What I Read This Week - 23rd June

Bit under the weather this week - literally, I think: my hay fever has gone haywire, and the (relative!) heat and humidity has thrown me off. The other day I walked home from the pool (where I'd felt a bit like a floundering idiot, struggling against an invisible tide: sometimes that's how it goes) and I sneezed at regular 60-180 second intervals all the way from the bottom of Jackdaw Lane to my front door. It was a hot evening, hot enough for shorts and sandals, and on Aston Street someone in a ground floor flat leaned out of their wide-open window as I sneezed past and yelled, "Bless you!" But it's been a good time for reading, at least. - The Ghost Writes Back (Amy Boesky at the Kenyon Review)

I read alone, I wrote alone. Sometimes I ate dinner alone at a vegan restaurant I liked and I’d look at people—other people, laughing and sitting together—and wondered if they could even see me. I suspected not. Maybe it was because I was an American, living in Oxford. I wasn’t sure. The “real world,” with its innovations and complexities, whorled around somewhere above or below me, and I felt (at times) like I had no part in it.

Sometimes, as a graduate student, I felt like a kind of ghost.

People—other people—had histories they talked about, outside of books. Courtyards I could half-see where people were dancing. Lives formed, marked by things I didn’t know. In Oxford, living near sweet-faced boys in black gowns who hinted of public schools I didn’t know and joined secret societies and vanished up into stairwells, laughing, I realized there were spaces that opened up somewhere—into big rooms, filled with light and people—that I couldn’t see. Had never seen. I floated at the rims of things. I was the eye, the ear, the pen. In high school, I had kept a journal, entry after entry, of isolation, of disquiet. The scratchings and yearnings of a ghost.

This has been on my "Read Later" list for quite some time now, but last night, in bed, I finally read it, and boy am I glad I did. If I had to - if someone walked up and put a gun to my head and said pick! - I'd probably say that this is my favorite of all the articles and essays I've read this year. Mainly because it's freshest in my mind, of course, but also because there are so many levels on which it appeals to me. I wouldn't have guessed that before I read it. For six years Boesky was a ghostwriter for the Sweet Valley High series - books I never read, though as a young child I remember seeing them in the library and yearning to be old enough emotionally to understand them: I could read them, I understood the words, but adolescent yearning and adventure was still a pretty long way off, and the books represented a sort of maturity. (By the time I reached that maturity, of course, I had no interest in Sweet Valley High anymore.) So the essay is about Boesky negotiating a kind of doubled self: the academic, mired in the words of dead British writers, and the ghostwriter, creator of adjective-laden prose about a pair of blonde, Barbie-thin twins living eternally in a glossy teenage world. That Boesky - having struggled through the loneliness of grad school, the uncertainty of postdoc life, to arrive at the holy grail of tenure - eventually reclaims her right of authorship, starts writing her own work under her own name, is no surprise. But the poignancy with which she remembers her happy time as a ghostwriter is affecting, and this essay as a whole is somehow deeply comforting.

- Bait And Twitch: 'Vice' Magazine, Suicide Glamour, And Not Staying Quiet (Linda Holmes at NPR)

It's insidious and frustrating, the idea that the more blatant an effort to offend for attention, the more the offended are to blame if they react. It imposes a sort of duty of measured inertness, as if you owe it to the greater good not to challenge something if the people who dumped it out into the world don't really believe in it but only want a reaction. It rewards anything you believe to be craven exploitation by suggesting that the more you believe it's just craven exploitation, the more you owe it to the world to sit silently, roll your eyes, and be quiet. It makes craven exploitation bulletproof.

Good, sober consideration of the reaction to reactions to, for example, Vice's recent "suicide fashion" feature.

- Michael Hann interviews Stornoway's Brian Briggs for the Guardian

Isn't twitcher a pejorative term?

It's very insulting to be called a twitcher if you're a birder. It's very, very different, and I'm almost feeling myself getting riled up. I'm definitely in the birder category. I just went to Skomer Island (5) this week, which is where I was first trained how to ring seabirds. The approach to gulls is rugby tackling, basically – you have to charge after them and grab them because they're big. Puffins live in burrows and I was trained how to get them out – with a something like a shepherd's crook, but for puffin legs.

You can't just send ferrets down to flush them out?

No ferrets are allowed on the island. They're strict about that.

Reason number I've-lost-count why these guys are one of the best bands around. Also, more music-related interviews should include questions that aren't about music. Musicians are people too, man!

- Unmastered: On Writing for Myself (Katherine Angel at FSG's Work in Progress)

Whenever I tried to explain what the book was about, to formulate it in the language of the elevator pitch, I felt it fall apart before my very eyes. At first this unsettled me. But then I realized it was important; in fact, it was a crucial part of what I was trying to do.

Sorry, but I do find writers on their process fascinating, and this is particularly good. (Plus there's a nice bit on the difference between writing as an academic and writing as a - well, writer - in here).

- I Was Paid $12.50 An Hour To Write This Story (Noah Davis at The Awl)

The Internet democratized writing. Obviously. Nearly anyone can string together a few sentences and try to find an audience. Writing seems like an easy gig, or at least one for which no additional knowledge base is required. There's a reason Will Hunting's intelligence is shown through his math prowess, not his ability to pen a paragraph.

Oh, you guys. This article. Fascinating and depressing in equal measure. I have a bit of a thing about writers and their fixation on their own finances, and I certainly appreciate the transparency here (and I wish more writing about - or around - money was this straightforward). But, I mean. There are so many things about this that make me want to pack up and launch a career as a Starbucks barista. I'm really happy, on one level, that Davis has eventually found a way to make a fair amount of money ("a little more than $50,000 in the last six months of 2012 and around $45,000 during the first half of this year") doing something he loves and is good at: it gives me hope. But the dependence of online publications on pageviews makes my heart sink a little:

Nicholas Jackson worked as an editor at TheAtlantic.com and saw the math first-hand. [...] he had a monthly freelance budget to use at his disposal, but pieces pitched by the random freelancer rarely made a positive impact on the bottom line. "I can look at it and say that the piece wasn't worth the $100 we paid," he said. "These littler freelance pieces are being subsidized by the James Fallows of the world. There's a small handful of people who can make money online. The hope is that you balance all of that out."

- Writers and the Optimal-Child-Count Spectrum (Rebecca Mead at The New Yorker)

As both Smiley and Smith point out, the key—nothing so occult as a secret—to their ability to marry motherhood and writing has been adequate child care, which remains the desideratum of every working mother, whether she’s a writer or something else. [...] Meanwhile, a writer’s true success—in the sense of her ability to write something original and meaningful—also depends upon the range of her imagination, the precision of her critical faculties, and, crucially, the extent of her capacity for empathy. And this last characteristic would include the ability to recognize that familial configurations, be they chosen or imposed, cannot be reduced to winning formulae.

I think we're done with this debate now, yes?

- Rafa vs. Everybody (Brian Phillips at Grantland)

Federer has 17 majors; Nadal has 12. Nadal is 27 and has a frowny-face emoticon in place of a left knee. He's probably not going to win six more French Opens, and even if he does, a résumé with 14 majors on clay and four on grass and hard courts feels more like a gigantized case of clay-court-specialitis than the CV of the greatest player to pick up a racket. But what if he were to win, say, three more titles in Paris, two in London, and one in New York?

I'm not and never have been much of a fan of Rafael Nadal - as Phillips points out, "Nadal is divisive among tennis fans," and I'm not even sure you can count me as a true tennis fan: I like it, it's among my favorite sports to watch, but that's basically it: I dip in and out, basking in the glow of televised competitions without investing much serious energy in keeping track of players, rankings, odds, injuries. Still, I have big respect for athletes (maybe sometimes bigger than they deserve), and I love a bit of even vaguely interesting sports writing (if I could choose an alternative career...?).

- Imaginary Outfit: Lap Swimming (even*cleveland)

So now I swim laps, but I pretend I'm a crocodile. I rest my chin on the kickboard, with my eyes just above the water. The board protrudes like a snout, and I kick with reptilian smoothness, slow and steady, observing and thinking. Are the other people just counting laps and watching the clock? Or, like me, are they playing a game? Half the fun of swimming is pretending. In the water, I'm never just myself - I am a long-distance champion, a mermaid or whale or castaway or otter.

I think it's a few years old, and the focus is meant to be on the imaginary outfit, but I was really, really delighted to discover this little insight into the swimmer's mind.