With Fifty Shades of Grey giving pornography a bad name,
it's time to turn to Nicholson Baker's The House of Holes. Unlike Fifty Shades of Grey, the prose in
House of Holes in skillful, inventive, and playful.
This book is fun to read; it is fun for the
lighthearted and imaginative sex, and its ever-bubbling imagination and use of
language. The plot is episodic. There is an overarching story of the character
Dave's Arm reuniting with Dave, but basically it is divided into many short
chapter-length adventures with intermittently recurring characters. The House of Holes itself is a fantastic
resort estate spacious and sunny, and the managers and staff of the resort play
deus ex machina to resolve several
crises, often with somewhat ritualistic healing powers. The characters are not stereotypes, but they
are not deeply drawn. They are, mostly
good-looking, unattached 20- or 30-somethings (no one under age) pining for
erotic romance. Men and women are
equally present, equally thoughtful and randy, equally initiators of action. They have a range of longings, needs, quirks,
and oddities that distinguishes them and involves the reader in various
ways. The sex is almost all heterosexual,
with a few woman and woman bits, and a few gentle touches of S&M. The text is primarily action described from
an omniscient third person point of view but the dialogue has what I would call
a flirty, mischievous banality.
Here's an excerpt, which describes some paintings,
but that gives a feel for the characterization:
They [five paintings] were all of women sitting on
chairs wearing pants but not wearing anything over their breasts. Some sat relaxedly, some seemed tense. It caught something unusual in their
expressions, which were sad and human.
This dialogue follows:
“I like their faces,” Jessica said.
“Thanks, will you excuse me for a moment? My underpants are wet with my come, and I am
just going to take them off and throw them out.”
Bosco went into the back and reemerged in a few
“Do you offer a modeling fee she asked?’ in order to
preserve her dignity.
“Name it,” he said.
“When I modeled for the photographer, he paid me
He shook his head.
"I'll sell the painting for eight thousand, of which the gallery
will take fifty percent. So, I will
gross four thousand dollars. Nothing
that I paint would exist without your beauty.
How about 2000 for you, 2000 for me?”
“That’s generous. But sure, yes.” He nodded.
She took a moment to reflect. “I’m kind of sweaty from walking,” she said.
Baker’s imagination and verbal inventiveness are ever
present in this book. They are present
for instance in the way people arrive at the House of Holes.
“Any hints on where to find a porthole?”
“Try the fourth dryer from the left of the laundromat
on the corner of 18th St. and Grover Avenue,” said Jackie she waved. “Bye.”
Her face began to blur and liquefied, and then she
poured herself down into her straw and was gone.
Cardell picked up the straw and look through it. There was no blockage. “Jackie?”
He said. The bartender stood
watching him, holding a glass. “What
just happened?” Cardell said.
“Your lady friend seems to have been sucked into her
straw,” the bartender said.
That’s what I think, too,” Cardell said.
The bartender shrugged. “It happens, man.”
Note also the meticulous punctuation.
It's hard to
write well about actual sex, as any of you who have tried know, and Baker does
it with apparent graceful ease.
Separation of parts from bodies is a common event in
this book, which I don’t believe appears in most people’s erotic fantasies. Besides arms, and penises, of course,
vaginas, and separately clitorises, heads, and other parts are painlessly detached,
skillfully maintained, and ritually reunited.
I’m sure you’ll be happy to hear that the person who obsessively
snatches clitorises, has a change of heart and returns them to their owners.
In his long
and thoughtful review of Fifty Shades of Grey in New York Review of Books (http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2013/feb/07/fifty-shades-grey-why-so-popular/?pagination=false),
the distinguished critic Tim Parks attributes a substantial part of its popularity
to the mixture of guilt and pleasure. That
is, the characters and actions are so constructed that people can indulge in
mildly S&M sex and at the same time feel bad about what they’re doing. Thus, they satisfy themselves in forbidden
pleasures while maintaining the moral structure they believe in that sustains
their self-image. The House of Holes gets
a similar effect in a different way. In
the House of Holes, it's all innocent fun.
This sense of fun made me puzzle a little about
Baker’s lengthy and public admiration for John Updike. I have never been comfortable with Updike’s
attitude towards sex, which seems to me to be squeamish and guilty in a way
that denigrates pleasure. I remember two
characters talking in his novel Couples, where among some suburban neighbors
most of the heterosexual combinations have been guiltily realized. At one point a mopey woman is dancing with a
man who has not shown interest in her, and she asks something like “Why don’t
you want to fuck me?” I answered in my
mind, 'because, in Updike, sex is no fun'.
Quite the contrary in the House of Holes.
Location: it was in the Mark Hopkins (http://www.ichotelsgroup.com/intercontinental/hotels/gb/en/san-francisco/sfoha/hoteldetail)
a fancy, mostly tourist hotel. Facilities
were generally good and the food a cut above most conferences. There was a lot of trouble with audio
equipment, partly because many of the panelists did not know how to use the
microphones, but also mics that did not work and the failure of PowerPoint
presentations and the like to hook up to the projection equipment. The schedule had a last-minute, thrown-together
quality; I did not really know what sessions would occur where and when until I
was handed a paper copy the first day I arrived. It was expensive, $700.
Demographics: a majority of the attendees were women. Most people were middle-aged but with a
scattering of younger and older. More of
the younger attendees were women than men.
They were about 90% white (which may include Latino). The 10% people of color were about evenly
divided among East Asians, South Asians, and Blacks. The presenters and
panelists had about the same demographics except I saw no people of color among
the presenters I saw. The total
attendees seemed to be about 300.
The conference in general was in a state of disorganized conflict
about the role of e-books and self-publishing, which were associated, versus
traditional publishing. Publishers'
editors – there were several from New York — did not talk spontaneously about
e-books or self-publishing. When asked,
about all they said was that they watch the Amazon bestseller lists, and
sometimes, according to the character of their catalogs sought out books that
had done well.
There were success stories on both sides. There were several people who have done well with
self-published e-books, which led to good contracts with traditional
publishers. One of the big stars, Bella Andre, I'll come back to her, had done
moderately poorly with erotic romance novels for a traditional publisher, had
tried the water by self-publishing an e-book and, when in a few weeks it'd sold
over 100,000 copies, she chucked traditional publishers and has now sold
millions of copies as e-books.
In a way it is agents that are most threatened by self-publishing. They seemed vaguely nervous about it. There was a rumor that some have started to help
authors package self-publishing projects.
At the other end of the spectrum Mark Coker, the founder and
proprietor of Smashwords (http://www.smashwords.com), compared self publishing
through e-books to the revolution in Tunisia where the Internet had empowered
authors to overthrow, the "oppression" of traditional publishers. Guy Kawasaki (http://www.guykawasaki.com), an
old acquaintance from Apple, gave a rallying speech in favor of self-publishing
to a plenary session. Unfortunately, I
missed that due to a combination of getting up late and the worst possible
concatenation of subway and cable car schedules.
One of the plenary speakers was an English woman who apparently
writes mystery novels set in the 30s. Her
name is Anne Perry (http://www.anneperry.co.uk). I really liked her. Her discussion of writing and of her life was
eloquent and thoughtful. Somebody asked
her if she thought there were parallels between the present day and the 1930s. She answered at length, saying she thought
they were quite alike, and spoke in a way that was thought provoking,
informative, and pleasant to hear. Some
one asked her how she wrote such vivid minor characters. She said that in her imagination she took
each one "to the brink of the abyss" and asked them what they
Another plenary speaker was Bella Andre (http://bellaandre.com), mentioned above, who went on and on
about how smart she was and how much money she made, giving dollar figures. She was narcissistic, self-centered, braggardly,
self-aggrandizing, and hyperactive. It
probably says more about me than anything about publications, but I found her offensive,
especially as compared to the English mystery writer.
The remaining plenary speaker was R. L Stine (http://rlstine.com). The introducer said he needed no introduction
but, of course, I had never heard of him.
He writes young adult horror fiction and has sold over 400 million
books. He had been originally interested
in writing humor and was the editor of a humor magazine for several years. It showed in his talk, which was funny and entertaining. He had stumbled into writing young adult horror
when he was out of a job after the humor magazine folded and some editor and
had the idea that he could write such a thing.
He talked about interaction with fans a lot, their questions about where
he got his ideas and fan letters, of which reached, at the height of the
popularity of his work, about 2000 a week.
They included things like "Dear Mr. Stine, I'm not very bright but
I like your books" and "Dear Mr. Stein, You are my second favorite writer.” (That was the complete letter.) He told a very moving story about Ray
Bradbury who was a hero of his growing up.
But first he told a story about his wife speaking to a writer, I have forgotten
his name, , also a humor writer. She saw
him at some conference and went up to him and said something to the effect that
he had always been a hero of hers and she had read all his books, to which he
replied, "Madame, you are very sick woman." So, with this rebuff in mind, Stine approached
Bradbury at a conference trembling, even though by this time he was a
tremendously successful writer, and addressed Bradbury as hero. Bradbury said, "Well now you are now a
hero to many people.” I've heard other
stories about Bradbury's graciousness.
The editors panel I attended was all about the importance of writing
a first page that hooks the reader. I understand
where they're coming from. They are
bombarded by queries (One said, "I have 100 queries to look at in an hour
going home on the train.") and they need a quick way to pass or fail books
through their filter. But I pondered on
how different was my decision to read a book or not. Personally, I decide to read a book based on
reviews and/or recommendations by friends, before I open it. I'm committed before I pick it up. On the rare occasions when I glance at books
or online I specifically do not look at the first page, because I believe
writers are writing in a distorted way in order to hook people; I open in the
middle of the book. That's where the meat
is. One thing it made me realize is that
the prose is more important to me than story.
Anyway, through the rest of the conference and talking to normal people
in my life I began to ask how people decide to read a book and was the first
page important. The majority of the
people I talked to, perhaps an unrepresentative sample, did not find first page
important; many did however. Most
interesting to me was a young woman, a wine blogger (http://www.sipswirlsavor.com)
and fiction writer who described her genre as "chick lit," who chose
books first by following Amazon's recommendations, then the reviews of people
on Amazon, then reading a bit of the book, of which the first page was quite
important. In general, I got a sense
that reviews on Amazon really matter.
The editors seemed to like stories (first pages) about writers, which
seemed a bit of a cliché to me, and the one they liked best was a sort of a
combination of Amy Tan with a hint of Yakuza violence to come.
In the self-publishing panels, presenters emphasized covers (in traditional
publishers the publisher determines the cover).
Again, I felt out of step. I
don't think I have ever considered the cover of a book in deciding to read it.
I did get a sense from the representatives of traditional publishing,
both agents and editors, of great sincerity and dedication. They said several times that no one was in
this business for the money. Some one in
the audience asked the editors why they came to conferences like this. They said partly in the hopes of finding
books they wanted to publish, partly to network in general, but most strongly,
they said it was because they wanted to explain the publishing industry to writers. And I think they were successful; I came a
way fro this event with an improved feel for what is going on that does not lie
in details. But the remark that struck
me most was why one editor, "We are desperate to find books we love.” I believe her, though I am not certain I
would love the same books she would.
One important effect for publishers of e-books is
reviving the backlist. “The backlist is
back,” ejaculated one editor. In recent
years if you didn’t buy a book within 18 months or even a year of its
publication you had a hard time finding it.
But now it is so easy to "reprint” and maintain e-books that publishers
are fattening up their backlists.
A continuing theme was that each writer must market
him or herself; indeed, I heard phrases like “a small businessperson” and “an
entrepreneur.” This is true regardless
of whether you are employing a traditional publisher because traditional
publishers do little or no marketing.
But there are many different ways to be a small businessperson,
and presenters delivered a great deal of scattered or even conflicting advice
on how to proceed.
The situation is somewhat different for writers of
fiction and writers of nonfiction. For
writers of nonfiction the basic prescription is to become an authority. Once you have established yourself as an authority,
you can sell your book. Someone used the
pointed phrase “first serve, then sell.”
Often the authority in question occupies a fairly small niche. The most striking two people whose businesses
were of this sort were Dan Poynter, a kind of grand old man of self-publishing,
(http://parapublishing.com/sites/para/) who writes books about parachuting and
Carla King (http://www.carlaking.com) who writes books about travel by motor
Poynter pushed getting your self written up in Wikipedia. Several people are in the business of writing
It’s not quite
so clear how such suggestions apply to fiction.
But the idea is to develop a fan base.
Note that the two biggest sellers at the conference, Stine and Andre,
both write series. It is rather like a soap
opera. Someone told the story of another
romance writer who heard complaints from her fans that a certain wedding had
not appeared in her novel. She promptly whipped
out a short story about the wedding and posted it fir sale on Amazon.
There was some disagreement about whether you should
promote a particular book, or promote yourself as the author. Poynter urged promoting yourself as the
author, and being careful not to promote a book before it appears, because you
never really know exactly when will appear.
A whole industry has sprung up in assisting (preying
on?) writers who want to self publish, mostly e-books, but secondarily print on
demand books. Too many to list and categorize. My tote bag was covered with their logos and stuffed
with their brochures including a 4-megabyte thumb drive from Smashwords loaded
with their documentation and a little blue ice-like object from Archway
Publishing, an arm of Simon and Shuster, that sparkled electrically when I sipped my drink.
They offer different services: formatting for
appearance, editing, formatting for the diverse file types used by distributors
(in this respect Amazon is the bad boy, using a particularly proprietary
format), marketing, distribution, billing, promoting you web site, recording
people who visit your web site, cover design, etc. etc.
The guy that impressed me most in the marketing
panels was Ron Martinez of Aerbook Maker (http://aerbook.com/site/). He is smart, articulate, and really knows the
issues all the way from low-level coding, varieties of HTML, through billing
and marketing. Unfortunately, the
service he offers is primarily of interest to people with a lot of graphic
content or even animation.
Here’s a piece of advice that was offered again and
again: blog. The whole notion
is to build up followers who will then buy your book rather than the other way
around. One panelist pointed out that
you needn’t do this alone, you could set up a website where operating authors blog
in turn. He asked people to raise hands
for anyone who is involved in such a thing.
I raised my hand. He then asked was
it successful? I held my hand halfway in
In general, the presenters encouraged presence on
social media. Facebook was mentioned
most often, next Twitter, and then LinkedIn.
Poynter discussed evaluating which LinkedIn groups to join, solely the
basis of the number of members. He and others
suggested you do not spread yourself too thin, pick one or two and concentrate
The website authority,
Stephanie Chandler (left) (http://www.stephaniechandler.com) advised us always to
put graphics in our blogs, which, as you see, I've tried to do.
Discussion of ways to get publicity never ended. The talking heads opined that press releases
are no longer so important. What you
want to do is send email directly to reporters, who are hungry for material. Another praised Internet talk shows. Of course, I didn’t know there were such
things but, since, I have seen that, for example, the old-line literary
magazine Prairie Schooner offers one.
It reminded me that Steven Crane sought publicity for
his self-punished novel Maggie Girl of the Streets by hiring people to read it,
or appear to read it, on public transportation in New York.
The presentations were in toto about half about marketing and half about how to write. The subjects of the how to write included
three sessions on poetry and two sessions, one for fiction and one for poetry,
about how to present social issues in your work. I only attended one writing session. It was on character-driven plot and a mystery
writer named David Corbett (http://www.davidcorbett.com) talked very
effectively. He started with Oedipus
Rex, which is, after all, the first and foremost character driven plot, and he
even discussed Anna Freud’s theories of the change and evolution of defense
mechanisms. I was impressed.
I chatted with a lot of people and had several interesting
conversations. None were ones would be
of any practical value to me, partly because I was not quick enough to snap up
opportunists to talk to agents and editors, and perhaps also because of prior
commitments I missed all but one of the evening sessions, whihc are good for
schmoozing I suppose.
For example, I had two conversations with people who were writing
self-help financial planning books. One
was a black woman who wrote fiction, but what she talked about was a book she
was trying to get published of advice for people handling their personal
finances, things like not having too many credit cards and not taking out a
bank loan you can't repay. Interestingly,
she volunteered that she was not personally a social activist but someone who
is providing material that social activists could use. I also talked with a guy who was a VP of
Merrill Lynch and trying to publish a book about how to handle your personal
investments. He was pleasant guy and you
can risk controversial questions in such contexts, so I asked him to comment on
my notion that the central banking system is incompetent, corrupt, and, even if
that were not true, orders of magnitude too expensive. Unflustered, he responded by pointing out
things like that the people who worked for him gave good financial advice to
their clients and that you could use your credit card in Tokyo at trivial cost. When I granted all that but said there was
stuff like massive insider-trading, the fundamentally stupid and dishonest
business of derivative tranches, not to mention fixing the LIBOR rate and the
London Whale, he said all human institutions included corruption, that he was
very fond of Merrill Lynch, "a company man," and gave Merrill Lynch
credit for having hired Irish immigrants like his father when no one else
A well, but conservatively dressed white guy in his 50s, asked the editor’s
panel if the fact that editors tended to be left-wing affected the publication
industry. The editors did not really
answer his question; they tended to say things like their publishers were
conservative but they got on with them okay.
I chatted with him afterwards. He
was conservative and had started to write a novel from the viewpoint of a
Latino, but had given up because he felt he could not get the voice right. I said perspective altered perception, for
example, some people on the left (e.g. me) saw the New York Times as mostly
representative of the establishment, whereas people on the right saw it as
liberal. He agreed that he saw it as
I had a long conversation with a woman, which turned out mostly to
be about the difficulty her mother had adjusting to America as an Australian
immigrant. She is writing a historical
novel based on the life of a 19th-century French woman impressionist painter. Later my wife asked me if I had heard a of a
book that I wanted to read. At first, I
said I hadn't, but then I thought of her novel.
I had not registered her name and looked around for her the next day but
never found her back.
Maybe by chance that I missed references, but I was
impressed by not hearing about
certain things. Graphic novels were
never mentioned, not even by Martinez whose software seems ideal for them. The only mention of translation was Andre
boasting at having hired the most expensive translators in certain countries. She was also the only person who mentioned
audiobooks, which in fact for me amounts to about half my novel “reading.” The mention of Oedipus and occasional
perfunctory nods to Shakespeare were the only mentions I heard of books published
earlier than the late 20th century. Oedipus,
Shakespeare, and the works of the English mystery writer who was a plenary
speaker were the only mention of writing out side of the US.
My web page gets about 600 hits per day, mostly from bots and inscrutable
and possibly predatory sites in places like Chengdu and Kiev, but on the first
day of the conference, it got over 1200 hits.
I don't understand why that should be so, but it does not seem likely it
was a coincidence.
I've been thinking for a while about what writers think they are
making a piece of fiction for. Mostly I have contemplated the standard answer
given in Western European criticism, to delight and teach, Horace' dulce et utile.
For example, I was talking a
while ago to someone who had just published a mystery novel. I asked him what the book was for.
He shrugged his shoulders modestly and said, “To get someone from one
airport to the next.” Then he paused and
added, “And maybe teach them a little about how society works.” There it is, dulce
Of course, these days there are other reasons offered such
as self-expression. Other cultures have
other traditions and, in Indian theory, the purpose of art is to create a mood,
as well in prose and drama as in ragas.
I note that the big sellers I heard about created a mood, Stine horror
and Andre erotic love, each a standard mood that is a goal of drama and poetry
in Sanskrit theory.