When I think of Melissa Duclos, I think of clichéd words like “dynamo” and “community builder.” For starters, she runs Magnify, a newsletter that spotlights small presses and the people who work for and with them. It’s the kind of endeavor that spurs readers and writers to say, “that’s a great idea,” and naturally, that idea was Duclos’s. Her work with Magnify is consistently thorough and professional, making it seem like she has a whole team of people, when really it’s just her.
Somehow, Duclos also finds the time to be an author. Her debut novel, Besotted, came out earlier this year from 7.13 Books and has garnered praise from Cleaver Magazine, Kirkus, and even Powell’s. I knew that someone who expends so much energy on books, writers, and readers would have plenty to say about books she hates.
Tell me about your hatred of books. Do you hate certain kinds of books, certain authors, or just particular books when they come along?
I hate the literary equivalent of a writer masturbating in front of me. Let’s call them literary dick pics. We’ve all had them flashed at us before, been told we were supposed to like them.
Can I list authors instead, and how I imagine them posing their dick pics?
- Ernest Hemingway: With a shotgun.
- Cheever, Updike, Carver: Group pic, each of them raising a drink to the lens.
- Salinger: There is no picture of Salinger.
- Franzen: In a writing shed staring grumpily at a typewriter.
I could go on, but you get the point.
I do, and I’m laughing. Why are these authors you hate?
Their books read as entitled to the space they take up.
I think there are a lot of straight white male writers who’ve been given a pass on creating work people actually want to read. They write some version of the “Great American Novel” that’s just the same story over and over about straight white men triumphing over very small life challenges they mostly create for themselves, or not triumphing and drinking themselves to death instead. I hate books that don’t even try to show me something new.
Do you think your distaste for this kind of book has altered how you read?
Masturbatory fiction has made me a lot more skeptical of books by well-established straight white male authors. I don’t know if that’s a bad thing or not. A lot of them need better editors, maybe. Debut authors, women, LGBTQ writers, and writers of color are seldom, if ever, allowed to be as self-indulgent as mid- to late-career white men.
Amen. Say it louder for the people in the back. How does this impact you as a writer? Have you made promises about what your writing would never do, for example, based on a book you hated?
I think a lot about empathy and curiosity in my writing.
I remember when my fourth grade English teacher wrote “Write what you know,” on the top of a piece of creative writing I’d handed in about a young girl who runs away to China. “Write what you know” is toxic advice, I think, because it leaves writers afraid to try to step outside themselves. But in the best fiction, writers rely on empathy to help them step outside of their own experiences.
I’ve been trying to sort out “write what you know” for years. It seems like it’s bad advice, generally, with more exceptions than examples. Look at Ann Patchett: the stuff that happens in her books is absolutely wacky, but it’s always grounded in relationships. She reminds me that novels don’t have to be precise, realistic mirrors to life, that they have much wider possibilities than that.
This is a great example of what I’m talking about. I don’t hate writers who write what they know. But I hate books that don’t do anything more than that. I write realistic, literary fiction largely focused on relationships. I don’t step outside of what I know in terms of content, but I try to do it with characters. I write fiction in part so I can look at the same situation from multiple perspectives.
What was the last book you read that you recommend?
Black Light, by Kimberly King Parsons. I love books that surprise me in their ambition, that beautifully render ugly characters, and that are deeply rooted in a place. This collection of short stories is all of that.
Do you keep books or give them away?
I keep them, unless they’re books I hate. I recently purged my shelves of over a hundred books my ex-husband left behind when he moved out. There were a lot of well-established, self-indulgent white male authors in those boxes. It was so liberating! The used book buyers at Powell’s were much more interested in them than I was. I got store credit and used it to buy a stack of new small press books by women, LGBTQ authors, and writers of color.
Have you ever physically thrown a book across a room?
I crack spines, dog-ear corners, and write in margins, but I never throw books.
What are you reading right now, and do you like it or hate it?
I’m reading The Skinned Bird, an essay collection by Chelsea Biondolillo. She shows me something new on every page. I love it.