Blotter Paper

My quest to write the book that your kids'll have to read in eighth grade.

Spending my first night in my new room

Posted by R. H. Kanakia on July 23, 2014

Welp, I’m not fully settled in, but I have purchased a bed and a lamp and some new sheets. And I have acquired the wireless password from my landlord. If this was four years ago, this would be enough: I’d just live like this for the next year or so.

However, since I’m actually settling in a bit more than that. I’m actually buying a couch! And it’s not from IKEA! I know. Insane.

I’m glad to have a place again. My time in New Orleans was actually not particularly dislocating. Since I thought I’d be staying indefinitely, I immediately settled in and developed a routine. I even wrote an entire novel while I was there! I keep forgetting about that: lately I’ve been castigating myself for my lack of productivity…but three weeks ago I wrote an entire novel.

However, these last three weeks have been pretty brutal. I left New Orleans on, I believe, the 3rd (to attend a wedding in Detroit). And since then I haven’t really had a home.

I came to the conclusion today that I think I’m going to try to stay put for the next three months. I’m tired of trips. I’m tired of moving around. I want to put my head down and get back into routine and just put in three solid months of work. Otherwise it’s too easy to get my head turned around and make all kinds of plans and fritter away my energies on this and that

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Picked that Thomas Piketty book up again; I’m somewhat surprised that it’s such a best-seller

Posted by R. H. Kanakia on July 22, 2014

Most nonfiction books that catch the public interest have a certain amount of zip to them: The Feminine Mystique, Debt: The First 5000 Years; The Organization Man. These were books that not only bristled with anger, but also were full of tidbits and interesting anecdotes and, most importantly, stories. These books made sure to tell stories.

Capital In The Twenty-First Century isn’t like that at all. It does not tell stories, except in the most broad and abstract way. It deals with generalities–the total amount of capital in a country; the total amount of income that the country produces; the share of income earned by the bottom fifty percent of the population, etc, etc–that are kept purposefully broad so that they can be compared across countries and across centuries. And it does some really fascinating things with those generalities. As far as I can tell, the book is saying that the move towards egalitarianism might’ve been a fragment of the twentieth century. And that the factors which caused it–external shocks that destroyed vast amounts of capital, combined with high economic growth that allowed growth in labor income to keep up with growth of capital–might not hold true in the twenty-first century.

But he doesn’t go the extra distance and talk about what that might means: a return to a hereditary aristocracy. I’m not saying he’s dry and colorless. He illustrates things just as much as he needs to in order to make sure that you understand (for instance, he loves bringing in examples from Austen and Balzac). But those illustrations are functional. He doesn’t let himself spin flights of fancy.

All of which makes the book kind of tedious at times.

Still, it also means that you don’t need to fall into it and become absorbed by it: you can just read the words. As such, the book requires less engagement than most books. Which makes it perfect to read during odd moments and bits of left-over time.

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Is it possible to buy the good life?

Posted by R. H. Kanakia on July 21, 2014

wrought-iron-patio-furniture-2Today, I had a sudden urge to buy new curtains from Crate and Barrel. Not sure why I fixated on Crate and Barrel (which is a store that I’ve never shopped at in my life), but for some reason no other store would do.

So I hopped in my car and drove up to Berkeley, where my phone told me there was a Crate and Barrel.

And I encountered a paradise! A breezy, beautiful three-block stretch, anchored at one end by an Apple Store and an Anthropologie and at the other end by the Crate and Barrel. And in between there was every kind of little artisanal boutique that Corporate America has managed to produce. There was a store that only sold design and building books! And an open-air store that only sold furniture (most of it made of wrought-iron) for your garden and patio. And a store where all the furniture was silvery and angular, as if an IKEA had mated with an iPod.

And it was sunny and windswept and full of women in high-heeled boots and men pushing strollers that were approximately six-feet long, with undercarriages that jangled ominously (seriously, what were those dudes keeping in there?)

Everything about the place was redolent of the good life.

You know what I mean. I don’t know exactly how we all (at least those of us who were born into or aspire to be in the upper middle class) got the memo, but it’s almost like we instinctively understand the elements of the good life.

The good life doesn’t care about possessions, it only cares about how things feel. The good life is bright and sun-filled. The good life is the light brown of wooden baseboards and the mottled grey of wrought iron and the bright orange of a throw pillow. The good life is sparse: the corridors of the good life are wide, and they are filled with fewer, but higher-quality, items. The good life  smells like incense and sandalwood. The good life wears thin fabrics and drives tiny cars. The good life has been married for four years and has just begun to think about having children. The good life goes on vacation every four months, and it never takes a packaged tour. The good life isn’t about mere relaxation: it only goes to the beach in order to dive down next to the reef so that it can catch a sighting of a very rare, endangered sea turtle.

I used to scoff at this vision of the good life. To me, it’s always seemed shallow, hypocritical, thoughtless, and consumerist. But since coming to the Bay Area, I’ve been thinking a lot about it. And I’m starting to think that, in some way, coming back here represents my attempt to try to accept the good life.

Because we here in America aren’t given that many visions of the good life. I mean, there’s mass-market consumer society (which may or may not exist, except as a bogeyman). And then there’s the manufactured rebellion that corporate America has given us so that we can use our money to feel superior to the plebes. And then…what else is there? There are those who eschew consumption and choose to live in uncomfortable circumstances in some warehouse in a poor neighborhood or underdeveloped city. But it seems to me that those people don’t really reject the aesthetic that makes up the good life; they simply reject the idea of spending a lot of money to acquire it. Sometimes it seems like the essence of radical living is to turn up your nose at Anthropologie and then scour the thrift stores so that you can find a $20 ensemble that looks like it could’ve been purchased from Anthropologie.

I used to think that people who bought into the good life were fooling themselves. I thought they were throwing money at their lousy little lives in order to feed the delusion that they were special. Now I don’t know. There’s an unexamined assumption there, which is that those people in Berkeley were seeking props that would allow them to pretend that their lives aren’t utterly mass-produced.

But were they?

It’s all very confusing to me. Why do we want wrought-iron patio furniture? If it’s so that we can sit in the furniture and engage in some delusional image of ourselves as rustic iconoclasts, then that, to me, sounds extremely distasteful. But if it’s just because we think wrought-iron patio furniture looks beautiful (and is relatively clean and sturdy) and because we enjoy the experience of sitting on our patios and watching a bee crawl into the bud of a flower, then that’s, like, that’s kind of okay, right?

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Today I re-watched several episodes of the television show ENTOURAGE

Posted by R. H. Kanakia on July 20, 2014

And it was exactly as amazing as I remember it being.

The best thing about Entourage is that most episodes involve really no conflict. They’re like, uhh, Vince wants to have sex with some girl. And then he does. Or Vince wants to be in a movie. And then he discovers that the movie sucks. And he doesn’t want to be in it anymore.

The whole thing is just so insubstantial. But, really, the glitz is the point. That’s what you’re watching for. I have no idea if any of it is accurate, but the depiction of celebrity life is compelling because of the ways that it’s both similar to and different from ordinary life. Obviously, celebrities go on TV and have sex with attractive people and can afford nice things. But they also really have to navigate the ordinary world: they go to regular restaurants and stand in line at Starbucks and order towels at Bed, Bath and Beyond.

It’s a very weird dichotomy

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Yeah, if you’re writing literary short stories, you really do need to put up with submission fees

Posted by R. H. Kanakia on July 19, 2014

Baby__disgust1People often forget that the ethical standards in their field are just consensus guidelines. What matters, oftentimes, is not the specific standard, but whether or not a given actor is willing to abide by those standards. An unwillingness to abide by them in one field often signals a certain shadiness and lack of regard in other aspects of their relations with other actors in the field.

In the SF/F field, the standard is that you don’t pay to submit your work, and magazines that charge reading fees are, rightly, laughed at.

That’s not the standard in the field of literary fiction, though. There, a number of magazines charge $2-3 reading fees. And almost every journal runs some contest or another with a $20 entrance fee.

Coming, as I do, from the SF/F field this has always seemed unconscionable to me. Editors of literary journals justify their reading fees by saying that it takes time and money to read the constant influx of submissions that’s coming in. The reading fee both cuts the number of submissions and pays for reading them. But, to me, that is the essence of their jobs. You read submissions so that you can get the good stuff. If you’re throttling back on the influx of submissions, then you’re reducing the amount of good stuff you get. To me, reading fees betray an essential lack of concern for the quality of the product you’re putting out: their prioritize the editor’s convenience over the quality of the output.

However, that’s not how the field thinks. In the field, this is a normal practice. Being published in a journal that requires a reading fee (like The Missouri Review or Narrative) is seen as an honor. Winning contests that require $20 fees (like Glimmer Train or Zoetrope‘s contests) is seen as an honor.

There are still a number of magazines that don’t charge reading fees. Usually the most highly-regarded journals don’t charge, and the journals that are very low on the pecking order don’t charge. It’s the ones on the second tier (oftentimes university-sponsored publications) that tend to charge. And a writer could, conceivably, make a career by just submitting to these.

But, as far as I can tell, most people don’t. Most people pay the fees.

It’s absurd, since you have money flowing from the pockets of graduate students and adjuncts and into the pockets of large universities (The Harvard Review, for instance, charges a reading fee). But there’s a good reason for this. It’s the same reason why academic journals have such onerous requirements (when you place a paper in an academic journal, you actually assign them the copyright to it. From that point onwards, they own it).

It’s because there’s–in comparison to publishing in an SF/F magazine–there’s much more at stake in publishing in a literary journal. If you have sufficient literary journal publications, then you can get a short story collection published. You can get an academic job. You can get tenure. You can earn $60-100k a year until the day you die, without any chance of being fired. If we were to value an academic job as a capital asset, it would be worth between one and two million dollars.

Commercial publishing has nothing that even approaches that kind of reward. How many million-dollar advances go out to unknown authors each year? Maybe one? And publishing in an SF/F magazine doesn’t really help you land that advance. At most, it might get you a few tens of thousands of dollars more than you’d otherwise have gotten.

But every year around 50 poets and fiction writers will get tenure-track positions.

And that gives leverage to the journals: they’re basically giving out lottery tickets.

So yeah, I pay to submit. And if you want to be a literary writer, then you should probably do it as well.

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Weird to get good news when I am just so completely discombobulated

Posted by R. H. Kanakia on July 18, 2014

I’ve sold two stories in the last week, and then today I got a personal rejection from The Missouri Review (on a realist story). And that’s not necessarily a huge deal, except that I’ve never gotten a hint of encouragement from a literary magazine of that stature. It is really weird to send stuff out for years and get no evidence that you’re anywhere close. And then whoosh, the dam begins to crack. I remember when this happened for speculative fiction markets. It was sometime around my fourth year of submitting that I finally: a) made my first professional sale; and b) started getting personal rejections from a number of markets.

Now it’s happening for lit markets! Which is actually really exciting to me, since I’d always harbored the semi-secret suspicion that maybe I just wasn’t a good enough writer (on a sentence level) to publish in literary journals.

But, at the same time, I’m not really able to enjoy it, because I’m so completely rootless right now. I’m just in the Bay Area, looking for housing. I don’t even really know what I’m working on, writing-wise (although now I’m tempted to get in there and revise some of my MFA stories~!)

Everything feels so up in the air. And that makes it very hard to feel normal emotions. But I’ll soldier through.

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How I’ve made peace with my own bragging

Posted by R. H. Kanakia on July 17, 2014

i_am_awesome_embroidered_hat-p23384670347187661424jrf_400Authors engage in various levels of online bragging. Some announce every sale and every interview. Others let pretty momentous things–best-of reprints and awards nominations–pass unmentioned. To some extent, this variation influenced by an author’s relative place in the pecking order. Your first interview is always going to be more noteworthy (both to you and to your friends / family/ fans) than your hundredth. However, there is an issue of seemliness at stake as well. Some authors think it’s unseemly to write about their own successes.

And I agree with them. There is an element of unseemliness to it. And to the extent that it’s viewed as self-congratulatory (and an attempt to trawl social media for comments and likes), online bragging can backfire and make people think worse of you.

However, I also engage in a huge amount of online bragging. I can’t help it. My first instinct whenever something good happens is to crow about it online. Partly, I just don’t believe in sitting back and hoping that the universe will notice you. There are too many people in this world who are just waiting for the world to recognize their worth. I think that if you want acclaim, then you need to go out and drum it up. But even with that, I still probably go a little bit overboard…

My compromise, though, is to try to ensure that my bragging comes with some kind of value add. For instance, noting the number of rejections that a market has given me or trying to identify some aspect of this success that can be of use to other authors. For instance, in announcing my recent sale to Clarkesworld,* I noted that no other author who’s sold a story to Clarkesworld has been rejected by them more times. And that I got mor rejections after my first sale to Clarkesworld than I got before it.

All I’m saying is that I do try to bring some self-awareness to my bragging and to recognize that, while its primary purpose is to stroke my own ego, the bragging also needs to, on some level, give something back to my audience.

 

*Oh yeah, I sold a story (“Seeking boarder for rm w/ attached bathroom, must be willing to live with ghosts ($500 / Berkeley)”) to Clarkesworld. It will appear in the October issue. I am very happy about this.

Posted in General Principles | Tagged: | 2 Comments »

The De-Flanderization of Community

Posted by R. H. Kanakia on July 16, 2014

Rare is the sit-com that can escape the curse of flanderization. Most sit-com characters contain one trait or conflict in their character. Monica Gellar (from Friends) used to be fat, and now she’s overcompensated by becoming extremely neurotic and organized. J.D. (from Scrubs) is callow and dreamy and insecure but desperately wants to become a good doctor.

And most sit-com plots involve that character enacting that conflict. Thus, the typical Monica plot involves her trying to confront her own craziness (as in the episode where she tries to imitate the carefree joi de vivre of the woman who’s stolen her identity and begun impersonating her).

The problem is that you can only go through that conflict so many times before you begin ramping it up. The character begins, more and more, to embody their conflict. Monica becomes more neurotic. JD becomes more effeminate and dreamy. There’s also an element of lazy writing. Writers have stopped developing the show and have started imitating it. Instead of creating new jokes, they simply enact another variation on a joke they’ve already done.

And, despite all of its brilliance, Community is no better. In fact, it’s probably one of the worse offenders. Abed went from being slightly autistic to an out-and-out insane dude who’s having psychotic breaks all over the place. Troy went from being slightly dim to almost nonfunctionally moronic. Chase went from being a bit old and crotchety to completely megalomaniacal. Britta goes from being sensible and experienced woman to a total ditz.

Which is why it was interesting to see the fifth season of Community pull back a little bit. In the very first episode, Jeff almost convinces the study group to sue the school because it’s turned them into worse people (using many of the above examples).

And then, over the course of the season, the show made an effort to actually pull back a bit. One of Britta’s pseudo-scientific pop-psychology theories actually saved the day. Troy got to leave and try to be his own man. Abed got shoved aside a little bit and wasn’t allowed to dominate the show as per usual. Pierce remained gone. All in all, it was a good effort.

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Spent the weekend watching two sitcoms that I straight-up loved

Posted by R. H. Kanakia on July 15, 2014

brooklyn-nine-nineSo, I am one day from the Bay Area. So many terrible things have happened this week. But I will talk about none of them, and instead talk about the sit-com. I love sitcoms. I even like bad sitcoms. There’s something about the form that’s very comforting. I like them for the same reason that I like romantic comedies. Most media–even most comedy–portrays the world as a dark and friendless place. But sit-coms and rom-coms take place in a different universe. A nicer universe. One where there are no villains and everyone is good-intentioned and even the most utterly annoying people are beloved by all.

Anyway, this week I’ve seen two great sit-coms. The first, unfortunately, is cancelled. It also has a really bad name: Don’t Mess With The B____ In Apartment 23. It sounds like a pretty terrible (and probably sexist) sit-com, but it was surprisingly good. A twentysomething woman from Indiana moves to NYC for a Wall Street job that she loses on day one. And she falls in with a party girl who is, perhaps, a sociopath. And then, obv, they bond. Also, the party girl’s best friend is James Van Der Beek, playing himself. Basically, it’s 2 Broke Girls, but much sharper.

The most genius part of the show is probably James Van Der Beek. They wrote him in perfectly. He’s a self-obsessed washed-up star, but he’s also adorably well-intentioned. I think what makes it work is that his two best friends are these fairly ordinary girls. Most shows about celebrities put their celeb characters into a bubble (think Entourage) where everything is Hollywood and show business. Here, though, you’ve got people gabbing away in a coffeeshop like it’s Friends, but one of them is James Van Der Beek.

How do people even think of this stuff? What do you say at the pitch meeting for this show? I can’t even imagine it. Especially since it might not necessarily have been James Van Der Beek attached, right? Like it could’ve been any number of washed-up celebrities?

Also, James Van Der Beek is surprisingly handsome. I only knew him, up to now, from his guest appearances on How I Met Your Mother, where he was always fat and balding.

Oh, also, the other girl, titular bitch, is amazing. I loved her. She was also a very sharply drawn character. What makes her work is that she’s based on something specific: she’s one of those NYC club kids who’re famous for being outrageous and partying really hard. At one point, James Van Der Beek even talks about how she’s the It girl right now. I liked that a lot. She doesn’t exist in a vacuum: she is enabled by an entire social setting that the show only intermittently delves into. It’s very easy to imagine a version of this show that was much fuzzier, where she was just a girl who drank a lot and went to the bars every night.

 

The other show I’m watching is Brooklyn Nine-Nine, which is a sit-com about a Brooklyn detective squad. I’m really fascinated by workplace comedies where people are not terrible at their jobs. In Parks and Recreation, for instance, their main innovation, over the course of the series’ run, was ratcheting up the Amy Poehler character’s competence level and making her more and more effective at her job. But even in that show, most of the characters are pretty incompetent.

In Brooklyn Nine-Nine, they’re not only all superb detectives (even the workaday schmuck who’s the butt of everyone’s jokes is actually a pretty decent crime-solver), but also all appear to like each other? There are no antagonists at all. It’s pretty fascinating. Again, the closest comparison that comes to mind is Parks and Recreation. But in that show, the antagonist was usually the apathy and slovenliness of the city of Pawnee itself. In Brooklyn Nine-Nine, even the criminals are pretty genteel and friendly.

I have watched ten episodes of this show and I honestly could not tell you what’s happened in any of them. Basically, each episode is just each character doing their thing. Each episode is Andy Samberg grinning an impossibly wide smile and making a funny face; each episode is Andre Braugher using his dour face to deliver a laugh line; each episode is Stephanie Beatriz being unemotional and terrifying.

I don’t know. Maybe it’d get old after awhile?

But also maybe not. Sometimes I think sit-coms’ primary appeal is their continuity and predictability. They’re how I wish the world would be: wide and colorful and warm.

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Searching for housing the Bay Area is absurd

Posted by R. H. Kanakia on July 14, 2014

I’m only two days away from the Bay Area (wooo!)

Which means that I’m currently in the process of trying to find housing. I’m sure there are other / better ways of doing this, but what I typically do is just search on Craigslist and send out a ton of emails. When phone numbers are available, I will call them, but I think most people in the Bay Area know better to list their phone number on an ad (because the response is usually so overwhelming).

In most places, it’s not actually that hard to find housing. I certainly didn’t have a problem finding housing in Baltimore or a sublet in New Orleans. But the Bay Area is absurd. Not only is there tons of demand for housing, but the rent control ordinances in Berkeley and Oakland and San Francisco mean that: a) people never ever vacate their rooms; and b) when people do vacate, sometimes people advertise prices that are absurdly low. Like, my college classmates who moved to the Mission District right after graduation are often paying $700 a month for rooms that would rent for $1500 today.

This means that in the Bay Area, looking for a room is akin to applying to jobs or querying agents in that you’re not going to get responses to most of the emails that you send. And because of that it’s tempting to just shotgun the same letter to every single housing post that you find. But that, of course, only further reduces your hit rate.

Thus, I’ve been sending out 5-10 emails a day and trying to personalize each one to the given posting. It’s pretty difficult. I’m sure these people are great and all, but I don’t know them. Who am I to say that I’m excited about living with them or that I think I’ll be a good fit for their house? But it’s the same with agents and with jobs. A successful match requires an act of imagination: either one or the other of you needs to be able to imagine what it’d be like to be with the other, and, in general, the onus to provide that imaginative leap falls upon the prospective employee / author / housemate.

For a time, it was somewhat wearying, because I was getting zero responses. I used to joke that the only times I ever managed to find a room in the SF Bay on Craigslist were when they were looking for something so specific that I was literally the only person who fit their criteria. For instance, one room that I ended up staying in had a craigslist post whose subject line was literally: “Are you sober? Are you gay? This might be the room for you!”

Well yes. Yes it was.

But today I finally heard back from some more people, so who knows, maybe my querying skills have improved.

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