Gordon Lish on John the Posthumous (Book Acquired, 6.26.2013)

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Some folks I know and whose taste I trust told me about Jason Schwartz, whose new novel (“novel” is not the right word) John the Posthumous is forthcoming from OR Books (the final cover art, which you can see via OR’s site, is much nicer than the reader copy above).

The book bears blurbs from Sam Lipsyte and Ben Marcus and Gordon Lish—so that should be enough for you. (It was enough to pique me).

What is it about? Violence. Cuckoldry. Murder. Satan. Ritual. Animals. Beds. Etc. I don’t know. I’m a little over half way through, and I keep rereading it compulsively, rereading the sentences. Schwartz’s prose approaches a dark, poetic logic of substitutions and omissions that is probably best left unexplicated, but I’ll do a write up after the Fourth of July anyway. Here’s Lish’s praise (a short story in itself):

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And two samples from the book (context is unimportant; or, rather everything—that is, the context of the entire book, in that the book is its own idiom, if you follow (or don’t)):

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Some Books I Plan to Read in 2013

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There are only a handful of forthcoming titles that I know about right now that I’m looking forward to reading next year: story collections from Sam Lipsyte (The Fun Parts) and George Saunders (Tenth of December), and a new novel from William Gass called Middle C. I’m also hoping Keith Ridgway’s Hawthorn and Child will finally get a US release, because I’d like to read it too.

There are a few newish books that I didn’t read in 2012 that I’ll try to catch up to this year—Ben Marcus’s The Flame Alphabet, László Krasznahorkai’s Satantango, and Laurent Binet’s HHhH.

I do not currently possess any of these books.

I also look forward to reading Evan Lavender-Smith’s From Old Notebooks, back in print again from Dzanc (who I am sure will get the copy I ordered to me any day now).

At the top of my list though are the books I’m currently reading: Alvaro Mutis’s Maqroll novellas and Flann O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds.

Stuff I’ve been saying I’ll read for a few years now that I hope to get to:

Cortazar’s Hopscotch, John Williams’s Butcher’s Crossing, Gombrowicz’s Ferdydurke, and, at the top of the heap, Georges Perec’s Life A User’s Manual.

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I have a few books by Thomas Bernhard that I’ll probably get into this year (when I feel called to a misanthropic monologue), and I’ll gobble up anything else by Barry Hannah that I can get my mitts on. I read William Gaddis’s “big books” last year, but I still haven’t read A Frolic of His Own, which I’ve heard is superior to Carpenter’s Gothic.

I’ll reread Moby-Dick this year (or at least listen to William Hootkins’s brilliant audio version) and I’ll probably end up rereading some book that I hadn’t planned to at all (this happened with 2666 and The Savage Detectives this year—who knows? I haven’t read Gravity’s Rainbow since college, and I haven’t reread Infinite Jest in full, and I’d love to go through Suttree again . . . ).

I dipped my toe into Finnegans Wake this year—I’ve found reading it on the Kindle late at night and then going through Joseph Campbell’s Skeleton Key the next morning is rewarding—and I’ll probably keep at it in 2013. Maybe I’ll make it to chapter 3.

But enough of my rambling—What books do you, dear reader, look forward to in 2013?

Maverick Jetpants in the City of Quality (Book Acquired, 9.21.2012)

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Bill Peters — Maverick Jetpants in the City of Quality. Not sure if that title is brilliant or awful. This one comes out from Black Balloon next month. Their blurb:

Rochester, New York, 1999: An arsonist is loose on the streets of a city in decline. Gone are the days of Rioting in the Vomit Cruiser, searching for a possible Tokyo Rocking Horse. In this hilarious, wildly original debut novel, Nathan Gray and best friend Necro live by the code of Joke Royalty, a system of in-jokes known only to a select few. But as the reality of full-time employment, possible spouses, and Neo-Nazis encroaches, their friendship unravels, threatening their dreams of becoming Kodak Park Winjas.
Among the gravest Hellstacheries: Necro’s strangely vicious drawings and his sudden interest in a group of weapons enthusiasts who may or may not be responsible for the fires erupting through downtown. With no Holy Grail Points left to his name, Nate ventures into Rochester’s strangest corners to find out if his best friend is a domestic terrorist Pinning Bow Ties on the Dead or simply Maverick Jetpantsing on with his life–perhaps even beyond The City of Quality.

Biblioklept fave Sam Lipsyte also provides a blurb:

Do you want laughter, suffering, and friendship, Rochester-style? Do you want to marinate in raucous sadness? I know you do. So be ready, everybody. Here comes the Vomit Cruiser to rescue your sense of humor, and Bill Peters to rescue your heart.

Book Shelves #13, 3.25.2012

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Book shelves series #13, thirteenth Sunday of 2012: Four by the late great Russell Hoban. A few Philip K. Dick volumes, although it’s worth pointing out that most of the good stuff I’ve owned by him has been loaned out and never returned and/or exists in ratty coverless mass market editions. PK Dick transitions to William Burroughs to JG Ballard (another writer who I used to own other books by before they were dispersed . . .). Martin Bax’s The Hospital Ship is a thoroughly obscure volume in a Ballardian/Burroughsian vein; it deserves a reprint. Gardner, Brodkey, Gass, Kosinski. I’ve owned Raymond Carver’s Cathedral since high school, or maybe freshman year of college. It’s all the Carver that any library needs. Lish comma Gordon. Two by Malcolm Lowry. Two by Barry Hannah. Four from Sam Lipsyte.

The Carver and Kosinski volumes are part of the 1980s Vintage Contemporaries line that all feature awful, hyper-literal covers. I have about a dozen such volumes and I’m planning a piece on them in the future. Observe:

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Book Acquired, 2.03.2012 — Edward St. Aubyn Edition

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Picador has put together all four of Edward St. Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose novels in anticipation of the final novel, At Last, which debuts later this month from FS&G. I haven’t read St. Aubyn’s stuff, which hasn’t been widely available in the US until now, but I do know that Open City put some of it out, and they put out stuff by heroes of mine like David Berman and Sam Lipsyte (who blurbs the book). Anyway, here’s a short description from Picador:

For more than twenty years, acclaimed author Edward St. Aubyn has chronicled the life of Patrick Melrose, painting an extraordinary portrait of the beleaguered and self-loathing world of privilege. This single volume collects the first four novels—Never Mind, Bad News,Some Hope, and Mother’s Milk, a Man Booker finalist—to coincide with the publication of At Last, the final installment of this unique novel cycle.

By turns harrowing and hilarious, these beautifully written novels dissect the English upper class as we follow Patrick Melrose’s story from child abuse to heroin addiction and recovery. Never Mind,the first novel, unfolds over a day and an evening at the family’s chateaux in the south of France, where the sadistic and terrifying figure of David Melrose dominates the lives of his five-year-old son, Patrick, and his rich and unhappy American mother, Eleanor. From abuse to addiction, the second novel, Bad News opens as the twenty-two-year-old Patrick sets off to collect his father’s ashes from New York, where he will spend a drug-crazed twenty-four hours. And back in England, the third novel, Some Hope, offers a sober and clean Patrick the possibility of recovery. The fourth novel, the Booker-shortlisted Mother’s Milk, returns to the family chateau, where Patrick, now married and a father himself, struggles with child rearing, adultery, his mother’s desire for assisted suicide, and the loss of the family home to a New Age foundation.

Edward St. Aubyn offers a window into a world of utter decadence, amorality, greed, snobbery, and cruelty—welcome to the declining British aristocracy.

I haven’t had much time to dip into this, even though it intrigues, because my wife immediately snapped it up. I had to go find it in her night stand to do this post. At the risk of mangling this completely though (and correct me if I’m wrong), it seems like a little bit like a contemporary Henry James shot through with Bret Easton Ellis (and maybe a touch of Downton Abbey). I will ask my wife to report.

The Subject Steve — Sam Lipsyte

A few years ago, I wrote about cult novels, and, in trying to define them, I suggested that “a cult book is not (necessarily) a book about cults.”  Sam Lipsyte’s first novel The Subject Steve is a cult novel about a cult, or at least heavily features a cult. Like many cult novels, there’s an apocalyptic scope to Steve, one in this particular case (or subject, if you will), that extends from the personal to the universal.

I’ll let Lipsyte’s compressed acerbic prose spell out the book’s central conflict—

The bad news was bad. I was dying of something nobody had ever died of before. I was dying of something nobody had ever died of before. I was dying of something absolutely, fantastically new. Strangely enough, I was in fine fettle. My heart was strong and my lungs were clean. My vitals were vital. Nothing was enveloping me or eating away at me or brandishing itself towards some violence in my brain. There weren’t any blocks or clots or seeps or leaks. My levels were good. My counts were good. All my numbers said my number wasn’t up.

The problem of death, or the problem of how to live a meaningful life against the specter of death, is of course an ancient conceit, and Lipsyte makes it the core of his book, upon which he hangs an often shaggy picaresque plot. The Subject Steve is post-modernist caustic satire in the good old vein of Candide; put another way, it’s just one damn thing happening after the next.

So, what are some of those things that happen? Steve (not his real name) is condemned to die of a disease with no name; he tries to make contact with his estranged wife and not-quite-a-genius daughter; he blows his life savings on hookers and blow; he heads upstate to a cult’s compound in the hopes of finding a cure to his unnamed (unnameable) disease; he suffers the cult’s sadistic practices; he escapes the cult’s sadistic practices; he reunites with his wife and daughter; he abandons his wife and daughter; he reunites with a new version of the cult somewhere in the Nevada desert; he becomes enslaved by the cult in the Nevada desert; he escapes the cult; &c. And he reflects on his life (and his death) repeatedly. I’ll let Steve reflect on his life at length, if for no other reason than to share more of Lipsyte’s marvelous prose—

And I was still dying, wasn’t I? Who would note? What had I ever noted? I’d taken my pleasures, of course, I’d eaten the foods of the world, drunk my wine, put this or that forbidden particulate in my nose until the room lit up like a festival town and all my friends, but just my friends, were seers. I’d seen the great cities, the great lakes, the oceans and the so-called seas, slept in soft beds and awakened to fresh juice and fluffy towels and terrific water pressure. I’d fucked in moonlight, sped through desolate interstate kingdoms of high broken beauty, met wise men, wise women, even a wise movie star. I’d lain on lawns that, cut, bore the scent of rare spice. I’d ridden dune buggies, foreign rails. I’d tasted forty-five kinds of coffee, not counting decaf.

I love this passage. In almost any other book I can think of, the final detail about coffee would puncture the passage’s inflation, serve as a comic anti-climax. In Lipsyte’s phrasing it’s both tragic and triumphant.

I don’t mean to gloss over the plot of The Subject Steve, but the book’s narrative, its sense of time, is so radically compressed (again, I think of the compression of Candide) that reading it is more like experiencing a rapid series of scenarios. I’m particularly fond of books like this, that seem to ramble and erupt in strange and unexpected moments. I think of Ellison’s Invisible Man or Woolf’s Orlando, but there’s also something of Aldous Huxley in Steve, that apocalyptic-comic axis, the satire of despair. The book is one of those pre-9/11 novels (forgive the phrase) that seems utterly prescient. Take the following observation for example—

Someday sectors of this city would make the most astonishing ruins. No pyramid or sacrificial ziggurat would compare to these insurance towers, convention domes. Unnerved, of course, or stoned enough, you always could see it, tomorrow’s ruins today, carcasses of steel teetered in a halt of death, half globes of granite buried like worlds under shards of street. Sometimes I pictured myself a futuristic sifter, some odd being bred for sexlessness, helmed in pulsing Lucite, stooping to examine an elevator panel, a perfectly preserved boutonniere.

The language here anticipates the Dead America that Lipsyte explores in his latest novel, The Ask, and reinforces a general argument I’d like to make, which is that Lipsyte is at heart a writer of dystopian fictions, fictions so contemporary that their dystopian nature becomes effaced.

These dystopian tropes coalesce in the frantic, hyperbolic ending of Steve, where our subject becomes the object of a bizarre cult’s ritual sadistic practices, all available via the panopticon of the internet. Lipsyte’s vision is of a post-human existence, a radical otherness of degradation through technological alienation. At this late moment in the book, the satire is so black that even Lipsyte’s tightest, pithiest sentences fail to elicit a laugh or a smile — indeed, I am almost certain that they are not intended to do so. Instead we are immersed in the apocalyptic horror of dehumanization (the book here reminded me of Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing, of all things, both in its desert location and in its gradual movement from sardonic humor to vivid terror).

Like any cult novel, or destined cult novel, The Subject Steve is Not For Everyone. Those looking for plot development and tidy endings will not find them here, and, if the tone of this review has not already made it clear, the book is extremely dark. But it’s also very, very funny, and there are few stylists working today who can match Lipsyte’s mastery of the sentence. Highly recommended.

The Subject Steve is now available in trade paperback from Picador.

“I Don’t Know If You’d Call It Stealing” — Sam Lipsyte, Book Thief

Sam Lipsyte read live from his novel The Ask last year on HTML GIANT’s Ustream channel. The reading was cool but the best part was the q&a session afterward. We asked Lipsyte the one question all true biblioklepts are dying to know (and the one question we ask every person we interview): “Have you ever stolen a book?”

Here’s Lipsyte’s response, which you can hear/see at 31:25 in the video:

‘Have you ever stolen a book?’ There was one time when I stole a few books when I worked in a library; it was a university library and my job was to stick the metal strips into the spines of the books that would set off the alarm. And so if a particularly good book came through (and this only happened three or four times) I just wouldn’t–I don’t know if I’d call it stealing–but I wouldn’t put the strip in. And then once it was shelved I would take it.

That’s a pretty sophisticated operation. Kudos to Lipsyte for his candor.

 

Sam Lipsyte Makes Pork Buns, Considers Placentophagy

Win a Copy of Sam Lipsyte’s Debut Novel The Subject Steve

To promote their new edition of Sam Lipsyte’s first novel The Subject Steve, Picador will give away two copies of the book to two lucky Biblioklept readers (U.S. addresses only). What do you have to do to win? Simply post your favorite line (0r consecutive lines) from a Lipsyte novel in the comments section of this post (limit yourself to one response of one cohesive quotation, please). An Esteemed Panel of Honorable Judges will select their favorites. We’ll announce winners next week.

Home Land — Sam Lipsyte

[Editorial note: Biblioklept ran a version of this review last year; we run it again in the spirit of Sam Lipsyte Week].

In Sam Lipsyte’s 2004 novel Home Land, minor loser Lewis Miner sends missives to his high school alumni newsletter, Catamount Notes, about his awful, sad misadventures in small-time drug use, petty copy-writing, itinerant busboyism, and chronic masturbation (he has a strong erotic disposition toward leg warmer porn. If this idea repels you (with no reciprocal attraction) this book is not for you). Miner wants to be sweet but he can be mean. He’s obsessed with the past–and who can blame him? His nickname in high school was Teabag, an appellation literally thrust upon him by the dumbest of jock-bullies. He carries this kernel of spite for years like a pebble in the sock, one that rubs up a giant blister–Miner is all blister. Writing ostensibly to his former classmates, but really just for himself, another form of masturbation:

It’s always been this way, as many of you might recall. Somebody chucks a snowball, I’m scouring the school yard for rocks. The bully just wants to shove sadness around, shake me down for spare change, I’m looking to scrape out his eye. I lack a sense of proportion. I have no sensitivity to sport. I’m the aggrieved rider on the grievous plain. I’m still pissed about the parade.

For all his anger though, Miner is an engaging, preternaturally sensitive voice. Along with his best friend/foil Gary, he muddles through a wretched life, finding solace (and an outlet for an outsized comic voice) in his letters to Catamount Notes–even if disgraced Principal Fontana won’t publish them. Despite his censorious discretion, Fontana reignites a downright silly mentorship with Miner. Fontana, a man after Holden Caulfield’s heart who calls everyone a “phony,” plays a weird father-figure to our favorite loser (even though Lewis’s own “Daddy Miner” is an ever-present terror in this tragicomedy).

Fontana, Daddy Miner, and the other characters in Home Land often feel like props rather than fully-drawn beings. Take the aforementioned Gary, for example, flush with cash after suing the hypnotherapist who convinced him that his parents sexually abused him repeatedly as part of elaborate Satanic rituals. His ridiculous past is par for course in the book. Such characters are the stock-in-trade of Home Land; they are, paradoxically, both its strength and weakness, beings who seem to speak entirely in misplaced metaphors and fucked-up aphorisms. There are too many of them for the book’s 200 pages. The fast writing never sags under the huge cast, but, nonetheless, its spine, its plot, its quick rhythm can’t bear their weight. There’s a much bigger novel here, but I don’t think I’d want to read it. Even Lipsyte’s normals are grotesques–or maybe it’s just Miner’s bilious perspective. In any case, sympathy is in short supply in Catamount country.

None of this is meant to disparage the reading experience of Home Land, which is marvelous, quick, funny, and a little bit gross (in a good way). Lipsyte crafts his sentences with a concrete, witty excellence that is near unrivaled in contemporary lit. It’s true that he sacrifices the depth of his characters here from time to time, and then includes passages that add nothing to the plot as a whole, like this one:

An older shapely woman swerved past on rollerblades. Bronzed, undulant in black Lycra, she clutched a pack of menthol cigarettes, danced on her wheels to something pumped through headphones. It was an admirable kind of ecstasy, hard-won. I wanted her for a lewd aunt.

That last line, of course, tells us so much about Lewis Miner and is also indicative of his overall method of storytelling. Not that he sees his letters to his alumni newsletter as part of a larger narrative–indeed, he’s to be forgiven all his esoterica, his mean, incisive commentary on contemporary life that doesn’t add up. Halfway through the book he tells us:

It occurs to me, Catamounts, sitting here composing this latest update, that someday, if and when the collected works of Lewis Miner ever see the light of day, some futuristic editor-type might attempt to assemble these dispatches in a certain manner, to, for example, tell a story, or else effect some kind of thematic arrangement of interwoven leitmotifs: Work, Love, Masturbation, Gary.

This would be a mistake. There are no leitmotifs. There is no story.

Miner then goes on to makes a pretty convincing case against stories (or at least against narrative arcs) and, tellingly, Home Land is better as a series of ugly, gross, hilarious anecdotes than it is as a novel with a traditional character arc. Which it is–a novel with a traditional character arc, climax, all that good stuff. Strangely, this is the book’s biggest failure. But that failure doesn’t get in the way of what is a pretty great and often very funny reading experience. Miner’s voice is a pleasure to inhabit for a while, a postmodern Falstaff heavy on the self-loathing. Home Land is a quick, easy read, a novel destined for cult-status, and Lewis Miner’s pathetic ironic braggadocio will hit home for many folks. Recommended.

Home Land is available in trade paperback from Picador.

 

Venus Drive — Sam Lipsyte

[Editorial note: Biblioklept ran a version of this review last year; we run it again in the spirit of Sam Lipsyte Week].

The thirteen stories in Venus Drive compose a sort of novel-in-stories. The title of the collection takes its name from a banal suburban street mentioned in a few of the stories, and many of the characters seem like iterations of the same type or voice. There are washed up would-be indie rock stars, small-time coke peddlers, and underemployed and overeducated addicts. There are deviants and perverts and outsiders. There are bullies. There are dead or dying mothers, dead or dying sisters. In short, Venus Drive is its own tightly-drawn, tightly-coiled, and highly-compressed world.

As the plot points double and re-double in these stories, so do the themes. “Our culture is afraid of death, and considers it something we must wage battle against,” says Tessa, a pain specialist, a peripheral character in “Cremains.” She continues: “I say, surrender, submit. Go gentle. Terminal means terminal.” Death informs almost all of these stories in some way, and Tessa’s commentary presents the problem with death, or at least the problem these characters have with dealing with death: it’s not easy to go gentle. It goes against our culture and our nature to surrender. If she’s presented as a voice of wisdom, she’s also an ironic character, one of the many would-be authorities Lipsyte’s weirdos and outsiders can’t help but mock. “The Drury Girl,” part-suburban satire and pure pathos, posits a pre-pubescent narrator obsessed with his teenage babysitter; his dad’s cancer plays second fiddle to his lust. Thus the story neatly ties together the overarching themes of Venus Drive, sex and death. Admittedly, these are probably the only real themes of proper literature, but Lipsyte does it so damn well and lays it all out so bare and does so in such humor and grace that it really sticks. It’s good stuff.

That humor is desert-dry, of course, and succeeds so well because his characters are so endearing in their pathetic pathologies. The antiheroes of “Beautiful Game” and “My Life, for Promotional Use Only,” are also-rans in the sordid history of underground rock, addicts approaching washed-up (Are they the same person? Maybe. They have different names, of course. Doesn’t matter). A scene from “Beautiful Game” shows the ambivalence at the core of many of these characters: “At the bank machine, Gary doesn’t check the balance. Better to leave it to the gods. Someday the bank machine will shun him. Why know when?” Gene, the ex-rocker in “My Life, for Promotional Use Only” now suffers the indignities of working for his ex-girlfriend. Everyone in the story is an ex-something, everyone is growing up and leaving art (or is it “Art”?) behind. In a poignant and funny and cruel scene, familiar to many of us, Gene sees some of himself in a waitress:

Rosalie calls over the waitress and they talk for a while about somebody’s new art gallery. The waitress is famous for a piece where she served the Bloody Marys mixed with her menstrual blood. Word had it she overdid the tabasco.

I wait for the moment when our waitress stops being a notorious transgressor of social mores and becomes a waitress again, look for it in her eyes, that sad blink, and order a beer.

Gene, a former “notorious transgressor of social mores” himself feels both sorrow and hate for the waitress. He sees her job as menial and pathetic — just like his own. He doesn’t seem to think much of her art, either. Lipsyte telegraphs so much there with so few words, his sentences clean, spare, precise, and rarely of the compound variety. There’s a truncated, clipped rhythm that Lipsyte builds over the thirteen-story run that helps propel the immediacy of his tales. The stories are short, too; the longest is sixteen pages and most run to eight or ten. Lipsyte’s rhetorical gift is to shine the grubby and, at times, his sentences can feel almost too perfect, too-fussed over–but this (minor) complaint, it must be noted, comes from someone who admires occasional ambiguity or incoherence. Lipsyte removes his own authorial voice and thus achieves lucidity in his characters’ voices; somehow, though — and paradoxically — these voices bear the ghostly trace of his absence. But that seems like a silly conversation, and certainly not one for this post.

Venus Drive reminds me very much of one of my favorite books, Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son, which I would also call a novel-in-stories, also a spare and precise collection, also a study of weirdos and addicts and outsiders. Jesus’ Son is something of a standard in creative writing workshops (or at least it used to be) and a sensible teacher would add Venus Drive to her syllabus as well. Finally, like Jesus’ Son, Lipsyte’s book is seething, funny, and poignant, with characters tipped toward some redemption, awful or otherwise, for all their myriad sins. The book might take its name from a geographic location, but the “Venus drive” is also a spiritual inclination toward love and hope. Highly recommended.

Venus Drive is available in trade paperback from Picador.

“There Are at Least Two or Three Masturbation Scenes” — Sam Lipsyte Defends His Novel The Ask

It’s Sam Lipsyte Week at Biblioklept

It’s Sam Lipsyte week at Biblioklept. Why? Why not? Okay, here’s a more concrete reason: this month, Picador publishes the trade paperback début of his most recent novel, The Ask, as well as a new edition of his first novel The Subject Steve. We’ll be running new reviews for The Ask and Steve, as well as re-running older reviews, an excerpt or two of Lipsyte’s weird comic goodness, and other odds n’ ends. Like this video of Lipsyte reading from The Ask. Thou hast beenst warnedst.

Sam Lipsyte on Teaching Creative Writing

Sam Lipsyte discusses teaching creative writing at Financial Times (yeah, Financial Times, I know).  A few excerpts–

When you teach creative writing, you are already on the defensive. People love to poke you in the chest and cry, “But you can’t teach writing!” This is precisely what I think about automobile driving but I let them rant while I rub the sore part where they poked me. I don’t know why people get so worked up about this subject. Nobody has asked them to teach creative writing or even to learn it. Apprenticeship, the sharing of history and technique, has always been a central feature of art-making. Yet people cling to a romantic idea of the self-made genius toiling away in a garret or napping undisturbed in a sleep module. . . .

You can teach sex, can’t you? Why can’t you teach writing? Most people need to be taught sex. That’s why there are books such as the Kama Sutra and The Joy of Sex, not to mention people, like your best friend’s older sister, or places, like the neighbour’s garage. Nothing’s more natural, and more dependent on natural talent for its most transcendent demonstrations, but sex is still best if taught properly. So, what’s so crazy about passing along a few literary tricks and reading tips?