Another uncomfortable observation about the writing person

The problem writing fiction is that to have any vitality, it is tapped into your unfiltered psyche. So as much as you separate your own beliefs and feelings from your characters’, things you make them say really do come from you, and sometimes this can bring things to light about you that you would not admit to or even realize were true, whether this is unlovely thoughts about your loved ones, or racial or other prejudices, or a strong conviction of despair, or any number of other things. All you can do is comb through in revision, doing your best not to comb out what is vital—which is also often what is the unsavory in you. No matter what we say about the work being separate from the author, we can’t pretend the actual human being who wrote the story isn’t implicated in it. 

Anything But Blue

Stanford UP’s latest fall catalog has just come from the printer, with a blatant Anne Geddes rip-off on the cover that I’m quite pleased with. A seasonal catalog is always a jerry-rigged masterpiece of flim-flam, filled as it is with descriptive copy and fully realized cover designs for manuscripts that haven’t been copy edited yet, let alone gone to pages, and always two or three that haven’t even been completely written. We didn’t always try to have a cover designed for every single title a full season ahead of time, and I won’t go into the reasons people decided it was a good idea. But suffice it to say that now, every spring and fall I feel like I’m coordinating about 65 weddings, all at the same time. You’d expect this for trade titles, of course, but it turns out that even scholars of Latin American history, authors of books on business valuation, analytical philosophers . . . all of them get kooky, too. He won’t even pay for a good haircut, but a kid’s first monograph on Hölderlin gets accepted for publication, and he goes to sleep nights dreaming about display fonts and halftone screens.

For a few years I’ve wanted to scribble down notes for our scholar-authors about book covers, and I’m thinking now while the trauma is still fresh in my mind, it might be a good time. So here’s my list of observations and things to remember:

  1. Your designer doesn’t have to know how to spell to do a good cover for you. She has to know how to do a good cover.
  2. Thank you for letting me know your nephew knows Photoshop. It will not save you any money if he designs your cover.
  3. Aesthetic judgment is subjective. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter.
  4. Don’t ever use the word “collage.”
  5. An image with a specific reference to something in the book isn’t always the best image for the cover, especially if it’s ugly and needs a four-line caption on the back to explain what it is.
  6. Thank you for letting me know your nephew has designed his own website. We need to design a printed book cover.
  7. If you absolutely loathe blue, we can accommodate you. But you might want to think about why that is.
  8. Sometimes you have to see something before you know what you want. I’m the same way. But remember I’m working on anywhere from two to forty other book cover designs at the same time, depending on the time of year, so a little help on the design memo up front can save me some time.
  9. If your editor shows you three different cover designs, please pick one. Don’t ask for the typeface from A, the picture from B, and the colors from C. That’s designing, which is what the designer has already done.
  10. When giving reactions, general is actually better than specific. Say, “The cover seems a little harsh for a book about kittens.” Don’t say, “Could you please airbrush out the snarling kitten?”
  11. It’s amazing what some people can do with Photoshop these days. At Pixar.
  12. Your book is going to be purchased by two hundred libraries and read by eighteen scholars. Changing the title font to Galliard is not going to raise these numbers.
  13. Thank you for showing me the mock-up your nephew has done for your book cover. No.
  14. If my design has completely misconstrued your critical theory monograph, do not even think of getting catty about it or condescend to me in any way, because I will rip off your face and feed it to my pigs.
  15. Thank you for showing me the mock-up your nephew has done. It actually has possibilities. No, I will not pay him.
  16. I actually enjoy doing your book cover. I really want to know what you think.
  17. I change my mind about book covers all the time. Do I contradict myself? I am large. I contain multitudes.
  18. If you’ve decided you don’t like the amazing cover I’ve done for your book that you were perfectly fine with yesterday, you’d better give a damn good reason.
  19. It’s called embossing. No, we don’t do it. Who do you think you are, Barbara Cartland?
  20. Yes, I can make your name bigger.

It all sounds way too snarky. I am a nice man. I’ve just come off another three-month book cover marathon, though, and I’m still a little fragile. I’ll edit it eventually into something more helpful and less intimidating. But enjoy this first draft.

What if, in place of “racist,” we used the word “racist”?

I went to a Bible college. This surprises some people. Well, time passes and things happen. Anyway, although I think my world-view was bound to evolve eventually, I became a skeptic all the more quickly because of a very incurious education in my undergraduate years. This was represented best by a particular sort of Bible professor. He would be a teacher of, say, a New Testament survey course, or a class in apologetics, invariably one of the most popular personalities on campus, often good-looking, sometimes with a spouse ten years his junior. This man was a master storyteller, a clown, a judge, a dad figure—and he’d invariably have students shaking their heads in wonder at his intelligence, without once challenging any of their basic presuppositions. It was a real knack. He (it was, of course, always a he—I do not remember one female professor of Biblical studies on the faculty) always thought of himself as a provocateur. He always wanted to “get young people thinking.” And for all that, actual thought never had anything to do with what he said.

I thought of this kind of professor last week when I came across a panel discussion at Biola University, my alma mater, called “Sexuality Matters.” The panel was a Q&A about the school’s position on LGBT sexuality. I think the fact that the term “LGBT” was even on the agenda at Biola is a sign of progress. But the progress, I’m afraid, pretty much stopped there. There were three discussants, all from the university—a psychology professor, someone called a “Vice President of Student Affairs” (some kind of dean?), and a Bible professor named Erik Thoennes. Unless I’m misunderstanding the v.p. position, there were no students. And there were no representatives of the LGBT community. Some people probably thought of this forum as a conversation. It was really, though, a presentation. Without two points of view, nobody was really discussing anything, they were just making plain what was already pretty plain, which is that Biola believes gays and lesbians and transgendered people are all perverts. God loves them as much as he loves people who aren’t perverts, and people who aren’t perverts are still sinners, but LGBT is still just a synonym for PRVRT. This isn’t surprising and it isn’t even disappointing, because to be disappointed a person would have to actually expect something different at a conservative Christian school. It was like this 33 years ago when I graduated, and it is still like this.

Actually, maybe it was a little disappointing. For one thing, the panel actually came together in the first place in large part, if I understand it right, because of the efforts of a student group that would have been unthinkable in my day—the Biola Queer Underground. And one student actually had the temerity to ask why there wasn’t any representative from the BQU on the panel. That question could have led to a very interesting discussion. But instead it led to repetition, and elaboration, and some incredible rhetoric. Which you can listen to here. It was a real tour de force.

Professor Thoennes said the panel didn’t include a gay perspective because homosexuality was a sin, and asking someone to a panel at Biola to represent the sinful side was plainly ludicrous. You wouldn’t invite a liar to represent liars’ point of view, would you? You wouldn’t bring a racist to a discussion on racism to defend the “racist perspective.”

And then he showed his quality. To demonstrate the silliness of the idea, he took text directly from the BQU website, and everywhere the word “gay” was used, he inserted “racist.”

“Our racist identities, which are integral to who we are, are being questioned in terms of their morality. The University’s upcoming decision will affect our daily lives . . .

“Biola claims toward dialogue. However racist students who don’t view racism as sinful aren’t allowed to speak openly without threat . . .”

You really do need to listen to the recording. With the laughter, you can hear how solidly he got the crowd. His church (yes, of course he’s also a pastor) must love him.

But of the many “sins” a Biola professor could have chosen to compare homosexuality to, racism is a particularly troubling one, given fundamentalist Christians’ fraught association with it. Bob Jones University, the alma mater of my Biola advisor in the 70s, still did not allow interracial dating at that time. There were students in my year who agreed with that stance. I’d say in fact that the freedom many fundamentalists feel to condemn racism is a relatively recent phenomenon. To compare the LGBT movement to an odious world-view many fundamentalists (to be frank about it) still hold, shows a very finely tuned cluelessness.

So I suggest we turn Pastor Thoennes’ rhetoric back on itself. What if, when he said this:

“There are some sins I think because our culture sees them as sins we feel a lot of freedom to condemn, and others, because our culture doesn’t see them as sins, we don’t.” 

he were not talking about gay sex, but interracial marriage? What does the following sound like, put in the mouth of Bob Jones III:

“And so what I don’t want us to do in the midst of being kind and . . . loving, is to lack a Biblical backbone because our culture will consider us bigots—to stand up for something that’s consistently being a line drawn in the sand for what Christians will tolerate and what we won’t.” 

What if Erik Thoennes were talking about integration when he said:

“This is a fascinating sin in our culture. There is no other sin I know of that has parades celebrating it, and days at Disneyland!”

It wouldn’t sound too strange at all, actually. It would sound like a lot of fundamentalists 70 or 50 or 30 years ago. It still sounds like a tiny slice of them today. As opposed to Erik Thoennes’ very funny and bizarre exercise, it’s a historically accurate comparison. I can imagine no person in favor of gay marriage being against interracial marriage. I can remember fundamentalists being against it.

It’s interesting how what’s outrageous changes through history, and particularly Christian evangelical history. When Biola was founded, women weren’t allowed to vote. A woman’s place at home seemed quite explicit in the Bible our great grandparents were reading. There are so many things the Bible seems to be clear about to one generation or cultural group that it doesn’t later on or somewhere else. Things are never as plain as they seem. This is one of the first things a young person is supposed to learn when she goes off to college. It’s the opposite of what one is taught at Biola. I’m mystified why a thinking young person would want to waste her time there. As long as she is, though, I hope she’s asking tough questions. God knows somebody needs to.


I have a staff web page at Stanford. It has some basic information about me along with a portfolio of the design work I’ve done for Stanford University Press over the last decade or so. I’ve also had a blog there, of sorts. The problem is that it’s never been easy to update. For years I’ve resisted putting a bloggy thing on a separate, hosted site that’s easier to use, but I’m finally going to succumb. So here it is. Let’s see if it makes a difference. In the meantime, the last entry from the Stanford Roblog:

I write every day. I am, compared to the average person, a pretty disciplined writer. Compared to the average writer, of course, I’m a lazy slob. I will do anything not to write. This includes staring at Facebook, reading New Yorker cartoons, watching funny toddler videos on YouTube, reading long threads on writer bulletin boards about distraction, looking over my list of outstanding submissions, and digging lint out of the earbuds hole in my iPhone. The one thing I don’t do is blog. Blogging is one of the few things I find more painful than writing. It isn’t even because I can’t think of anything to say. I’m an interesting and self-obsessed person. I can always think of something to say, especially something about me. I would just rather sit and make something up, though. I’d rather wool-gather, as Kay Ryan says. I used to keep a journal. For a long time—years—I “journaled.” The idea was to kind of get the gears warmed up, the way we used to start up the presses and let them run a few minutes before doing any printing. The problem was that I would never get around to any real writing. No stories. No poems (well . . . ok, no poems might be just as well). Just page after page about myself. And when I say self, I mean self. No news whatsoever, no description of anything that actually happened. Sentences started, “I’ve always wondered . . .” or “Really starving right now . . .” or “If I would only . . .”

So I finally quit writing a journal. It was the only way I could make sure I was working on something worth reading. Although my output slowed to a trickle, most of that trickle has been getting published over the last few years, so I think overall it was a good plan. The blog idea has been iffier. It’s kind of between a journal and a publication, but beyond that, the point of it is vague. Originally, like most blogs maybe fifteen years ago, the idea was to take the place of the annual Christmas newsletter, just getting the basic information out to family and friends, without the postage. More recently it’s been to keep myself visible as I labor away on a book with no other writing to show people, but you see, that is—I have decided—dumb. I don’t really need to be that visible until I have something to be visible about, and that would be a book.

So forgive the long silences, and just know that if you’re not seeing anything here, the most interesting thing about me at the moment is that I’m writing fiction. Oh. I just [as of August 2011] got a story accepted at Zyzzyva, one of the first lit mags I submitted to about 25 years ago. So, yeah. I’m writing. Slowly.