The Constant Fear of Failure

February 17, 2013 § 1 Comment

I have to admit that my last blog post on the difference between book lovers and bibliophiles was arrogant and shallow. But we all are arrogant and shallow from time to time, aren’t we? Anyway, in order to make up for it, today’s post is way humbler. Today’s post is about failure, or about my failure, to be more specific.

One of the first posts on this blog was about my plans to write and it was boldly titled “The day I started writing”. I could as well have named it “The day I stopped writing” because my writing career was over before it even began. I wanted to write at least two pages of fiction every week which worked pretty well for exactly one week. What was it that made me stop trying? The exact same thing that has made me stop trying so many things, from knitting to taekwondo. The constant fear of failure.

As a literature enthusiast (or a bibliophile, or a book lover), I’m a very critical reader. I examine every single book that I read closely and carefully and I pay a lot of attention to detail. One could say that this makes reading a tedious activity, and yes, sometimes reading is work, not pleasure. I tend to detect tiny flaws, inconsistencies and bad style even in my favourite books or in books that I consider very well-written in general. On the other hand, I know that my own attempts at fiction are way worse, full of errors and nothing but baby steps.

I have two possibilities: either I try very hard and I just write and revise everything until I’m more or less satisfied, or I expect so much of myself right from the beginning that no matter how often I revise a sentence, I’ll only see the bad parts of it. The first method would be the sensible thing to do, but I tend to go for the second one. This not only applies to fiction writing, but also to academic papers – I want them to be perfect and I spend hours on tiny style details that probably don’t matter anyway.

How did the great writers start writing? Did they just sit down and casually jot down their first novel? Or did they plan it carefully, making several drafts before they actually start writing the first sentence? Probably there are as many approaches to writing as there are authors, and some of them share their method with the world, claiming it’s the best. Some authors write so many novels that I can’t imagine them putting a lot of effort into them, and yet they’re good. Some authors write novels so carefully that you can sense their insecurity, their self-consciousness in every sentence, and yet their novels are good too. There’s no magic potion for writing.

Speaking about the first kind of author, Chuck Palahniuk has just announced three new books for 2013, 2014 and 2015. He seems to pop out novels like Irish women pop out babies. What’s his secret? According to his page, the 2015 book is ‘merely’ a collection of short stories, most of which have already been published. I used quotation marks here because I don’t even manage to complete a single short story whereas he just offhandedly publishes a whole lot of them every year. About his 2014 book, Chuck himself says that

It’s a comic/erotic thriller, a mash-up of ‘mommy porn’ and chick lit such as Sex and the City, and fantasy lit like Clan of the Cave Bear.  Imagine if Ira Levin had a baby with Jean Auel.

I have no idea what exactly this means for the novel, but it sounds… interesting.

I wonder if Chuck Palahniuk is insecure about what he writes. His books sound extremely self-confident, even arrogant, but I want to know what the person behind these awesome works of fiction is like. Is he hesitant to show his work to other people? Does he ask others for their opinion during the process of writing, or does he complete the story first and then has other people revise it?

No matter what the answer is, another author will definitely give a completely different answer. If I want to write fiction one day – and I’m pretty sure I still want to do it – I have to find my own way through the jungle of writing techniques. For the time being, I’ll stick with blogging. This article is now 750 words long, and I have only rewritten a sentence or two. Writing 750 words of fiction, on the other hand, would take me hours.

On book lovers and bibliophiles

January 28, 2013 § 2 Comments

Listen, folks! Reading is boring and for losers. It doesn’t require a lot of talent, it’s something you do alone and it’s not competitive at all. A perfectly dorky pastime. Although I could question these arguments, they all have a grain of truth in them. Where do people with boring hobbies go in order to find other people with the same boring hobby? Right, the internet. The internet harbours all kinds of freaks, from train spotters to foot fetishists to readers. Since I neither particularly like trains nor feet, I hardly know a thing about the first two groups, but what I know for sure is that there are different types of readers –

Today’s article distinguishes the bibliophile from the common book lover. Both species can be found on the internet, but their habits and habitats differ. On almost every social networking website you can find people who list “reading” or “books” as their hobby. Luckily, facebook also offers you to list your favourite books, and a quick glance at somebody’s favourites can sometimes be enough to classify them.

The common book lover consumes a lot of written material, mainly best sellers, crime novels, well-known series and the occasional classic. The common book lover is harmless, but boring. They say you should never judge a book by its cover, but I think you can judge a person by their books. The common book lover’s perfect Saturday afternoon involves “a good book, a blanket and a cup of tea”. Nothing wrong with that, but not exactly the most exciting thing on earth either.

The bibliophile, on the other hand, has a more refined taste in books and literature. The bibliophile condescendingly looks down to best sellers and the people who read them on the train. He (or less often, she) avoids big chain bookstores and everything that was featured on Oprah – you can call him the snobby, elitist hipster of literature. As annoying and narrow-minded as his opinions might be, I still consider him more interesting than the average book lover (and to a certain extent, I’m a bibliophile myself). He usually has a vast knowledge of literature, maybe even literary theory, and he can actually make good book recommendations.

5921641478_561034727e_zThe common book lover, too, likes recommending books. She (or less often, he) is usually found on pen pal websites, looking for people to talk about books with. When you ask her for a recommendation, she’ll name the last good book she has read, even if this book is Twilight and you have clearly stated that you do not like “teen paranormal romance”. They mean well, but they lack the experience. Unfortunately, more often than not it’s the book lovers who pride themselves with having a good taste in literature.

It’s also the common book lover who runs the book-related boards and pages on tumblr and especially Pinterest. Pinterest is a cool way to share stuff with the world, and I enjoyed browsing through the book boards for a couple of days, until I realised that my taste greatly differs from the Pinterest mainstream. Also, most people there seem to value quantity higher than quality, they brag about the amount of books they’ve already read this year, whereas I’m proud of myself if I find my way through a particularly difficult or demanding book.

The bibliophile is less prominent, he hides in little niches that you don’t find right away. He will not shove book memes in your face, he’ll try to get to know you first and then make some recommendations you might actually like or at least give a try.

Back in the real world, those differences hardly matter. Reading the latest teen paranormal romance novel is no less nerdy than reading Arno Schmidt. Some months ago, I was hunting for a room and met with a potential roommate who had a room to offer. “So, what are your hobbies?”, she asked me. There it was. My kryptonite. I don’t really have any hobbies, or do I? I don’t play an instrument. I don’t paint. I don’t knit. I only cook in order to satisfy my hunger and I only do sports in order to stay in shape. The only hobby that I have is literature – this is what the bibliophile would say. The common book lover would say that she loves books, or reading. I just said that “I read a lot”. The interview was over, and needless to say, I didn’t get the room.

All I want for Christmas is… books!

December 21, 2012 § Leave a comment

Christmas is just around the corner, but some of us haven’t done their gift shopping yet. As we all know, the world was supposed to end today, but here we are, safe and sound. Those who seriously believed in the apocalypse probably didn’t even bother to buy Christmas presents this year, and now they need an emergency plan. The same thing goes for the usual procrastinators who never do their holiday shopping before the 23rd. So we proudly present

The Kitten Review’s Handy Guide to Giving Books as Presents

I love giving books as presents and I have a whole pile on my shelf, neatly wrapped in reindeer-themed holiday paper. But of course you can’t just go to the bookstore and grab ten copies of the same bestseller – most people probably wouldn’t notice, but you as a Literary Santa should pay some attention to what book you pick for whom.

What are you saying? Your friends and family don’t read? Here’s why you should give them books nevertheless: Not all books require a lot of reading effort. There are books for all kinds of people, and if you follow some simple rules, your book present will even make a non-reader smile. A hardcover copy of your all-time favourite novel might seem incredibly precious to you, but it’s not the appropriate gift for your teenage cousin.

Disclaimer: All characters appearing in the following list are fictitious. Any resemblance to members of my family is purely coincidental.*

The elderly relative

The elderly relative spends most of her days sitting on the sofa, watching the same three channels on television and solving crossword puzzles. She is not very talkative and you actually have no idea if she has any special interests. From time to time, she will pick up a novel and read a couple of pages. The keyword here is quantity. The elderly relative has a lot of time on her hands, and she doesn’t care much about the style of a work of literature. I recommend historical fiction – a 700 page novel about a medieval midwife or a 1888 London doctor should keep her busy until her next birthday, or even until next Christmas.

The cosmopolitan couple

The cosmopolitan couple just came back from their Christmas shopping in London and immediately updated their facebook profile pictures. Whatever they do, they seem to do it together, and they like to wear matching sunglasses. Now, you have two choices, either you treat them as one and give them one book, preferably a coffee table book about New York or South East Asia, or you treat them as ying and yang and give them complimentary books. The cosmopolitan couple travels a lot, and if you know their next destination, you could get them a city guide and a travel dictionary.

The scientist

The scientist collects butterflies, weather maps and unread books. He always orders heaps of books from catalogues, but he hardly ever actually reads them. He has a passion for books, but be careful – it might take him several years to finish a novel. It’s almost impossible to find a book from his field that he doesn’t have yet, so the safest option is a book that treats something remotely sciency. Usually, the scientist is also an atheist, so a book that disproves the existence of god is a good choice. (Or a book on evolution, but to some people, that’s just a tomayto-tomahto question.)

The casual reader

The casual reader has built up a respectable book collection in her lifetime that spans from A (Douglas Adams) to Z (Juli Zeh) and covers almost every genre and era. But that doesn’t mean that you can just get her the first book you see in the book store! For the casual reader, reading is a pleasure, a counterpart to her working life. Although she mainly reads for entertainment, she despises shallow novels, so you should avoid the average chick-lit at all costs. The casual reader likes intelligent and witty writing, so I would recommend some good satire or a well-written crime novel.

The kids

From an earlier article, you know that I consider reading and literature crucial for every child. However, not all parents agree with me and pass on that attitude to their kids. But don’t give up! Many children eventually discover the joys of reading. Try to find a book that has something to do with their favourite hobby, or maybe something related to a movie/TV franchise. Just hope that the kids won’t walk up to you with their brandnew books, shove them into your face and tell you that “If I wanted to read that, I could get it at the library. But I don’t want it anyway.”

The literature lover

Ah, here comes the most difficult type. The literature lover is very picky about what books they want, and of course they already have hundreds of books. It’s relatively likely that you either give them a book they already have or one they wouldn’t even be caught dead reading. If you want to give them a book, make sure that you know them really well or ask them if they want a particular book.

Yes, I consider myself a literature lover. And of course this will come off as arrogant, but as long as I don’t specifically ask for a book, don’t give me one. Unless you’re Anas. If you’re Anas, give me all your books. In return, if you’re Anas, you’ll receive all my books for Christmas.

The Kitten Review wishes you happy holidays and a happy new year!

* Of course, this is a downright lie. Every person on this list is based on someone I know.

Loo Literature

September 24, 2012 § 1 Comment

According to 9gag and other meme sites on the internet, a lot of people take their smartphone with them when they go to the bathroom. The world reportedly plays 5 million hours of Angry Birds per day, and I wouldn’t be surprised if about half of this happened on the loo. Now, I don’t have a smartphone and therefore I have to fall back on the centuries-old entertainment of reading on the toilet. Have you ever noticed how many people, even your average non-readers, have books or magazines in the bathroom? I hereby admit that I myself am a toilet reader. I’m an everywhere reader, so it’s only natural that I also read there, isn’t it?

But what makes the “smallest room” such a popular place for reading? Sitting on the toilet is a bit like using public transport, and I’m not talking about the smell here. You are immobilised in a certain position for some time, so you can as well use that time for something productive. Neither the bathroom nor train seats are the ideal place to get your painting supplies out, but a book fits into your handbag or onto your window sill. It’s a wonderful occasion to read a few pages (or to launch some birds with a sling shot – but let’s stick with reading here).

Now picture the following scene from the author’s private life: My grandmother is invited to dinner at our house, and being the polite person that she is, she has brought a little gift for the host. “Here, I noticed that you sometimes read books on the toilet”, she says and hands my mother a book. My mother quickly examines the book, says thanks and puts it away. Later on, she gives it to me and I decide to give it a try as my new toilet read. It’s Bill Fitzhugh’s novel Pest Control, a nice little piece of fiction so far.

What makes a book an appropriate toilet read? In the end, it’s up to you what you read on the toilet, but I can tell you that I will not attempt to conquer the Magic Mountain on the loo. A good toilet book shouldn’t be too difficult to follow because your reading sessions are likely to be very short. That’s why I usually prefer books at the lower end of the acceptable scale – you won’t find horrible chick lit on the window sill in my bathroom, but I like some contemporary fiction with few characters and few big ideas. Books with short, anecdotic chapters are great toilet reads, and to all my German readers I strongly recommend the Känguru-Manifest by Marc-Uwe Kling.

Short story collections are a good choice as well. Someone who happens to live here is currently making their way through a collection of the “best German short stories”, selected and edited by the German literary pope Reich-Ranicki. Short satiric texts are very entertaining too, but you might break into laughter on the loo, and this might lead to an awkward moment when you come back and you have company. Trust me, I’m speaking from experience here.

There are people who think they’re too busy for reading, and there might even be people who actually are so busy all day long that they can’t dedicate time to the sweet indulgence that is reading. These people are your non-readers, but nevertheless, you might fight a book or at least a magazine in their bathroom. Even they have to admit that during those private minutes, they have “nothing better” to do anyway, so why not read a few pages.

Last but not least, you can also make a statement through your loo literature. Whenever I’m at someone’s place, I instinctively scan their bookshelf. If it’s well stocked, I might fail to notice their most important books. If you want people to know that you own Being and Nothingness, why not put it on your bathroom window sill? Sooner or later your guests will have to powder their nose and they’ll see what a great intellectual you are. On a second thought, why not leave the Communist Manifesto there? Politics don’t stop at the bathroom door.

100 miles an hour

September 17, 2012 § 1 Comment

Guess what, dear reader, today I almost dropped my sausage and sauerkraut into my oversized glass of beer. There are a lot of clichés about Germany and the Germans, some of which are true and some of which have a least a very small grain of truth in them. Whenever I come across a description of Germany or a German character in a book, I read the paragraph very carefully, paying close attention to how the writer plays with the common stereotypes. I could write a detailed analysis of the usage of national stereotypes in fiction, but that’s not what this article is supposed to be about.

The CorrectionsBack to my sauerkraut – I’m currently reading Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, a really good novel so far. It has something about it that makes it unmistakeably American. The big American novel, and say hello to a stereotype here, tries to be very comprehensive and to do more than just tell a story. Both The Corrections and Freedom, Franzen’s latest novel that I read earlier this year, aim to be a general study of American society, and I have to admit that Franzen is doing a good job here. His observations are crisp clear and paint a picture of 20th and 21st century America that is easily accessible to non-Americans. I can’t quite tell to what extent this picture is based on stereotypes, but it seems to be critically reflected and elaborated.

However, his brief depiction of Germany – actually only one sentence long – was a big disappointment to me. Here’s the sentence you’ve been waiting for, the one that made me drop my sauerkraut into the big cleavage of my traditional Bavarian dress.

“In Germany she drove a hundred miles an hour and was tailgated by cars flashing their high beams.“ There’s nothing wrong with the sentence in itself because we all know that on many highway in Germany, there is no speed limit, we all know that a lot of tourists love our highways for that and we all know that even for some Germans, a highway is one long race track. The problem is that Germany as a whole is reduced to this tiny sentence. The novel has more than 600 pages that contain detailed descriptions of houses and flats, but apparently one sentence is enough to describe a country.

What should Franzen have done? In my opinion, it’s either feast or famine – instead of jotting down a sloppy sentence that is based on one of the most common stereotypes, he could have written a more detailed description or nothing at all. Franzen is an intelligent writer who pays attention to the small things, and he’s not the one whom I’d expect to be so superficial here. Call me thin-skinned, but when I came across that sentence, I was seriously offended for a moment. If you want to play with clichés, do it in a clever way.

Speaking of The Corrections and German stereotypes in foreign literature – is there some kind of obsession with the name Klaus? There is a German guy called Klaus in The Corrections, but he’s by far not the only one I’ve met in fiction lately. This summer I finally read Roberto Bolaño’s whale of a novel, 2666, in which a character of German origin is called Klaus as well. While two occurrences might still be considered a coincidence, third time’s the charm. My new “toilet read” (a topic that deserves an article for itself) is Bill Fitzhugh’s Pest Control, an entertaining little novel, that has a German character called… Klaus.

German offers so many equally stereotypical given names – why not go for, let’s say, Wolfgang or Manfred? When I read, I often accidentally mispronounce foreign names in my mind because I’ve never heard them before, and I’m pretty sure that a lot of Anglophone readers will mispronounce Klaus as well. Dear writers, if you want to avoid that, you could also choose a more international name. But then again, it’s up to you.

Please excuse me, I have to put on my dirndl and go to Munich in order to be on time for the Oktoberfest. At an average speed of 100 miles an hour, I should be able to make the trip in less than four hours. O’zapft is!

A plea for a new literary canon

September 9, 2012 § Leave a comment

We need a new literary canon. We have to say good bye to the books that have been on there for decades – yes, you heard me right. I’d love to replace some of the “classics” with other books, not necessarily more recent, but definitely different. Why?

“You know, I’d totally put it on the reading list for high school graduation.” Can you guess what book I am talking about? Probably not because this is not an apparent choice. I’m talking about The Marx Family Saga, a very good postmodern novel by Juan Goytisolo. Seriously, it’s postmodernism 101 – no punctuation and no capital letters, but a load of metafictional elements. Anas recommended it to me, and of course he was keen to know my opinion on it, and he was a bit surprised when I told him I would include it in the high school reading syllabus. The book is definitely not easy to read and it takes a lot of patience and concentration, but once you’ve found your way through it, it turns out to be a very rewarding read.

But the main reason for putting it on the reading list would be sweet, sweet revenge for all the mediocre stuff that I had to put up with in high school. I wonder how some of the books we read ended up on the list in the first place.

I’m not saying that the books in the current literary canon are bad, but there are better books out there that are just less known. But is it really the quality of a book that makes it suitable for a literary canon? Let’s ask my ever-faithful friend, the dictionary. It says that a canon is “a list of books or other works that are generally accepted as (…) being important”. Anas and I have had long discussions about what makes a book important, but we have agreed on two points. A book should reflect the era it was written in and at the same time it should have a timeless value. An important book, in my opinion, should address an issue that is still relevant centuries later.

Fontane’s Effi Briest paints a nice picture of German society in the late 1890s and it is certainly a nice additional read for history class, but it is so dependent on exactly those social circumstances that to a high school student in 2012, it is no longer relevant. Goethe’s Werther, admittedly embedded in its era as well, on the other hand offers a protagonist going through lovesickness and teenage angst. And no matter how society changes, a young person will probably find traces of themselves in this character.

Furthermore, a literary canon should show a certain development. Most national literatures are obsessed with a certain era or even writer that they think is the peak and epitome of their literary production, but one mustn’t forget other schools of literature. The German literary canon shouldn’t start with Goethe and end with Schiller, it should be a list of books that depicts the change of style, form and motifs throughout the centuries. A canon should include more than just the bestsellers of each decade – why not dare more and dig a bit deeper into the treasures of the written word? Some books that went unnoticed when they were first published might prove to be perfect additions to the current “must-reads”. The textbook examples of each literary school have their right to exist as well and they’re necessary to teach the basics, but we should have the guts to include some more obscure works in our literary canon. In the end, this list of so-called important books is arbitrary, despite the criteria that one might detect, and this means that we can change it. We just have to start.

But what do our readers think? If it was up to you guys, what would you make a mandatory read in school? And why?

Do you want fries with that?

August 27, 2012 § 2 Comments

What does a literature graduate with a job say to a literature graduate without a job? – Dou you want fries with that?

Pretty damn funny, isn’t it? Well, I don’t think so. I’m currently in college, studying French and German literature and linguistics, and I get those jokes a lot. Most people don’t know that they have tickled a very sensitive nerve of mine there. I’ve wanted to study literature ever since 8th grade, but now that I am a year away from my bachelor’s degree, I’m facing a reality that is frighteningly close to these jokes.

Those who know me will agree that I’m not very talented at small talk. But there is one question that I fear more than all the others: “What are you studying?” I want to sound confident and bold when I tell people that I’m majoring in French and German, but I usually just mutter those two words and hope that we move on to the next subject. I can’t stand the jokes and comments, the disapproving and condescending looks of people who study “something real”. Why am I so ashamed of my studies? Literature is my passion and, in theory, I should be proud that I followed my heart.

Unfortunately, the whole “follow your heart” thing turned out to be bullshit. At the beginning, it seemed like a good idea to study the thing that I like most and that I’m good at, but I was so in love with the mere idea that I ignored all warnings from the people around me. By warnings I mean both the old jokes mentioned above and long, serious lectures about the bad job market for literature graduates. After high school, I had some hesitations whether to enrol in French and German literature or in something else, something that is more promising career-wise, but my emotions won against rationality.

I’m seriously not happy in college. Not because I don’t like the classes I’m taking (on the contrary – most of them are quite interesting and rewarding) but because I constantly worry about my future and wonder if it would have been better to have gone for med school, engineering or even a teaching degree. I’ve had long conversations with various people, some of whom encourage my decision and tell me that I will eventually find a job, but just like me, they can’t really picture what job this will be. Other people say that I’m irrational and irresponsible and that another degree would suit me better.

I seriously don’t know whom to believe. I know that the job market is everything but promising for me, and I’m constantly thinking of taking up something entirely different or switching to a teaching degree. But then I imagine myself in med school, learning by heart all parts of the human body, and I wonder if this Lena is more satisfied with her choices than I am. I doubt it.

Literature, unlike medicine or engineering, is a field of study that makes a very good hobby. If you’re an avid and attentive reader, you can analyse and discuss books with a cup of tea on your living room sofa and not in a dusty classroom with squeaky chairs. Maybe – for people like me who care a lot about what others think of them – it’s even better to solely read in your living room, in your own private bubble. And I know that no matter where my studies will lead me in the end, I’ll never turn my back to literature, no matter if it’s what earns me a living or what I waste my earned money on.

In the ideal case, it’s both at the same time.

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