish. That depends on the avenue of publishing you try. Self-publishing is easy, since now anyone can print their e-books on Amazon Kindle. But the problem with that is that there are so many books out there that it’s tough to reach an audience. If you select this path, you won’t have the promotion or distribution budget that the major publishing houses have at their disposal.  And if you want to publish with a large publishing house, at least in the U.S., then you have to go through the usually challenging process of finding a reputable literary agent who is able to place your book.  A few years ago, I had the opportunity to have an inside peek at this process. When I was teaching at the University of Michigan, I organized a few panel discussions at the Ann Arbor Book Festival (in 2005, 2006 and 2007). In 2007, Amy Williams, who is Elizabeth Kostova’s literary agent, and Susan Golomb, Jonathan Franzen’s agent were two of the guest speakers in these panels. They discussed, among other things, the publishing process, explaining that they receive as many as 100 to 200 submissions a day from authors seeking representation. This deluge of queries is colloquially called “the slush pile”. Like most very successful agents, they usually sift through the queries and focus mostly on submissions by successful authors they know of or authors recommended by successful authors they know. Only rarely do they find in the slush pile unknown and unrecommended authors they wish to represent, and even in those cases, they are usually students at very reputable M.F.A. programs or have published with important magazines or literary reviews.

So if writing is not a great way to become famous, immortal or even earn a steady income, then why do so many of us want to become writers? I certainly can’t speak for everyone, but I can say that my main motivation for writing has been intellectual and artistic freedom. It’s something that many artists and writers prize dearly. There are few human endeavors as closely tied to freedom as writing. Here’s why.

a)   First of all, a writer can’t really thrive without living in a country that respects and protects the freedom of speech. Granted, great writers emerged even during the worst totalitarian regimes. Maxim Gorky, the most prominent writer during the Stalinist era, is a prime example. But even he had to compromise his creativity and abide by the motto coined by Yury Olesha and paraphrased by Stalin himself: “The Production of souls is more important than the production of tanks. And therefore I raise my glass to you, writers, the engineers of the human soul” (Joseph Stalin, “Speech at home of Maxim Gorky,” 26 October 1932). This subordination of art and literature to ideology is one of the saddest thing a culture can do human creativity. It is an engineering of a state of soullessness rather than of the human soul. Writing and the freedom of expression are closely intertwined.

b)    It is difficult to write as told. The creative process—particularly for writing fiction–is delicate, quirky and individual. Writers write not only in different genres, but also at different speeds; at their own pace. Some take a lifetime to write their masterpiece; others, like Balzac, write a novel a year. Some require daily discipline; others write in periodic spurts of inspiration.  Nothing and nobody can dictate, from the outside, how writers should write. I know this is part of why I preferred being a writer to being an academic. Academic writing is constrained by area of specialization and technical jargon. Fiction is constrained by nothing. Only your capacities and imagination are the limit. “Everything you can imagine is real,” said Picasso. How true!

c)  Your creativity is your only real guide. As a writer, you generally have to have in mind a target audience as well as what publishers can sell, to market your book. However, these are very abstract parameters. Nobody can really predict the public taste: not writers, not literary agents, not publishers. For publishers and literary agents, publishing success is like a very well informed gamble. Well informed because they study the market closely and have an intuitive understanding of what sells well. But nobody can predict the next best seller with a high degree of accuracy. That’s why literary agents represent between 100 and 200 authors and why the big, mainstream publishers in the U.S. publish about 200 to 300 books a year. Some of them are with established, brand name authors that are sure to sell well, but many of the new authors have only moderate success. Nobody could have predicted in advance, for instance, that a book of erotic fiction like Fifty Shades of Grey—a genre usually relegated to small, specialized erotica presses and that hasn’t been so wildly popular since Marquis de Sade made a splash in the eighteenth-century—would be this year’s best-seller. Go figure! For writers, agents and publishers alike, public taste is a wild card. You can aim to please a large mainstream audience, but your aim may or may not hit the target.

d)   Writing is a celebration of freedom. This is a personal reason. It may not be applicable to all authors, but it was my main motivation for writing fiction. I left Romania as a child, while the country was still in the throes of the worst phase of Ceausescu’s repression. The communist regime had clamped down on the Iron Curtain, instituting increasingly stifling and repressive measures. I wrote my first novel, Velvet Totalitarianism, translated by Mihnea Gafita into Romanian as Intre Doua Lumi (Curtea Veche Publishing, 2011), in order to record palpably, through fiction, a very challenging historical period in Romanian history. I hoped that those of us who lived through it would remember it and that the new generations would learn about it. It’s important to keep in mind the communist past because it’s so easy to repeat it. Not necessarily in the same way, but through supporting similar forms of political repression or corruption that risk depriving us of the basic human rights and freedoms that make not only writing, but also living possible.

Claudia Moscovici, Literature Salon

(Note: This essay was originally published in Romanian translation, in Orizonturi Cultuale, on the following link: http://www.orizonturiculturale.ro/ro_proza_Claudia-Moscovici.html)

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Why We Love Books

 

 

How books are made, the process of publishing, who writes them and for what purpose has changed tremendously over time. But one thing remains the same: we still love to read books. Under whatever form–paperback, hardcover, ebooks or audio–books are here to stay. Here are some of the reasons why: 

1. Entertainment. Books are still one of the best and most accessible forms of entertainment. We can learn about any subject and travel, in our imagination, to any place and time by reading books. We can even imagine alternative universes. Even better, reading is a very flexible endeavor. We  can do it in the privacy of our homes, online through joining reading clubs, or with our neighbors and friends in local book clubs.

2. Socializing. Even solitary reading is an inherently social activity. In reading, we connect with the literary canon or simply with what’s popular at the moment. Chances are that if we’ve heard of a book, it’s already been marketed and promoted widely. Many of us join local book clubs, which become a welcome opportunity of catching up on our friends’ and acquaintances’ lives, enjoying time together, and discussing life in general, not just books. Moreover, via reading and review websites such as Librarything.com, Shelfari.com, and Goodreads.com we can make new acquaintances based on lively discussions and common interests.

3. Acquiring information or knowledge. We often read to learn about how to diet, how to dress, how to parent kids correctly: anything and everything about psychology, art, science, literature, dance or any  other subject that interests us. Although nowadays there are many convenient online sources of information, often books provide a level of depth and detail that cannot be replaced by such brief descriptions.

4. Exploring our imagination and leading parallel lives. Most of us assume that we only have one life on Earth. As we grow older, our lives narrow as a result of the choices–of lifestyle, partners, careers, family–we make. Each choice, be it good or bad, determines our direction and eliminates other potential paths in life. Reading is the easiest way to explore other modes of existence, practically risk free. Books carry us to places we’ve not even dreamt of before, to different epochs or styles of life. It is in some ways even more liberating than film because readers fill in the blanks more so than viewers, in imagining characters and situations described only through words. Reading fiction, for instance, places us in the shoes of characters radically different from us and helps us envision what it’s like to live that kind of life. This is why reading is not just a light or passive exercise. It’s also an inherently philosophical and very liberating exercise of our imagination. Through imagining compelling thought experiments–characters, places and situations–reading represents one of the easiest and most creative ways of escaping the limitations of our lives. It gives us the kind of ontological freedom that few other activities can afford. This is why I believe that no matter what transformations the publishing world will go through–and many predict that there will be some major ones in the near future–we will continue to love books.

Claudia Moscovici, Literature Salon

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Saving Culture: On the Importance of “Culture” to Contemporary Cultures

 

Paradoxically, it is cultural theorists such as Pierre Bourdieu (author of Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste), Jean Baudrillard (author of Simulacra and Simulation) and Jean-Francois Lyotard (author of The Postmodern Condition) that demolished the concept of “culture” during the twentieth century. Writing mostly for an elite audience, they argued in various ways that high “culture” is an artificial, dated and elitist social institution. The greatest irony is that it’s not these elite cultural theorists, but the general public (in its indifference) that is finishing off the destruction of “culture”: not just on paper or in a discourse, but in reality.

What is culture? Culture can mean 1) the practices, values, beliefs and mores of a given society or a “way of life” and 2) various fields in the arts and humanities, including literature, art, cinema, music, poetry, theater, philosophy, dance, literary and art criticism, among others. I’d like to argue that “culture” in the second sense of the term is essential to our “cultures” in the first sense of the term.   I’d like to broach the following questions in this essay: 1) Aside from the institution of the academia and education in general, how do these cultural domains survive and why are they suffering today? My main focus, however, is: 2) Why is culture important to contemporary societies?

1.How does “culture” survive (outside of the academia and educational institutions) and why is it suffering today?

a) Book Clubs. In the U.S. at least, one can’t underestimate the importance of book clubs: both grassroots, neighborhood book clubs that make a difference collectively and those with an enormous impact and readership, such as Oprah’s Book Club. OBC started on the very popular Oprah Winfrey Show in 1996. Each month Oprah and her team of editors selected a new novel to read and discuss on the show, introducing a total of 70 books in 15 years. In June 2012, Oprah started a new book club as a partnership between O: The Oprah Magazine and the new Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN). Oprah’s Book Club brought into the limelight the “high culture” genre that usually has the least readership: literary fiction. Some of the most notable examples are: The Corrections in September 2001 and Freedom in September 2010, both novels by Jonathan Franzen, and Middlesex, Jeffrey Eugenides’s incredible comic epic in June 2007. Since these happen to be some of my favorite novels, I reviewed them on my own blog, Literature Salon:

Review of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom:

http://literaturesalon.wordpress.com/2012/02/05/jonathan-franzens-freedom-the-wow-factor-in-contemporary-fiction/

Review of Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex:

http://literaturesalon.wordpress.com/2010/11/07/an-engaging-comic-epic-book-review-of-eugenides-middlesex/

What is so special about literary fiction? And why does it tend to be read much less than mainstream and genre fiction? Actually, I’d have to qualify that the literary fiction that makes it into the canon of literature tends to be more read than most mainstream fiction because it’s often taught in schools. However, that is the exception, not the rule. Most works of literary fiction have a very limited audience, which is why mainstream publishers tend to avoid it unless the author is already very well known or very promising. What sells most, and what readers tend to prefer reading, is genre fiction such as the Harry Potter and Twilight series (fantasy), or novels by Steven King (horror).

Although the distinction between literary fiction and genre fiction is not cut-and-dry, I’d say that genre fiction places emphasis upon a fast-paced and engaging plot, while literary fiction privileges psychologically nuanced characterizations and a unique, sometimes experimental, style. Genre fiction lends itself to a quick read for a public that has increasingly less leisure time to spend on books and so much audio-visual stimulation to choose from, given the number of cultural shows available on the Internet, TV and radio nowadays. Yet it is the less popular literary and experimental fiction that has greater chances of transforming the field of literature and making us see life—and art—in radically new ways. Unfortunately, the chances for a new novel in this category to gain public visibility by making it on Oprah’s Book Club are probably fewer than winning the lottery. So how is new literature shared with a general audience? This brings me to my next point: public radio and television stations.

b) Culture also makes it to a general audience largely through public television and radio programs that depend upon a combination of government funding and public donations. Unfortunately, during the past few years,  television stations such as the British Broad Casting Corporation (BBC) the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) in the U.S., Arte (Association Relative à la Européene (a Franco-German TV network) and one of my personal favorites, the Romanian station TVR Cultural are all struggling with the interrelated problems of low or nonexistent profits and decreased funding and viewership. Some of these television and radio stations have adapted to the needs of a modern audience; others have floundered and even gone under. Arte TV, for instance, which began transmission in 1992 in France and Germany, has done relatively well, expanding its programs to Belgium, Austria, Israel, the Netherlands, Portugal and Switzerland. Some of the French language shows are available in Canada as well. Adapting to changes in technology, Arte TV now has 24-hour broadcasts available in HDTV, via satellite.  On the other hand, TVR Cultural, the Romanian public television station founded in 2002 and modeled after Arte TV is scheduled to close in September 2012. Some of its shows will move to TVR 2 and TVR 3. Generally speaking, public educational television—the stations that promote “culture”—are not only non-profit, but also a money losing venture, as was the case in Romania. I’ve read several interesting analyses of the subject and I’m including, for those interested, two relevant article links below.

http://www.gandul.info/news/doua-posturi-ale-tvr-isi-vor-inceta-emisia-9938597

http://atelier.liternet.ro/articol/12165/Bogdan-Ghiu/TVR-1-ar-trebui-desfiintat-TVR-Cultural-redefinit-consolidat-multiplicat.html

2) Why is culture important to contemporary societies? To my mind, this dwindling support for “culture” is a very unfortunate phenomenon. I’d like to list some of the reasons why I think so by using as my point of departure a few poignant citations by some of my favorite Romanian authors.

a)   “Words can sometimes, in moments of grace, attain the quality of deeds”. ELIE WIESEL

During the most repressive epochs in human history, authors of literary fiction, memoirs and critical essays have been some of the most courageous and outspoken voices of protest. Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, Natalia Ginsburg’s Journey into the Whirlwind, Lena Constante’s The Silent Escape and, of course, Elie Wiesel’s Night took readers into the horrors, the Kafkaesque show trials, the physical and psychological torture and the general hopelessness that characterized life in totalitarian regimes. Their powerful words of protest reached not only millions of readers, but also entire generations. They echo to this day.  Wiesel also famously stated, “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness, it’s indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, it’s indifference”. It is more difficult to remain indifferent to human suffering when one reads such powerful writing.

 b)  “Literature is a reflexive art”. ION LUCA CARAGIALE

Caragiale was way ahead of his time in so many ways. He’s quoted often, to this day, in Romanian newspapers because  his witty, cynical and poignant remarks about politics apply as much to our contemporary context as they did to his own times. Perhaps Caragiale also foreshadowed the schools of thought—formalism and poststructuralism—that maintain that art and literature are important in and of themselves. This is, of course, not a new conception of art and literature. During the nineteenth-century, Théophile Gautier is credited with coining the notion of “art for art’s sake” (l’art pour l’art). Although art, literature, criticism and philosophy often have moral and social implications, they don’t have to in order to be considered significant. They have an intrinsic value: the expression of human creativity in itself.

c)   “Culture kills naïveté and knowledge chases away ignorance”. GEORGE COSBUC

Philosophy, art, criticism and literature don’t simply  mirror reality. They transform it, along with our assumptions about it. They change our political and social conventions; they make us question others and ourselves more deeply; they help build the foundations of a new reality. Not reducible to mere ideology or polemics, art, philosophy and literature help us interrogate our assumptions about the world and sometimes lead us to arrive at deeper truths.

d)  “The meaning of existence, and every person’s duty, is creation”. MIRCEA ELIADE

This ontological assumption reminds me of an observation that is common sense and repeated often: humankind is the only being on earth that distinguishes himself  (or herself) through the powers of thought (and creation), not merely procreation. Our intellectual and artistic capacities are a large part of what makes us human. We should prize these capacities, express them and maximize them.

e)  “Criticism is a misconception: We must read not to understand others but to understand ourselves”. EMIL CIORAN

Cioran expresses here a fundamental truth about human creativity: Reading–be it poetry, philosophy or literature–is a largely introspective activity. In books we learn so much about human history, about the motivations for human behavior and most of all, as Cioran eloquently states, about ourselves.

In short, we should preserve “culture” because it helps us question our social conventions and transform them; it stimulates to the maximum our creativity; it’s often the first and last recourse to freedom in repressive social and political circumstances; it’s one of the key elements that make us human; and because human creativity needs to be preserved and respected for its own sake.  To conclude with one final quote, as Kenneth Kaunda, the first Zambian president said, “A country without culture is a body without a head”. This basic truth about “culture” applies internationally, to all cultures.

Claudia Moscovici, Literature Salon

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Forces of Culture: Oprah’s Book Club and The Huffington Post

Oprah Winfrey

Oprah Winfrey and Oprah’s Book Club

Oprah Winfrey‘s life story reads like the classic American dream, a tale from rags to riches. Born into poverty in Mississippi, Oprah became the most successful talk show host as well as one of the richest and most influential women in the world. She’s also known for being a philantropist, a producer, and now the owner of her own T.V. network. I think, however, that one of her biggest contributions to culture was starting Oprah’s Book Club in 1996  on her already very popular talk show, the Oprah Winfrey Show.  Each month Oprah and her team of editors selected a new novel to read and discuss on the show, introducing a total of 70 books in 15 years. In June 2012, Oprah started a new book club called Oprah’s Book Club 2.0 as a partnership between O: The Oprah Magazine and the new Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN). You can see it on this link:

We live in an era multimedia sensory overload; an era in which reality T.V. has overtaken the networks and there’s little room–or time–for quality fiction. Oprah’s Book Club has been a force of culture, bringing into the limelight the “high culture” genre that usually has the least readership: literary fiction, including two of Jonathan Franzen‘s novels, The Corrections and Freedom and Jeffrey EugenidesMiddlesex. It has also stimulated an entire grass-roots culture of neighborhood book clubs, where friends and neighbors meet regularly, face to face, to discuss literature, socialize and catch up on their lives. I’m including below a link to Oprah’s Complete Book Club List:

Arianna Huffington and The Huffington Post

Arianna Huffington

Arianna Huffington‘s life isn’t a classic immigrant tale from rags to riches, since she comes from a well-off family with powerful connections. Her life is nevertheless the very inspiring success story of a woman who made the most out of the opportunities she had in life.  Named by Forbes Magazine in 2009 as one of the most influential women in media, Arianna Huffington was a very popular political commentator and syndicated columnist during the 1990′s. But her crowning achievement is founding The Huffington Post in 2005. The online media blog has thrived and expanded internationally, to include Le Huffington Post in France, Huffington Post UK, Huffington Post Canada and Huffington Post Quebec. Just as Conde Nast Publishing  and Hachette Publishing  have expanded with several magazines in Eastern Europe, including my native country Romania, I’m hoping that The Huffington Post will as well.

Discussing all aspects of art, entertainment, politics, crime and culture, the highly successful online blog was recently acquired by AOL in February 2011 for a whopping 315 million dollars. Part of The Huffington Post‘s enormous success stems from Arianna Huffington’s pull and connections with wealthy investors. To offer just one notable example, in August 2006, SoftBank Capital invested 5 milliion dollars in the company. However, its success can also be attributed to the high quality of its articles and the popularity of its over 9000 contributors. Without question, The Huffington Post gathered some of the best bloggers in every field it features. Moreover, the blog has not merely adapted, but also stayed one step ahead of the curve in its use of technology, recently introducing “vlogging“–or video blogging–which is taking off and making journalism even more multimedia and interactive.

It is remarkable, yet not surprising, that The Huffington Post is faring better than more traditional newspapers, such as The New York Times, which has been experiencing a steady decline in advertising revenue and was obliged starting March 2011 to start charging for online subscriptions (via instituting a “paywall,” which began paying off by the spring of 2012). The Huffington Post’s quality of journalism is excellent, selected from a very large pool of contributors who are some of the best and most popular in their domains. Because of the variety and quantity of its articles, The Huffington Post also avoids cliquishness (as much as possible in a networking-driven domain). Its guest contributors are often selected because they’re already successful bloggers with mass appeal. However, whether you regard the popularity of blogs over more traditional print journalism as a positive development or not, it’s clear that it’s the wave of the present and maybe also the future. Blogging has changed the publishing industry, particularly journalism, just as the travel industry has been changed as a result of people booking their flights online. Arianna Huffington saw into the future of mass media communication and made it our present. In terms of content, The Huffington Post treads perfectly the balance between reaching a general audience and engaging, well-written pieces. It offers culture with a mainstream appeal: the only kind, I believe, likely to make a big impact in our times.

Claudia Moscovici, Literature Salon

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How the Publishing Process Works in the United States: A Writer’s Perspective

The Seducer by Claudia Moscovici

 

Two of the most major transformations in the U.S. publishing industry over the past few decades have been a) the rising importance of literary agents since the 1980’s and b) the rise of e-books in the early 2000’s. While in Romania and France unagented submissions remain the norm, it’s almost impossible to publish a book with the large publishing houses in the U.S.– particularly fiction–without representation by a very reputable literary agent.  Agents sift through the enormous number of submissions and recommend to the editors of the major publishers the books they believe will sell well. I found this out not from a book about the publishing industry, but directly from one of my favorite American writers, John Updike.

Velvet Totalitarianism by Claudia Moscovici

In 2003, when I had finished a few chapters of my first novel, Velvet Totalitarianism (published by Editura Curtea Veche in Romanian translation under the title Intre Doua Lumi), I wrote a hand-written note to John Updike. I told him about my background and the subject of my novel—namely, life under the Ceausescu regime in communist Romania and immigrating to the U.S.—and asked him, if he liked the chapters he read, to recommend me to his literary agent. It was a longshot, but worth a try. To my pleasant surprise, he responded–also in a hand-written note–offering very positive input about the sample chapters I had sent him but telling me that he never had a literary agent. He worked directly with the publishing house. This was common practice during the 1960’s, when John Updike began publishing. By 2003, however, unmediated contact between writers and editors was practically unheard of in the U.S., where the major publishing houses had long instituted a policy of not accepting unagented submissions.  So how does a writer go about finding a literary agent?

Intre Doua Lumi de Claudia Moscovici

You can do it the hard way, which, quite frankly, has relatively small chances of success: buy the latest edition of The Writer’s Market, which lists the contact information for literary agents in the U.S. There you have to figure out who are the most successful agents as well as sift out agents who charge to read your manuscript (this practice has become increasingly unpopular) from those who don’t. Then you send them a query—by regular mail or, more rarely, by email—introducing yourself and your credentials; describing your book; explaining why you think it would sell well and including a few sample chapters. I later found out from agents themselves why this impersonal process is not likely to yield positive results for most authors. When I was teaching at the University of Michigan, I organized a few panel discussions at the Ann Arbor Book Festival (in 2005, 2006 and 2007). In 2007, Amy Williams, who is Elizabeth Kostova’s literary agent, and Susan Golomb, Jonathan Franzen’s agent were two of the guest speakers in these panels. They discussed, among other things, the publishing process, explaining that they receive as many as 100 to 200 submissions a day from authors seeking representation. This deluge of queries is colloquially called “the slush pile”. Like most very successful agents, they usually sift through the queries and focus mostly on submissions by successful authors they know of or authors recommended by successful authors they know. Only rarely do they find in the slush pile unknown and unrecommended authors they wish to represent, and even in those cases, they are usually students at very reputable M.F.A. programs or have published with important magazines or literary reviews. So if you don’t want to go through the time-consuming process of finding an agent or don’t make it past their slush pile, what do you do next? As mentioned, writing directly to the editors of the major publishing houses is no longer an option nowadays. So logically, you would try avenues that don’t require agent representation: medium-sized or small independent publishing houses.  This avenue, however, has also become increasingly narrow over the past ten years.

During the 1990’s many of the small and independent publishing houses have folded or were bought by the major publishers. There are some noteworthy exceptions: my own publishing house, Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group, which is, as they advertise, the “largest independent publishing house in North America” has continued to expand by buying smaller publishers and has begun to publish fiction works by successful authors who have already published scholarship with them (as was my situation). There are also several small publishers that publish between 2 and 10 books a year; academic publishers that publish mostly scholarship (and are often non-profit or low-profit, partly sponsored by universities) and increasingly few medium-sized publishing houses like MacAdam/Cage in San Francisco.  I’m including below a list of some of the medium-sized and small independent publishing houses in the U.S.:

http://www.bookmarket.com/101publishers.htm

If you succeed in publishing your book with one of these independent publishers, you may be more fortunate than you think. Although smaller publishing houses have correspondingly smaller publicity budgets than the big publishers, please keep in mind (as the agents on the panels I organized discussed), that the big publishers don’t divide their annual publicity and promotion budget evenly among the hundreds of books they publish each year. Celebrities that publish with them—such as Paris Hilton or former president George Bush publishing their autobiographies—have their own publicity agents who help a lot with the promotion of their books. In addition, because of their name recognition, the media helps spread the word and the popularity of their books.  So basically the major publishers invest most of their annual publicity budget on the new books they believe will sell best. Those are usually represented by the most reputable literary agents and sell at auction. An auction is when several of the big publishing houses bid for the same book. To offer an example from one of the book fair panels I organized, in 2005 Little Brown & Company won the bid for Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian, an exquisite work of literary fiction about the legend of Vlad Tepes/Dracula. They invested about 2 million dollars, or a large chunk of their annual publicity budget, into promoting that novel.  This bid paid off because the novel was very successful internationally as well as because it sold movie rights to Sony Pictures in 2007. As we’ve seen through the enormous success of the Harry Potter and Twilight Series, novels that become blockbuster movies grow exponentially in popularity.

But by far most writers publishing with the big publishing houses don’t fall into the category of “celebrities” whose books practically sell themselves or hit the jackpot with getting most of the publicity budget of that publisher for that year. In those (majority) cases, even if they manage to catch the interest of one of the best literary agents and to publish with a major publisher, they still have to work very hard to promote their books.

Ebooks and Self-Publishing

Given that the odds are heavily stacked against new authors, it’s not surprising that many of them choose to self-publish e-books, via, for instance, the very popular Amazon Kindle program.  Unlike publishing with vanity presses that charge a lot of money to print books, this option is easy and inexpensive. But there’s a large downside to it as well: there are so many books out there, particularly now that anyone can self-publish their work on Kindle and other venues, that the sea of information has become so vast that each author who lacks a large promotion budget and media connections is nothing more than a drop in the ocean of books and deluge of information. To rise to the surface requires a lot of ingenuity, luck and networking.

Like many authors, I’ve been asked the question of where do I believe the publishing industry is heading next. I think that self-publishing will grow and that the future is already here with e-books. E-books have the advantage of cutting out most of the distribution cost. This is a huge advantage for both authors and publishers, since the cost of shipping books all over the world is very high. This is why authors generally receive only between 5 and 10 percent royalties from the (hardcopy) books they publish. The percentage of royalties depends in part on the number of copies sold (the more it sells, the bigger the royalties for the author) and in part on what kind of contract a given author or agent is able to negotiate with the publisher. Still, for most authors, 5 to 10 percent profits is not enough to make a living just by writing books. Since e-books don’t have the same distribution costs, authors can negotiate more advantageous contracts. E-books are also very convenient for readers, since it’s so much easier to carry around with you a Kindle or Nook than twenty or thirty books.  It’s true that many people still prefer to leaf through an actual book. But I believe this preference is largely a matter of habit; of what they grew up doing. In the next few years, my daughter’s school system is planning to replace hardcopy textbooks with e-books. This transition will soon happen in schools throughout the country, such that the kids starting primary school will probably not even hold books in their hands. Those growing up strictly on e-books in school, with little standard of comparison, are not likely to prefer actual books as adults.

Foreseeing such major transitions, the major publishing houses are trying to adapt best to the new media and new demands of readers. I’m including below a relevant article on this topic by Christine Kearney (Reuters) about Book Expo America:

http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/05/27/us-books-ebooks-idUSTRE74Q5J020110527

The one major current downside of e-books is that they’re still, for the most part, tied to the companies that produce the e-readers—such as Amazon for Kindle—which are not universally adaptable to other reading programs. If they were, then the risk of losing profits would be much higher: it would mean that anyone could forward a book by email, so nobody would need to pay for it.

Hypotheses about the future of publishing:

a) Print books versus e-books

So what predictions do I make about the future of publishing in the U.S.? I think that for the generations of readers that were brought up on print books, they will continue to cherish reading an actual book as well as adapt to the convenience of e-books. The new generations, brought up just on e-books in schools, will choose them over hardcopy books in the same way that kids brought up on computers don’t use typewriters.  The publishers that can see into this near future and dominate the e-book market will be the ones that will rise in power and influence in the publishing industry.

b) Promoting and marketing your book(s)

The era of the timid or reclusive author, shying away from or outright rejecting the media and contact with readers, is long gone. Whether you publish with a big publishing house, a smaller independent publisher or on your own, you have to be willing to share your work with others through every venue and opportunity you can. Aside from networking, promoting through the new media—such as book trailers, music videos and films—will grow in importance. We are becoming, internationally, visual cultures predicated upon instant gratification. Videos make a direct and immediate impact on viewers, tempting them to find out more about your book. I was fortunate enough to collaborate with very talented Romanian photographers, actors, musicians and music producers on the book trailers for my novel, Velvet Totalitarianism/Intre Doua LumiAndy Platon, Anthony Icuagu, Marcel Lovin, Ioana Picos, Mihai Marin, Claudiu Ciprian Popa, Elena Rotaru, Elena Xing, Andrei Dombrovski–to which I’m extremely grateful and with whom I hope to collaborate again for future book launches.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KURICuT8TcA

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DgCdLdygaII&feature=plcp

Film in particular is a mixture of all the arts and a feast for the senses. Authors who succeed in working with movie directors and having their novels made into films will increase the chances of success for their books.

c) Literary agents

As mentioned, the influence of literary agents in the U.S. and Great Britain has risen to enormous proportions during the 1990’s and early 2000’s, but it is now waning for two main reasons. First of all, as I explained earlier, there’s a bottleneck of “slush pile” submissions. This means that the most reputable literary agents are no longer accessible to most authors. Secondly, self-publishing has improved—in both reputation and the possibilities for success it offers–giving authors the chance to succeed on their own. The number who succeed in becoming best sellers in any venue or through any process is very small. This will not change, no matter what changes the publishing industry undergoes. Huge mainstream success is hard to attain and depends upon so many factors outside the author’s and publisher’s control. But keep in mind that success is a journey not a destination and enjoy every step of the process of writing, publishing and promotion, each of which presents so many challenges and rewards.

Claudia Moscovici, Literature Salon

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