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Wesley Yang – Paper Tigers

I was sent this enormously engaging link yesterday (it’s on the cover of NY magazine!), and the article really made me think and stuck with me even today.  I suppose on one level it’s because I have spent so much time thinking myself about the topics covered in the article–magnet schools and selective admissions, asian writers, “tiger moms”–but also because it’s well-written and thoughtful.

This article is about many things, but one thing it’s particularly about (to me) is the Yang’s struggle with Asian identity.  He, like me, looks Asian, but had an upbringing that didn’t include honorifics, or close familial ties. Culturally, he’s American. It’s difficult to say what he said, and although I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how to say it, he outdoes me on the first page of the article.  He settles on the word “twinkie,” which I don’t really care for.

And it is, from a writing perspective, a tad self-indulgent.  Of course, this is a big long magazine piece that needs to draw Big Conclusions, but his sopsilisitc excursions into racial speculation are often unwelcome. “If you are an Asian person who holds himself proudly aloof, nobody will respect that, or find it intriguing, or wonder if that challenging façade hides someone worth getting to know. ” It also doesn’t work when he considers his own past: “The world brings low such people. It brought me low. I haven’t had health insurance in ten years. I didn’t earn more than $12,000 for eight consecutive years. I went three years in the prime of my adulthood without touching a woman. I did not produce a masterpiece.”

But little aspects like this can be taken care of in editing.  There’s still a lot in this article that resonates with readers like me.  I appreciated the throuroughly depressing part about Eddie Chang who bumped up against the “bamboo ceiling” in both the fields of screenwriting and law.  I also liked the part about the Stuyvesant kid who wants to be a writer and I understand where he’s coming from–where are the Asian male writers? Do second-generation kids want to wait a few more generations before they become artists and culture mavens?

At the very least, with this impressive feature, Yang has put himself into the category of Asian writers that I see as role models.  People I want to emulate.  And that, by itself, is the first step in correcting some of the issues on the cover of New York magazine.

I recently had an opportunity to ask a few questions of Mark Athitakis, writer of the excellent book blog Mark Athitakis’ American Fiction Notes and National Books Critics Circle member.

We talked about Washington DC writers, why he writes on American Fiction Notes, and J. Franz’s take on DC dowdiness:

Who are your favorite DC fiction writers?  Who should I read?

I should say first that I’m a relative newcomer to the DC area (I moved here in 2007), and I don’t claim to be an expert on the city’s literature. But I’ve enjoyed playing catch-up on the city’s writers since I arrived, and there are a few I admired before I showed up: Edward P. Jones, Ward Just, and George Pelecanos in particular. As it happens, Pelecanos edited a 2008 collection, DC Noir 2, that I think would be a fine primer on the city’s fiction for anybody who’s new to it: stories by Jones and Just are in there, as are pieces by Marita Golden, Elizabeth Hand, Paul Laurence Dunbar, and others. I think you need to live here a while to get past the notion that D.C. is very binary city—federal/civilian, black/white, etc—and DC Noir 2 undoes a lot of that conventional wisdom.
 
When writing your blog–it’s been around since January 2008–whatwas the first post that got major attention?
 
I don’t think any post of mine has received what I’d consider “major attention.” Tyler Cowen once linked to a post I wrote about Mormon literature, and that led to my busiest day ever on the blog; Andrew Sullivan linked to something I wrote complaining about lists, and that got some heat as well. But those are really anomalies. The attention my blog has gotten has been more aggregated
over time and less tied to specific posts.
 
What do you feel your responsibility to your reader is?
 
It’s no different for me than for any other writer: to be honest and to get the facts right. I’ve bungled facts in public enough in my career that I’m as mindful about it on the blog as I am anywhere else—more mindful, if anything, because I’m not being backstopped by an editor. I realize that there’s a feeling that readers will correct you in the comments, so there’s less of a need to sweat this stuff, but I’m as mortified about errors on my blog as anywhere else.
 
Who do you write for? What’s the image in your mind of your reader?
 
I suppose I write for somebody who’s a little like me: Aware of a fair bit of what’s going on in contemporary writing but who wants to know more (and is certainly aware of how much he/she doesn’t know); is college-educated but not particularly enchanted by or interested in literary theory; and is eager to read a variety of perspectives on books. (I assume most of my readers consume other literary blogs, so I’m mindful about not overlapping on their turf too much.) I don’t think people are coming to me for practical reasons, like receiving specific guidance on books to read—there are plenty of blogs that serve that particular niche.
 
I have no idea if the reader I imagine is anything like the reader I’m getting. I know from my traffic logs that a many people arrive from .edu domains. If I’m in a self-flattering mood, I tell myself that I attract a lot of bright academics in English departments; in my more cynical moments, I figure I’m providing emergency assistance to undergrads crashing their term papers. The truth is probably a mix of both.
 
I read your notes on Freedom.  What did you think of the Georgetown/Alexandria settings in Freedom?
He’s pretty down on the place, isn’t he? “The pedestrians in every neighborhood all seemed to have taken the same dowdiness pills,” he writes about D.C. So, busted: This isn’t a city full of fashion plates. But I don’t take his criticism too seriously, because D.C. serves a very utilitarian purpose in Freedom: It’s a drab neutral spot to place his discussions about overpopulation and the overcommercialization of art. (You’ll remember that there’s a scene in D.C.’s 9:30 Club where hipsters moo over Conor Oberst, but Franzen has said in an interview that he’s never set foot in the place.)
 
I don’t think urban areas are Franzen’s strong suit: I’ve never been to the University of Minnesota campus, but I’ve heard people who find his descriptions of the place in the novel lacking. But then, I wouldn’t expect him to celebrate (or even spend much time detailing) cities in the novel, because the place he loves best is the wilderness—the West Virginia forest threatened by mountaintop removal that will destroy those precious cerulean warblers, or the sanctuary that provides the setting for the novel’s closing grace note. The fewer people around the better, Franzen seems to be arguing, which is part of the reason whyFreedom left me with the same mildly disgruntled feeling I get after watching a Lars Von Trier movie: If you don’t like people all that much, why are you interested in telling stories about them?
What was your best ever writing experience?  (I asked this question of Junot Diaz during a talk in college and he said that he went to the New York Public Library main building and wrote for eight hours in the reading room on Christmas Eve.  For example.)
 
I don’t write fiction, so I don’t really have an experience like Junot Diaz’s to share. But I think I understand the feeling. In a lot of interviews, novelists describe writing as being some variation of a dream state or trance, where the real world slips away and they wholly exist in the imaginary world that they’re creating. (Such proclamations are usually followed by a discussion of the messy real-world business of revising that creation; I guess writing is the high and rewriting is the self-hating hangover.) As a journalist and blogger, I don’t get a dream state to call my own; I’m just sawing planks and hammering them together as best I can. For me, the pleasure I get as a writer usually comes before and after the writing itself. There’s a sort of mental tickle I feel when I’ve identified something I really want to write about, or (more precisely) when I’ve identified a way into something I really want to write about, and there’s a sense of accomplishment that comes from having gotten the thing written as closely as possible to the way in which I’ve imagined it. In between is the writing, which is neither fun nor un-fun, just work—writing and rewriting, adding and pruning, etc, in an effort to hang on to that early sense of excitement and drive toward that final sense of accomplishment. A post I recently wrote on Andrew Holleran’s novel Grief would be a pretty good example of that process—I spent more time than I’m willing to admit trying to work my way into that book, but I was happy to have identified what I wanted to say, and I’m happy to have said it.

When I was a child, perusing the children’s section at my local bookstore, I asked my father how many books there are in the world.  He looked at me, paused, considered, and replied I don’t know, I think that’s probably a question that can never be answered.  Well, that prediction was premature and incorrect.  The answer is 128,864,880.

Google Books estimates the number of books in the world.

There are a few caveats.  First, this number is not about the number of “works.”  My edition of Ulysses is different from an earlier edition of Ulysses, every version of a Shakespeare play would be counted differently, etc.  This makes it somewhat less interesting, although certainly a great ballpark figure.  I would guess that the vast majority of volumes are only printed once.  I’m interested in the number of novels, written in any language,  published in any fashion.  Still, that number seems small.  There’s also a possiblity that Google isn’t as good at counting books not written in English. Of course, I have no conception of what 100 million looks like.  But considering there are 7,000,000,000 people in the world, the number is a power of 10 less and not enough to give every person a book.  Here’s my question: can we expect the number of books produced to rise exponentially alongside population growth?

The Google blog post is fascinating.  There’s a lot of library science going into the Google Books project along with the legal and philosophical aspects.  Thier process, in a nutshell, is to combine all the existing ways of cataloging books–library of Congress numbers, ISBNs, WorldCat numbers–and use manpower, computer cycles and some interesting programming to remove the duplicates.  Their current models estimates the number we have here.  On one hand it’s discouraging to add a book to a reading list that’s 100 million and counting.  It’s time to start eating some books.