by Sharon Wu on Nov 23, 2015

Counterpoint is hiring a Publicist to join the publicity department. The candidate must be based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Apply for the position here.


Counterpoint Press is seeking a Publicist with at least 1-2 years of publicity experience, preferably with a trade book publisher focusing on high quality fiction and nonfiction. The ideal candidate will have exceptional written and verbal communication skills, a proven ability to juggle projects and duties, demonstrated organizational skills along with creativity and a passion for books and reading. Applicants must have a BA in English Communications, or a related field, as well as some relevant internship or working experience. Candidates must have impeccable attention to detail, the ability to be proactive and problem-solve, and a communication style that instills confidence in authors, editors, and agents.

The position will report directly to the Publicity Director.


• Design and execute targeted media and event campaigns for a variety of trade titles, including fiction, nonfiction (history/biography, memoir, art, current events, travel, and environment), poetry, and short stories
• Create media lists and maintain publicity databases
• Develop tailored press materials (including galley letters, press releases, email pitches, and jacket copy) while overseeing review copy mailings and maintaining diligent follow-up
• Analyze and report on efficacy of PR outreach in weekly meetings
• Attend industry conferences/conventions, author events, and in-person media meetings
• Schedule, record, and report on all Counterpoint/Soft Skull author events
• Build relationships with and liaise directly with bookstores
• Create and update individual author itineraries and master calendar
• Hire, train, and manage all interns through the duration of their seasonal internship


COUNTERPOINT LLC was created in 2007 through the acquisition of three notable independent presses: Counterpoint, Shoemaker & Hoard, and Soft Skull Press. In January 2008, the company began publishing two imprints, Counterpoint and Soft Skull Press. Shoemaker & Hoard titles are now being published under the Counterpoint imprint. Author-driven, we devote all energy to the fresh, cutting-edge, and literary voices of our authors. The genres we cover are vast—fiction and nonfiction, poetry, graphic novels, and anthologies, all of which collectively focus on current affairs and politics, counterculture, music, history, memoir, literary biography, religion, and philosophy. The company’s office is in Berkeley, California. Counterpoint books are distributed by Publishers Group West, a division of the Perseus Books Group. For more information, visit our website at

by Sharon Wu on Nov 23, 2015

Interested in a publishing internship? Counterpoint is looking for Spring 2016 interns to work with our editorial, production, and publicity departments. Candidates must be based in the San Francisco Bay Area. View the Bookjobs listing here.


Counterpoint Press in Berkeley is hiring interns for the following departments: 
Publicity/Marketing, Editorial/Production, Website/Social Media

Author-driven, we devote all energy to the fresh, cutting-edge, and literary voices of our authors. The genres we cover are vast—fiction and nonfiction, poetry, graphic novels, and anthologies, all of which collectively focus on current affairs and politics, counterculture, music, history, memoir, literary biography, religion, and philosophy.

Our small staff is friendly, fun, hardworking, and heavily reliant upon our interns to keep our momentum. We hire people who are thorough, diligent, flexible, and conscientious, and who enjoy a friendly and fast-paced working environment wherein staff rely on their acute attention to detail. Our interns have the ability and eagerness to pitch in on anything from galley preparation and manuscript proofreading to website updates and author event planning. If you’re smart, computer savvy, an enthusiastic self-starter, and you love books, then we encourage you to apply.

Flexible, but generally early January – mid to late May. Priority is given to interns who can commit to a minimum of 20 hours per week.

All Counterpoint interns must bring his or her own laptop to work. This internship cannot be done remotely.

While our internships do not pay, we offer in-the-trenches experience and a complete tutorial of the book publishing industry and the publishing process itself. We do our best to tailor the internship program to our interns’ specific interests.

Send a PDF of your cover letter and resume to, with SPRING 2016 INTERNSHIP APPLICATION in the subject line. In the body of your email, please include your department of interest (Editorial/Production, Publicity/Marketing, or Website/Social Media), firm start and end dates of your availability, and how many hours a week you can participate. Please also include which operating system you have on your laptop.

December 31, 2015

Thank you for your interest in Counterpoint!

by Sharon Wu on Nov 23, 2015

Buzzfeed Books selected the cover of Lauret Savoy‘s Trace: Memory, History, Race, and the American Landscape as one of its favorite covers of 2015. See the full list here.

by Sharon Wu on Nov 23, 2015

Novelist Dana Johnson joined the Los Angeles Review of Books‘ LARB Radio Hour to discuss Victoria Patterson‘s novel The Little Brother. Listen to the full episode here.

by Sharon Wu on Nov 20, 2015

“You don’t have to write like Henry Miller to be sexy.” Noy Holland, author of Bird: A Novel, discusses sex in fiction in an essay for Publishers Weekly.


November 20, 2015

On Sex in Fiction

There are so many ways to feel about sex, in life, and as many ways to feel about it in fiction. Long before we begin, we’ve begun—we’ve been birthed, after all, and nursed, if we’re lucky, and know so well, in infancy, in early life, the gift of intimacy between humans, the deep need to be touched, to be held. Infancy, intimacy: these are, to simply listen, almost the same word. Sexual, sensual: another pair, another confluence. I want to talk first about this confluence, and briefly about works of fiction in which the sexual is present as life force, verdant and eruptive, but not explicit.

I’m neither scholar nor expert, but I’m inclined to take a leap that lands me here: All good fiction has an erotic charge. You don’t have to write like Henry Miller to be sexy. There are certain writers and passages of writing it feels like going to church to read and I mean the church of rocks and trees and dripping breasts and bloody crucifixes, all. The place of the sacred. The work feels sacred. It proceeds in a condition of tremulous restraint, barely contained, unhelpable. It feels perilous; nothing is hoarded. No one is resting up for the next time, the next bright chance to bed down. Virginia Woolf is like this for me and Joy Williams and Melanie Rae Thon. James Welch’s Winter in the Blood; Sam Michel’s Strange Cowboy. Horacio Castellanos Moya’s Senselessness; Days of Abandonment by Elena Ferrante. There is the soaring passage at the end of James Joyce’s “The Dead”—the falling faintly, the faintly falling, the ecstasy of this; there are the amazed and plaintive stresses of James Agee’s “Now is the night one blue dew”—a transformation of the world of mass and volume into pure transcendent feeling. There is W.G. Sebald’s rapturous account of emergent moths in Austerlitz, the painful delirium of Tillie Olsen’s “Tell Me a Riddle;” the vision that brings the narrator of Denis Johnson’s “Work” to stumble forth and cry out: “Where are my women now, with their sweet wet words and ways, and the miraculous balls of hail popping in a green translucence in the yards?”

I’m not thinking of cheap innuendo here but of the mutable shapes rapture takes, of variations on the gem-like flame.

Sex is of course varied, on the page as in life, in more ways than I can count here. There still appears to be something illicit about writing sex, and this is fine by me, good news to me, a crier from another corner who calls on the writer to be aware. Make it count. Make it weird and tender and private. Let it be flimsy if it is flimsy, perfunctory, crass. Let it be ravenous, drunk on the void, the wild desire to be flung back into dust and dream and tatter. A lot of sex happens in the line space in fiction—the door closes, and the rest is suggestion. Or it happens in a few lines—not because the sex is cursory, but because—as with a lover who rolls off and wants an assessment: How’d you like that, honey?—too much can readily be said. There is sloppy sex and sex that has been too much practiced. It becomes trivial; it’s glib. Sometimes it lacks imagination or is too much imagined and maybe because writers are shy of it, sex can be dreck on the page. I remember coming across the word “disconnected,” in a story, as in, “They disconnected.” This was the conclusion of a scene in which intimacy was the claim, even rapture. The language of trains uncoupling is sexier than this. Give me the transgression, I thought, the goop and gore—anything but what makes the body less body than machine.

So much is sexy, if we’re paying attention. It’s charged and makes you glad to live. The drowse of a bee in a buttercup. The way elephants stand together, touching. Song of the meadowlark, song of the thrush—well, I find these things sexy. Mark Rothko, Francesco Clemente. Most of modern dance and one silent film, the sexiest silent film ever, a sex scene in which only a hand is shown—the woman’s, pale as a lily, pulsing. The severe contraction of the visual frame on the extremity of the hand strikes me as a courageous and instructive choice, another less-is-more lesson, more proof of the radiant force sex can have, sensation firing in the body’s far reaches.

I think fearlessness is key. I think of Lynn Tillman’s slim volume Weird Fucks, of Eileen Myles’ quip about the blocky-figure-in-a-dress by which we are supposed to think WOMEN: that triangle, that–“What is that, my twat?” Myles says. I think of Christine Schutt’s exquisite Prosperous Friends and much of James Salter’s work, particularly the roving eye of A Sport and a Pastime. It is September and it is luminous and sex has the glow of the holy; it feels fiery, exultant, an affirmation of the hunger to live.

The hunger to live in my debut novel, Bird, finds its clearest expression in Bird’s children—the fact of them and their unruly love and Bird’s consuming love for them. One baby, two men in the house, and one of them is three feet tall. They’re all vying for Bird’s attention in the old animal way. “If I got a gun and shot him, Mama, would it just be me and you?” her boys asks.

Bird packs her boy off to school and, home with the baby, sinks into the indulgence of memory. Much of what she remembers is sex. Mickey and sex with Mickey, sex that is like a narcotic and a ritualized dance with death. They—what is the word? Fornicate? Surely this is the reigning f word—ugly, ugly, designed to make people never want to do it. Bird and Mickey fuck. They do a lot of fucking—in beds and on floors and in moving vans, in amusement parks and boulder fields. They are a little ravenous. Goody for them. They are young, and they’re in love, and Bird is grieving for her dead mother. Sex is in part a catharsis of this grief, a tumult of sorrow and joy. The line grows very slight for Bird and Mickey between wanting to die or live.

They live. They give in to a perilous boundlessness and prevail. The gift of Mickey is a gift Bird keeps living, and sexuality, sensuality, is the charge.

My approach to writing sex varied in Bird—the act happens between lines or compressed into a few lines or sometimes the scene is expansive—not Proust describing asparagus, but somewhat patient and attentive to detail. I am frank, at times, and not squeamish, I think; I think squeamishness makes us lonely. In one moment in a boulder field among rags of snow and shadows, Bird watches a beetle cross her feet, Mickey’s shadow merged with hers behind her, and merged with the shadow of the boulder Bird is standing up against. The beetle recalls for me the pale hand of the silent movie, the eye for the tiny, plus a cinematic sweep.

Bird becomes pregnant, no surprise, and after some months they lose the baby. They make their way to the ER, where a doctor “scrapes the mother in Bird out.”

“Scrape” is a brutal word here. I recognize this. I know that readers can feel punished by language like this and that many writers elect to avoid it. I have my reasons. It is not rudeness or the want to shock that motivate me to speak plainly, but a desire to accept what is. I admire Rubens, but I’m closer to Lucien Freud. I want to render the body precisely. I want the strength not to turn from the spectacle of other people’s suffering, their wild and freakish joys. The strength not to gloss. Not to shame. Losing a baby is grievous and messy. If we turn away from the fullness of this—in life and on the page—we damage the person living through it. She remains unseen. By erasing and refusing the experience, we erase and refuse her.

by Sharon Wu on Nov 19, 2015

Aileen Ah-Tye is the photographer of the book M.F.K. Fisher’s Provence, with original writing from M.F.K. Fisher herself. We ask her five questions.


Can you tell us the story behind what attracted you to M.F.K. Fisher’s writing?

Two good friends recommended Two Towns in Provence — a book that consisted of her two memoirs Map of Another Town and A Considerable Town — when it first came out. So I read it and loved it. I had traveled over much of France, but never to Provence, so I was reading about new, interesting territory. I really admired her map metaphor when she talked about the process of writing at the very beginning of Map of Another Town. She has assumed the role of an artist who was sketching a vision of her “map of a town.” I loved the conciseness and fluidity of her description, as if she were a Chinese brush artist herself painting a picture of this process.

So I began to read as much of Fisher as I could, including her most recent book Dubious Honors, which consisted of introductions she had written for various authors, including Shizuo Tsujii, who had written Japanese Cooking. I liked her characterization of the fast food way of eating in a Japanese noodle shop. Here is a writer who could capture the zest, the simple pleasure of eating a bowl of udon. She could identify with our “earthy” pleasures, much like the French, and could address it with a unique directness and humor that — as Luke Barr described in his book Provence 1970 — made her writing “American” and “new.”

What was it like to show M.F.K. Fisher your photographs of Provence?

At the time there was no pressure, because my husband and I just wanted to share our adventures and perhaps confirm for her that Aix-en-Provence had not changed at all since she had been there. After a trip, we would show up at her home in Glen Ellen with a tray of slides and give her a slideshow. It was fun. I do remember our initial apprehension when we first drove through the industrial areas outside town. It was a drab, overcast day when we finally reached the Cours Mirabeau — Aix’s main street. There at the west end was the Rotunde Fountain with its cherubs, dolphins and swans. The fountain was “overstated, brassy, a trumpet call with flutes,” as she had written. Yes, in the sunlight one could well imagine the Rotunde “tossing its many plumes and jets of water like the breath of a hundred spirited horses.” I was delighted.      

Toward the end of another trip, I saw a bakery window with a display of breads in the shapes of a clown, a fish and a pig. The sight was uniquely French. It confirmed that Mrs. Fisher’s description of the “pageantry” of the bakery shop window withstood the test of time.  She liked the photo and immediately asked for a copy.

I cannot recall how many trips it took before I began to think, “I wonder if she’d consider my bringing back photos to accompany her writing?” We delayed asking until the tension almost began to prove unbearable. It may have been soon after I had brought back the photo of the breads — I cannot remember — when I asked very tentatively if she might consider the idea.  She smiled when she answered: “I thought you’d never ask.” It was mind blowing.

Who are some of your photography mentors?  Do you find that’s changed over time as you evolve as a photographer or do they remain the same?

I’ve always been an admirer of Henri Cartier-Bresson, the French photographer who popularized the 35mm camera and the decisive moment when shooting street photography, an ideal I’ve tried to reach whether photographing in black-and-white or color. Whether you’re shooting action, a portrait or even a landscape, there’s a peak, spontaneous, story-telling moment you want to capture which sort of “says it all.” Everything comes together at once through your interpretative eye whether it be the light, the composition, and even the inclusion of a surprise element. Well, that ideal takes a lot of forethought and practice and study that haven’t changed for me even though I shoot digital now. The ideal remains the same, and I’m still learning. The cameras may get lighter and faster under very low light conditions, and you may be better assured of capturing a succession of moments in rapid order, but the principle remains the same.

What are you reading right now?

I just read Andy Weir’s The Martian after seeing the movie. It’s gripping and an easy read.  The film and the book definitely inspired my curiosity about our Solar System, the Milky Way and robotics, though I know little about science. I’ve also begun one of Jonathan Bate’s books on Shakeapeare, his Soul of the Age: A Biography of the Mind of William Shakespeare. I’ll dip into a poem, maybe by Yeats, Seamus Heaney, John Donne. I love mysteries. I’ll reread anything by Agatha Christie or the Laurie King series on Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes.

What’s the one book you recommend reading over and over?

The Penguin version of Shakespeare’s Sonnets. 

by Sharon Wu on Nov 18, 2015

In today’s “Recommended Reading” column, Electric Literature’s ran Karen E. Bender‘s story “Anything for Money” from her National Book Award nominated collection Refund: Stories. Read the full story here.

by Sharon Wu on Nov 18, 2015

Lauret Savoy, author of the book Trace: Memory, History, Race, and the American Landscape, sat down for an interview with Vela Magazine. They talk about her new book, the evolution of nature writing, and Lauret’s personal writing process.


November 18, 2015

Rock and A Hard Place: An Interview with Lauret Savoy

For Lauret Savoy, the American landscape is both a refuge and a provocation. In her work as a writer and geologist, she parses layers of the land and human history, drawing connections between place, identity, and the hidden past. Fittingly, Savoy’s new book, Trace: Memory, History, Race, and the American Landscape, is also a many-layered thing. It’s the product of a long inquiry into America’s complicated physical and cultural origins, and the silences that have marked Savoy’s life as a woman of color. “To re-member is to know that traces now without name…still mark a very real presence,” she writes. “To re-member is to discover patterns in fragments. As an Earth historian I once sought the relics of deep time. To be an honest woman, I must trace other residues of hardness.”

Over the course of her career, Savoy has sought to challenge and reshape the genre of environmental writing. In 2002—with an expanded edition in 2011—she and the poet and nonfiction writer Alison Hawthorne Deming coedited the influential anthology Colors of Nature: Culture, Identity and the Natural World. It was inspired in part by a pair of troubling questions Savoy was repeatedly asked: Why isn’t there more writing about nature by people of color? And: Why don’t more minorities care about nature? With contributions from writers from a wide range of cultural and disciplinary backgrounds (including Nikky Finney, Jamaica Kincaid, Yusef Komunyakaa, bell hooks, and Joseph Bruchac), the anthology highlighted the relationship between identity and place in ways that much writing about the environment tends to overlook.

The questions that guide Savoy’s most recent book continue to inform her writing. She’s currently at work on two new projects: One, an outgrowth of the last chapter in Trace, about digging into the past of her father’s family, and their roots in and around Washington, D.C. The second project also focuses on her father, who died when Savoy was a teenager. Some years ago she uncovered a box containing manuscripts of novels, journals, and letters he’d written, and with it “evidence of a man I never knew,” as she told me when we spoke on the phone earlier this month. The book it helped inspire, she says, is “a dialogue back and forth across decades” with a man whose drive to tell stories turned out to be closely aligned with her own.

An editorial board member for the environmental journal Terrain, Savoy’s writing has appeared in OrionThe Georgia Review, and The Daily Beast, among other publications. She lives in the rural town of Leverett, Massachusetts, and is a professor of environmental studies and geology at Mount Holyoke College.

Starting with its title, it’s clear that Trace is an exploration, that you’re writing to answer questions you care about deeply—writing “in search of….” What was it was like to do that writing? How did you turn that spirit of inquiry into the arc of a book? 

I grew up in a family with very little spoken memory. Growing up within an atmosphere of silence just left me wondering: Who am I, where did I come from, who are my ancestors? I believed even at a young age that I needed to have some sense of answers to those questions to really have a future.

The pieces in Trace began as essays, as attempts to try to find something concrete, something understandable that I could make a story of my life around. Each chapter really began with a search into a place, a question asked of a place, or a memory of a place. The American landscape was in some ways the template, but also the trigger, to each of the searches. In response to the questions, to the unknown, the search involved considering myself in that place, my experiences there, and the experiences of others that have preceded me that perhaps I didn’t know about, or that have not been told in popular history.

If you imagine a mosaic or a collage, each piece was a fragment. One fragment could be arranged next to another fragment in different ways. Bit by bit, I was creating something that was larger than each individual piece—larger, meaning that it began to make sense to me.

So much of your work is about those connections: How do they reveal themselves to you? Do you see them immediately or find you have to dig for them? 

When I began college, I didn’t want to major in any one particular thing, because my interests were so broad. For me, those interests were all connected, but it seemed that the disciplines or fields that one could choose in college had borders that were artificial. I wanted to be a studio art major, and my interests were always around the patterns and textures of landscape. And then, because I was discouraged from pursuing it, I turned to thinking about American history. Again, that was about relationships with landscapes, how people have lived on the American land through time. Eventually I picked geology, or earth science, as my major, because I thought that having a scientific understanding of how the Earth is put together—what its history is, what the structure and materials are—would allow me to bring in all of the other pieces.

I went to Princeton University over three decades ago. There were a few faculty members who told me that I had no business being there, because of my gender and because of my skin color. So while I was drawn to geology out of interest, and thought that having a scientific underpinning would be helpful, I need to be honest: I also thought that by having a scientific background, those people who had rejected me earlier would begin to take me seriously.

That struggle was also partly a struggle within myself: trying to trust myself, believe in myself, and recognize that the dreams or wishes I had as far as academic or creative interests were valid, that they were worthwhile. And I really did have to struggle for years.

Once you had that scientific expertise, I imagine you encountered some obstacles when you tried to bring cultural history and identity into a field that people like to think of as “neutral.” 

I don’t think any science is neutral or objective. There are colleagues in the field who would think that what I’m doing now or what I’ve written in Trace definitely is not science. But doing purely, strictly scientific research was never my goal. I always worked with the eye to, or the hope of, integrating multiple perspectives into reading landscape and our history in the land.

You’ve talked about loving the outdoors from the time you were a child, about some of these lines of inquiry beginning in childhood. Did writing have a similar role in your life, or did that come later?

I’ve always written. And there’s always been the wish to write. What has not always been there is the sense that I could do it. I really did struggle a long time to believe not only that I had something worth writing, but that I had the ability to do it. The significance of words—and words as a foundation not only for self-identity but as a means of expressing one’s deepest ideas—has been important to me for as long as I can remember. It’s just the way I’ve done it that’s changed over time.

How has it changed? How have you seen your voice develop as a writer?

One of the best ways to put it, as far as developing as a writer, is getting out of my own way. I started the book that became Trace more than a decade ago, but I threw away quite a bit of it. Then I reached the point of recognizing that if I could make a promise to myself to at least not throw it away—as one would discard something that is not only tattered but is ruined—then bit by bit, I could build on those pieces I kept. They may not be perfect, they may not be lovely, yet there could be something that begins to grow. Of course, there’s editing: There are changes. There are revisions. But that’s really what happened: I stopped throwing away my own voice.

I suspect that’s one reason why I stuck with geology in college. I might not have had the language then, or even the concrete ideas of the connection. But it felt connected. It felt as if there was a link between understanding the earth and understanding one’s place in this country. It felt as if the layers or strata, and the fragmentary nature of bedrock, were very similar to the layers of human life and the fragmentary nature of our histories, and of our memories. I thought that by understanding that and entering the topics with a geologic eye, a geologic ear, it might give me more of a sense of what I had been searching for since childhood.

How has nature writing changed over the years you’ve been connected to it? How is it continuing to change? Do you think there’s been progress in bridging this “gap between social injustice and environmental destruction,” as I think you’ve put it?

Of course there’s been progress, and of course more progress needs to be made. One of the changes in nature writing has been an expansion in the definition of what it is: There is a welcoming of more voices, more topics, more issues, that really do recognize that the environment is much larger than wilderness or preservation or backpacking. That it’s about looking at everything from the impact of climate change on one’s backyard to how environmental change is shaping communities large and small—from urban communities in a city like New Orleans to nations across the globe. And it’s also more than climate change or pollution of the air we breathe or the water we drink—it’s recognizing, too, that nature writing can consider the circumstances, contexts, and conditions in which we all live.

When it comes to your own writing and your writing life, what comes naturally to you, and what’s the most challenging? 

What really comes naturally are the questions. They begin a process of searching. The questions define the paths I will take to go about trying to answer them. The questions are always there. The hard thing for me is finding a way to honor the questions and not let them slide by or disappear. That has happened far too much: Some of the earlier drafts of Tracewere based on questions that I let go of, or that I thought were not valid enough, or that I thought others would not find any connection to or would not be touched by. And I let them go. I wish I hadn’t done that.

You mean the questions that guided earlier drafts—you didn’t feel like you could pick up on them again?

It’s not that I didn’t think I could pick up on them again—I closed the door on them. In throwing out those drafts, I had to start over.

So you really threw them out? You got rid of the drafts completely?

Oh, they’re gone. I have a wood stove. Some of them were burned; some were recycled. They’re gone. It was a time of not trusting my voice, not believing that I had anything worthwhile to say—and acting on that. I know the questions that have arisen since then have been informed by what has gone before. I just wish that I had believed enough in the validity of what I thought and wondered about earlier.

How does place influence not just what you write about, but your writing itself? Does where you are or where you’re situated spark different things in you and affect how you work?   

I’m very much taken by what a place is. Whenever I travel to a new place, I have to sense it from early morning till late at night, to pay attention to what I can see, what I hear, what I smell: I mean truly, to sense it. And sense its daily rhythms. I need to be in a place that I feel comfortable in, and to feel comfortable means that I have to begin to know it. I have to walk the streets or alleys or roads or fields, or the deserts—to be out there in it and listening to it. And I have to begin to feel that I can be in that place. Not just on it, not just passing through, but attentive to what it has to offer. At that point, I can feel comfortable turning the gaze inward as well, to see what comes out.

And so I cannot do this work at the college; there are too many distractions, too much going on. I can work at home, and I love it here in my home. I live in a house that’s off a long dirt road, by a forested hill and stone walls that were built two centuries ago. It’s quiet here. Quiet in the sense that it’s away from city sounds or most human-made sounds. But not quiet if you go outside and listen to what the landscape offers. At the same time, I can write in a city: I can write in Washington, D.C., a place I know, or have known, as a child. So I think familiarity in some ways is important. But it can be familiarity that is new—that is based on the new experience of coming to know it.

by Sharon Wu on Nov 18, 2015

Electric Literature ran Noy Holland‘s essay “The Cricket Sings with its Knees: on Writing Fiction.” Noy is the author of Bird: A Novel.


November 17, 2015

The Cricket Sings with its Knees: on Writing Fiction

I want to talk a little about talk, how talk and the filling of pages, the steady application of reasonably steady sentences, can be anathema to art. Is. How killing communication is: the success of seeing what one looks for.

We write fiction. Which is to say we hope to employ, or deploy, words that reveal or: words and constructions that are obedient to (serve as vehicles for) the revelations we intend. We choose these deliberately, and depend on them utterly, to be codified before we touch them: they are the ground held in common by seer and seen; by painter and viewer; reader and writer. They are communicative, melodic, narrative, perhaps pleasing.

But what of the elements one stumbles upon which are at once revelatory and dis-pleasing? Disruptive? Tempting to ignore? I mean not the words intended to reveal, but the words which reveal themselves to us, which stand on the stoop with their mouths sprung wide, uninvited (so we insist) and feisty, bound lustily, feistily, to nothing we hoped to say? These accidents, these unruly, unsummoned cousins, wreck, at best (at least belittle) our little chicken-hearted hopes of achieving the intelligently lucid. Pellucid, I want to say, having come upon so few chances to say it.

These forms—the form of the list, for instance, in Susan Steinberg’s “Isla”, or the coherent, titled fragments of William Gass’ “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country” —these linguistic accidents (they run the gamut: flirt, seduce, alarm)—they are like lovers, dead, asleep on a train; like watching the fire engine pull up at your door. You pass a wreck on the highway someone is pulling your children from: they’re like that. You hope they are somebody else’s. But they’re yours.

You meant to say father and instead said child. You meant to say girl and said me.

What to do? Drive on? Look away? Throw the bolt on the door?

Look away, and you stop the mess happening. True. It is your art, not your life; you make it, and so can choose sensibly against it. Insist: it is not my house on fire; that is no child I made. Let it pass; give it time, and things feel normal again. You can let the story proceed in keeping with your expectations. You can, in other words, pursue the way away from the trouble that is in you. You will likely save yourself the embarrassment of watching a high school friend raise her hand after a reading and ask: “Why did you write that book? You used to be such a nice person.” Reviewers will likely read you without resorting to the bewildered assertion that you distance through affect; that you are more poet than storyteller; that you have let your want to fuck around lead you off from the real and the humane.

But who is to say what is real, after all? To whose authority, whose code of conduct, must we defer? Is my reality yours? What gets called experimental fiction, as we know, manifests resistance to this authority. It resists convention, thwarts the code. But for any art to matter, it has to manifest resistance to something more than convention. Else it is frivolous, petulant, unnecessary, false.

Experimental fiction. How can we keep calling it this? Imagine somebody saying to you, Let’s experiment with being in love. Let’s experiment with building a bridge. The term is absurdly provisional. It is a flimsy sack into which a thousand unlike things have been thrown. That we have labeled it at all, or tolerated a label, is unfortunate, maybe dangerous. The label provokes argument; it corrals us into resisting the other, and draws us away from resisting, sufficiently, ourselves. Am I mouthing off, I have to ask myself—clinging to, discarding, out of habit? Am I coercing?   Fishing for words that serve to reveal, but looking askance and fuzzily at revelations that run counter to my intentions? Am I finding what I am looking for or looking for what is there?

A label, a gathering of writers under any one awning, muddies the reckless inner need from which art issues.

Art has to resist itself. And allow itself, naturally. We uncover—through long scrutiny—an imperative that nudges us forward, allows the language we mangle daily to be foreign to the ear again. We find a form at once in keeping and radically at odds: the methodical list of Susan Steinberg’s “Isla”, let’s return to, which orders the unorderable mess of a pitiful, monstrous father, a daughter hoping for love. 1. Never tuck the napkin. 30. I can still get a young girl. 56. Cut smaller pieces. Do you want to choke? 64. I’ll never let you starve. 97. The only good German is a what, sweetie? The only good German is a what German? Come on, sweetie. 130. I love you sweetie. How about that?

The list frees Steinberg (releases her) requires her (holds her) to the task of saying the unsayable. The list, inherently static, is what keeps driving her forward.

We hold to and release; fight and flee, as we wish to, as we must.

My boy, when his papa left for a two-month road trip, said, “I wish there were a robot of you and you could just stay here with us, Papa. Robo-Pop could go and he would see everything and bring back pictures. Then the real you could stay with us.”

Go on, go on, we say: Stay.

We depart and we remain; seek at once to be purposive and disruptive.

Steinberg’s list is a means of progressing, and of mustering resistance. The crazy tube costume of Martha Graham’s “Lamentation” is a means of remaining, of embodying what cannot be shaken. Dance is movement. It exults in the freedom of movement. But here is Martha Graham who sits her dancer on a bench, confined head to toe by an elastic sleeve. The dancer is never going to get out of that thing, but look at her, look at her move.

We want to move. My girl says to me, “Mama, pretend you are the mama and I am your little girl and you are cooking dinner.”

I am the mother cooking dinner, but I have been asked, haven’t I, to go? To be elsewhere and other? Wind? To be a tree that she comes home to?

We begin early in life to accommodate the pull of the strange and the familiar; we experiment, fluently, because so much of what we know and feel comes to us unworded. We say things, as children, for the first time; language is plastic, its usage unsanctioned. “I don’t know,” says my boy, “if I can eat this pizza. The cheese looks a little awkward.”

Awkward? Write it once and you are obliged to recur to the error elsewhere; the recursion makes a bound world. Even the associative leap—handiest to poets—is not a departure, but a movement between things. It is bungee jumping from a trestle bridge; it is Molloy’s hat, sprung back at him, from the elastic limits of its tether.

Those writers I am hungriest to read sacrifice ease and fluency—forego the temptation to add, resist the lure of convention, are wary of the strength of the will; they believe in affect, the work the word does on the body. They apprentice to William Gass’ Iron Law of Composition, to a shared desire for a story to seem to “have leaked like a blot from the single shake of a pen.” Gass writes of “the exasperatingly slow search among the words I had already written for the words which were to come, and the necessity for continuous revision, so that each work would seem simply the first paragraph rewritten, swollen with sometimes years of scrutiny around that initial verbal wound…”

It is hard to want to seek it, this swelling around a wound. The reading public says, for the most part, move on. Entertain us. Make it flashy. Tell us how to feel. Readers are early on schooled away from the susceptibility, the nimbleness a writer hopes for. They are satisfied with the code, with claims of feeling passively received, with the glibness of the funeral oratory. They want the sensational, not the sensation, not the thing written from the inside out. Catastrophe, awe, sexual ecstasy, the deliriums of the spirit—these are garbled states, else we go speechless. Inherent to Gass’ law of composition is the recognition that a word is utterance—that a growl a shriek keening might well say it better.

William Gass, like the amazing Tuvans, exults in the marriage of the animal and the sublime. In an age given to the next new thing—a new technology, a fresh musical instrument–the Tuvans’ fealty to creaturely limits is ever more remarkable. They move inward, explore the sounds they can embody given the bodies they inhabit. Given the anatomy of the human voice: the pouches and apertures; the vestibules and chinks; the nine lubricated cartilages of the larynx. The Tuvans create a sound that sounds like something turned clean inside out: something in which the qualities of remaining and departing, of dissonance and melody, mystery and order, are mightily infused. The throat-singing the Tuvans preserve narrates the world they know; it describes the contour of valley and mountain, enacts the mood and movement of the wild and of the shepherded animal. A song is a tree exploding in winter. It is unaccomodated man, standing on a ridge, famished.

Listen for the voice, I say, that escapes, and comes around behind you.

Whether we are talking about the Tuvans, Pavarotti or Axel Rose, it is clear that the voice, the audible expression of the life force, is being pressed through a channel considerably smaller than it is. That constriction, that swollen restraint, requires that we give our attention to the here and now, to the timber and pulse of each syllable. This remaining within is the source and consolation of art. We have one life which, no matter how messy it is, is daily fined down, is one narrow band strung through a dazzle of possibilities. One life, says art: Go to it.

by Sharon Wu on Nov 18, 2015
Lithub ran a feature on Karen E. Bender‘s favorite short story collections. Karen is the author of the story collection Refund: Stories, which is a finalist for the 2015 National Book Award in Fiction. Some of her favorites include Junot Diaz’s This Is How You Lose Her, Adam Johnson’s Fortune Smiles, and Tillie Olsen’s Tell Me a Riddle. View the full list here.
by Sharon Wu on Nov 17, 2015


Gary Ferguson’s book The Carry Home: Lessons from the American Wilderness was shortlisted for the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association’s 2016 Book Awards. The award was established in 1965 to honor the Pacific Northwest’s most distinguished authors, and the winners will be announced in January. View the full shortlist here. Congratulations Gary!

by Sharon Wu on Nov 12, 2015
Library Journal included Peter Coyote‘s memoir The Rainman’s Third Cure: An Irregular Education in its list of Best Books of 2015 in the Nonfiction/Memoir category. View the full list here. Congratulations Peter!