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Conquering Our National Fear of Fiction

"Memory is fiction."--Keith Richards, Life

"I made most of it up."--Jane Lynch, Happy Accidents trailer

I hope President Obama is enjoying his summer reads, especially those novels he brought to Martha's Vineyard (Abraham Verghese's Cutting for Stone and David Grossman's To the End of the Land) and bought at Bunch of Grapes Bookstore (Daniel Woodrell's Bayou Trilogy, Emma Donoghue's Room and Ward Just's Rodin's Debutante).

Not everyone was pleased with his choices. Salon's Robin Black asked, "President Obama: Why don't you read more women?" The National Review's Tevi Troy observed that the selections "may constitute the oddest assortment of presidential reading material ever disclosed, for a number of reasons. First, five of the six are novels, and the near-absence of nonfiction sends the wrong message for any president, because it sets him up for the charge that he is out of touch with reality."

Well, everybody, it's time to exhale. Fiction will not hasten the decline and fall of the American Empire. A Congressional inquiry into the president's reading habits isn't necessary. Novels are neither a sedative nor a terrorist plot. They are stories about how we have lived, live now and may live in the future, offering perspectives a few more politicians and pundits might consider exploring.

We've been telling each other stories--formally and informally--for a long time in mashups of categorical uncertainty. Homer chronicled some history. Herodotus recorded some fiction. Writers of "nonfiction" are often debunked; novels that are barely disguised memoirs are commonplace. Fiction is not all make-believe; nonfiction is not the same as truth. But we can learn from all of these variations what it means to be human.

Most booksellers have fielded the following question more than once from people entering their store for the first time: "Where's your nonfiction section?" Resisting the temptation to state the obvious ("Everywhere but over there in the fiction section."), they will patiently ask standard follow-up questions: What sort of nonfiction are you looking for? History? Current events? Memoir? Spirituality? Cookbooks?

Fear of fiction is a common psychological ailment that is more prevalent among male readers, for some reason. Perhaps there's no cure for this phobia, but a reality check might be in order, especially among those sufferers who, as has happened with President Obama's instant literary critics, act out their issues in public.

Consider this: Within days of Obama's Fictiongate crisis, Keith Oatley, professor emeritus in the department of human development and applied psychology at the University of Toronto, unveiled the results of a psychology of fiction study that found narrative helps people think for themselves.

The National Post reported that Oatley and Maja Djikic "put together a study to measure how personalities can be changed by literature. Participants were given either Anton Chekhov's story 'The Lady with the Little Dog' or a version of the story rewritten in a nonfiction style by Djikic, which included all the same information, was the same length and at the same reading level. Participants did personality tests before and after reading."

According to Oatley, "people who read the Chekhov story, their personalities all changed a bit.... With things like persuasion, as in a political message, everybody's all supposed to think the same way, and they do. The reason we're very excited by this result is that people all changed in their own way."

In reaction to the study, Raymond Mar, assistant professor of psychology at York University, said, "There are similar cognitive processes associated with understanding the real world and understanding the fictional world, so when we try to understand what's going on in a piece of fiction--reading a book and trying to figure out what characters are thinking and feeling--it's analogous to people trying to figure out how real people are thinking and feeling."

Engaging with characters builds character.

In the Daily Beast, Michael Medved offered another perspective on Fictiongate: "But if Obama successfully devours the four announced novels (amid his inevitable games of golf and beach visits and ice-cream runs with his girls), then that raises a serious question for the rest of us: if the president of the United States manages time for fiction, why can't we?"

Good question. My advice: Be brave. Read more fiction, and that includes you, Mr. President. As the authorities like to say during times of impending crisis, "There is no cause for alarm... at this time."--Published in Shelf Awareness Pro, issue #1544.


Sometimes All You Can Do Is Help

Last spring, devastating tornadoes raked across the South as part of what has since become a record-breaking year for a category the NOAA calls "billion-dollar weather disasters." There have been so many other "weather events" since then--floods, storms, drought--that the media's attention span has been fully tested as it is lured from one crisis to the next. Being on the scene is the goal. Looking backward is less common.

"We're just trying to keep it in people's minds," said author Susan Gregg Gilmore recently. "Ringgold is a small town and it is easy to forget with so much sadness in the news every day."

This week we'll glance over our collective, weather-weary shoulders at a small city in Georgia where a "book-raising" effort is having an impact. Ringgold was just one of many communities wrecked by tornadoes April 27, but Gilmore had a personal stake there. It was the setting for her first novel, Looking for Salvation at the Dairy Queen, and it is where members of her Not So Rapid Readers book group live. When the town was grievously wounded, she wanted to do something to ease the pain and books were the remedy she knew best.

With more than a little help from her friends (Shelf Awareness, May 13, 2011), she launched Ringgold Reads, a long-term effort to rebuild the community with a particular emphasis on restocking library bookshelves at Ringgold Middle School and Ringgold High School, both of which were crushed by 195-mile-per-hour winds.  

"So much has happened since this spring when you ran that piece about Ringgold Reads and our fledgling effort to help this tornado-ravaged community," Gilmore recalled. "People from all over the country have been mailing books in, but of course we still need more! Random House has made a huge contribution of books. Every title the high school and middle school asked for that fell under an RH imprint they gave. And not one--but full classroom sets--so we are talking more than 20 titles, 35-70 of each. I also love that indie Aaron's Books, Lititz, Pa., is helping us, too. Miles and miles away but doing so much"

On its website, Aaron's has pledged that all proceeds from sales of Gilmore's novels will be donated to Ringgold Reads, emphasizing with a true handseller's craftiness that "Susan's books are perfect for book groups and to give as gifts... so buy multiple copies!"

Recently, the project received "another great donation from Communities in Schools (CIS) of Catoosa County," Gilmore said. "Basically they support students, families and schools to ensure that our kids succeed. They donated seven classroom sets. That's 245 books. I just want to shout all this good news from the mountaintop!"

The high school's English Department "is incredible--so appreciative, so humble," she added. Speaking of the Random House contribution, department head Mark Pierce said he "still cannot process this amazing gift to our department and to our students. I, too, am overwhelmed. I literally have tears in my eyes."

And the process continues. "Mark and I are already brainstorming about ways to bring authors into the classroom and I may be teaching a novel writing class this spring," Gilmore said. "And we may organize after school book clubs--partnering each club with a member of the Not So Rapid Ringgold Readers book club. Love the inter-generational blending."

In addition to blog posts that chronicle the ongoing efforts of Ringgold Reads, frequent updates appear on a Facebook page, where the enthusiasm for reaching each goal and a sense of momentum are readily apparent. Here's a sampling from yesterday morning:

(22 hours ago) Our next focus is The Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins. We still need copies of each book in this amazing trilogy! It only took us 2 weeks to reach our goal for To Kill a Mockingbird, let's see how quickly we can complete this one!

(14 hours ago) Thanks to donations from Communities in Schools, we have met our goal for Catching Fire and Mockingjay--but we still need more copies of The Hunger Games!

(About an hour ago) Wow--thanks to individual donations and Communities in Schools we have ALREADY met our goal for the entire Hunger Games Trilogy! Thank you so much to each person who donated!

A single sentence on the project's website beautifully sums up the Ringgold Reads philosophy: "We are embracing this opportunity to rebuild and rehabilitate our community with an emphasis on literacy and the joy of reading and writing."

Sometimes all you can do is help.--Published in Shelf Awareness Pro, issue #1538.


Reading & 'What Work Is' 

When a new poet laureate is named, readers head to their bookshelves, certain they must still have that dusty collection purchased long ago. Booksellers head to the poetry section, fearing they returned the writer's books during that last big cull. Publishers head to their computers and check inventory, knowing an order blitz is already headed their way.

I confess my reaction is usually a restrained, "Good for him (or her)." It's nice to see acknowledgment for someone's body of work, and if that poet happens to be one I like, maybe I feel just a little better and even check my own bookcases.

But this week Philip Levine was named the poet laureate of the U.S. and I'm excited. Levine's work matters to me. I've read him for a long time. When I heard the news of his appointment, my first thoughts were not about the Library of Congress or more poetry-in-the-schools initiatives. They were about work and reading, and how those two words became the essence of my life, made me, inevitably, one of Levine's readers.

"I worked for Cadillac, in their transmission factory, and for Chevrolet," he told the Paris Review in 1988. "You could recite poems aloud in there. The noise was so stupendous. Some people singing, some people talking to themselves, a lot of communication going on with nothing, no one to hear."

I never worked in a car factory, but I worked in a marble mill for a little while and I worked in a supermarket for a long time. I know what hard work is. I also know how hard not having work is. I know that words can sometimes capture this toughness and the complicated pain/pleasure of aching bones and mind--an odd combination of power and powerlessness. I know that words often saved me, as did work. A long time ago, I discovered Levine had found some damn good words of his own.

We stand in the rain in a long line
waiting at Ford Highland Park. For work.
You know what work is--if you're
old enough to read this you know what
work is, although you may not do it.
Forget you. This is about waiting,
shifting from one foot to another.

He is, as they say, the right man for the job. I'm sure many people have already noted the logic of his appointment at a time when unemployment is a freight train; when the working world Levine has chronicled in his poetry is vanishing so fast his poems often read like fierce elegies.

For the past six years, I taught an English Comp. course at a community college in southern Vermont. Many of my students had lousy jobs or were unemployed; just looking for a break, another chance, a fresh start, whether they were 23 or 43. Work was one of the things I asked them to write about. We read Levine's "What Work Is" together. They already knew what work is. Levine's poem is intricate, but they worked their way through it with me. If a poem can be "gotten," some of them got it. And if they never read another poem, they really read this one.

You rub your glasses with your fingers,
and of course it's someone else's brother,
narrower across the shoulders than
yours but with the same sad slouch, the grin
that does not hide the stubbornness,
the sad refusal to give in to
rain, to the hours wasted waiting,
to the knowledge that somewhere ahead
a man is waiting who will say, "No,
we're not hiring today," for any
reason he wants.

In the Paris Review interview, Levine described Detroit in the late '80s as a city where "nothing grandly heroic is taking place... Nothing epic. Just the small heroics of getting through the day when the day doesn’t give a shit, getting through the world with as much dignity as you can pull together from the tiny resources left to you. It’s the truly heroic. The poem ["A Walk with Tom Jefferson"] is a tribute to all these people who survived in the face of so much discouragement. They’ve survived everything America can dish out. No, nothing grandly heroic is happening in Detroit. I guess nothing grandly heroic ever took place there; it was always automobiles, automobiles, hard work, and low pay."

This is definitely the guy I want to be our poet laureate right now.--Published in Shelf Awareness, issue #1532.


Booking Return Passage from OP to PFP 

I often write about indie booksellers in this space; about men and women, young as well as not-so-young, who think the most important thing they could do with their professional lives is to own or work in a bookshop. That this is also perhaps the least practical option is precisely what makes the choice intriguing to me. There is a similar pattern of admirably illogical behavior in publishing. Niche indie presses are finding ways to fill the gaps created by an evolving (or, depending upon your current state of mind, devolving) book industry.

Why would anyone start a small press? For Peter Sarno, founder of PFP Publishing, the answer came from a realization that many excellent books were disappearing into the out of print wilderness. As a literature instructor at UMASS, he regularly assigned Roland Merullo's Revere Beach Elegy: A Memoir of Home & Beyond, which had been recommended to him by author and publisher Askold Melnyczuk.

"The essays in that collection are powerful, and a few--especially 'What A Father Leaves'--move me to tears. This book resonated with students semester in and semester out. And, for some reason, it seemed to especially strike those who were first generation--no matter what their nationality; it’s a work that is able to communicate across generations reaching older and younger students alike."

Last fall, Sarno discovered the college bookstore could no longer order the book because it was OP. He contacted Merullo to inquire about the rights. "When they reverted back to him, I talked him into allowing me to issue a print version. During this process, he asked me about the possibility of an e-book version and I prepared Kindle, NookBook and iBook versions of Elegy," Sarno said.

PFP has now published new editions of three other Merullo novels and Melnyczuk's What Is Told, all of which were OP. Future plans call for the biblio-resurrection of Melnyczuk's Ambassador of the Dead as well as works by Elizabeth Searle and Craig Nova.

Melnyczuk observed that PFP's mission "of resurrecting out of print volumes as e-books, with an occasional print-on-demand run of--what to call them? p-books?--strikes me as the kind of innovative publishing move that stands a good chance of prospering inside the complex environment of the present moment. As a publisher, he is every writer's dream: engaged, meticulous, direct, responsible, and passionate about his work. Every step of the process of working with Peter has been a delight. I wish the same good fortune on my fellow writers."

A limited number of new titles is also planned. According to Sarno, "We'll have published at least two new books before the year is out. But for now, I'd have to say the focus will remain out of print books or those books that are still in print but do not have an electronic version available."

His vision of a publisher's mission is deeply rooted in his own reading life: "Starting with a novella I found in Stone Soup Books in Camden, Maine, I fell in love with the work of Andre Dubus, eventually getting my hands on all his stuff--fiction and nonfiction alike. And, I thought, why is it that I didn't know him, hadn't been introduced to his work before? So I assigned his books to my students, several of whom would end up choosing Dubus as the focus of their final projects. Later I found out via Ted Delaney's documentary The Times Were Never So Bad and other sources how David Godine was the first to take a chance on Dubus and how Andre remained loyal to him when the big houses came calling.

"It helped me to think of publishing in a different way--with a small 'p'. And, I thought of the achievements of Godine, Askold, Joe Torra, Bill Corbett and others, realizing the noble and important efforts publishers make--spreading the word, supporting the artists. If it weren't for Godine Publishing (and an independent bookstore in Maine), I wouldn't have 'discovered' Dubus. If it weren’t for Askold, I wouldn't have read Merullo."

Melnyczuk reflected on what this new life for his novels means to him as a writer: "You send a book into the world like a parent packing a kid off to college, hoping you've taught it enough survival skills, nurtured its personality and strengths enough for it to cope with the exuberant indifference of a busy world. And so it goes off, sending you notices now and again--the dean's list here, a big F there. Eventually it just disappears inside the context of its own life and fate, while you tend to the needy new brood.

"But, I've discovered, if you're really lucky, and more importantly, if your book has the good karma to cross paths with a Peter Sarno, it might surprise in your weather-beaten days, and just when you're sure its long forgotten all you've done for it, when you have begun to doubt it ever existed as more than an image on Google, a number on Amazon, suddenly, there it is, dimensional and glossy in your hands. A reunion with the prodigal first book seems especially delicious and gratifying. And it wouldn't have, couldn't have happened with the intervention of a visionary like Sarno, who sees not simply the decline of one medium, but the collaborative rise of two."--Published in Shelf Awareness Pro, issue #1525.


'Golf in the Kingdom' Plays Through

There are books that take a long time to make their way from page to screen, and then there is Michael Murphy's Golf in the Kingdom. Earlier this week, the New York Times explored the 40-year journey to adapt and film what many golfers consider "practically a sacred text" about a young philosophy student on his way to an ashram in India who spends a pivotal day at Burningbush Links, where he is captivated by a mysterious Scottish golf guru named Shivas Irons. The film opens for an exclusive New York engagement today (details of the national release will appear on the movie's Facebook page).

Golf in the Kingdom is--and I simplify because simplification is the point (though complexity is the point as well)--about life as a journey and not simply a headlong rush to a destination. "A round of golf partakes of the journey, and the journey is one of the central myths and signs of Western man," Shivas writes in his journal. "We tend to see everything as part of the journey. But other men have not been so concerned to get somewhere else--take the Hindus with their endless cycles of time or the Chinese Tao. Getting somewhere else is not necessarily central to the human condition."

The narrative of Michael's life-altering day with Shivas Irons at Burningbush is Part One of Golf in the Kingdom. Part Two consists of the narrator's "attempt to make sense of some passages which I was fortunate enough to copy from his journals." Section headings include The Mystery of the Hole ("In no other game is the ratio of playing field to goal so large.") and How the Swing Reflects the Soul, in which Shivas considers artist Hieronymus Bosch as a golfer: "Ye can see it when ye look at the picture o' Hell in his 'Garden of Earthly Delights.' "

What can I tell you? It's complicated. So how do you get all this and more into a movie?

"I've been waiting for this a long time," Murphy, who is 80, told the Times. "I had got to calling Golf in the Kingdom the world's longest virtual movie, coming soon to a mind near you."

I bought my first copy of the book in 1972, when it was published by Viking, and have read it a thousand times. I've waited decades for this movie, and now I'm almost afraid to see it because of the version that has played in my mind all these years.

The film was shot at Bandon Dunes, a golf resort in Oregon "that looks more Scottish than much of Scotland," the Times noted. Stephen Goodwin wrote about the course in his book Dream Golf: The Making of Bandon Dunes, an "account of how golf enthusiast Mike Keiser turned his vision into one of America's premiere golfing locations," as Algonquin's blog noted in its own anticipatory post about the movie.  

Good journeys take patience and vision.... and time. The novel itself has had an interesting journey, given its status as a 40-year-old book that is still in print and being read.

There have been other golf books in my reading life. Pete Dexter's Train is great, and every passage about golf in a Walker Percy novel is a treasure ("The first sign that something had gone wrong manifested itself while he was playing golf."). But Golf in the Kingdom and I have been on the course together for a long time.

Just another journey, as Shivas Irons might write--and did, fictionally speaking, when he noted that if a round of golf "is a journey, it is also a round: it always leads back to the place you started from... golf is always a trip back to the first tee, the more you play the more you realize you are staying where you are.... you reenact that secret of the journey. You may even get to enjoy it."

Years before I bought my first copy of Golf in the Kingdom, I was just a 14-year-old kid who needed a summer job and found one as a caddie at a nine-hole course in a nearby town. I remember how terrified I was at first, wondering how the hell I could possibly do this when I knew nothing about golf. Then the caddie master showed me a set of clubs, with numbers on the heads, and said that if the golfer asked for a 9-iron, I just had to reach for the one stamped 9. Eureka! A monkey-brain job, I thought, though I still screwed up as soon as the first guy I caddied for asked, "How far to the green, son?"

A long way, man--a lifetime's journey, and then some.--Published by Shelf Awareness Pro, issue #1520.