Saturday, December 4, 2010

Just Write

I have to write to be happy whether I get paid for it or not. But it is a hell of a disease to be born with. I like to do it. Which is even worse. That makes it from a disease into a vice. Then I want to do it better than anybody has ever done it which makes it into an obsession. An obsession is terrible. Hope you haven't got any. That's the only one I've got left.

Ernest Hemingway
from a letter to Charles Scribner
[Image from Jim Warren Art]

Thursday, October 21, 2010

I Had Seen You

I had seen you
walk by
dressed in black
in the pale phosphorescent light.
We stole glances
at each other.
I couldn’t help but
What if . . .
And though being very near
we never spoke.

I counted my steps
and a half
from me to you.
We were within earshot
to hear each other
each day.
And though being very near
we never spoke.

There was a long aisle
carpeted in quiet blue.
I knew how long it was
one morning
when we were coming toward
each other
hurried steps
not knowing what to say
but to say nothing.
We nearly brushed each other
as we passed
and one of us kept eyes downcast.

sometimes quick
sometimes unhurried
the sounds of which
we both became familiar with
as one passed by
a sidelong glance
a lingering smile
and the other was left
with nothing but
a smile remembered.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Is Literary Fiction Dead?

Well, what is literary fiction? A slippery term sometimes identified with ‘highbrow’ and ‘pretentious’, it is usually connected with critically acclaimed, award winning fiction. ‘It's those serious-minded novels,’ said Robert McCrum, ‘of high artistic intent by writers with a passionate commitment to the moral purpose of fiction.’ Sounds lofty?

You, as a writer, must have often asked yourself that question.  Readers, those who don’t write, don’t usually ask such question. Serious readers might ponder this phenomenon, though. And if literary fiction is dead, to your dismay, those readers will seek pleasure elsewhere, obviously not through the reading form of printed word.

So, it’s you the writer who wants to be read is the worrier. And then the editor who makes a six-figure salary to edit a quarterly literary publication. Nowadays, the editor laments the steadily declining readership, the dwindling subscription of his university-based quarterly. Who does he blame? He blames the glut of the MFA programs by the academic institutions, too many, that have produced a surplus of writers who, according to Ted Genoways, editor of the Virginia Quarterly Review, ‘bored readers with work that is insular, self-centered and often unreadable, when fictions should be concerned with big issues, radiant and reflecting the larger world.’ One thing for certain is the fact that these writers, should they not make it as ultimate authors, would likely end up teaching, editing, agenting. And they are serious readers in this read-no-watch-TV-yes world, unlike those referred to by Gore Vidal: ‘. . . reading of any kind is on the decline. Half the American people never read a newspaper. Half never vote for President. One hopes it is the same half.’ Amen.

So, is literary fiction dead? Not yet. But it’s very sick. Now, don’t blame the MFA programs, the ‘navel-gazing MFA graduates,’ says Jay Nicorvo, who are killing literary fiction. Then what’s killing literary fiction?

Picture a ballroom full of book editors and the hosts are the commercial publishers. They’re here to play the game of musical chairs. ‘When the music stops,’ Nicorvo wrote, ‘the editor who isn’t on the acquiring end of a New York Times bestseller—Poor Little Bitch Girl, anyone?—is left without a desk chair.’ Today, editors don’t nurse an author, giving him time over the years to develop his voice, his style to become a family member of the imprint. Tastes no longer dictate what an editor acquires for. He, like an investment banker, now acquires what makes magabucks for his bosses. With this blockbuster mentality, publishers have killed the midlist authors. This mentality takes the mass market’s pulses and feeds the market what it craves. It aims at blockbuster books that pay the bills. Books that might have lasting literary quality bow to books that reflect the current social, political trends.

What has changed drastically is the publishing landscape. Traditional book reviewers have as much impact on a book’s sale as amateur reviewers on Amazon, which is out of editors’ control. The sure thing for them to do now is to model after the movie business: producing blockbusters. This is like the world of dinosaurs when the meteors hit the earth. The dying breed of literary fiction writers now run for their survival by self-publishing their work through print-on-demand (POD) to preserve themselves. Or they publish online through, say,, where writers become eBook authors overnight. Online publishing has become the nesting ground for e-magazines. Look at the growing popularity of indie publishers like McSweeney’s, Tin House, Dalkey Archive, A Public Space. Perhaps printed literary magazines should rethink of making themselves a permanent commodity, instead of just another issue, completely disposable, which costs as much as a new novel.

But don’t blame anyone else yet. Look at the quality of literary fiction recently. Does it excite you? Don’t blame the readers who gobble up thrillers, YA fantasy, horror and crime novels. Why is that? Well,  literary fiction is too boring, ‘if anything ‘too PC’’.

Now, literary fiction isn’t dead. Readers, writers, editors, publishers: give it a mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, because if it dies, each of you is to blame.

‘If such a crisis brought about the restructuring of the Detroit auto industry,’ Nicorvo said, ‘aided by the desperate implementation of available and developing technologies, it can usher in the restructuring of New York City publishing.’               

[Image source from]

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The Underdog

While writing my new novel after FLESH, I came across Gap Creek (Robert Morgan, Algonquin Books) and read it with much admiration. Published by a small press, it became the Oprah Book Club Selection in 2000, perhaps boosting the initial press run from 5000 to 500000 copies. Then last Monday, news came about the 2010 Pulitzer Prize fiction winner: Tinkers (Paul Harding, Bellevue Literary Press). Both Algonquin Books and Bellevue Literary Press are small. The BLP is so small The New York Times said, “Up in a tiny office on the sixth floor of Bellevue Hospital Center sits the most unlikely tenant in this 271-year-old public institution: a fledgling publishing imprint. . . .”

Well, what most realistic chance does a small press have against the New York publishing behemoths when it tries to vie for the nation’s top literary prizes? Read this: “A book by an unknown author, from a new and nearly unknown press, lands on a reviewer’s desk. What are the chances it will command her attention?” —Hartford Courant, January 4, 2009

Both novels above were published by small literary presses. I thought about this fact. Then I recalled the 1999 Kiriyama Prize awarded to a fellow Vietnamese writer I know, Andrew Pham, for his first work of non-fiction Catfish and Mandala. I always have this thought: Can the judges be unbiased when they read the work by a first-time author, published perhaps by a small literary press, alongside those works by veteran authors, e.g., Philip Roth, Ha Jin, from the submissions for the award? Well, in 1999, Andrew Pham beat out the other finalist, John Dower, who won The Pulitzer Prize, The National Book Award and The Bancroft Prize for his work Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II, which was on the Kiriyama’s short list that year.

Is it true that small literary presses publish more superior works than the mainstream publishers? Well, many small presses are labors of love, according to Charlie Hughes, publisher of Wind Publications. Therefore, they are extremely selective in what they publish. As such, “chances of acceptance are statistically low. Most small presses have more books waiting to be published than their time or financial resources will allow.” This does not surprise me. My novel, FLESH, was accepted by the award-winning Black Heron Press in August 2009. Yet it’s slated for the publisher’s 2011 publishing list.

Considering the doldrums of our publishing business, one has to wonder why readership has been declining. Is the quality of books being fed to readers the main culprit?

Yet there is fairness in the process of selecting a winning title for a literary prize.

[Image from]

Sunday, February 21, 2010

At Last

Four and a half months.
The elation when writing THE END on the last page of the novel’s manuscript.
It’s not the kind of elation like falling in love.
More like when you’ve just paid off a long-standing debt.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010


I haven’t blogged for some time.

The need to connect with the outside world has atrophied in me since I started working on my new novel.

I write every day, bright and early.

I never think past the scene I’m about to write that day.

I write that scene honestly well and that scene always breeds the next scene for the next day.

I don’t overwrite, for I know, as a reader, I like to participate in a scene.

I stop where I still have something to say so the next day I won’t face a dry well.

I read each day and in between my writing breaks to keep my mind off my own writing.

I don't believe in any other rules except mine.

There is another rule, though. I never talk about or show my work-in-progress. In my writer’s primitive mind, I understand that a novel is the whole assemblage of parts. A lyrically written passage might garner compliments from friends or blog readers, but it’s not the novel. I also understand that, again in a primitive way, I should never fall in love with my writing. Then I won’t have the urge to show my work piecemeal to anyone who would tell me that I can write. Well, I’m a writer. Why do I need to be told that I can write?

For those who are still unsure of themselves about their chosen trade, read this:

I even read aloud the part of the novel that I had rewritten, which is about as low as a writer can get and much more dangerous for him as a writer than glacier skiing unroped before the full winter snowfall has set over the crevices.
That was what I would think if I had been functioning as a professional although, if I had been functioning as a professional, I would never have read it to them. [Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast]

[Image source:]