Last weekend, I was in Denver for a few days to work at the Lighthouse Writers’ annual LitFest. For two weeks, Lighthouse brought a flock of writers—including Andre Dubus III, Robin Black, Thomas Lux, Steven Schwartz, and many others—for a fortnight of workshops, seminars, readings, and general literary goodness. Andrea Dupree, Lighthouse director, graciously offered me the opportunity to come to the Mile High City in late June. This was a nice fit for my schedule; fall and spring are always a little packed when you have a full-time gig.
Denver was first suggested to me by the writer Amanda Rea. I met Amanda last fall at the time I was planning a year of promotion for Strategies. She raved about Lighthouse, said they were terrific, that it would be a good place to teach or do a reading, and I said, all right, I’m on it.
I’m a pretty disciplined person. I wake up at 530 every morning to write before I go to work. My office and home are neat and tidy (if not necessarily “clean”). I pack my workout clothes on Monday morning. There’s a right way for me to fold laundry, to mow the lawn, to do everything. I was the kid that spend hours reorganizing my baseball cards because thinking up new ways of organizing things is fun to me.
So it was pretty confusing to discovered I had completely screwed up my flight plans. For reasons I can’t even begin to fathom, I thought my Lighthouse schedule was something like this: teach Wed night, panel Thursday at noon, panel Thursday evening, reading Friday morning. This was wrong. Both panels were on Wednesday. I had three events, not one, on Wednesday. And my flight wouldn’t land in Denver until the first panel started. Flight change! Which means I had to leave Columbia at 5 am, not 9 am, to make my flight out of St. Louis to Denver. Michael Henry snagged me from the airport, and even ran and grabbed me a sandwich that I inhaled. I had about forty minutes before the first panel.
Lighthouse is located in a beautiful renovated Victorian mansion in City Park West, just a few blocks north of Cheesman Park. The building had been moved from a location elsewhere in Denver, the whole place lifted onto a truck bed and sent across town. More than once over my long weekend in Denver, I tried to picture this massive building moved whole, an entire house just lifted from the earth. How something like that can be done is simply amazing. Anyway. There are parlors and classrooms on the first and second floors, and a third floor for quiet writing time. The railings, creaky stairs, detailed woodwork, and furniture all harken back to the era when the house was originally built.
The first panel I was on was titled 3 x 5: Three Journal Editors on Five Subjects Every Writer Should Know. Down in the basement of Lighthouse (digression: so, of course, the basement must have been built of concrete and support beams before the house was placed atop it, correct? I thought about this more than once during the panel. Hey, my mind drifts just like yours …), before roughly 45 attendees, I sat with editors/pals Sophie Beck (The Normal School) and Stephanie G’Schwind (Colorado Review) to run through a combination of the basics and the more complicated questions emerging writers have about publishing in literary journals. We each opened with five subjects, then took questions, then suggested venues for a writer given the information provided on a 3×5 notecard. Sadly, these were plain white notecards rather than colorful ones. But, hey, that’s okay.
I tried to answer five general questions as quickly as possible, spending no more than sixty seconds on each question. I explained what “received” and “in-progress” means on SubMgr and Submittable (not much), if we’re open to a revision (if it’s a true revision, sure), and why editors don’t reply with detailed comments (it’s time consuming and we receive billions and billions of submissions). This was probably the most fun I had while working. Sophie and Stephanie are two of the kindest and smartest woman in literary publishing, and I always like doing events like this with others rather than solo. We definitely had a great time answering everyone’s questions.
My next event was a few hours later, a craft seminar on point of view. Former students will know that I hammer point of view as THE thing that separates the great from the good. However, I’ve never taught a class that met for only 150 minutes, nothing before, nothing after. Who are the students? What are they working on? I had no repore with them, didn’t know the layout of the room I’d be in (digression: listen. I scout out my classroom a week before classes start. Really. I don’t like walking into a room without knowing where the exits are. Yes, I’m a little weird), and this absolutely unnerved me. I didn’t sleep well for several nights before the class. But, once we got going, I think it was all right. I asked each participant (12) in the room (the first floor parlor) what they were working on and where they were feeling stuck with point of view. This made it easier to condense my forty pages of notes (so I was overprepared…) to what was, I felt, most useful for their specific projects, which tended to be a mixture of fiction and nonfiction, though one poet was in the room. Primarily we focused on first person because the variety of first person is so rich AND because I see more errors in first person POV. Also I sweated a lot.
The third and final event—after I got a beer in me—was a panel on gender bias in publishing. I sat with Nick Arvin, the novelist who organized this event, Jenny Shank, a regular book reviewer and passionate advocate for women writers, and Amanda Rea, aforementioned pal and sensational writer and master of the well-time f-bomb. Nick opened the event. Jenny brought the thunder. And I identified myself as a magazine editor, the only one on the panel, and this got, for better or worse, the attention of the audience (well over 50 people).
When it was time for my opening remarks, I opened with this statement: when I initially heard about gender bias in publishing and the work VIDA has done, my first response was … who cares? A hooky intro, but also a true admission. I think that might be the most helpful thing to do when tackling issues like this: admit we have blindspots, and be willing to say we’re wrong. There are tons of books being written by woman—agents will say they represent “commercial literary fiction” or “upmarket women’s fiction” and that’s what they mean (think Sara Gruen or Audrey Niffenegger)—and, accordign to multiple venues, women are the readers. So, women are writing, women are buying, what’s the problem here?
Respect. As Jenny emphasized repeatedly, women’s writing isn’t reviewed or honored the way men’s work has been for decades. That’s the issue, as I see it, that needs to be immediately tackled. On a broader culture level, the question of what topics in fiction are appropriate or worthy of examination (generically, the sense is that men writing about war = important, which is nonsense. Also, some of those widely praised books are remarkably awful. Others are quiet good) seem to me to be difficult to have immediate solutions.
What we need, I argued, are more women writing book reviewers. While in the immediate here and now, these new reviewers probably won’t be embraced by Harper’s, but so what? Intelligent writing and targeted social media should create an outlet for the best reviewers’ analysis to be read widely, and that, at a grass roots level, is how I think effective change can be achieved. The other challenge in book reviewing, of course, is that reviews are often not very good. There seems to be a lack of good criticism; my guess, in part, is that book reviewers are often trying to publish books of their own. Compare this to film reviewers. Wesley Morris, Roger Ebert, David Denby, and so forth, are not making movies. They have no incentive to NOT tell you that a film is a steaming piece of shit and you shouldn’t waste your time watching it. They are, as much as they can be in any industry, independent of the films they review. This isn’t true of book reviewers. Which is problematic.
This is getting long, since let’s go rapid fire:
–Denver is a beautiful city. Sunny, walkable, and diverse. The art museum is a beautiful building, let alone all the work inside it. I had the chance to spend an afternoon there, and really enjoyed my time wandering the galleries.
–All events I’ve agreed to this past year are based, in large part, on who I know in a given city. Hanging out with Sophie Beck, and later that weekend with a close friend of nearly twenty years, was the appeal.
–Along with fouling up my travel dates, I also went the wrong way to my gate on Sunday and then got on the wrong shuttle in St. Louis even though, both times, I was actively reading the signs for where I wanted to go. Weird.
–I picked up a copy of Nick Arvin’s novel The Reconstructionist and added it to my TBR pile.
–In July, I’m off to Washington DC for Three Tents and then Chicago for the Sunday Salon Series.
Follow Michael on Twitter: @mpnye