Time out

Time is the issue. Not enough of it, as usual, and—always assuming one doesn’t get hit by a bus or by some other metaphor—there aren’t that many variables to manipulate in order to find more.

To put it another way, even when activities have been pared down to the most essential, important, and compelling, there’s still a hierarchy within those categories. And sometimes it takes a little experimentation to figure out what the hierarchy actually is.

The experimentation is over, and The Book Under Her Bed is now going to take a long nap while I concentrate on fiction. That’s the whole story, and I count myself lucky to have figured it out even at this late date.

But a nap, remember, is just a nap. During the next few months TBUHB is likely to blink and stretch, yawn and wake for the odd week or two; new posts are entirely possible. Whether there will be readers or not is my lookout; I hope there will be. As I hope there will be when TBUHB returns in earnest after a season or two.

Thank you for reading TBUHB for all these nearly nine months. I wish you well—the very best—in sorting out your own immediate priorities.

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Pop quiz: first paragraphs

What do you think of these first paragraphs, collected from here and there? I doubt you’ll guess the authors, but see if you can guess where they come from. Answers at the bottom; don’t cheat.

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The landline was mewling again in the kitchen, obliging Pell Munnelly, woke now for good, to climb from the cozy rut of her bed and pad downstairs in bare feet. She skimmed her fingertips along the dulled gray-and-lilac grain of the walls, swatted each light switch she passed to feel less alone.

A. First graf of hot new novel  B. First graf of New Yorker short story  C. First graf of freshman comp in creative writing course

Somewhere near the end, she decided that the drinking was the problem. So we stopped cold, both of us, in the middle of February. One of those winters where the sky looms over the town like a gray roof that never changes. Old ice and blackened snow in the gutters. It was maybe a mistake.

A. First graf of hot new novel  B. First graf of New Yorker short story  C. First graf of freshman comp in creative writing course

Many years ago, after I retired from the bank, James brought a small terrier to our apartment in Paris. I told him I did not want it. I knew he was trying to keep me occupied, and it is a ridiculous thing, to have a dog. Maybe one day you rise from bed and say, “I would like to pick up five thousand pieces of shit.” Well, then, I have just the thing for you. And for a man to have a small dog—it makes you a fool.

A. First graf of hot new novel  B. First graf of New Yorker short story  C. First graf of freshman comp in creative writing course

It had been an ordinary day, to a point. I had a headache that wouldn’t let up, and there was a party I’d promised I’d go to—I’d said see you soon to the people at work. But after I unlocked my door and kicked off my shoes all I could think about was jumping into bed. Once I allowed myself to think that this was a reasonable idea, I felt released from the grip of the party; I realized that if I slept right through nobody would really care.

A. First graf of hot new novel  B. First graf of New Yorker short story  C. First graf of freshman comp in creative writing course

I was walking down High Street to the funeral home when I spotted Ed Hankey coming toward me. He said, “Jay,” then, “Guess who’s sick?,” then blinked and concluded, “Murray Cutler.”

A. First graf of hot new novel  B. First graf of New Yorker short story  C. First graf of freshman comp in creative writing course

Fiona lived in her parents’ house, in the town where she and Grant went to university. It was a big, bay-windowed house that seemed to Grant both luxurious and disorderly, with rugs crooked on the floors and cup rings bitten into the table varnish. Her mother was Icelandic—a powerful woman with a froth of white hair and indignant far-left politics. The father was an important cardiologist, revered around the hospital but happily subservient at home, where he would listen to his wife’s strange tirades with an absent-minded smile. Fiona had her own little car and a pile of cashmere sweaters, but she wasn’t in a sorority, and her mother’s political activity was probably the reason. Not that she cared. Sororities were a joke to her, and so was politics—though she liked to play “The Four Insurgent Generals” on the phonograph, and sometimes also the “Internationale,” very loud, if there was a guest she thought she could make nervous. A curly-haired gloomy-looking foreigner was courting her—she said he was a Visigoth—and so were two or three quite respectable and uneasy young interns. She made fun of them all and of Grant as well. She would drolly repeat some of his small-town phrases. He thought maybe she was joking when she proposed to him, on a cold bright day on the beach at Port Stanley. Sand was stinging in their faces and the waves delivered crashing loads of gravel at their feet.

A. First graf of hot new novel  B. First graf of New Yorker short story  C. First graf of freshman comp in creative writing course

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You weren’t allowed to cheat, but I was. (And the three I think are worth pursuing are Meloy, Theroux, and Munro.)

B. Colin Barrett; New Yorker, 1/5/2015; B. Kevin CantyNew Yorker, 10/6/2014; B. Maile Meloy; New Yorker, 6/23/2014; B. Elizabeth McKenzie; New Yorker, 12/15/2014; B. Paul Theroux; New Yorker, 10/7/2013; B. Alice Munro; New Yorker, 10/21/2013

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FYI / Independent Bookstores from Coast to Coast

Newtonville Books, Newton, MA

Town House Books & Cafe, St. Charles, IL

Broadway Books, Portland, OR

Beautiful old book jackets

Or dust jackets, if you prefer. look-homeward-angelFriend Jenny Snider sent me the link to a wonderful post from AbeBooks.com (whose only crime is being a subsidiary of Amazon) that includes pictures of some gorgeous old book jackets.

At the time these were produced, they were still called dust jackets, a term left from the days when books were shipped with paper “jackets” that protected them from dirt and dust until they reached the bookstores.

 

tender-night

I don’t know if the authors of these well-known books were permitted to have a say in what went on their jackets; one presumes that the publisher wanted to keep the author happy and therefore included him (or her) in the decisions. Maybe. call-it-sleepIt’s likely that the bigger the author, the more input s/he had. That’s still the case—except that today publishers rely much, much more on dubious advice from their marketing departments when coming up with book jackets. A book jacket is, after all,  a marketing tool.

The problem is that no one really has any idea at all what sort of book jacket sells books. tree-brooklynWhen a book sells well do we attribute the sales to the book jacket? Or to the brilliance of the writing? Or to the popularity of the author? Who knows? Certainly not publishers. Many an author has been driven crazy by a publisher who insists that a truly awful jacket design is not a truly awful jacket design. But the author—unless s/he’s a really, really big deal—has no control over the design. None.

This is not to say that an author would necessarily be a better judge of jacket design than a jacket designer; plenty of writers have no eye at all. The point is just that it’s interesting to realize that there’s no more logic to choosing a book jacket design today than there ever was.

 

appointment fer-de-lance

lighthouse

 

Dates:

  •  Look Homeward, Angel, 1929
  • Tender Is the Night, 1934
  • Call It Sleep, 1934
  • A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, 1943
  • Appointment in Samarra, 1934
  • Fer-de-Lance, 1934
  • To the Lighthouse, 1927
  • Stuart Little, 1945

 

Technically speaking, I probably shouldn’t be grabbing and posting AbeBooks’s photos of these wonderful jackets, but they should be shared. And btw, the only one shown in the AbeBooks post that was familiar to me might be familiar to you too…

stuart-little

 

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FYI / Independent Bookstores from Coast to Coast

Oxford Exchange, Tampa, FL

Broadside Bookshop, Northampton, MA

Lift Bridge Book Shop, Brockport, NY

 

 

Another reason to sit at your computer

Here comes a great idea from Simon & Schuster as reported by Alexandra Alter in the New York Times on January 11: “…a new website offering online courses from popular health, finance and self-help authors.”

The idea is that since book sales have dropped at S & S, why not squeeze more out of authors who have boffo fan bases and deeply important messages to convey? Like Dr. David B. Agus, who wrote The End of Illness and Tosha Silver, who offers spiritual advice in her book Outrageous Openness. Authors will set their own prices for the online courses, and if it all works out, S & S will release a dozen or more additional courses this year.

And eventually, Ms. Alter tells us, “the online courses, which are planned as stand-alone products rather than supplements to books, could include videos by entertainers and experts who have not yet published books.”

In other words, unless I misunderstand this completely, S & S is simply going into the online course business. Or heading in that direction, anyway. It’s easy to imagine an expert in, say, hair styling doing a video about hair styling. Or a gardener demonstrating something gardenish.

But what kind of course is an entertainer going to offer? Lessons in how to strut? How to be a diva? Tell a joke? Come to think of it, why would an entertainer offer a course through the Simon & Schuster website at all? Entertainers have their own websites. So do plenty of authors, but the authors probably need the S & S promotion a whole lot more than the entertainers do.

A couple of years ago the Times published a piece called “The Year of the MOOC,” a comprehensive look at Massive Open Online Courses. The writer of the article, Laura Pappano, said:

Traditional online courses charge tuition, carry credit and limit enrollment to a few dozen to ensure interaction with instructors. The MOOC, on the other hand, is usually free, credit-less and, well, massive.

Because anyone with an Internet connection can enroll, faculty can’t possibly respond to students individually. So the course design — how material is presented and the interactivity — counts for a lot. As do fellow students. Classmates may lean on one another in study groups organized in their towns, in online forums or, the prickly part, for grading work.

The evolving form knits together education, entertainment (think gaming) and social networking. Unlike its antecedent, open courseware — usually written materials or videotapes of lectures that make you feel as if you’re spying on a class from the back of the room — the MOOC is a full course made with you in mind.

It looks as if S & S is going to take the MOOC model, tinker with it a bit, glamorize it with celebs, and put it out there for consumers who aren’t interested in course credit, but want to have a little fun online and feel like part of a great big group of groupies.

So even more people will be glued to their computers for more hours per day taking courses on stuff they didn’t need in the first place, getting even less exercise, talking to each other even less (except online). And paying for it. Sounds like a plan.

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FYI / Independent Bookstores from Coast to Coast

Books & Greetings, Northvale, NJ

Magic Tree Bookstore, Oak Park, IL

Once Upon a Storybook, Tustin, CA

 

See this show: 100 books famous in children’s lit

The Grolier Club has an extraordinary exhibit right now, in the gallery on the main floor. “One Hundred Books Famous in Children’s Literature” is there only until February 7, Mondays through Saturdays from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., and admission is free. No reader should miss it.

The curator, Chris Loker, writes in the accompanying booklet/guide, “Our definition of ‘famous’ does not mean that all books chosen are ‘influential’ or ‘important,’ nor is our selection an effort to label these books as ‘best’ or ‘most’ famous.”

I like that clarification a lot, and it will make you feel better if your own all-time favorite happens not to be in the exhibit. My two favorites (Kiki Dances and The Hundred Dresses) are not, but just as I was starting to cry because Make Way for Ducklings didn’t seem to be there—it turned out to be there.  Here’s a sampling of what you’ll see.

 

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FYI / Independent Bookstores from Coast to Coast

Letterpress Books, Portland, ME

Auntie’s Bookstore, Spokane, WA

Battenkill Books, Cambridge, NY

 

Prompts, part 2: A different approach

You might want to read Prompts, part 1: Useful? Or just a cute trick? before you wade into today’s post. I’ve been told that part 1 was cranky; part 2 is, well, crankier.

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To repeat from last Thursday’s post: A prompt—in the context of writing—is a short sentence or phrase used to help a writer get started when a writer is stuck and can’t write. A prompt supplies an idea to work with, just to grease the brain-wheels so it’s possible to get words onto a blank page or screen. The theory is that once the words start coming, the words will keep coming.

For this trick to work, quantity is necessary: the writer needs choice in order to find a prompt that beckons, resonates, piques the interest. If you have fifty prompts to choose from, chances are that one of them will grab you enough to start you writing something. Hence the popularity of long lists of prompts online and in books.

On the other hand, if you happen to be a student in an English class and the teacher puts only five prompts on the blackboard, it’s very possible that none of them will grab you. Five options aren’t a lot of options. Frustration with writing is sure to follow—exactly what the teacher was probably trying to avoid by offering prompts in the first place.

Now I’m going to come clean: I do not like the idea of anyone supplying prompts for someone else. It’s akin to handing a friend a load of nicely cut firewood when you should have taught your friend how to cut logs since she’s going to have to make more than one fire if she’s going to keep warm in the future.

understand that in an environment in which writing has become so accessible that almost anyone can try to be a writer, there will be writing aids under every rock and all a would-be writer has to do is turn over the right rock to get some help. But I don’t like it.

In fairness, I need to make a distinction between kinds of writers: professional and nonprofessional. Nonprofessional writers may make use of any old thing they like in order to enjoy writing—prompts, software, games, even the appalling National Novel Writing Month (better known, adorably, as NaNoWriMo).

But professional writers had better think twice before engaging in reductive practices.

What exactly is a professional writer? I’m afraid that by current definition payment and publishing are the two main qualifications. My definition, however, is this: a professional writer is someone who takes the work seriously, gives it time and attention, and continues to do these things regardless of payment and publishing.

Back to prompts, so I can tie all this together: Professional writers do of course get stuck and need pushes out of the dead air of doldrums and into the fresh air of invention. But I’d be willing to bet money that there aren’t very many professional writers who use websites or books full of prompts to find that fresh air.

What professional writers do is think. Or dream. Or daydream. Or back off and allow ideas to arrive in their own good time. Or they jot down ideas. Or read books, take walks, ride bikes, play music, or do nothing. They also complain, wail, moan, see therapists, drink, cry, decide to stop writing, decide to become brain surgeons, and drive their friends loony. Some stop writing altogether.

But the ones who begin writing again and who regard writing as an imperative, whether they love or hate it, eventually sit down at the blank page or screen and do some work.

What, after all, is so daunting about a blank page or screen? Why is the blank page or screen so panic-inducing?

A blank screen or page does not represent emptiness; it represents potential. View it as a calm, quiet field in which to let your fantasies meander. Constant stimulation is not necessarily productive; being empty and even bored is not necessarily unproductive. In fact, research shows that boredom contributes to creativity; see “Bored at Work? That’s Not a Bad Thing” in Slate via Inc.

Instead of following the herd to the long lists of prompts that other people have invented for you, consider making your own extremely personal list of prompts. And let us stop calling them prompts, a term that carries the unpleasant aura both of nudging and being on time.

Let us call them ideas, because that is what they are: ideas you are perfectly capable of finding for yourself and turning into writing.

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FYI / Independent Bookstores from Coast to Coast

M.Judson Books, Greenville, SC

Books on the Common, Ridgefield, CT

The Last Bookstore, Los Angeles, CA

Prompts, part 1: Useful? Or just a cute trick?

Two linked issues in this and the next post: First, do writers actually need prompts or are prompts just another cute trick for lazy wannabes? And second, if a writer does need a prompt, where should it come from and how is it found?

PART 1 today; PART 2 on Monday.

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PART 1: DO WRITERS REALLY NEED PROMPTS?

As far as I can figure out, “prompt” is a fairly new word in writing terms. It refers to short sentences or phrases that are used to prod writers into writing. Like these:

  • Write about your first day of school. 
  • Who do you like better—your mother or your father? 
  • What’s the best vacation you’ve ever had?
  • Write about an accident you saw or had.

The notion is that you sit down with one of these prompts, of which there are thousands and thousands already floating around online and in books, and you “get your creative juices flowing” by using the prompt as a starting point. That way you don’t actually have to face a blank page or screen, heaven forbid, and you don’t have to think too hard about what you should write because the prompt gives you a topic.

Professional writers write because they have something they need or want to write about; historically the reason for writing is having something to say. It is not the reverse: that is, wanting to be a Writer and therefore looking for the ignition that will lift you off the launch pad.

To put it slightly differently, somewhere along the way the order of importance got reversed for a lot of people: first they decided to be Writers, and then they wondered what they should write about.

When no subject matter presents itself quickly or easily, some would-be writers imitate the writers they admire. Some latch onto the familiar—family recipes, World War II, illness, divorce—regardless of whether they have anything interesting to say. Some try classes in journaling, short stories, novels.

The popularity of the idea of being a writer plus the extreme change in writing technology (the ease of writing on a computer; the proliferation of writing software) plus the availability of writing classes and writing workshops plus the accessibility of self-publishing has turned what once was a rigorous life-choice into something anyone can do. Or try to do.

All of this may have contributed to the birth of the prompt. The connection is clear, isn’t it? If you’re dabbling in writing, by definition you don’t have a piece of work you feel compelled to pursue. So you may need a jump-start: a list of prompts that someone else came up with.

And that’s why I ask the question: Do writers actually need prompts?

Last November I gave a talk at the New York Society Library, about being stuck or having “writer’s block.” It was based in part on a TBUHB post called “Letter to Girl Group: coming unglued and getting unstuck.”  In that talk I succumbed to the temptation to offer stuck writers a list of possible writing topics. Prompts, in effect. I called them “jolts,” since the goal was to shake up a stuck writer and jolt her into writing again—the way a wallop of electricity can jolt a stopped heart into action. Here are a few of them:

  • Write a dialogue between your parents. Not a dialogue you’ve actually heard—a dialogue you hope never to hear.
  • Write a short-short story about your favorite painting. The story behind the painting? Or the story that happens in front of the painting?
  • Write a biting political satire.
  • Invent three short poems about three times of the day. Make them work together.

In retrospect I’m sorry about this. Instead of giving a list of jolts, what I should have done was ask the members of the audience to look inward and come up with three or four very personal prompts. That leads us to Part 2, on Monday.

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SIDEBAR: True writer’s block, which is rare, cannot be cured with prompts; it’s a different, deeper, more intractable problem than the much more common predicament of being stuck. But any writer who’s not blocked but is stuck might have a chance to get going again with prompts; it’s worth a try. Please read Part 2 for a new and different approach to finding the right prompt.

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FYI / Independent Bookstores from Coast to Coast

Barner Books, New Paltz, NY

Village House of Books, Los Gatos, CA

Letters Bookshop, Durham, NC

Dear BUHB: the advice column

Top news story: Novelist Haruki Murakami is going to “offer words of wisdom to troubled readers in an advice column on his website,” says an article in Japan Times.

On occasion, writing these blog posts has had a little bit of that “advice column” quality. But to be given actual permission to straight-out give advice? Wow. A fantasy come true for a person with a lot of opinions.

Dear Book Under Her Bed—My husband and kids don’t take my writing seriously. What should I do? Yours in perplexity, Budding Writer

Dear Budding: Sorry to say you’re not alone. I hear this all the time, and it’s a tough nut to crack. I recommend that you move out immediately. Enough of that wife-and-mom nonsense—let them get their own dinners. Strike out on your own! Be the writer you always wanted to be!

Dear BUHB—My mystery novel keeps getting rejected by agents, so I can’t get a foot in the door at any of the Big 5 publishers. Should I self-publish? All best, Ambitious

Dear Ambitious: Super idea! Join the hundreds of thousands of self-published authors out there and learn what it’s like to become one of the gang. It’ll be so easy and it won’t cost much either and then that big book marketer—what’s it called? can’t remember—will turn it into an obscure e-book and your career will be made. Best of luck!

Dear Book U.H.B.—I have this great idea for a novel, but I work 85 hours per week and I don’t have time to actually write it. If I could find someone to write it for me I’d be happy to share the profits! How do I find that person? Sincerely, Confused

Dear Confused: I know how you feel. I have a great idea for a novel too, and all it needs is writing. All that money to be made, just going to waste because I haven’t found someone to write the book for me. Wish I could help, but let me know if you find that perfect person to do the work. 

Dear Book/Bed Lady—I’ve heard that every writer kneads editting but I don’t think that could be correct. Some writers (like I) have so much natural talent. They do not require outside help to get there books into shape for publishing. Do you agree? Yours truly, Naturally Talented

Dear Nat: Totally.

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FYI / Independent Bookstores from Coast to Coast

Face in a Book, El Dorado Hills, CA

The Annapolis Bookstore, Annapolis, MD

BookBar, Denver, CO

 

 

Roz Chast: pictures worth a thousand words

9781608198061_custom-035ffdc5e88431604aa7739c254c44f7148f65e0-s300-c85Can’t we talk about something more PLEASANT?  may well have been the best memoir published in 2014, and of course it is like no other. Roz Chast, prolific writer and artist, uses standard book form so inventively, so enticingly, filling the pages with so many visual delights that you’d follow her anywhere. Right into the Place [sic] where her ancient parents wound up, right into their bedroom, right into their illnesses and deaths. Painful as the material gets (psychologically, emotionally, physically), there’s no way you don’t see it through to the bitter end.

Chast’s drawing is unique, but what she does on the page as an artist isn’t completely new: other writer/artist/book designers have done similar things: combined panels with no-panels, used hand-drawn headlines, created pages that mix text with large images, and so on. Maira Kalman, Alison Bechdel, Art Spiegelman, for example. The design vocabulary exists; the question is what the writer/artist does with it.

Like these other luminaries, Chast perfectly uses the pictorial as a medium for her own clear, intelligent, funny, insightful voice. Or maybe the right word is “support”: her visuals support her writing. Neither would be as strong without the other, but the evidence suggests that despite all those years of withdrawing into drawing, Chast is a writer first. She has something to say, and her drawings are the delivery system. IMG_1138Take a close look: there’s hardly a drawing that doesn’t use words in one way or another. That’s not an accident.

Since her book is a memoir, she’s also wrestling with all the issues that every memoirist must confront. Her parents are dead, so she seems unconflicted about revealing their quirks and weirdnesses, as well as the peculiarities of their marriage and their parenting. IMG_1136She’s straightforward about her own difficulties with her parents too.

If there’s a flaw in the book, it’s the almost total absence of her own husband and children. When it comes to Chast’s own marriage and parenting, the shades are almost all the way down. Her daughter is mentioned several times and pictured once or twice; the word “husband” comes up a few times.

This is a perennial problem for nonfiction writers trying to tell a family story: they are entitled to tell their personal stories, but what do they do about the other family members? How far can they go in revealing what their children and partners don’t want revealed?

I imagined this conversation between Chast and her husband:

“Sweetie, I’m going to write a book about my parents.”

“Great, Roz, just leave me out.”

“How can I leave you out? You were there.”

“Maybe, but leave me out. I don’t want to be in the book.”

The absence of her own husband and kids in this family story seems in an odd way to reiterate Chast’s childhood isolation. IMG_1140In other words, it appears as if her life with her difficult parents was still—in this tale of their last years—a closed circle. I have no idea if this is true or not; I only know what the writer/artist has put on her pages.

What I do know, though, is that even a memoir done right (and this one is done very right) will always have gaps. There’s no way to tell the entire story, and one component of writing artful memoir is how you use what you’re allowed to use.

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FYI / Independent Bookstores from Coast to Coast

Warwick’s, La Jolla, CA

Union Ave Books, Knoxville, TN

The Doylestown Bookshop, Doylestown, PA

A small Ayn Rand story

Ayn Rand is a writer you grow up and grow out of. ayn-rand-nycTeenagers love her novels: the plots are grandiose, unequivocal, uncompromising, morally unambiguous. The characters are idealized, romanticized, larger-than-life, and the Strong Guy always prevails. Her novels are adolescent, and adolescents are welcome to them.

When I went to Pratt Institute as a third-year transfer student in the art school, I had to take a couple of liberal arts courses to complete Pratt’s requirements for all art students. At that time—1965—most art schools advocated that their graduates should be well-rounded. Therefore a semester of philosophy was part of Pratt’s curriculum.

Our philosophy instructor was a young man, probably in his first teaching position, and he began the course with Plato and Aristotle. Boring, boring, boring. Most students in the class spent the fifty minutes doodling in their sketchbooks, and I did too, until the day Mr. X began to lecture about something called Objectivism.

From the way he taught it with complete conviction, and because we were utterly unschooled in philosophy, it sounded like a real thing. Rational self-interest, concept formation, inductive logic, and a lot of other jazzy terms meant zero to us until the magic name finally emerged: Ayn Rand.

Why on earth Pratt Institute would hire a proselytizer for a modern philosophy that was generally rejected by academics is a large question. But hire him they did, and the best I can say for the administration is that art students barely paid any attention to their liberal arts courses anyway, so the choice of teacher probably didn’t matter much.

In his quest to make the course relevant to us, Mr. X focused on Rand’s theories about what art was supposed to be: realistic. Period. Unknown-1If paintings weren’t representational, they weren’t art.

“As a re-creation of reality,” Rand wrote and Mr. X quoted, “a work of art has to be representational; its freedom of stylization is limited by the requirement of intelligibility; if it does not present an intelligible subject, it ceases to be art.”

I think most of the other students were napping that day, but I happened to be awake and I thought something must be wrong with my hearing. There we were in 1965, with Abstract Expressionismfranz-kline-untitled_1-150x150 already deeply embedded in the art world and op art rapidly developing—and Ayn Rand didn’t believe either movement was legitimate?

That isn’t even putting it strongly enough: she rejected them completely, and so, of course, did Mr. X. I raised my hand, and we began a weeks-long argument that took us all the way to the end of the semester.

To give him his due, Mr. X was not in the least unhappy to be challenged; he encouraged the discussion unreservedly. He was young enough to relish the debate and enough of an ardent Rand disciple to surrender not an inch in the matter of abstract art.

At the end of the semester, he used his connections with the Objectivist crowd to arrange for Rand to give a lecture in the large auditorium at Pratt. The school considered it a great coup—she was, after all, famous—and Mr. X took me aside at our last class and invited me to arrive early for the lecture in order to meet Ayn Rand.

It must have been late May or early June and quite warm by then, but the sixty-year-old Rand showed up wearing a full-length mink coat and black heels that probably dated to 1947 or 1948. Mr. X beckoned me over and introduced us: “Miss Rand, this is the student I was telling you about, the one who believes in Abstract Expressionism. She’d like to ask you something.”

“What is your question for me?” Rand asked, clearly impatient.

I said, “How can you claim that abstract art isn’t art?”

Tilting her head back so she could look down her nose at me—in two-inch heels she was just my height—she said, “But my dear, it isn’t.” With that she turned and strode off.

There is a coda to this story. Setting aside her politics, which repel me, I will admit that there’s one phrase in the Rand lexicon that stuck in my head and still makes sense to me, if artists and writers are going to do their work: “the virtue of selfishness.”

There’s an ongoing argument as to whether, in her book of the same title, Rand intended this phrase to mean something broad or something narrow. She claimed it simply meant “concern with one’s own interest.”

How much, how often, and in what way you practice the virtue of selfishness—all of that is up to you. But if you plan to accomplish your artistic goals, it’s likely that you’ll have to accept a certain amount of your own selfishness, and recognize it as a virtue.

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FYI / Independent Bookstores from Coast to Coast

Andover Bookstore, Andover, MA

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