Every Friday, Cienna Madrid offers solutions to life’s most vexing literary problems. Do you need a book recommendation to send your worst cousin on her birthday? Is it okay to read erotica on public transit? Cienna can help. Send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
I've done NaNoWriMo a few times and I have this one problem: My characters always turn out to be me, and it's boring the shit out of me. Last year, I tried to make the main character do some fun stuff: get into bar fights, go on a trip to the Middle East — I even tried to make him an undercover spy. But in the end, he snapped back to the same boring guy working at the same boring office. Why can't I engage my imagination? Am I cursed to always write what I know? Should I give up fiction forever?
Jeff, Magnuson Park
You are in luck, as this is the perfect week to begin practicing escapism, much like my spiders do every time I try to contain their orgies to shoe boxes. Reading and writing are excellent ways to help people forget, however briefly, the practical (or carnivalesque) horrors of their daily lives.
You want to know how to write about someone other than yourself. I have two exercises for you:
1) Swap the gender of your main character – make her a woman, or LGBTQ, basically any type of person on the sexual or gender rainbow other than yourself. Instead of making your novel plot-driven, make it character driven. Explore how the world you've created perceives your character, how they navigate that world, how they interact with other characters you've created. (Tom Wolfe did this with the 2004 novel I Am Charlotte Simmons, which I personally thought was dull but other people went crazy for. I am confident you can do better than Tom Wolfe.)
2) Think of someone you personally know whom you actively dislike. Make them your main character, and, like the previous exercise, make your novel character driven as opposed to plot driven.
Both of these writing prompts are exercises in empathy. The best writing helps readers relate on some level to characters they don't understand or are even repulsed by. If you want your writing to resonate with an audience – or if you simply want to stop boring yourself – challenge yourself by writing about people and situations that make you uncomfortable.
Every Friday, Cienna Madrid offers solutions to life’s most vexing literary problems. Do you need a book recommendation to send your worst cousin on her birthday? Is it okay to read erotica on public transit? Cienna can help. Send your questions to email@example.com.
I'm finally doing National Novel Writing Month this year. But I need your guidance on this one point: should I tell my friends I'm doing NaNoWriMo so they can offer moral support and shame me if I fail? Or should I not tell anyone I'm doing NaNoWriMo because I don't want to have to explain what my novel is about over and over again? The only thing worse than keeping a secret from my social circle is talking about fiction, which seems about as exciting as talking about my dreams, only possibly more embarrassing. Help me decide?
Dina, Bitter Lake
You are correct: Listening to any person talk in detail about the plot of their NaNoWriMo novel is on par, entertainment wise, with reading their dream journal. Or listening to them brag about their children. Or watching a snail take a shit.
But that doesn't mean you shouldn't tell your friends about your NaNoWriMo goals – you absolutely should. Here's how you build accountability for yourself while giving your friends a vested interest in your writing: promise that for every day this month that you fail to meet your word-count goal, you owe them one pitcher of beer. This will ensure they're checking in often to see how much beer you owe them.
Of course, it also means they will ask you about your novel because they are probably polite and undoubtedly adore you. If you're self-conscious talking about it, try crafting a one-sentence elevator pitch in advance that you can spit out and be done with.
Here are a few examples of my past (failed) NaNoWriMo efforts for inspiration:
How do you feel about writing in books? I mean, jotting notes in the margins and highlighting and all that crap. I read somewhere that doing that is supposed to make you smarter, but it just seems like defacing the book to me. And even if it kills the resale value (eh, who cares), why would I want my thoughts plastered all over, I dunno, Anna Karenina or whatever. That’s what diaries and journals are for. God, I’ve seen some pretty stupid shit written in books. Then again, I’m not really that smart myself, so maybe I’m missing out on something.
I never write in books for the same reason I have never kept a journal or a diary: I don't want to give the government yet another means of reading my thoughts.
But yes, I'm generally fine with other people writing in books – in fact, I enjoy reading anonymous people's opinions as they clash or agree with the text. In that way, books are like bathroom stalls and comments are consensual voyeurism (my favorite kind of voyeurism!). I kind of wish all of my books came with anonymous, thoughtful dialogue but as I read in a book somewhere, if wishes were horses we'd all be eating dog food for dinner.
There are rules to writing in books, of course. They can be summed up as follows: always write in pencil, ditch the highlighters and never obscure the text for the next reader.
It's almost November, and soon the seats at Bedlam will be taken up with wannabe novelists instead of the usual wannabe screenwriters. I just really don't get this "NaNoWriMo" thing. No, more than that; I'm kind of offended by it.
Oh, you wrote a novel? In thirty days? Good for you, slim. Here's an idea: why don't you spend more than thirty days on it, then hire an editor, then send out some query letters, then get it published, and then maybe you've written a novel. If I was a derrickman on an oil rig, I'd be plenty pissed if someone half-assed their way through thirty days on the job and gave themselves that title. You're a novelist? The fuck you are, buddy!
It's keyboard masturbation. Sure, people can write whatever they want in thirty days, and that's great, but isn't calling the resulting spew a "novel" really presumptuous? Real, actual writers are toiling to make real, readable books, and they deserve your money, not your me-toos. Is there anything a person can do to discourage this dumb internet fad?
First: Who doesn’t like masturbation? (Answer: Catholics and men with hooks for hands.) Second: Here are three current fads more dumb than NaNoWriMo: artisan salt, people in their 20s writing memoirs, clowns who linger.
While it’s kind of you to clutch your pearls on behalf of published authors, I doubt many NaNoWriMoers actually consider themselves to be novelists any more than I consider myself to be a Trump supporter after grabbing my own pussy. (I wanted to see how the other half lives.) Writing 50,000 shitty-but-coherent words in a month is pretty hard. As you noted, writing an actual readable novel in a month is nearly impossible. Only a fool wouldn’t be able to tell the difference.
In general, marathon activities like NaNoWriMo (or running actual marathons) should be viewed as a trendy new take on self flagellation. These trends serve a greater purpose: they help mediocre people better appreciate the hard work that goes into producing something truly great.
But that doesn’t address your question, which was: Is there anything a person can do to discourage this dumb internet fad? Yes, Steve, there is. Any time someone brings up their NaNoWriMo novel in your presence, grab your pussy and start talking about the memoir you wrote in college.
Can you explain steampunk to me? I have no idea what the hell is going on there.
Danielle, Capitol Hill
Admittedly, I've never read a steampunk book. I do know the genre incorporates the more playful totems of the 19-century industrial revolution, such as goggles and gears and steam-powered gadgets, while ignoring the less romantic aspects of the era, like child slavery and cholera outbreaks.
I like speculative fiction – American Gods is fantastic and Neuromancer is an all-time favorite – but I have a hard time getting enthused about books that play off nostalgia for bygone eras, and here's why: the 19th century sucked for most people – especially immigrants, women and children. Did you know, Danielle, that U.S. women weren't legally allowed to have bank accounts or take out lines of credit on their own, without a male co-signer, until the 1960s? Did you know that it was "recommended" that children work no more than 12 hours a day during the Industrial Revolution? Those are the kinds of enraging facts I think about when somebody mentions how cool Victorian bustles and top hats and pocket watches are. (This is also why I'm terrible at chit chat and a turd to bring to parties.)
But, again, I've never read steampunk because of my own personal bitchy biases. Like you, I don't get the appeal. But I'm willing to learn. Steampunk lovers, please send me recommendations for your favorite books. I promise to read them and report back.
I have a dumb problem. I can't seem to stop buying books. Shelves and shelves of once-hot titles and cool reissues and cult classics and sometimes just out-and-out garbage. I keep a running list on Amazon. I have a section of my bookshelf dedicated to stuff from library sales. (Fifty cents a book! How am I supposed to resist that?) I recently took three giant boxes of musty 70s paperbacks off my mom's hands just because.
However, that's not really the problem. The problem is, I never seem to read any of them. I spend so much time on Twitter, on the internet, binge-watching TV on Netflix, that I never get around to just sitting down and reading. I have plenty of space for all these books, but one day I'm going to run out. I don't want to part with any of these books, either; that feels like giving up, and rendering it all pointless.
Cienna, should I just buckle down and accept that I'm not a reader anymore and get rid of all these books? Should I fling off these electronic distractions like some kind of ascetic monk and focus on print? Should I just go into therapy?
By the way, would you like a funny-smelling copy of "Rosemary's Baby"? I have three.
You're not a reader. Your hobby is hoarding, not reading – and as far as hoarding goes, you're in good shape. Books are generally a compact and nonpsychotic option, unlike antique corpses dressed as little girls.
Fortunately, anyone can become a reader at any point. All you have to do is pick up a book, open it and read it. You don't have to read it very fast or very well, or limit yourself to one at a time. You don't have to finish a book that doesn't engage you. Books, much like antique corpses dressed as little girls, aren't very judgy.
I understand how distracting the internet can be. I just spent 90 minutes googling "antique corpses dressed as little girls." Like you, I've also spent years of my life collecting books more than reading them. But at a certain point, I made a choice to start living like the person I wanted to be, and that included moving into the Trump Tower of basements, launching my own business that combines pantomime and improve into a dynamic new public art form I call "pantoproving," and reading the piles of books that I've lovingly collected for years. Like anything worth doing in life, reading takes stamina and dedication, but the satisfaction and awe I experience when immersed in a world invented by another human being is unmeasurable. It's as if the art of lying finds its altruistic higher calling through novels.
Please send my smelly copy of Rosemary's Baby c/o Seattle Review of Books, 7 Mercer Street, Seattle WA, 98109. As a tribute to you, I will dedicate my next pantoprov session to its content. (If you see a woman silently birthing a demon in a Target bathroom on Saturday, don't be afraid to say "hello!")
I wanted my son to be a nerd. I introduced him to A Wrinkle in Time and the Narnia series probably way too early, and I’m happy to report that it stuck: when it comes to books, he loves everything nerdy. He reads fantasy and science fiction, thereby making him a perfect compromise of a human being between my wife and I. (She detests fantasy; I’m not much of a sci-fi guy.)
Problem is, though we have successfully molded our son into a nerd, he’s still a bully. He’s good at sports, and he’s been caught a few times shaming and ridiculing other kids. Last week, he even beat a weaker kid up; which is my personal nightmare as a parent, speaking as someone who was always the weaker kid in school.
I’m not asking you for parenting advice, Cienna. he’s our kid and we’ve got to be responsible for him. We’ve got him with a good therapist and we’re working through it. I’m sure he’s going to be okay.
But I’m honestly a little surprised by how surprised I am about the failure of these nerdy books to mold our son into a compassionate human being. When I was growing up, the gentle kids always read sci-fi and fantasy, and the assholes always liked sports. I guess I thought correlation was causation—that nerdy books created more compassionate nerdy people. My son has blown up that belief. Is he an exception to the rule? Or is my entire life a lie?
Edgar, Totem Lake
Lots of compassionate human beings start out as shitheads and honestly, some kids are practically begging to be bullied – and the quickest way for a kid to learn compassion for others is to be picked on, so in a way your son is performing a valuable community service. Let’s not make assumptions about your son until we conduct a simple test. The next time you’re eating dinner together as a family, casually ask your son this question:
If you came upon a wrecked ice cream truck, would you help yourself to a cone before checking on the driver?
If he answers yes, ask him:
How many cones would you help yourself to before calling emergency services?
If his answer is one, he’s fine and will likely grow up to have a successful career in law enforcement. If it’s two, you should consider sending him to Aunt Cienna’s Summer Kamp for Kids. If it’s three or above, your son is a pre-diabetic psychopath that no amount of wrinkles in time can fix.
About Aunt Cienna’s Summer Kamp for Kids: Located in a basement in beautiful southern Idaho, Aunt Cienna’s Summer Camp for Kids offers 300 square feet of spider-packed excitement and exposed wires, a.k.a “live learning opportunities.” For the low price of a box of wine a week, your young delinquent will learn compassion for other children, a.k.a prey, while developing a healthy respect for authority.
You see, when your delinquent exhibits delinquent behavior, he will have the option of attending a spider comedy routine about euthanasia OR spending an hour with Aunt Cienna writing limericks that poke fun at his physical and emotional flaws. (We call this “learning through preying.” It’s a Christian thing.)
When your delinquent is good, he will have access to all the books he can read, as well as a pit filled with squirrels and stray cats that children fondly refer to as the “petting pit.” What is a petting pit, you ask? It is like a petting zoo but in pit form.
Empirical data shows that three weeks spent at Aunt Cienna’s Summer Kamp for Kids is enough to turn the most calloused bully back into a sensitive child that desperately craves the affection of his parents and approval of his peers.
I recently moved from Seattle to a small town in the Midwest, giving up the Seattle Public Library’s massive collection for something much more modest. Now, our library system here is pretty good! I have no real complaints. But every so often, there’s a book I want to read that they don’t have but, lo and behold, SPL has the ebook version. Since I still have a working library card, I can check out ebooks from the SPL with no problem. I’m not paying Seattle taxes anymore, but I can’t seem to resist, well, taking advantage of Seattle taxpayers. How big of a sin am I committing? Should I just rip up my old library card?
Congratulations. By relocating from Seattle to a small town in the Midwest, you have become a “woman of the world.” There are many perks accompanying your new status: you are likely better at identifying mountains than your Midwestern peers and can more closely relate to the kidnapped survivors of Boko Haram than your Seattle peers, if not spiritually then at least geographically. Savor this feeling.
As for your sin of committing library fraud, to use the analogy of sports I don’t follow, I consider this sin to be golf-ball sized – it would probably choke a baby but a belligerent adult could swallow it just fine with a chaser of Bud Light Lime.
Here’s the good news: The Seattle Public Library does issue library cards to non-Seattle, Washington state residents for a price ($85).
If your moral compass so guides you – did I mention women of the world are also fitted with strong moral compasses? – start making an $85 annual donation to the Seattle Public Library and continue using your fraudulent library card guilt-free. But if you accidentally left your moral compass in a corn field somewhere in Ohio, it’s not the end of the world. Simply befriend a librarian in your new hometown and confess your sin to her or him over happy hour drinks (that you will pay for). Absolution is a tradition in the Catholic church, which is a sport I follow only slightly more than golf because of the drinking involved.
In the meantime, avoid befriending babies and no one gets hurt.
My son wants to be a writer. He's not very good. And, he's old enough that maybe his efforts towards it are starting to look foolish. By which I mean that he is fifty and he's been trying to write since his twenties. He's dedicated most of his life to this goal, and although he does write and attempt to publish, his writing doesn't seem to improve.
I've paid for retreats, critique sessions, helped him find writing groups, and even introduced him to professional writer friends, but apparently he is very bullheaded and assured his way is the right way, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
I'd probably continue to ignore it, but I think it's costing him his marriage, and losing my daughter-in-law is just an insult too far for my tastes. Do you have any ideas of how to talk sense into a person who is belligerent and refuses to listen to even the most measured, well-offered, highly needed advice?
With thanks, Bummer Daddy in Madison Valley
Dear Bummer Daddy,
My grandmother used to tell strangers I was born with a cleft palate so severe that my mother was forced to soak a rag in milk and squeeze it into my mangled mouth in lieu of nursing. She told this story with pride, as an example of a mother’s abiding love and determination to keep a deformed freak of nature alive when most decent folks privately agreed I should’ve been dumped off somewhere with sweeping views, like a mountainside or broom closet.
None of it was true. There was no cleft palate, no rag. In reality, I was just another homely kid with buck teeth who needed braces. But even though it horrified my mother with each retelling, my grandmother was batshit and sentimental, and she liked what the story illustrated about parenthood: “Good” parents will go to silly lengths to nourish the freaks they spawn.
What I’m saying is, it’s sweet of you to support your son’s dreams but at a certain point, you have to put that baby in a closet and shut the door. It is not your job to help a 50-year-old man become a successful writer. It is not your job to buy him classes or network for him. It is not your job to talk sense into him or save his marriage. At most, your job is to listen when complains that no one “gets” his writing, gently direct him to the Seattle Public Library’s self-publishing website, and otherwise make cooing sounds similar to the ones I make when eating a burrito.
If you’re worried about your daughter-in-law – and it sounds like you should be, poor woman – pay attention to your daughter-in-law. Invite her to dinner, buy her many gallons of wine, and ask if she’s read any good books lately, aside from your son’s. Give yourselves both the freedom to share a laugh at his expense. It sounds like you’ve earned it.
Every once in a while I’ll visit someone’s house and see that they have a book, or a basket full of books, on the back of their toilet. I guess this is supposed to be hospitable or something, but all I can think about is how poo-encrusted those books must be.
I’m tempted to steal one of the books from a friend’s house during a party, put it under a microscope, and then mail a photograph of the fecal matter particles to my friends anonymously. But that would be too passive-aggressive, even for Seattle.
But it is disgusting, right?
Colin, First Hill
Please don't stop with one book. Also take samples of your host's toothbrush, decorative soaps, air plants, privacy blinds – everything in the bathroom that isn't nailed down. And don't stop with one friend – repeat this process at multiple friends' homes. Then, in the name of fairness, I need you to stare straight into the brown eye of the beast and fecal test yourself, Colin – hands, neck, lips, fleshy pad of the buttocks. This will add credibility to what those in the unscientific community might call your “pervert games.”
And you're right: Mailing your findings is passive aggressive – and no fun! You want to be present, watching your friends' faces as they realize how you've chosen to amuse yourself while an invited guest in their homes. Here is what you do to deliver those results with style: Host a Halloween party. Dress up as a proctologist. Hand deliver results to your guests, in ascending order of least- to most fecally. To offset the creepiness of your actions, give out full body condoms, DIY fecal testing kits and jars of artisanal bleach as prizes.
Recently, when I was watching the so-so Pride and Prejudice and Zombies movie, I was reminded of that fad when authors were inserting genre elements into works of classic fiction, like Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters. Even at the time, I thought that whole thing was pretty silly and I could tell it wasn’t going to age well.
And now, I can tell that the whole adult coloring book thing is another fad and it’s going to look pretty ridiculous five or seven years from now. Why are we such huge suckers for this sort of thing? Would books be in better shape if authors didn’t chase after every dumb fad that came along? Or is it just human nature?
Faye, Queen Anne
You are correct – fads are one of the weirder aspects of human nature, a pop-culture shorthand of creating collective memories that root us in a specific time, space, and sentiment. Unlike cultural movements, fads have weak historical context and add nothing relevant to a group's cultural identity. Still, some fads are not terrible, like ice bucketing yourself or being seen in public with a copy of Lean In (some might argue that Lean In is a culturally important part of a larger feminist movement, I would argue that it sought to capitalize on the movement while offering nothing more than the same milquetoast platitudes and upbeat generalizations found in all self-help books).
Then again, sometimes fads are the physical manifestation of a cringe, otherwise known as “white dreadlocks syndrome.” I would put adult coloring books in that category, along with naming children after kitchen nouns.
Writers can employ fads deftly and to their advantage – take the popularity of Ready Player One. That book is steeped in nostalgic 80s pop-culture references, which make its children-of-the-80s audience feel both clever and sentimental for picking up on its retro references without the author having to do much, if any, leg work.
I hope to become one of those writers. I trust I can count on you, Faye, to support my latest literary endeavor, which might generally be described as “erotic Charlotte's Web fanfic.” I'm hoping to seductively inspire generations of children with a new take on an old farm-to-table classic, guest-starring more spider lap dances than most kids have the capacity to count. Stay tuned to the Seattle Review of Books for a short excerpt!
My entire life, I’ve suspected poetry to be a scam. People only pretend to understand poetry because they don’t want to seem like idiots. I’m right, aren’t I?
Don, Maple Leaf
Let me ask you this, Don: Who exactly would poetry be scamming? The billions of people who don't read it or the thousands of poets who could make more money robbing public fountains for pennies than they ever will off their words?
Poetry isn't a scam. It's just another shit-upon art form, like opera singing and rodeo queening. And like opera singing and rodeo queening, it has its place – the bathroom. A morning trip to the toilet is the perfect opportunity to ingest one poem well. It is quiet. You are trapped. Your attention has no place to wander but across the page.
Sure, some poems are willfully opaque. Some writers like being misunderstood because it makes them feel smarter (and smugly misunderstood). But most good poets are looking to connect with readers and while you might not catch on to every allusion, with practice you will get the gist and hopefully, the gist will resonate.
I have a stack of poetry books on the back of my toilet. Here are three of my favorites: The Colossus and Other Poems by Sylvia Plath, whom you may have heard of; Ceremony for the Choking Ghost by Karen Finneyfrock, who is a local poet, and whose collection is a remarkable tribute to her sister's death by heart failure; and Voyage of the Sable Venus by Robin Coste Lewis, who writes about the portrayal of black women in art and history.
I don't pretend to understand everything going on in these books but I think the ritual of trying makes me smarter.
My husband is having an affair. It is what it is, and we'll get through it. In fact, he doesn't even know I know, and I think I'll leave it that way. All the guilt has made him pretty attentive and sweet!
But here's the thing: whoever his mistress is, she has amazing taste in books. How do I know? Because overnight he went from solely military sci-fi to reading Eco and DeLillo and Borges, and having interesting conversations about literature with me. I never could inspire him step outside his comfort zone, but I never thought about what literature would engage him intellectually like this, either. She did.
Here's my problem: I want her to recommend books for me! She has to be a librarian or a bookseller. I just know it. I snooped his browser history and stuff, but he's more tech savvy than me and obviously being smart about this. Any advice? He could go off and philander with her all he wants, just as long as she recommends a big stack of good novels I could enjoy while he was gone.
Selina, Georgetown Heights
Congratulations, you have made me deeply uncomfortable, which is a difficult thing to do! I’m tempted to send you a polyp in a jar as a prize, courtesy of my clinically resentful uterus! (I’ve been waiting for an excuse to make polyp de gallo like those crunchy new mothers do. All I need is one human-shaped friend to share it with.)
So your husband may be gently humping Nancy Pearl or one of her equally well-read peers. I am sorry but not surprised; it is a Northwest bourgeois intellectual fear that many of us partnered book lovers share. But perhaps I shouldn’t be sorry – you don’t seem that sorry.
If you want book advice from your husband’s mistress without outing his affair, here’s the obvious answer: Ask him for book recommendations and let this bizarre game of telephone play out. He’ll ask her for advice post-gentle-hump, he’ll pass that advice along and you’ll hopefully get what you want.
But here’s some extra free advice from a woman whose idea of “personal growth” is stored in canning jars in her kitchen: Seeking out book advice from your husband’s mistress isn’t the healthiest pastime. You live in a city pulsing with book lovers, book sellers, bookstores and librarians. Perhaps you should seek out your own literature-loving unicorn and leave your husband to his own.
I’m friends with my local used bookseller. She recommends books to me, and I recommend books to her, and I sell books back to her, and everything is pretty great, for the most part. I know I’m lucky to have such a wonderful bookseller in my life.
But the other day, after I brought a big haul of books in to sell to her, my bookseller friend left a note on my Facebook wall that said, and I quote, “Stop dog earing your books!” Please bear in mind that this note came after she gave me over a hundred dollars in store credit for those books. She didn’t mention the dog-earing at all during the entire transaction while I was in the store.
It’s true that I dog-ear my books, Cienna, and I know it’s not okay. It’s a bad habit, like pulling out your own eyebrows or picking at pimples. But I feel a little hurt by the public shaming, especially considering that she’s never brought this up to my face.
Now I don’t want to go into the bookstore anymore, and I know that’s reactionary of me and more than a little silly. How do I salvage this relationship? Or should I only buy used books online from now on?
I assume your bookseller friend is a decent person because all used booksellers I've ever met are much better people than me – the kind of people who don't try to lure neighborhood children into their basement just to prove what bad parents they have.
Nevertheless, even booksellers can be cowards when it comes to interpersonal confrontations. Most of us would prefer to avoid the emotional feedback we receive – the hurt, confusion, embarrassment – when we tell someone we care about something that they probably don't want to hear. So we email them our criticisms. We text. We Facebook. And while that eliminates the special hell of an awkward interaction, our victim doesn't get the reassurances that physical feedback provides – tone, eye contact, a smile, maybe a hug. The mostly nonverbal cues that let people know they are valued, even when being criticized.
Receiving criticism via social media feels like a slap you didn't see coming, even if it is well-intentioned. I know the urge is to respond in kind digitally, but I don't recommend it. I recently did this and it cost me two friendships – one human, the other a spider I had named after my friend, who I had to ritualistically kill, dismember, and mail to my ex-friend in 11 tiny envelopes.
It takes guts to confront someone about their behavior. It's hard. But that is how strong friendships are built – in person, not over social media or texts. So this is what I suggest you do: Visit your favorite used bookstore like normal, buy a few books, and when your bookseller friend is ringing you up, say something like, "I think you owe me a happy hour drink." When she asks why, explain to her that you were a little embarrassed and offended that she chose to criticize you over Facebook for dog-earing your books, and that in the future, you'd prefer it if she talked to you in person about the physical state of the books you bring in for trade. But that she can make it up to you with that drink.
Cienna Madrid is on vacation this week, which means there is no new Help Desk. Please peruse the Help Desk archives for your advice fix; Cienna will return with a new column next week.
And if you have any book etiquette questions, you can always send them to firstname.lastname@example.org. Did you witness rude behavior at a bookstore? Do deckled edges detract from your enjoyment of a book? Are you sick of people opening their readings by talking about how boring readings are? Cienna can help. Send an email today.
Some time ago, my local NPR affiliate stopped interviewing authors on a regular basis. They used to do author interviews practically every day, but now they’ll only feature a segment on a book once or twice a week, if I’m lucky.
This happened around the same time that the station stopped featuring as much local content as it used to. And it recently got involved in a very sketchy plan to buy out a smaller NPR affiliate in a situation that is way too distasteful to get into here.
But my main thing is the lack of author interviews. I thought they were a great way to get a ton of perspectives on the air, and they were terrific ads for readings at local bookstores.
So my issue is: how do I make my displeasure known? Do I keep donating to the NPR affiliate just because they’re the best of a bunch of terrible options, or do I stop donating and send them a letter explaining why? Even in their current diminished state, I’d be despondent if they suddenly disappeared off the radio dial because local media is so diminished as it is. How do I get their attention and let them know that they should be interviewing more authors in such a way that I don’t threaten their existence?
Jim, University District
What would your daily commute be like without NPR? Democracy Now! is only an hour long and spiders, while excellent travel companions, are prone to car sickness. If you have the financial flexibility to continue donating, I would encourage you to do so.
Catholics and Mormons tithe, Muslims practice Zakat, atheists have lottery tickets, and agnostics have public libraries and NPR. Much like voting, tithing involves buying into an imperfect system with the fervent hope that someday, you will be rewarded for your efforts.
And having once worked in journalism, I’d bet you five MegaMillions lottery tickets that your local NPR reporters are as frustrated than you (if not more so) with the state of their industry. Their resources are continuously being cut at a time when the city in which they operate is showcasing new, obscene riches every day. Feeling like there’s more popular support for another bar that sells $65 bottles of beer than for public radio, and that you can’t produce your best work without nearly killing yourself for pennies, is unbelievably depressing.
So donate. (If you have time, you could even volunteer.) But as a contributing member, you should also let them know you miss the daily author interviews. The most memorable criticism I ever got came with a small bouquet of flowers and a card that simply read, “You’re wrong.” It was funny, it was kind, and it made me reach out and engage with my critic when I otherwise wouldn’t have.
In the meantime, you’ve got at least one great alternative: This site’s very own Paul Constant is the most thoughtful and thorough author interviewer I’ve ever met (full disclosure: I consider Paul a “friend,” or as I prefer to call him, “human spider”).
What's the best way to call out a book liar? There's this awful woman dating a friend of mine, and we're all at the same parties, and she says "Oh yes, I loved it!" anytime you ask her if she's read anything.
Have you read 2666? "Oh yes, I loved it!"
Have you read the Knausgaard? "Oh yes, I loved it!"
Have you read the Voynich manuscript? "Oh yes, I loved it!"
Have you read the secret novel tattooed on Nicolas Cage's inner thigh? "Oh yes, I loved it!”
Ugh! I wish she'd just say "No, tell me about it" or something. So, I decided next time I see her enough of this being nice shit, I'm going to call her out. You're mean and seem to not mind making people uncomfortable in public. How do I do this?
Pansy, White Center
I think the better questions are, why do you care if someone else lies about reading books that you’ve read? How does it diminish your pleasure in having read them? If she bugs you so much, why not just avoid asking her about books — or rephrase your questions. Ask her “what are you reading right now?” or follow up with, “what did you love best about Nicolas Cage’s thigh oeuvre?”
I suspect you crave being right for its own sake, and all the better if you have an audience to witness your absolute rightness and her abject wrongness.
I can relate. This week I got into an argument with a coworker about which state has more trees in it – Idaho or Washington. The coworker said Washington, because Idaho is “mostly desert” according to her, and I said, “actually, Idaho is about 12,000 square miles larger and only the southern part of the state is high desert, much like the eastern half of Washington.” I do not like this coworker; she suspects rainbows are chemtrails that turn people gay and once accused the sun of being Mexican for giving her a tan. So when all of our coworkers and the internet agreed that she was probably right – Washington is called the Evergreen State, after all – my first thought was, “I’ll just start a few forest fires and we can resume this discussion next week.”
But being right doesn’t make you a hero and it doesn’t mean you win. Often, people just think you’re an asshole for proving how right you can be at the expense of a national forest or two.
I'd advise you not to confront this woman. However,if you absolutely cannot leave it alone because, like me, you are deeply flawed, here is what you do: the next time you’re at a crowded party and she professes love for a book you suspect she hasn’t read, point directly at her face and start screaming, “LIAR LIAR PANTS ON FIRE! LIAR LIAR, PANTS ON FIRE!” If you have a lighter handy and she is willing to stand still, attempt to light her pants on fire until someone physically restrains you. That’ll ensure she never wants to talk books with you again. Meanwhile, everyone else at the party will decide you’re a complete freak instead of a run-of-the-mill asshole, and forgive you more readily for your outburst.
Whenever people get angry about e-books, they always talk about how much they love the way books smell. Is this real? The only time I’ve ever smelled a book was when it was sitting in a musty basement for too long.
I’ve always had a decent sense of smell, I thought. I can tell when I forgot to put on deodorant in the morning, and I love new car smell. But of all the pleasures that books bring me, smell is not one of them.
Do books have a smell? What do they smell like?
What have you been doing with your life that you've only ever sniffed one book? I bet you've sniffed a handful of horrible things repeatedly in your life but you can't be bothered to pick up a book, close your eyes, and inhale until you run out of lung? I have three books sitting on my desk right now and each smells different: Shawn Vestal's Daredevils smells crisp, like socks fresh from the dryer; Sally Ride: America's First Woman in Space smells sour because I spilled old coffee on it; my 20-year-old copy of Flannery O'Connor's The Complete Stories smells like spiders in top hats because it is the book I return to the most often and thus have charged my most trusted spiders to watch over it like those somber circus-themed sentinels that guard the Vatican.
There have been scientific research papers written on how the smell of books change as they age. There are posters devoted to the aroma chemistry of them. Our memory is closely tied to our sense of smell, which is why book lovers cherish the scents that emanate from their favorite works, and which is probably why whenever I smell a spider in a top hat, I now have the urge to hug a wooden-legged woman.
If you're interested in seeing how books smell (har har), ask a handful of friends to bring over a favorite book and a bottle of wine. Cover the labels and blindfold yourself, and your friends can blindly drink and watch in amusement as you sniff out the unique notes of their favorite works.
Enough about us. What have you been reading lately?
My summer resolution is to put a dent in the Subaru-sized pile of books that have been gifted to me over the years. The last few books I've read include the above-mentioned Daredevils (for which I owe this fine website a book review), Sally Ride, Gilead, The Carter Family, and Between the World and Me. Currently I'm reading A Little Life, which is quite the depressing beach read! When I need a break, I reread an O'Connor short story because it's been long enough since my last time through The Complete Stories that her descriptions and humor awe and surprise me anew.
Thanks for asking!
My brother married a gazillionaire heiress. She's really, really nice. She's generous, takes the whole family on luxury vacations where she pays for everything once a year, is crazy about my brother and they are, like, sickeningly cute together. And, she's beautiful, and smart, and has a big degree and a real career on top of it all.
Anyway. I can't help it but feel like trash around her. I dropped out of high school and had drug issues, and did stuff I'm not proud of. Now, I have my shit together like no other time in my life. I did it through writing, and sweating my pain and failure out of every pore in my body until my skin was clear. My life is really, really good now, and I'm working on my first novel, and I've been getting good feedback from my writer's group, and I have an agent that I'm talking to.
But goddammit, my sister-in-law just sold a novel. She did it to this big house with a star-studded agent, and I just know it's going to sell a gazillion copies. I mean, she's Ivy League, so she's smart and deserves it, but I just can't help but feel like it's so unfair. I feel like trash next to her, and she could stop working and give away her money every day of her life and still have enough to buy a country, but I have to struggle for every scrap. I don't begrudge her, but I can't help but feel jealous and awful, and I want to be a good sister to her too.
Help me, Cienna! What should I do?
Sister Heart, Capitol Hill
Dear Sister Heart,
Succumbing to jealousy is graceless and exhausting, like signing on to be the principal dancer in a clubfoot ballet.
I have been seethingly, sweatily jealous of two women as an adult: a fellow writer who I felt unfavorably compared to and the girlfriend of a man I briefly loved, who unfortunately shares many of my passions and hobbies (with the exception of breastfeeding spiders). Unlike you, there were no warring feelings of love for either woman. I felt only ugly things. At one point, I fantasized about the vainer one contracting jaw cancer and having her lower jaw removed so perhaps — just perhaps — she would post fewer pictures of herself doing things I loved to do (with the exception of breastfeeding spiders) with people I loved on the internet.
I wish I could say I overcame those feelings but I didn’t, not really. Fortunately, they burned so hot that they mostly burned themselves out. Once my all-consuming jealousy had collapsed into an emotional bruise that only ached when I acknowledged it, I was able to privately concede that neither woman deserved the emotions I ascribed to them. They had unwittingly threatened parts of my identity that I cherished, at times in my life when I felt especially vulnerable.
You, Sister Heart, are in an enviable position: You’re at a very good place in your life, you respect the woman you envy, and it sounds like you have a good relationship with her. You should know that her successes don’t undercut your own — the insights of a billionaire heiress writer are likely radically different from the insights of an ex-drug-using writer (and frankly, your life sounds more fascinating). There’s room in the publishing world for you both.
Looking back, if I were in your position and had a relationship with either woman, I would have exorcised my demons by telling them how I felt, in my own clubfooted way. Like, “I mostly enjoy your writing but I hate that people compare us because we’re both women.” Or: “I will probably always resent that a person who was so important to me treats you better than he ever could me. Sorry about that. Also, would it physically kill you to take a picture that didn’t prominently feature yourself in it?”
Sometimes I still fondly remember the jaw cancer.
I know we have to be very careful these days. I mean, political correctness or whatever you want to call it. But, just because you like books by the Marquis de Sade doesn't mean you want to do the things inside, right?
Just because you like a white male writer doesn't make you bad, right? What about us who just want to read whatever the fuck we want and don't want to have to freaking justify it to everybody?
Dear Bellevue Man,
I doubt anyone is arguing that you should disavow all white male writers, as they’re ubiquitous. You might as well proclaim that you don’t like your beaches sandy. But a lot of people agree that white male authors have historically received, and continue to receive, a level of reverence, attention, and clout simply because of their race and gender, and maybe we should make an effort to find some new voices.
Nevertheless, I am sorry to hear you’re feeling oppressed by the literati. It’s hard to feel unfairly judged for something you can’t help, like your ethnicity, gender, or preference for books authored by white men. What you need to do is find a group of like-minded peers with whom you can share your burden. I would suggest you drop in on a support group – like those offered by Seattle Counseling Services – but I suspect your kind would not be welcome there.
Instead, head down to the Hard Rock Cafe with a copy of Charles Bukowski’s Love is a Dog From Hell (or anything by Hunter S. Thompson) and belly up to the bar. Order one of Marshawn Lynch’s favorite drinks – Skittles Sangria or a Patronessy – and wait for another white man to sidle up and compliment your taste in literature and hip appropriation of black culture. I suspect that after a few weeks of this routine, you will have amassed your own fawning book club. No longer will you and your brethren have to stand in the shadows like the millions of other white men who like to read works by millions of still other white men. Finally, you too shall be free.