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Life Outside of Academia; Ghost Stories

October 14, 2011 | by

Who are the great American writers of today who do not hold teaching positions or B.A.s or M.F.A.s in literature? It is very frustrating to read that so and so teaches at this or that university, or has an M.F.A. from this prestigious school. Who are the writers writing to make the rent, making a living solely off the written word? Who are the writers writing about life outside of academia? And why is it that people outside of first-world countries have no idea or even care about what American writers are writing about today yet hold Hemingway and even Bukowski in such high esteem? —Fernando A. Flores

I can’t say for certain who holds what degree, or who has held what job—one never knows what skeletons lurk in a writer’s closet—but to answer your second question: with a very few exceptions (Nora Roberts?) people don’t make the rent by writing books. Either you teach, or you write for the movies (or someone else turns your books into movies), or you get a staff job at a magazine. That’s one way to live by the word, and lots of excellent writers do it. They often complain that it gets in the way of writing great books. As for the question of why foreigners like Bukowski, I would guess he translates well. Or easily, at least. Besides, they like us butch. —Lorin Stein

I love to read ghost stories and thrillers in the fall. What’s your favorite frightening book?

I’m with you: scary reads are right up there with apples and changing leaves. That said, everyone enjoys something different; I have an uncle who swears by serious horror, whereas I’m more of what Netflix might term the “psychological thriller” persuasion—I like the occult just fine, but zombies, vampires, crazed animals, and most serial killers need not apply.

For the last few weeks, I’ve been giving myself nightmares with a daily dose of M.R. James’s classic ghost stories. You can’t beat Daphne du Maurier for atmospheric spookiness: both Rebecca and Don’t Look Now are terrific reads, period (with adaptations to match). And more recently, I enjoyed Sarah Waters’s The Little Stranger a great deal—a haunted-country-house story with a twist.

Lastly, if you can get your hands on Charles MacLean’s The Watcher, do it; the third act is sort of ludicrous, but I don’t think I’ve ever been more genuinely terrified while reading. —Sadie Stein

Is Gravity’s Rainbow worth the time and effort? I’ve heard that it helps to read V. first, though The Crying of Lot 49 seems more accessible (not to mention slimmer). I’m guessing that it would take a good three months to read Gravity’s Rainbow, plus an additional month for preparatory reading and background texts. This four-month devotion to Pynchon would mean foregoing anywhere from eight to fifteen “lighter” works. Given that I have a limited amount of time to read, should I still give it a try?

Sophia Anzaroot

It never hurts to try! You may want to start with The Crying of Lot 49 (that’s the one that has held up for me). But I wouldn’t bother doing prep work. If you like it, you’ll like it. If you don’t, you’ll turn to one of the other books—and, at the very least, you’ll have read one of the great slapstick set-pieces involving bananas. —L. S.

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  1. Matt | October 14, 2011 at 1:46 pm

    1. Stephen King. Which leads us to
    2. “The Open Curtain” by Brian Evenson.
    3. Strange question. Unless you know the person asking.

  2. Natalie Jacoby | October 14, 2011 at 2:01 pm

    Dear Sophia (and anyone else considering reading Gravity’s Rainbow),

    First of all, I highly recommend the challenge! I myself was not super impressed by The Crying of Lot 49 and was unfamiliar with his other works before reading GR. I’m also a terribly slow reader! But the great thing about GR is that there are so many other authors, books, historical references, et cetera, that it will turn your attention to. It inspired a whole other reading list for me.

    If you do take the plunge, you’ll want to check out the Pynchon wiki:

    I also highly recommend the Weisenburger companion:

    Weisenburger’s is a wonderful reference that doesn’t spoil or water down the plot, and it leaves out critical commentary. It simply breaks down all the people, events, and places that Pynchon references and helps you get so much more out of the novel.

    Good luck!


  3. Sadie Stein | October 14, 2011 at 2:55 pm

    @Matt I will be checking out THE OPEN CURTAIN! Thanks!

  4. C | October 14, 2011 at 4:17 pm

    I’ve found that taking a nonwriting dayjob keeps the writing fresh, and it doesn’t separate you from the alienation and aesthetic of above-ground life. It also allows you to be dangerous, because you’re not worried about selling.

  5. Joe Linker | October 14, 2011 at 6:49 pm

    To Fernando’s question, try William T. Vollmann; though he does have a BA, still, he’s outside the mainstream you are describing. Also, check out Dave Eggers. Don’t know the answer to you last question, but while there are numerous published writers associated in some way with academia, there are scads more, associated, disassociated, and worse who never found a voice or a listener in spite of their credentials.

  6. D. Royce Powell | October 14, 2011 at 8:59 pm

    I’m an outsider primarily from the laurels, yet on numerous occasions found myself playing mascot alebeit….. I was the one who rejected rejection, in the hopes of finishing up biography readings of Ben Franklin at ten. At, I somehow took full control of the campus politics, being department heads messenger. A status suited by attitudes. Schools were for touring not teaching. Professors, librarians, the beneficiaries all loved to toy with me. Give me a pair of English walkers and the academia shut up. Now forty years past, writing, to me, an epemeral tick, tick, tick. Like tying knots in a discarded rope. Bukowski was a genuine metaphor, like Warhol. What bit them was their casualties of circumstance. That.s all. End of story(s).

  7. D. Royce Powell | October 14, 2011 at 9:01 pm

    I just did! Writing mote inside of more is a typo for some: an attitude for others.

  8. Lorin Stein | October 15, 2011 at 12:25 pm

    Thank you for these comments — thanks especially to Assistant Editor Jacoby. (From now on, Natalie, all Pynchon questions go straight to you!)

    William Vollmann certainly marches to his own drummer — and has a devoted following as a teacher. The combination isn’t unusual. Whatever complaints we may have about the writing program as an institution, it employs lots of original writers.

  9. Damion Searls | October 15, 2011 at 1:27 pm

    Just another personal Pynchon opinion here — I love most of his books and loathed “Crying of Lot 49”! Avoid it! (Pynchon himself later said he hated it: that he forgot everything he knew about writing books when he wrote it (paraphrased from his intro to “Slow Learner”).)

    “Inherent Vice” is perfect starter-Pynchon if that’s what you want: funny, sexy, clearly plotted, short, and still with all his big concerns.

    I think the fun of “V.” and “Gravity’s Rainbow” (and don’t sell “Mason & Dixon” short) is that you can see you’re only seeing like 2% of what’s in there, and could only ever hope to understand another 20% (with extensive study); you know the rest is hovering around in there somewhere; but the 2% is great and the rest doesn’t make you feel anxious or inadequate. It’s not like a test you’re failing, it’s like a great straightahead book with a penumbra. If that sounds like a reaction you might enjoy then go for it.

  10. Sophia Anzaroot | October 17, 2011 at 1:32 am

    Lorin, Natalie, & Damion- thanks for all the helpful suggestions! It seems it’s 2-1 against “The Crying of Lot 49.” Will def. start GR soon. Natalie, thanks for pointing me to the wiki; the Weisenberg companion is already in my Amazon shopping cart.

  11. Sophia Anzaroot | October 17, 2011 at 2:48 am

    Fernando, I’m not sure I understand your beef with writers who teach in MFA programs, is it something against creative writing MFA’s in particular or is it something against academia in general? Some of the most talented writers hold university positions & for the most part write about life outside of academia- Zadie Smith & Jonathan Safran Foer teach at NYU; Gary Sheytngart & Sam Lipsyte at Columbia;
    Colum McCann & Nathan Englander at Hunter; Michael Cunningham, Amy Hempel, and Wells Tower in Bklyn College’s mfa program; Andre Aciman teaches comp lit at the Cuny Grad Center; the late DFW taught at Pomona and Jonathan Lethem recently took over his position (ironically Lethem is a college drop-out)- clearly teaching hasn’t impacted their writing in a negative way. Even literary heavyweights like Saul Bellow and Philip Roth taught- Bellow at the University of Chicago & Roth at Iowa, Princeton & Penn. I’m guessing that most readers of TPR would agree that it doesn’t get much better than Roth.
    As far as writers with day jobs that couldn’t be further from the world of academia (they work in finance), check out Amor Towles (his “Rules Of Civility” was one of the best books I’ve read this year) and Akhil Sharma’s “An Obedient Father.”

  12. Peter Tibbar | November 30, 2013 at 4:25 pm

    Dear Lorin,

    There are no ‘great slapstick set-pieces involving bananas’ in The Crying of Lot 49. The great slapstick set-piece [singular, really] involving bananas is to be found early on in Gravity’s Rainbow. And the people who refer to it are all too often those who did not make it past page 30 or so.

    If, as you say, ‘[i]t never hurts to try,’ perhaps you should go read some Pynchon yourself.

    Lukewarm regards,


  13. Meaghan | January 28, 2015 at 4:38 pm

    I was absolutely terrified while reading THE WINTER PEOPLE by Jennifer McMahon. And while I love ghost stories, I do not frighten easily. This one was both absorbing as a story and scary to read.

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