Saturday, May 20, 2006

Travelogue: Reno

Black Label Reno is a bicycle gang. A tall bike gang, specifically, which means that they weld together two (or more) frames, and ride around town, causing mayhem by riding really slowly and not dismounting until absolutely necessary.

Unfortunately I missed the Poker Run, and didn't ask my acquaintances at Cyclecide to introduce me before I left, so I had no way of getting in contact with them. Accordingly, there wasn't much for me in Reno.

Reno's an odd town. It's surprisingly clean, yet it feels dirty, at least downtown. Three pawn shops line the street across from the El Dorado, for instance, which isn't really news, and doesn't make a great picture, but was and is still odd to see in person.

Walking around—meandering through the part of Reno that the tourist board wants you to visit—I became more interested in the Reno of 40 or 50 years ago than the Reno of today. Shuddered motels fringe the downtown area, sometimes under construction, sometimes just vacant. Many of them have left their signs lit, buzzing day and night.

Travelogue: I-80 East of Reno

Friday, May 19, 2006

Travelogue: Lake Tahoe

Biking around Lake Tahoe took me about 4 on-bike hours, and a little under five hours total. The highway on the Nevada side is reduced to one lane at times for construction, and sometimes the delays reach 20 minutes, as I discovered when I was leaving town on 50. On the bike, though, the most I waited was about five.

The round trip was just over 70 miles, but at 6500 to over 7000 feet of elevation. The flat sections were well paved, save for one area near Incline Village, and the speed was quick. Anytime I tried to work a little harder, such as climbing out of the valley, I couldn't hack it. Too much time near the ocean, not enough time in the mountains, perhaps.

Mario's Wayfaring Map

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

In Winnemucca

I'm in Winnemucca—and going to bed shortly.

Just wanted to let everyone know I'm still kicking.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Travelogue: Fare-Thee-Well, San Francisco

Before leaving, I though it might be helpful to take some pictures of San Francisco. The underlying idea of this trip, I suppose, is one of strangeness, that I am looking for the things that are far different from what I know.

I like quirky Americana, of course, and I expect to see a fair bit of it on this trip. But it's not really the point to see only Halls of Fame and other attractions meant for tourists like me. I sometimes wonder how many people stop at the "World's Biggest" anything simply because it's kitschy, because anyone can be ironic about seeing the World's Largest Ball of String or the World's Largest Fruit Cocktail Can or what have you.


Rather than describe positively what I am looking for, I thought that I might show here some pictures of what I know. They are, I admit, partly for me when I get homesick for California.

Pictures from my rooftop

Bernal Hill

Valencia Street

A few more pictures of the city...

Coming down Mission Street

The wide-open feel of SOMA

Through the Tenderloin

Without the department stores of Union Square, where would tourists get cold in the fog and have to buy overpriced sweatshirts?

...into the ever-rousing Financial District...

And a staircase on the sidewalk in North Beach.

Finally: Sunset

A Note on my Travels and This Site, which Shall Record Them

After today's main post (above), I don't know how often I will be able to access the internet. Perhaps all the time, perhaps only rarely, I'm not sure.

I don't yet know whether I will update the site one story at a time, as I would prefer; Blogger can't yet receive entries at one time and automatically post them at a specified date. I will be updating as regularly as I can, however.

On a personal note, I've been amazed at how many people have been supportive of me in this crazy adventure. Thanks for your kind words and well-wishes!

Monday, May 15, 2006

Talents I Have Met: Aimee Bender

On one hand, taking this picture could be symptom of silly fandom. On the other hand, it really is completely awesome. So awesome, in fact, that I made it my profile picture to the left.

As promised long ago, a picture of me and Aimee Bender at the Make Out Room in San Francisco.

Last Monday night was the second installment of the Progressive Reading Series, which is an benefit for LitPAC, Stephen Elliott's political action committee. When you try to enter the bar, a cadre of LitPACers stop you and make you fill out a form: The admissions fee is a political donation, apparently. LitPAC, it turns out, raises money for Congressional candidates like Zach Space and Nick Lampson, the latter of whom is running for Congress in Tom DeLay's (former) district.

I've gone for the past two months, and the lineups have been stellar both times. April was ZZ Packer, Peter Orner, Daniel Alarcon, Po Bronson, and Stephen Elliott. This month was Pam Houston, Steve Almond, Peter Rock, someone I can't recall (sorry!), and Aimee Bender. Both readings were packed.

Seeing so many people at readings is heartening for me, especially because I haven't seen any "name" writers at them, no David Foster Wallace or Chuck Palahniuk or Neil Gaiman types, writers who have cults and will bring out a crowd wherever they go.1 Most lit readings are lucky to get 20 people, and it often feels that writers or aspiring writers comprise much of the audience. This insularity worries many, and is one of the reasons that literature is widely understood to be in decline.

But literary fiction has always been "in decline." When I was taking Latin, I remember a teacher of mine quoting an ancient that everything worthwhile had already been written, and was in the Library of Alexandria. (Google is failing me, but I'll work on the citation nonetheless.) I've heard it since then, as well, often coupled with a lament that no one reads anymore, literary novels don't sell, and so on and so on and so on.

I disagree with the "nothing left to write" camp—in brief, I feel that they are absurdly reductionist—but I do not otherwise dispute the facts. Literature has been trending toward cultural irrelevance for decades. Entertainment comes in other forms; news comes in other forms. But the internet has made writers——content producers, in internet-speak——important again. Let me put it this way: Because of the internet, writing, in all its forms, is now more important than television.

The business of writing books

Writing literature is, of course, a business. Writers may love the work they do, but they shouldn't have to do it for free. To my mind, then, we need to find novel ways to make money doing what we love.

Writers tend to be artistic types, and artistic types tend to shy away from business. There are many exceptions, of course—as I recall, Carver was an oilman and Wallace Stevens was in insurance—but looking at writing as a commercial product still seems anathema to many of the writers I know. How can you commercialize art? they ask.

The answer, I think, is not in the product, but in the delivery. I believe in the Long Tail, which proposes, in short, that profits from every niche product collectively outweigh profits from popular, blockbuster products. It's a complex and interesting idea. Literature is a niche market, and will continue to be a niche market, but some people want to buy books that are good and different from what everyone else is reading.

What are the economics of being a writer right now? For the most part, it involves a day job. Office work, temping, publishing, editing, teaching: All of these are jobs that are not writing. Even journalism or magazines, for a novelist, can be a day job. If you are working for someone else, you are not working for yourself. Period. Sometimes this is okay, but sometimes it is detrimental, and in any case writers should have the opportunity to make a career from writing and writing alone.

I therefore propose that writing full-time is a better career for a writer than not writing full-time.

Readings like this are a great beginning. Publishing, like the music industry, is based on a boom-or-bust model right now; unlike the music industry, I think there is still money to be made for publishers. But literature doesn't really have booms, and the literary equivalent of James Patterson or John Grisham or Michael Crichton is who? Toni Morrison? Normal Mailer? Jeffrey Eugenides?

Furthermore, writers aren't publishers. What is good for writers may be different from what is good for publishers. Publishers make balance-sheet decisions about authors on a regular basis, as part of normal operations, and authors should not believe otherwise.

Perhaps, then, the business model of being a writer should be changed. With the Progressive Reading Series, I think that we've stumbled upon the literature-as-indie-rock model. Writers with Drinks is similar to the Progressive Reading Series in this regard.

The music industry, widely construed, has many similarities to publishing. Most importanly, there is no lack in demand for content for either, simply lacks in demand for older, and often outdated, delivery of that content. People still listen to music, and they certainly read.

For those that can get by as musicians, how do they do it? For the most part, it is not with album sales, as Steve Albini made clear in his influential article. Instead, musicians make their living via performance; for the musician, the album is actually something of a loss leader, designed to attract and maintain interest among those fans who would and do pay to see a live concert.

But musicians also have a vested interest in putting out great albums, beyond creating a lifelong audience/revenue stream. Albums are how musicians are remembered, how greatness is achieved. Authors, especially those writing literature, could adopt this model closely.

It's not going to be for every writer, and it doesn't have to. But a lineup of writers packed the Makeout Room in San Francisco twice, at $10-20 a pop. So why not see this as a sign that you can make money doing readings? For minor writers it will be a reading before your girlfriend and her parents, but so what? Starting out in a band is the same way.

Don't misunderstand: these performances are not really about performance. Instead, they are a chance for the people who admire you and your work to come out and meet you. It's about developing a way for people to get close to literature again, by making writers eminently accessible. Aloofness and solitude work for Pynchon and Salinger, but those two are great exceptions.

Yes, what I'm proposing means that writers have to be nice. But if you're trying to sell books, why wouldn't you be nice to the people buying them? If you want to be recognized as the greatest writer since Nabokov, make it enjoyable for your readers to buy your books for their friends, and get them signed, and have their friends come to meet you.

Oh, and as long as we're on the indie-rock model, bring merch. When I meet a someone wearing a Marilynne Robinson t-shirt or a Gary Shteyngart bra, I'll know it's someone special.

1 All the writers I listed, I think, have similar fan bases—mostly male, white, educated, often science-y. Malcolm Gladwell has a different audience, and could probably bring 100 people out most places, but in trying to think of writers who could bring out 100 people anywhere in the country, I come up with very few names.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Southern Music and Resistence

Again with the procrastination. Well, to be fair, not so much procrastination as trying very hard to get my objects and affairs in order before I leave, and therefore haven't completely thought through the post I mentioned a couple of entries back.

In any case, Amanda Marcotte at Pandagon has a very interesting post on why pseudo-populists in the South tend to ignore Southern music.

Robert Johnson’s legend about selling his soul to play the blues is the classic example of this, a legend that speaks volumes about the stubborn existence of these forms in resistance to authority. Of course, it’s way more complex than that with regards to Johnson’s legend, because the “good” music of gospel is also a music that gave space to resistance. Black people were converted to Christianity in the slave days by slave owners who intended to use it to control them and turn them into joyless, obedient workers and there’s little doubt, I think, that gospel is part of a larger process of reclaiming religion...

The legendary stories of women scraping up from poverty and making it in Nashville–the two biggies being Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton–are stories that are only possible because the love of music in their communities was so great that they didn’t interfere with women who wanted to play so long as they were good at it....

The tension between Southern music traditions and the attempts of the Republican party to co-opt out culture completely are sufficient to make me imagine Karl Rove just wishes Southerners didn’t like music at all.

The full article can be found here.