Your Excellency,

First, congratulations. As the Administrator for the Vatican Secret Archives, you have one of the best job titles imaginable. Seriously, that is a comic book name.

Now I know that the Vatican’s Secret Archives aren’t secret in the common sense of the word, but almost no one knows that, so you might as well run with it. I mean, you’re already subject to so many horrible rumors and conspiracy theories anyway, what with the Illuminati and Dan Brown and the Knights Templar. So you might as well have some fun with it.

Bobby Langdor awoke slowly.

Where the hell am I? he thought in italics.

Dazed, he looked around the room. The walls were paneled in brushed aluminum, and myriad colored buttons blinked randomly.

Ah, he thought, again in italics. But there is no such thing as randomness, Langdor, you handsome devil. They don’t call you “Harrison Ford in Harris tweed” because of your good looks, after all. Chaos theory says, “Where there is randomness, there are patterns.”

The terry cloth robe hanging from the brushed aluminum bedpost nearby bore the insignia: HOTEL RITZ, LUNA.

Slowly, the fog began to lift.

Just then, his solar-operated alarm clock began to play “On the Beautiful Blue Danube.”

My God! he thought emphatically. It’s time to get out of bed!

Langdor jumped out of bed and quickly realized he was already dressed in a perfectly pressed Harris tweed resplendent with patches on the elbows.

I’m one handsome, intelligent bitch, he thought to himself.

Suddenly, his cell phone rang. Langdor answered carefully.

“Bobby Langdor, I presume?” said the caller.

Langdor sighed. His discovery of the Holy Grail some two hundred years ago had changed his life, particularly when it was discovered the grail was not divine at all, but rather a chalice full of Red Bull mixed with midichlorians. Langdor drank this solution and had now been alive for nearly two hundred and fifty years. Since his extraordinarily long life had been made public, his phone had not stopped ringing.

“This is Langdor,” he said, and then put on the Bluetooth earpiece so he could do pushups while talking. “What up?”

“My name is Admiral Qui-ron Da’ackbar Smith. I’m–” A burst of static interrupted the caller’s voice. “…in the name of 55 Cancri. Hello? Can you hear me? Hello?”

“I can hear you now,” Langdor cried.

“Goddamn cell phones,” Smith said. “It’s fucking 2212 and this is the kind of cell phone service we have? But I do love being able to watch high-definition UFL games on my 5-inch TFT.”

“Where is 55 Cancri?” Langdor asked expressively.

“In the constellation Cancer. And man, let me tell you, this is one nice constellation. We have security gates and automatic sprinklers and everything.”

Langdor had done one hundred pushups so far during this conversation, and now he began clapping his hands each time he pushed himself off the floor. “What can I do for you, Mr. Smith?”

“Well, Mr. Lang…burst of static…declaring war…burst of static…in the next twenty-four hours.”

Jumping up from the ground, Langdor pulled on a pair of plaid wool slacks. Walking across the room, he decided to open a window. The low temperature this morning was forecast at -233 degrees Celsius, and he could use a little of that cool, space air in his room right now.

“Sorry, Mr. Smith. You’re breaking up. I can’t hear you.”

“I said, Mr. Langdor, that we here on 55 Cancri E  have declared war on the Moon. More than forty-three years ago our entire arsenal of ICBMs left this planet at the speed of light. Since the constellation Cancer is 43.7 light years away from the Moon, those missiles should reach you sometime in the next twenty-four hours. I thought I would call and give you a chance to surrender, Langdor.”

Never!” Langdor said casually. “By Grabthar’s hammer, by the sons of Worvan, we shall fight to the end!”

I should have used italics in that last sentence, Bobby Langdor thought in italics.

“Then it is too late for you,” Smith said. “I will use the Sun as a gravitational slingshot to accelerate the missiles. Long live Einstein!”

Looking outside, Langdor realized belatedly that Smith was correct. The approaching missiles screamed at him through the black lunar atmosphere, and Langdor cringed for the fireball that was sure to come.

Crying, Langdor suddenly, painfully, and catastrophically felt an upwelling of emotion, realizing belatedly he had forgotten to FTP the latest version of his brain to the server on Alpha Centauri. Now, when his replacement body was commissioned, his memories would be missing the last few days of his life.

My God! he thought finally. Also, I can’t believe this Harris tweed sport coat is going to be ruined. And my Burberry turtleneck. What’s a pretentious writer of melodramatic, pseudo-intellectual novels to do?

Hi, I’m Stacie and I might need professional help. Sometimes I get really bored and end up writing fake excerpts from fake books written by authors I’m not overly fond of to a hopefully humorous effect. Like so:

Excerpt from a completely made up book that Ayn Rand could have written –

Tawnie Fipplestein surveyed the vast grey parking lot in front of him. It takes a man, a real man, to look at an empty lot and say “I’m going to put a horse-meat factory there!” And that’s exactly what Tawnie intended on doing.

He kicked at a small pebble on the ground. Insignificant stone! With its feminine curves and weak nature. He stepped on the stone and it crumbled under his Sperry loafers with an exciting pop. “I’ll crush all the stones,” Tawnie thought to himself, “I’ll leave no stone unturned.”

Behind him was Christabelle, sitting on a park bench and admiring Tawnie’s round yet manly buttocks. “It’s takes a real man to look at an empty lot and say ‘I’m going to put a horse-meat factory there!” she thought to herself. As though he read her mind, Tawnie set his arms akimbo and flexed his cheeks. Christabelle sighed lustily and fanned herself with her kerchief.

Excerpt from a completely made up book that Stephenie Meyer could have written –

I rose from my bed and groaned groggily, the night before still sour on my mind as I trudged towards my pink perfect bathroom. Mother insisted.

“All girls love pink!” she’d said, making my eyes roll so far back in my head I thought they might get lost. I raised my tooth brush, also pink, to my white, straight teeth and thought of Elton. Laurie introduced us the night before. Everyone knew of him, but no one really knew him, as evidenced by Laurie’s halting introduction.

“He lives in the old Manor house. Now, I always thought that place was condemned?”

“No, it’s…beautiful,” he replied, his blue eyes, the color of freshly cleaned toilet water, trained on my face.

Raining again, of course, I thought to myself as I regarded my foamy-mouthed reflection. It always rains here in Spooner, Washington, where I was born and where I still lived. No one ever left Spooner. It was an inescapable place.

I piled my luxurious raven hair atop my head and pulled on my favorite pair of size two jeans. “Sardonica, breakfast!” my mother shouted up the carpeted stairs. I gulped a breath and padded down to the kitchen.

Excerpt from a completely made up book that Dan Brown could have written –

Dr. Bone Inquisitor, Esq. surveyed the scene; one dead woman, covered in cornbread dust, a hanged Pomeranian, and a door stop. What could it mean, he thought moodily.

Chief Inspector Hannibal C. Blount entered the room. He looked around quickly, summing up events, as was his way.

“What we have here,” he started, picking an errant blond hair off his impeccable suit, “is one dead woman covered in cornbread dust, a hanged Pomeranian, and a door stop. What do you think it means?”

Bone knelt over the woman and took a whiff, waving his hand upwards to drum up more of the scent. “Smells like…”

“Maple syrup,” Inspector Blount offered with a snap of his fingers. Bone nodded perilously.

“Exactly,” he said, putting his pen in his mouth. “Maple syrup.”

Excerpt from a completely made up book that Chuck Palahniuk could have written –

This dude, the one who’s blowing me in the alley, he takes my floppy dog from between his dick-sucking lips, looks up, and says,

“Did you know Houdini died from a blow to the torso?”

Keep on sucking, I tell him. He wraps his fat hairy hand around my dong and strokes it as he goes on.

“No, it’s true. Houdini challenged a strong man to punch him in the gut and the guy did it before he was ready. He had to brace himself for the blow.”

“Less talky, more sucky.”

“Marcel Proust was a mama’s boy, it’s a proven fact.”

I push the dude’s face into my crotch. The rest of his words were garbled by my dick and ratty pubic hair.

“Genghis Khan had tiny feet. Marilyn Monroe was really a guy. The colon can hold ten gallons of dung before it explodes.”

Little did I know just how right he was.

Dear Dust,

I have a chance—a slight chance, but a legitimate one—to have my novel blurbed by a famous and successful writer.  The only problem is, this famous and successful writer—and I won’t say who he is; let’s just say you’ll know him by his codices—is only famous and successful because his book sold well, not because he can write worth a damn.  And my low opinion of him is not exactly a state secret, as I’ve discussed his egregious suckitude on certain blog posts. Question: Is it ethically cool for me to expunge the Internet record of me hating on him and then ask for his blurb?  What if I wore a cerise around my thigh as penance? Furthermore, if he did grant me a blurb, and wrote a rave review, would his celebrity endorsement help expand my audience, or would the taint of his hack name turn off my core demographic?

Yours truly,
Bobby Langdon

I have a confession to make.

I have become addicted to controversial TV. No, not to ‘Jerry Springer’ re-run marathons. Not to fly-on-the-wall crack den raids on Current TV. Not even to the thinly-veiled hard-body pornography of ‘A Shot of Love’ with Tila Tequila (of ‘I Fucked the DJ (He Fucked Me Till I Bleed)’ fame).

© Glenn Francis, www.PacificProDigital.com

In my head I have a quote I can’t attribute. I want to say it was Faulkner or Fitzgerald. Maybe Steinbeck. It noted (I’m paraphrasing) that we writers don’t compete with our contemporaries; we compete, rather, with the greats.

It’s possible it was Hemingway. Because there is another quote I can attribute to him, from a New Yorker profile of him:

I started out very quiet and I beat Turgenev. Then I tried hard and I beat de Maupassant. I’ve fought two draws with Stendahl, and I think I had an edge in the last one. But nobody’s going to get me in any ring with Tolstoy unless I’m crazy or I keep getting better.

Even besides that profile, the idea of wrestling with the greats sounds like Hemingway, especially considering his running with bulls and hunting on safari and writing hills like white elephants and shooting himself in the face. Hemingway’s always struck me as though he was born smack-dab in the middle of a mid-life crisis he never actually grew out of, only they didn’t have tiny sports cars back then, so he had to over-compensate in other ways.

I got this idea, of rings and fights and competitions, in my head when I read that The Nervous Breakdown’s founder, Brad Listi, will be having a conversation with Fight Club author Chuck Palahniuk in mid-May at LA’s Largo at the Coronet Theater.

Fight Club the book was published a week and a half before I started college. I don’t remember hearing much about it until Edward Norton and Brad Pitt signed on to do the movie. Now, this doesn’t mean people weren’t talking about it. I could just be forgetting. I could have missed it for one reason or another (who am I kidding? I was probably studying).

“I want you to hit me as hard as you can.” I’ll not spoil the movie for anyone who hasn’t seen it yet (though, really, it’s been ten years. What’s the statute of limitations on spoilers?), but I think pretty much everyone knows Fight Club‘s story is its title. It’s about a guy who meets a guy who wants to be hit as hard as possible, and I guess it becomes about male dissatisfaction and aggression and coming to terms with the fact that we’re not the rockstar gods we assumed we’d grow up to be.

Or something. There’s a lot of punching. Also some fucking Helena Bonham Carter (in the movie). Also some shit blowing up. Also, Meatloaf (again, movie) and his boobs. Also, a penguin.

***

I think one could make the argument Fight Club is about men dealing with emasculation; I’m not sure I would, but Fight Club is the sort of book—along with The Great Gatsby and American Psycho, for two—that makes me consider the idea of feminist literary theory, and seems to corroborate the necessity for a complementary masculinist theory. I’ve heard it argued that such a thing is not necessary because the male viewpoint, in a patriarchal society, is the default; I’m just not sure of that, and I tend to hesitate in making generalizations.

Still, I wonder if there is some connection between the idea of a fight club and masculinity. That single Y chromosome, despite its diminutive stature, is enough to change a lot, physiologically speaking, and the defining characteristic of male gender is a penis and testicles, the latter of which produce testosterone. So do ovaries and, to a lesser extent, certain adrenal glands, but when it comes down to testosterone, an androgen, a hormone that causes the body to exhibit stereotypically male characteristics—deep voice, hair growth in some places and loss in others—the primary source is the testes. Testosterone also increases protein synthesis in muscle cells, contributing to their growth, which is why bodybuilders use steroids, and bodybuilders’ balls shrink because their bodies suddenly think they have enough testosterone that the testes don’t need to produce anymore.

That increase of testosterone causes many other side effects, one of which is increased aggression—roid rage.

Which brings me back to the central question; not whether Fight Club is a male movie, but rather: who would you fight?

One of the movie’s jokes (among other things, it’s a deeply black comedy; is it really about masculinity, or is it satirizing masculinity? Must the two be mutually exclusive?) is when Brad Pitt and Edward Norton discuss which celebrities they would fight. Pitt, if I recall correctly, cites Lincoln, noting he was tall and probably had good reach.

In perfect deadpan, Norton states, simply, “I’d fight Ghandi.”

***

In finishing coursework to earn an MBA in marketing, I’ve had to write several business plans, and others concerning marketing and international strategy. Most of these documents contain a section that requires me to assess my competition.

Now, when it comes to these assignments, the courses always offer the option of using an already established company as model; some students choose companies like Google or Apple or Microsoft.

Me, I choose myself. I’m a bit of a narcissist like that. But seriously, I’m earning the MBA for the same reason I earned an MPW; for writers, I think knowing how to reach readers is as important as being able to produce something valuable to reach them with, so I think—especially nowadays, with Kindles and iPads and nooks—that writers should know business as well as they know craft.

Problem is, every time I choose to do a business plan concerning me, as an author, I have to write another section about my competition. The results always strike me as inherently wrong; am I really competing with Dan Brown or Timeline or The Time-Traveler’s Wife or The Historian or The Raw Shark Texts? I don’t think so (though that may be why I’m having such a difficult time selling the damned thing).

In a superficial way, the comparison makes sense: shelves, whether in book stores or readers’ homes, are finite, and only so many pages will fit on them. Writers vie with each other for precious shelf space.

But in another way entirely, we don’t. In that entirely other way, we compete not with each other but with ideas, with culture. We compete for attention. The fact that there’s room enough on the Internet for everyone might be both its greatest benefit and disadvantage.

To go back to the idea with which I opened: if we are to compete with anyone, should it not be with the greats?

***

Growing up Catholic, one of the expressions I most commonly heard—besides “You need to put on your God glasses” and “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed”—was a question: what would Jesus do? Now, as my last TNB essay quite obviously demonstrated, when it comes right down to that question, I really don’t have a clue: I figure ride a pony, exonerate an unfaithful wife, have a meal with his friends (it’s worth noting I originally wrote “wife” there, then erased it. Freudian what?), die on a cross, that sort of thing. For me, wondering what he would do is fraught with more uncertainty than the situations during which one might actually ask it.

Still, the idea of role models, of mentors, is always useful, especially when facing a difficult choice.

I faced a difficult choice in 2005, when I decided I wanted to go to graduate school for writing. Articles about How to Choose the Right Writing Program for You tend to make the cover of magazines only writers read; you know both the articles and magazines I mean without my enumerating them. There’s probably an ampersand in the title, and each one tends to have a monthly quota of one article with a list of Ways to Pump Up Your Novel, one concerning How to Structure Your Memoir, one on a group of Agents’ and Editors’ Inside Secrets to Querying and Publishing, and finally one by a Current Best-Seller Encouraging Writers to Follow Their Dreams. We writers read each of the first three because we hope one day to write the last.

Most of the articles on choosing a writing program mention things like residency and financial considerations. Common advice is to choose a program whose faculty has written books you’ve enjoyed, or in the style or genre in which you hope to write and publish, but that just made me think of the writers I’d read: Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Michael Crichton, JK Rowling, Neil Gaiman, Terry Pratchett, Nick Hornby, TNB’s own Richard Cox. I’m fairly sure none of those writers went to grad school for writing—Crichton went for medicine—and only one, Gaiman, taught (at Clarion West).

I always wanted to be a mega-seller, but none of the faculties seemed to include really popular writers. I fear that dichotomy; if you look at the sorts of books millions of readers read nowadays . . . well, how about we note that the books that earn critical acclaim from prestigious institutions are often not the same as the books that dominate the best-sellers lists? That when New York publishing people start talking about the NBA on Twitter, most readers would probably be surprised they’re not talking about the Knicks?

I remember the relief I felt when I saw USC’s website. While there were a few names I didn’t know, I’d heard of Irvin Kershner; he put my first memory ever onto a screen. I’d also heard of Marc Norman; Shakespeare in Love is one of my favorite movies. I’d also heard of Janet Fitch; I’d loved her novel, which had been chosen for Oprah’s bookclub. I wasn’t yet familiar with Sid Stebel, who became a valuable mentor, but Ray Bradbury said he was great, and Bradbury I knew.

Am I right that it’s a maxim that students are supposed to, ultimately, defeat their masters? As a teacher myself, my aim is for my students to master the techniques I’ve demonstrated to them so they can find their own ways, but I keep thinking of martial arts movies in which the students fight the master to achieve enlightenment. I’m thinking of Christian Bale fighting Liam Neeson in Batman Begins, of Neo fighting Morpheus in bullet-time.

I keep thinking of Fight Club and of Hemingway’s ring.

Truthfully, I never had much time for the greats. Fitzgerald could have used a better editor, Faulkner a POV. Hemingway was a pansy who overcompensated via hypermasculinity, Poe a drunk who married his cousin, Cheever a closeted bisexual who seemed to hate himself and his wife. Dickens wrote like he was paid by the word, and Bukowski should’ve flushed his beer-shit prose. O’Connor’s Catholic guilt bored, while Austen’s propriety grated and Bronte’s melodrama depressed.

So none of them.

No, I’d fight Shakespeare.

When I wonder about role models and mentors, I don’t consider the cross. I always ask myself: what would Shakespeare do?

(I mean besides Anne Hathaway.)

This week marked an anniversary of Shakespeare’s death and christening; he died on April 23rd, and was baptized on April 26th. There is no record of his birth, but custom at the time was quick baptism, so he was probably only a few days old; he might well have died on his 52nd birthday. He was called a lot of things in his time, including an upstart crow, but maybe not a genius. Really, he was just a writer who sat down every day to write words for actors that the great masses of audience would love, and they, by most accounts, loved him for it; his work was as popular as Rowling’s or Brown’s, and we’ll see if their stories last as well.

When I wonder what I should do, I always wonder what he would have done. Mainly because I want to do better.

***

Truthfully, of course, this is all flawed. When it comes right down to it, I think we writers know we’re in the ring alone, and we only ever wrestle ourselves.

The R Word

By Sung J. Woo

Writing

We’re sorry to inform you…there were many strong entries…we wish you the best of luck placing it elsewhere.

You’d think that after twenty years of writing, revising, and submitting, these responses of thankful apology, these kind-hearted notes of rejection, would be easier to take. But they hurt, every time.

Writing teachers and how-to books tell you the same thing, that you are supposed to write for yourself. That you will never truly achieve literary nirvana until you free yourself of external validations. Which is true, but it’s a truth like communism: great on paper, terrible in actual execution. Because for most writers, the endgame isn’t the completed manuscript. There’s one more hurdle to leap, and usually it’s not pretty.

In order for us to share what we’ve created with the reading public, we have to offer ourselves to the few people who are willing to read and print our work: editors of journals, magazines, newspapers, and publishing houses. With the advent of self-publishing and blogging, writers no longer have to run through this literary gauntlet, but in order to get street cred (and who doesn’t want street cred?), you have to do it the old-fashioned way.

In his memoir What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, Haruki Murakami writes: “In the novelist’s profession, as far as I’m concerned, there’s no such thing as winning or losing.” Easy to say for a guy who completed his first novel in just six months, and who shipped off his handwritten manuscript to a magazine for a contest without bothering to make a copy. “So it seems I didn’t much care if it wasn’t selected and vanished forever,” he says.

Murakami isn’t boasting here, he’s just telling the truth, and maybe that’s what hurts more than anything. He’s one of these lucky people born with talent, so much talent that he hardly has to try. In Paul Auster’s memoir Hand to Mouth, he refers to a mystery novel he published under a pseudonym, something he churned out even faster than Murakami’s first, in a mere three months. Or how about Stephen King, who blazed through The Running Man in a single week? In racing terms, these are the people who finish their 5Ks under 15 minutes and have so much energy left over that they run the course all over again. These are your winners.

And then there’s me. I’m what racers call a mid-packer, somebody firmly entrenched in the middle of the pack. It took eleven years to get my first novel published this past April, which you’d think would wash away the feelings of inadequacy I’ve built up over the years. How wrong I was. Was it because I received a bunch of scathing reviews, the ones where the reviewer wishes he could travel back in time to murder me as a baby so he’d never have to read my novel? No, because I didn’t receive a single bad review, but apparently you can still lose in this game, because I didn’t receive enough reviews, with only one major newspaper choosing my book. Good reviews don’t automatically sell books, but the media attention certainly doesn’t hurt. Besides, it’s an honor to have work critiqued by a professional. And as much as I hate to admit it, I feel like what I’ve written matters a little more if somebody takes his or her time to analyze it and discuss it. Simply put, it is a sign of acceptance, and for someone who has subsisted on a steady diet of rejections, it’s a blessing.

I never thought my world would change with the publication of my novel. I didn’t expect Oprah to call me up or Ang Lee to option it for a Hollywood makeover. But at the same time, I’d be lying if I told you there wasn’t a tiny, insane voice embedded in the deep crevices of my shameful brain that did whisper the possibility of all of that and then some. An in-depth interview with Charlie Rose; chatting it up with Meredith Vieira on the Today Show; President Obama holding up a copy in the Rose Garden for all to see. I really despise that voice, because it is the epitome of everything a writer, an artist, isn’t supposed to be, a materialistic, fame-sucking vampire. I wish I could be a pious, Zen master of an author who only cares about his words on the page, but I can’t.

Maybe it’s because I know my own limits. Because I know I’ll never be able to write with the quicksilver beauty of Kevin Brockmeier or pump out a bestseller like The Lost Symbol because Dan Brown, too, has gifts I don’t have. And yet here I am, turning on the laptop this morning like every morning, opening up my Word file and stare at the screen, fingers poised over the keyboard.

Many days I wonder why I struggle to write this second novel, trying my best (which we all know won’t be good enough) to get that next word out so I can finish this sentence, this paragraph, this chapter, this book. Often it feels like failure: the word is wrong; the scene is misplaced; the dialogue rings false. Delete, retype, repeat. I know this makes me a writer. And for better or for worse, there’s always one more story to tell.


here are three chapters in American Psycho—“Huey Lewis,” “Whitney Houston,” and “Genesis”—in which Patrick Bateman, the narrator, ruminates on three of his favorite musical acts. In the third such chapter, he writes:

I’ve been a big Genesis fan ever since the release of their 1980 album, Duke. Before that I really didn’t understand any of their work, though on their last album of the 1970s, the concept-laden And Then There Were Three (a reference to band member Peter Gabriel, who left the group to start a lame solo career), I did enjoy the lovely “Follow You, Follow Me.”

By this point in the book, Bateman has already mutilated a homeless saxophone player, chopped a co-worker to death with a chainsaw, and served his girlfriend a used urinal cake dipped in chocolate. But it was only upon reading the preceding paragraph that it really kicked in: “He thinks Phil Collins is better than Peter Gabriel?!?! Holy shit! That guy’s fucking nuts!”