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Bookmark Now: Writing in Unreaderly Times

Bookmark Now: Writing in Unreaderly Times (Basic Books), edited by Kevin Smokler, is a sharp and thoughtful collection of essays from some of our best young writers on the love of writing and reading. The book is a pointed response to the NEA's infamous "Reading at Risk" study which pointed to a sharp decline in serious reading and made rather dire predictions for the future of "active and engaged literacy." The writers emphatically counter the NEA's argument, from many different angles.

Adam Johnson's "A Call for Collaboration" is just that, while Kelley Eskridge and Nicola Griffith's "As We Mean to Go On" describes the end result of writer (and in their case, life partner) collaboration--although they admit to being very different writers, Eskridge and Griffith insist their relationship has made them both better writers. Dan Kennedy's "Welcome. Grab a Broom" is an amusing account of Kennedy facing writer's block in creating the essay itself, while Paul Flores argues in "Voice of a Generation" that spoken word poetry has effectively given even non-writers the means to express themselves.

Tara Bray Smith's "Marginalia and Other Crimes" lovingly describes her lack of reverence for the book as a physical object, with penciled-in margin notes allowing her to collect her thoughts on the material; she also finds that the margin notes of a book's previous owner provides a fascinating look inside that stranger's mind. Neal Pollack's "Her Dark Silent Cowboy No More" is a hilarious (if you like Pollack, that is) take on fan fiction; Pollack challenged his critics to channel their contempt for him into writing a story--if someone sent him an email calling him an asshole, he'd ask them to instead write a short story about how and why Neal Pollack is an asshole. Unfortunately, Pollack enjoyed the megalomaniacal benefits of being the subject of fan fiction so much that he succumbed to it himself, writing Never Mind the Pollacks with himself as the lead singer of a fictional rock band, with less than stellar results. (He has since recanted his related Greatest Living American Writer hubris in the oft-blogged NYT piece "Persona.")

Michelle Redmond's "From Somewhere South to South Beach" has gotten a fair amount of attention from the litblogs due to its often salacious accounts of the active sex lives of MFA candidates. But it was her description of the gauntlet of the fiction workshop that struck me more vividly:

Big personalities make for big conflict, especially in the lion's den that is the writer's workshop. While some programs take a kinder, gentler approach to criticism, the fact is that the timid just don't fare well in most writing programs. Sitting around a table for an hour and a half while a roomful of writers--some friends, some enemies--tear one's writing to shreds requires more than a thick skin; it requires an ardent and sometimes completely misplaced certitude that one is indeed a writer, to hell with them all.

The essay that stood out the most for me was Paul Collins' "121 Years of Solitude" in which he describes his dutiful reading of 121 years of back issues of the periodical Notes and Queries--one year per day--at the Portland Public Library. While his single-minded devotion might be a tad obsessive, it also points to his genuine love of reading and a healthy curiousity into the pastimes and worries of a very different and now-vanished society.

Given the obvious passion, commitment and skill of the writers in Bookmark Now , I'm not overly concerned about the future of serious writing. As long as writers like these are in the vanguard, serious readers will continue to care.

July 5, 2005 in Books | Permalink