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'm friends with a man who claims to ironically love the writings of Tucker Max. He seems like a sweet guy, but is he secretly nursing an inner bro? Should I throw an intervention, and if so, how should I do it?
Nathalie, Crown Hill
If your friend "ironically" loves the misogynistic writings of Tucker Max, the man known for "jokes" like: "I know this really sexy move you can do with your mouth. It’s called ‘shutting the fuck up,'" he sounds like the kind of guy who'd "ironically" joke that Bill Cosby was being a gentleman by handing out free drinks to women.
Fortunately, there is hope for people who view women as breasty garbage bags to be alternately fucked and despised, and Max himself is proof of that. Perhaps you weren't aware but he's now happily contributing to what your friend might "jokingly" call the pussification of America. His latest book, Mate, Become the Man Women Want was co-written with evolutionary psychologist Dr. Geoffrey Miller. Parts of it are still problematic (for example, in interviews Max compares dating to knowing your enemy before entering into battle). But it's also got some sound advice and when you consider the enthusiastic audience Max has built up with his previous books, his words become especially important:
Objectifying women isn’t just a moral failure. At the purely practical level of attracting women, it’s stupid. It might temporarily reduce your anxiety about approaching them (about making your pitch), because if you think of them as targets, you can try to trick yourself into thinking that they won’t be judging you when you walk up to them. But they are judging you—and that’s OK, as long as you understand how and why.
Here's the intervention I suggest: Buy Max's latest book, read it, and then give it to your friend. Tell him that you're really eager to discuss it with him and get his thoughts on Max's evolving views on women and relationships. (Also make note of the parts of Max's book that you disagree with and be ready to explain these parts to your friend.)
If your friend is resistant, join our nation's great underground army of literate feminists and their decades-long campaign to sissify our great nation: pull a Cosby and start dosing his drinks with birth control pills. I'm not a doctor – although I'm considering legally changing my first name to "doctor" for the free respect and travel upgrades – but the extra estrogen will probably help. I spent years throwing birth control pills in the open reservoir at Volunteer Park and I'm pretty sure it turned at least a few gay men I know even gayer.
PS. Happy World Vasectomy Day, everyone!
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 can't remember if my anger and frustration with Amazon began when I heard about the "gazelle" project, or when I heard about their total lack of philanthropic investment in our city, or what, but by the time the Hachette e-book price wars started up, my rage had reached a boiling point, and with the opening of their stupid bookstore, I am just seething. I hate what they've done to books and book publishing and everything I hold dear as a writer, editor, and reader. So my question is: how best to channel my rage? I already stopped shopping there, and I think my friends and family are honestly pretty sick of my virtual and in-person ranting on the subject. I need some new ideas for creative or constructive outlets for my Amazon hatred. Help!
P.S. I am a pacifist so violent direct action is not an option.
I understand your feelings of impotence and frustration. It would be melodramatic to say that Amazon ruined the publishing industry, the book selling industry, or Seattle. However, it's fair to say that Amazon waited until publishers, booksellers, and the city of Seattle as a whole was sleeping, took a big smelly dump on their chests and said, "you look like shit but that's not my problem."
A better advice columnist might tell you to take the high road and ignore their crappy business dealings but I'm afraid of heights so the high road is never an option for me. So what do you do? I suggest working to change the only item on your above list that you have a kitten's chance in hell of influencing: Amazon's philanthropic giving, which is laughable. It amazes me that with 24,000 employees in Washington state alone, and many of them Seattleites, those employees aren't demanding better from their employer. Instead of instigating poster wars that attempt to shame Amazon tech bros for moving to Seattle and "ruining" neighborhoods, why aren't Seattleites banding together to demand Amazon be a better philanthropic presence in the city that has contributed greatly to its success?
There are enough readers, writers, booksellers, sympathetic Amazon employees, and liberals in Seattle to put pressure on that company to change its corporate structure in one small way. How to accomplish that exactly, I can't say. Someone who's well versed in organizing, rather than telling alcoholic librarians what to do every Friday, should come up with a plan. (The only protest I can claim participation in took place last Christmas when, after a bathtub's worth of hot buttered rums and gin! Gin! Gin! my liver went on strike.)
Affecting change in that way, I believe, would make a satisfying difference.
(If it doesn't, you could always try taking a dump in front of their store. That also makes a satisfying difference.)
I have a nasty secret. I really like to pretend I've read books that I've never actually read. Sometimes I'll be at a party and someone will start talking to me about — here's a recent example — Gore Vidal. I've never read Gore Vidal, but I enthusiastically lied and said that I had, that I enjoyed many of his books. But it's not just the lie; I like to get really risky with my book chat. I'll sometimes string along the conversation, becoming more and more specific in my commentary. I said, for instance, that the dialogue in Gore Vidal's novels are often wooden. Is his dialogue wooden? I don't know. But the person at the party believed me.
I'm pretty honest otherwise, and I read a substantial book or two a month. I'm fairly well-read, but I will leap at the chance to tell lies about books I've never read. Is this a cardinal sin? Am I going to wind up in some literary circle of hell, where Gore Vidal and J.G. Ballard and Gertrude Stein shove fondue forks into my haunches while reading their collected works aloud?
Beverly, White Center
That is not a nasty secret — a nasty secret is the tattoo I have on my left buttock of a fist punching a baby with the word 'YOLO' inscribed under it. What you seem like is a lot of fun to have at parties. Lying about books is the most harmless form of lying I can think of and makes conversing with hordes of drunk strangers in enclosed spaces sound almost appealing.
I mean, what else are you going to talk about? Politics? The weather? The politics of weather, which is a stupidly fraught topic thanks to climate change deniers, who can often pass as sane people at first glance? Personally, I'd rather take a cheese grater to my nipples than get trapped talking about any of those subjects.
If there is a circle of Hell reserved for people like you, it certainly must be the most fun circle of Hell — the kind populated with people who eat raw cookie dough straight from the bowl and women with tattoos of a fist punching a baby with the word 'YOLO' inscribed under it.
Just be careful and know your audience. There are some people it's never a good idea to deceive for your own amusement. For instance, spiders. They have six eyes and at least four of them can detect lies.
I just came home from a conference that was inspirational and amazing, and filled with creative people. But when I look at my blank page, I'm feeling nothing but imposter syndrome. You'd think being at the damn conference would be enough to get me going, but apparently not. Can you help me get over myself?
Quenton, Queen Anne
When I'm feeling insecure about my gifts as a writer, I like to hang out with my 11-year-old half-sister, Ana. We eat a snack, she tells me about school and then she plays me a violin piece she's been practicing or reads me some of her poetry. She's a smart kid but these interactions remind me that I'm smarter than her. My poetry is way better than hers and I don't even like poetry. Someday she'll likely be a very successful doctor like her mother and I'll be living in her basement on the cheap because she pities me but right now, I am her role model. It's a job I take seriously. Yet most of the time when she reads me a poem I think, "I can top that," which is why I've begun writing coming-of-age feminist poetry to share with her. For example, here's a limerick I wrote about sexual assault:
There was a young woman from Buhl
Who was assaulted one day after school
She bought a claw hammer
And without a stammer
Raped the man with her oversized tool.
"Police!" Screamed the man down the street
As blood waterfalled to his feet
“I don't mean to be crass
But I've been raped in the ass”
Said the girl, “vengeance truly is sweet.”
“This woman is batshit insane!”
He denied every ounce of self-blame
But police had no way
With no DNA
Of connecting his rape to her name.
Odds are this won't happen to you
But you know how to act if it do
A conceal'd weapon it's not
And if you get caught
Remember: Christ was a carpenter too.
My point is, sometimes it helps to go to an open mic night or hang out with a child and remind yourself (silently, don't be a dick) that you're a better writer than the company you keep. Until you're famous, which most of us will never ever be, you must be your own most devoted fan. Start acting like it.
We can’t help but notice that several months after your weekly advice column, The Help Desk, launched on the Seattle Review of Books — to be specific, the first one was published on July 31, 2015 at 10:01am, PST — the New York Times Book Review is preparing to launch a literary advice column this week called Help Desk. You've written nine of these columns so far. Our question is: what the fuck do you think is going on there?
Martin and Paul, downtown
Dear Martin and Paul,
Ideas are always stolen, they don’t even have to be great ones. Russia stole the idea for invading Ukraine from the Poles, Michael Jackson stole moonwalking from the moon – or at the very least, astronauts – astronauts stole Tang from diabetes, and diabetes stole my grandmother’s pancreas. There’s no use being a frown clown; that’s just how the world works.
Here’s a more personal example: For awhile now, I’ve planned on having a baby and naming it Spite. The baby changes depending on my audience – for instance, if I’m frustrated with my grandmother and her lazy pancreas, Spite is half-black because it makes her deeply uncomfortable. I’ve told a few close friends about my Spite baby, including the spider that lives in my bathroom. Lo and behold, I get home from work yesterday to find my spider friend has hatched 1,000 babies on my bathroom wall. You guessed it: that bitch named every one of them Spite.
I could take it personally. Hell, I could shovelize her and her offspring in a heartbeat but she’s done nothing but be a good friend and sympathetic listener who knew a great idea when she heard one and ran with it.
The New York Times can offer book advice. They can even steal the name of our book advice column. But this is the same media outlet that taunts its readers with achingly beautiful portraits of homes we can never afford in places only those too poor to leave reside (“What You Get: $900,000 homes in Mississippi, Pennsylvania, Ohio”? Go fuck yourself, NYT), and thus it will never possess the charm, compassion and practical advice of a single woman living in a $500 rental full of pet spiders.
The only Help Desk endorsed by spiders™.
There's this guy who rides the elevator with me at work pretty often. He always has a big, complex book in his hands — Bolaño, or DFW, or Knausgaard. He's pretty good looking, but I've held off smiling at him because I'm worried his choice of books means he's going to be pretty intellectually limited. Is there a safe way to test him in public before asking him out on a date?
Pat in the Columbia Tower
Here’s what I suggest: Start carrying around a copy of your favorite book in your bag. The next time you’re stuck in an elevator with this handsome stranger, break the ice by saying something like, “I notice you read a lot of very serious books written by unsmiling men, so I thought you might enjoy this change of pace. It’s my favorite.” The beauty is, it doesn’t really matter what your book is – it could be something truly great, like Octavia Butler’s Bloodchild, it could be last week’s TV Guide, or it could something he might actually enjoy, like the latest bullshit pumped out by Jonathan Franzen (if you go the TV Guide route, it helps to tape an unused condom to the inside cover). The point is, you’re being both flattering and assertive. If he’s smart and interested, he’ll read your book or at least continue the conversation. If he’s an intellectually stunted dummy, say “fuck it” and ask to see his abs. They can’t be any less interesting to talk to (and if by some miracle they are, you can always start taking the stairs).
I'm a single dad and my ten-year-old daughter apparently found my copy of Story of O. She confessed after I found her posing Barbie over Ken's lap for a spanking. How the heck am I supposed to explain something as complex as power fantasies to her, or at the very least help her from seeing her dad as a big creep?
Ermine, University District
Awhile ago I met a nice Christian woman who believes sex before marriage is amoral but regularly masturbates her male dog before competitions because she says it relaxes him. I asked, but no: she is not married to her dog.
My point is people compartmentalize sex in individually weird ways. Reading Story of O doesn’t make your daughter damaged or you a creep – in my book, nothing short of competitively masturbating your pet in public while praying for the salvation of sluts does.
It’s not your job to explain power fantasies to your daughter. It’s your job to buy her ice cream and tell her that what she read was fiction and a bit above her reading level. Then, it’s your parental duty to purchase a copy of The Joy of Sex and give it to a cool female friend to give to your daughter (trust me, no young woman wants to get a sex manual from her dad). My grandmother bought me the Joy of Sex when I was about 10 and once I got over the horror of being handed a sex thing by a near dead thing, I treasured it (sex ed in Idaho in the 90s doubled as our “Faces of Meth” campaign). Hopefully your daughter will stop snooping through your erotica as she practices hundreds of new positions to put Barbie and Ken in, all while developing an appreciation for diverse body types and prize-winning bushes.
Just keep her away from your dog.
In the military I was taught to keep it high and tight—that's my hair, of course, but also a good attitude towards life. Efficient, controlled, prepared, and to the point. But, it turns out, I have a certain softness for rich Victorian fiction that curls in on itself and never leaves any aside unsaid. Middlemarch has stolen my heart. Jane Austen makes me giggle. Cienna, I'm a man's man. I should be reading spy novels and hard stuff. What is it about those books? What the hell is wrong with me?
Burt in Burien
No one is asking you to make your own beef jerky out of old cow parts, ejaculate on a pile of fawning virgins, or any other questionable chores ascribed to the elusive “man’s man.” There’s no conflict with loving military precision and efficiency, and enjoying romance novels. In fact, the two are very complementary.
A good romance novel allows you to suspend logic and control for a few hours and be swept up in an emotional story that manages to be dramatic through its inevitable happy ending. We all want happy endings; that’s the allure of the genre. And massage.
In fact, last month, after a particularly bad date that took place at a supermarket cheese counter – where I ingested an hour’s worth of free cubes while chanting, “My God, Cienna, which vindictive crone did you offend to deserve this romantic hellscape?” – I curled up with a Tillamook baby loaf and a feminist romance novel and read until I believed in the concept of romance again (the lurid sex scenes that somehow never include the word “penis” helped).
There is nothing wrong with you. I suspect your military buddies could say that you have shitty taste in books but it would be a pity to deny them that – one of life’s sweetest pleasures is judging other people’s reading lists. Plus, it’s not like you’re carrying around a signed copy of Left Behind.
I suggest you join a book club filled with people (most likely women) who will be thrilled to discuss Victorian bodice rippers with you and very impressed by how poetically you can describe a penis and breasts without ever using the word “penis” and “breasts.” Or, if you’re not quite ready to be out-and-proud about your taste in books, at least consider these feminist historical romance writers: Courtney Milan, Cecelia Grant and Sarah MacLean. I bet you’ll enjoy them.
My mother just came out as Wiccan at 62. Dead serious. What the fuck am I supposed to do about this? Is there any book in the world that can help me unfuck this pile of candles and Stevie Nicks lace?
I understand your horror. Just last weekend my own dear mother let it slip that she’s interested in butt play. While I’m fully supportive of her curiosity in the abstract, there are some things daughters are better off not knowing. Those things include butt play and the belief that mortals can control the wind.
I have a few suggestions for you, all of them outstanding. First, buy this book: When Someone You Love is Wiccan. Reading it is optional. Crack the spine in a few places and put it next to your toilet where your mother is sure to see it, just as I nailed a butt plug to an old swing in my mother’s front yard to express my support of her alternative lifestyle.
Then, when your mother next brings up witchcraft, gently steer the conversation towards Satanism. It could be that your mother is lonely. Maybe she’s frustrated by the current state of American politics, repulsed by organized religion, and therefore susceptible to the conviction that chanting beneath the light of a waning gibbous will ward away chin hairs and parking tickets.
But is she aware of the fantastic work the Satanic Temple has spearheaded lately? They’ve countered anti-abortion Planned Parenthoods demonstrations in cities like Detroit, drafted a “religious exemption” letter to combat anti-abortion laws in states that attempt to dissuade women from ending a pregnancy, and lobbied to erect statues of the goat-headed deity Baphomet in states like Arkansas that allow for monuments of the Ten Commandments to be placed on Capitol grounds.
As you can see, the Satanic Temple is an incredibly active organization – perfect for a perhaps lonely older woman looking to join a new community. Plus, Satanists love candles!
Ask your mother to mull it over, while also acknowledging that religion and butt play are two very personal choices that mothers must make for themselves. If, in the end, she decides that she would rather believe that a clutch of candles and a prayer can influence the tides, bless her heart and buy her a fire extinguisher.
I'm a young woman, I love to read, and I ride public transit. You can probably guess what happens next: do you have any short responses for me to say to men who insist on interrupting my precious reading time? I don't want to be confrontational, but my reading a book should not be seen as an open invitation to flirt.
In the words of Mother Theresa (not that one, another one), “If you didn’t want men accosting you in public you should have never grown dirty pillows.” My advice is slightly more helpful: Either cut them off or get comfortable with the idea of being confrontational. It’s easy! Fun, even!
Try memorizing these simple phrases so you have them ready when someone asks, “what are you reading?”:
“The scratch-and-sniff book of vaginal diseases.”
“Hitler and Pol-Pot: The BFF pop-up book.”
“Sex games you can play with your cat.”
The trick is to make men — many of whom have lived their lives without being made to feel true discomfort at the hands of a woman — feel as uncomfortable as they are making you at that precise moment.
I am a novelist. Some have called me the novelist, but their approval means nothing to me. Likewise their approbation. But I age, as we all do, and, as we all do, I crave the succor of youth. I have decided to adopt a child, that I may learn the ways of the youth from him and instill that vigor into my life’s work, my novels. Obviously, I should not acquire an American child because America has become a rogue nation, a palsied old nag that barely resembles its former mustang-self. From what nation should I adopt this child, that I may use him as a lens to acquire a global perspective on the uselessness of youth?
Why settle for an orphan from Asia or Afghanistan when you could harvest child parts from a healthy spread of broken countries and stuff them into the resentful muse of your choice for a truly tortured look at adolescence? Fifteen of the 20 poorest countries in the world are found in Africa and — happy coincidence! — you can’t be ignorant of America’s awkward relationship with its black citizens. Wouldn’t it be a triumph if you, a white man (educated guess), could write with earned authority on the plight of black men in America for a primarily white audience?
Begin by acquiring a sickly child from a country like Mozambique. It’s important that you don’t purchase the child outright, given our country’s historical use of the continent as a fire sale for cheap labor. Instead, try sensitively trading the child’s guardians a signed copy of your latest masterpiece in exchange for parental rights. If they seem to have emotions for the child, throw in a handful of cigarettes or a bottle of multivitamins.
From there, it’s a simple dance to purchase a few extra parts — a pancreas from Iraq, kidneys from China, a liver from somewhere truly exotic, like the corpse of a sober Bostonian.
There. Now you have crafted your perfect resentful muse. Add him to your family’s cell phone plan, create him a Twitter account and pose him by your writing desk. Ask him probing questions about his feelings for you, the world. The sound of his testicles dropping will provide the backdrop to your next best masterpiece.
Can you just tell me, once and for all, if Stephen King is a good writer or not?
My grandmother, a lovely woman named Roberta, used to ask me a question very similar to the one you pose. “Judy,” she’d say, because she loved to call both me and my mother, Evil Katy, by another woman’s name, “Judy, is that the phone?”
Roberta would ask this question at the doctor’s office, when a dog barked, during a moment of silence at a dear friend’s funeral — there was no inopportune time, in her opinion, to ask if there was a phone ringing somewhere.
Usually I could not hear a phone ringing but despite the silence I would often answer “Yes!” because I’m generally a positive person who prefers to speak in declarative affirmations (“The moon absolutely looks like a smug lesbian tonight,” or “Yes! I have forgotten your name again”).
On those occasions, Roberta heaved her 83-year-old frame out of her brocade recliner, pendulous breasts swinging like the excited wag of a dog’s tail as she shuffled into the kitchen to fondle the phone.
“God bless it, Judy, that wasn’t the phone,” she'd then shout because she was deaf, not stupid. Nevertheless, she would return with a treat for me, like a string cheese or warm soda, because I was her favorite living granddaughter (sorry Good Katy, RIP Suzanne).
To answer your question: Stephen King is a good writer about as often as the phone is ringing.
Hearts and butterflies,
Is dog-earing the pages of a book morally, ethically, or spiritually wrong? What about underlining?
Brooke from Capitol Hill
In a world where Ted Nugent, Donald Trump, and Mark Driscoll can all boast of being New York Times bestselling authors, I have a hard time labeling anything short of a ham sandwich wrapped in pages of the Koran as morally, ethically, or spiritually wrong (especially if the infidel sandwich is thrown its own ticker-tape parade in Mecca during Ramadan).
But I digress.
A good book should have a much longer lifespan than you and far more friends than could fit at your funeral. So yes, there is an etiquette to how you handle good books and this is it: Use pen only for inscriptions. If you want to underline or respond to select passages, do it in pencil so that when you’re dead, your loved ones can read your thoughts and then carefully erase them. If you highlight anything outside of a school textbook, you are a dick (even then, turning text an aggressively hard-to-read shade does not make it more knowable. Learn to take notes like a civilized person.)
Finally, don’t dog-ear pages. On the scale of infidel sandwiches, this gaffe is more upsetting than sacrilegious (think Jesus stumping for Subway’s new gluten-free tuna melt). Still, if you can’t find one old receipt, gum wrapper, divorce decree, etc. to mark your place in a book then you're about as useful as Trump's thoughts on the economy, Driscoll's thoughts on women, and Nugent's thoughts on everything else.
I recently read an article proving that publishers are more interested in novels submitted under male names. My novel has been rejected by several agents for being too “weird and creepy,” and I can’t help but wonder if they’d have the same criticism if the same book had a male name on it. So my question: Should I use a male pseudonym? And, if so, which male pseudonym should I use?
Vivienne from Maple Leaf
I dearly love delivering lectures about the hurdles female writers face in the publishing industry (and beyond) but those speeches are best saved for house parties, baby showers, and other social engagements where people are “just trying to relax and have fun. Christ, Cienna.”
Yes, agents would probably be more receptive of your work (at least initially) if you wrote under a male pseudonym. I’ve found that if I go without plucking my chin hairs for a week or two, men and women alike treat me with the fearful deference once reserved for tiny dictators. It is a triumphant feeling to don the mantle of manhood and bask in the glow of unearned respect, even if only temporarily.
But you’d be doing all writers who were not born cisgender male a disservice by masquerading this way. Men’s success is expected. Ours is not. We are playing a game that’s been designed to see us struggle, if not fail. We need to change the rules instead of bending to them.
Which is why I suggest you be yourself. If that simply won’t do, try embracing a gender-neutral pseudonym when querying agents, something like “Scrotack Faginam.” That will get people reading your work just as surely as masquerading as a man and, bonus! you won’t be labeled a sex traitor by your peers.
In my lifetime, I hope to see female writers (and LGBTQ writers) simply treated as writers, people whose stories and opinions are just as widely read and respected as their male counterparts. But that will take pioneers like you and me writing weird, creepy shit and proudly shoving our sex in the face of many strangers — which is one reason why my business cards are now printed with a tasteful inkblot of my vaginal lips. When I hand them out at industry parties, people often ask me, “Why do you have the scowling face of my disappointed mother printed on your business cards?” And I reply, “You are mistaken, sir, those are my Nether Grins. You see, I am a female writer and now you will never forget it.”
Every Friday, Cienna Madrid will offer 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.
My boyfriend and I are moving in together next week. I'm very excited about this, and I'm confident it's the right move. But we just had our first fight over a moving issue, and it's something I feel very strongly about: he wants to merge our book collections together. I want to keep our shelves separate. It's not that I fear intimacy; I'm 95 percent sure we're going to get married one day, and I'm very happy with him. But I'm not sure I ever want our books to mingle. Is a lifetime of bookshelf non-monogamy too much to demand?
Judy from Ballard
I have never lived with a man — not because I refuse to blend my bookshelf, for far more broken reasons — so feel free to take my advice with the same side-eyed respect you’d give a porn star in sweatpants. As I see it, how you arrange your book collection is a sacred thing. For instance, my books are arranged on three shelves: The top is all-time favorites no one is allowed to touch; the second is books I have never read, arranged in the order I aspire to read them; the third is books I have stolen from other people, mostly for petty reasons.
If a MAN came into my space, swinging his DICK around and inserting copies of How to Win Friends and Influence People and Atlas Shrugged and Hemp: A History all willy nilly — trigger warning — my shelves and I would feel a little violated.
Explain this to your boyfriend. If he still does not understand the importance of separate bookshelves, I suggest you get a cat. Name it Cienna. Then, whenever you and your boyfriend have a domestic dispute, wait until he sleeps. Take one of his books off the shelf. Piss on it. Blame it on Cienna. This will provide you with a physical way to vent your spleen after a fight (full disclosure: I don’t know physics) while slowly weeding your bookshelf of his books.