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John Benditt in conversation with Nancy Pearl - University Bookstore Wednesday, February 25th, 7:00pm
Late Night Library
Guest Post from Late Night Library’s Paul Martone
A challenge for Tin House’s readers: Name five poets and fiction writers whose debut books were published in 2011. You may not open a new tab and google “debut poets and fiction writers.” Ready, set, go…
Fact #1: Many people consider the book to be a tangible representation of the past: a single function artifact. Press a book’s cover, press its author’s photo: WTF? Nothing happens.
Fact #2: Debut poets and fiction writers entertain readers. They offer nuanced and poignant insights, profound revelations. At their very best, these artists provide opportunities for self-discovery; they sharpen our ability to see ourselves clearly; they stir our empathic impulses.
Fact #3: Millions of Americans still read books. Unfortunately most of them do not read debut poetry and fiction. A debut, by definition, is a first appearance. But sometimes debut books do not appear. I live in Portland, Oregon. We are fortunate to be home to Powell’s, the largest independent new and used bookstore in the world, yet every debut collection of poetry and short fiction I purchased this year was purchased online. These books did not appear on the shelves at Powell’s or anywhere else in the city of Portland.
Personal Narrative, Part One: Eight years ago, I couldn’t name three debut poets and fiction writers, least of all five. It was 2003, the year I entered the MFA program at the University of Oregon. I was twenty-seven years old and like most MFA students, I was a lifelong reader influenced by a slew of canonical and contemporary writers. If I recognized the name of a debut poet or fiction writer, it was only because I read something about them in Poets & Writers—maybe an article, more likely a blurb. People in my social and academic circles rarely spoke of debut books. In fiction seminars and workshops, my instructors assigned texts by writers such as Anton Chekhov, Flannery O’Connor, Samuel Clemens, and Virginia Woolf. Outside of class, my fellow MFA-ers and I discussed writers like Alice Munro, Denis Johnson, George Saunders, and Mary Gaitskill. To this day I love all of these writers, canonical and contemporary alike. But who are the new voices in poetry and fiction, and why aren’t more people discussing their work?
A question for today’s aspiring and emerging writers: How can you expect other people to read your work if you don’t read debut poetry and fiction?
Every novice writer is told to protect his or her time. This message is promulgated by a multitude of established writers. Many writers perceive mainstream society as apathetic or even hostile toward the act of writing. In a nation that chooses to perceive time as little more than fiscal measurement, the writer’s protection of his or her time is not only reasonable, it is well-warranted and essential to literature’s survival.
I have little sympathy, however, for the writer who adopts an abrasive stance toward any non-writing activity that requires serious attention or creative thought—including the act of reading. Writers confuse the need to protect time with a need to be selfish with time. Philosopher and fiction writer Ayn Rand had it wrong when she defined selfishness as a virtue, particularly in the context of art. Selfishness is a complete anathema to art: it poisons the creative process; it obstructs the communalization of art’s objects.
If every aspiring, emerging, and established writer read one work of debut poetry or fiction each month (in conjunction with the books they’re already reading) and shared these books with family, friends, students, and coworkers, the sale of contemporary literature would increase substantially. Agents, publishers, and publicists would devote more time, energy, and resources to new authors. The books would appear.
Personal Narrative, Part Two: In the fall of 2010, I contacted Erin Hoover, a Brooklyn-based poet, and asked if she would dedicate considerable time and energy to a project that would benefit writers other than herself. Amazingly, she agreed. Together we founded Late Night Library (www.latenightlibrary.org), a literary arts organization devoted to new voices in poetry and fiction. Our collaborative project launched in April, 2011, with the release of our first podcast and simultaneous literary events that featured readings by emerging writers in Brooklyn, NY, and Portland, OR.
Every month Late Night Library features one new collection of poetry or work of fiction by a debut poet, novelist, or short story writer. Through analytical yet casual discussions, our podcasts explore each work’s thematic, visionary, and stylistic function in the context of related canonical and contemporary literature. Our content differs from other podcasts and radio shows by focusing on the literature itself rather than the biographies of the poets and writers or their individual artistic processes.
Erin and I read, research, and investigate debut poetry and fiction from a variety of indie and mainstream publishers before making final selections for our podcast, and we solicit recommendations from readers, writers, agents, publishers, and publicists through our website: (http://www.latenightlibrary.org/suggest).
Late Night Library’s podcasts are co-hosted by emerging poets and writers who have published creative work, or who have studied creative writing. In the coming years, we will be offering a variety of related programs to raise public awareness of the talented debut poets and fiction writers in America today.
A Public Admission: Late Night Library hasn’t undermined or hindered my own writing process in the slightest. In fact, I’ve written more fiction in the past year than any other period of my life. Why would I view my time reading debut literature as time that is squandered? These artists inspire me. Each book is a gift.
The poet Megan Harlan, author of the topographically and linguistically inventive poetry collection, Mapmaking (BkMk Press, 2010), responded to Late Night Library’s discussion of her book by writing Erin and me: “I am amazed and humbled by your incredibly insightful attention to the poems. You did a phenomenal job (working in great ideas about place, story, and language…And all in such a smart, lively, and respectful way). Words really cannot express how much I appreciate it.”
Fiction writer Deanna Fei, author of the emotionally complex and brilliantly crafted novel, A Thread of Sky (Penguin Press, 2010), wrote to me saying, “It’s such a rare experience (even when a review/discussion is totally complimentary) to have that sense of… Wow. He gets my characters. He really got that sentence. He gets the book. Maybe he gets it better than I do. Which is how I felt listening to you.”
Exceptional writers deserve the opportunity to experience meaningful discussions of their books more often: in many cases the desire for connection drives the creation of new works. It’s true we live in a fast-paced, high-tech society, and some people fail to consider a book’s intangible functions. But we employ new technologies to serve our traditional passions. As author Steve Almond phrased it, “Late Night Library is using the Internet to spread the gospel of literature.”
Nearly everyone in America—including this podcaster, educator, and fiction writer—values his or her own time for selfish and unselfish reasons. But the schematic communion that occurs between an engaged reader and a literary text cannot be duplicated, replaced, or supplanted. Literary art understands its function in our lives is supplementary. It empowers us with thoughts and feelings that nurture and sustain our human relationships. It is an art that understands these relationships are everything.
So how many debut titles have you read this year? Are you interested in a few suggestions? (http://www.latenightlibrary.org/bookshelf).
Paul Martone’s fiction appears in The Saranac Review, The Fiddlehead, Water~Stone Review, The Stickman Review, and Reed Magazine (2010 John Steinbeck Award Finalist). Most recently, an excerpt from Martone’s novel-in-progress was selected as a finalist for Glimmer Train’s June short story award.