The value of mediocrity

Each of us reserves a portion of our income for costly purchases. Typically, we’re well aware of what we’re doing. Some of the men in my extended family are gearheads. A few of my friends splurge on travel. Not a small number of people among my acquaintances, naturally, collect beautiful books. A lot of Americans are house-proud, and some are obsessed with their wardrobes.

To fund our pleasurable or righteous obsessions, we economize when we spend on the things that don’t matter as much to us. I’ve seen parents invest in sports and cut corners on education for their children. I’ve noticed people with extremely modest living quarters driving impressive cars. A devotion to healthy living and environmental conservation, for some, involves spending money that their neighbors would have applied toward entertainment or hairstyling.

In our pursuit of happiness, we permit ourselves, and certainly ought to permit each other, to decide where to cut costs. Fortunately, in the United States, there are as many sources for cut-rate consumer goods as there are for luxury goods. The variety and freedom of choice is not a problem, folks. It’s a good thing.

And yes, I do see education in the U.S. as a consumer good that many parents make great sacrifices to obtain for their children.


Litmags: the new breeds

Three years ago, I posted a list of ten literary magazines with good-looking websites. Only four of them are still in business. Maybe it’s time for a new list, but now that every other litmag is using the free Arcade Basic blog theme from WordPress, or something similar, there are lots of attractive clones.

365 tomorrowsBeauty’s only skin deep anyway. A better list might be based on popularity, except that the big magazines with the very largest circulations tend to maintain their show-dog status for years or even decades at a time. Zzzzzzzz.

More interesting are the Silken Windhounds, Dandie Dinmont Terriers, and Catahoula Leopard Dogs in my database of literary publications. Some already are being fetishized by readers. Have you heard of them?

365 tomorrows – speculative flash fiction

The Awl – longform essays, humor, and some fiction

Bust – erotic fiction and female perspectives on pop culture

The Bygone Bureau – personal essays, cultural criticism, humor, and comics

The Collagist – progressive short fiction, poetry, essays, and novel excerpts

Conduit – poetry, fiction, and nonfictionEscape Into Life

Escape Into Life – poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction, and comics

Esopus – short plays, essays, poetry, and fiction

Guernica – essays, poetry, and fiction

Hobart – short fiction, nonfiction, and poetry

Joyland – fiction and essays

The Morning News – essays, humor, and cultural criticism

n+1 – fiction, essays, criticism, and translation

NOWNESS – digital storytelling

[out of nothing] – digital textBust

The Rumpus – essays that intersect culture

Strange Horizons – speculative fiction

Teen Ink – poetry, fiction, and nonfiction

Thought Catalog – literary journalism

Untoward Magazine – humorous fiction

Given that this list is twice as long as the previous one, maybe a handful of these publications will exist three years from now. Submit or subscribe or take them for a walk if you want to keep them healthy.

Paloma Negra, where have you flown?

PALOMA NEGRA by Miha MazziniNot until the English-language edition of Miha Mazzini’s novel Paloma Negra was scheduled for publication by Open Books did I give much thought to the music that plays through the story. I had never explored Mariachi music, which is said to have originated in the Mexican states of Jalisco and Nayarit. Paloma Negra is set in Yugoslavia in a subsequent century, during a Mexican music craze that lasted there for about a decade. El Financiero cites Mazzini’s documentary film about the phenomenon of Yu-Mex music, explaining that Yugoslavia “broke off relations with the Soviet Union and turned to Mexico to provide entertainment productions containing music and action, in addition to messages such as ‘Long live the revolution.’ “

When I discovered, I wanted to test the selection of available recordings, so I assembled a shareable playlist of songs that seemed to fit the mood of this extraordinary novel. I let several websites recommend potentially relevant music and performers. A musicologist’s playlist would be much more informative, but instead, this multicultural sampler is Robin-filtered. I’d love to listen to your musical interpretation of this book. If you create a playlist for Paloma Negra, I’ll be delighted to add yours to this post.

Track listing for Paloma Negra | Listen for free at

1. Paloma Negra
I concentrated first on the ranchera “Paloma Negra,” composed by Tomás Méndez and performed best by the late Chavela Vargas, who was born in Costa Rica but lived most of her life in Mexico. If you listen to only one of the five songs on the playlist, it should be this one, which was used in the soundtrack for the 2002 film Frida.

2. Ljubimac Zena
“Ljubimac Zena” is one of the popular Yugoslav-Mexican songs performed by the Serbian singer Ljubomir Milić’s trio, Paloma, in the 1960s.

3. Luz de Luna
My favorite version of “Luz de Luna,” which translates as moonlight or light of the moon, comes from U.S.-born Araceli Collazo and Paloma Negra, lately of Monterrey, Mexico. The song was written by the Mexican composer and songwriter Álvaro Carrillo, who performs it on this track.

4. Love Sick
Mariachi El Bronx’s cover of Bob Dylan’s “Love Sick” is the only Mariachi tune I own. It’s jaw-dropping. (Of course, you might prefer the version used in the Victoria’s Secret commercial.)

5. Paris, Texas
I watched Wim Wenders’ 1984 film Paris, Texas recently. The soundtrack suited it perfectly. The Paris-based trio Gotan Project, whose members are Argentine, French, and Swiss, recorded Ry Cooder’s music for the movie’s bleak title track, which was influenced by Blind Willie Johnson’s gospel blues “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground,” another of the songs featured. Parallels in the tragic lives of the characters in the film Paris, Texas and the novel Paloma Negra made this stark, moody instrumental my selection for the concluding track. I hope you enjoy listening.

mourning doveImage adapted from Bird Studies: An Account of the Land Birds of Eastern North America by William E.D. Scott (1898)

When the story is true

Every version of this song is beautiful and perfect. Here are just four.

I’ve lived a few hundred miles due north and a few hundred miles due south of Harlan County, Kentucky, and I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who ever lived there.

⬇ Ruby Friedman Orchestra

⬇ Patty Loveless

⬇ Dave Alvin

⬇ Darrell Scott, the songwriter

Creative writing workshops and journals for physicians


(Image courtesy of Penny Mathews)

The list of physicians who’ve sidelined as creative writers is extensive. The existence of the World Union of Physician Writers is a testament to the long tradition. Among the active writing groups, Pegasus Physicians meet regularly on the Stanford University campus and a creative writers’ group invites new members at the University of Arizona College of Medicine – Phoenix. You can find the SEAK Physician and Lawyer Fiction Writers Group on LinkedIn.

A few workshops for physicians who write

Arts, Humanities, and Medicine Program at the Stanford Center for Biomedical Ethics

Columbia University Medical Center’s Program in Narrative Medicine

Doctors Who…

The Examined Life Conference hosted by the University of Iowa Roy J. and Lucille A. Carver College of Medicine

Hippocrates Initiative for Poetry and Medicine

Literature + Medicine hosted at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Dallas

Medicine Unboxed

Narrative Medicine

SEAK’s How to Earn Money as a Physician Writer

Seven Doctors Project (7DP)

The Storytelling Workshops collaboration between Massey College, Ars Medica, and the University of Toronto Health, Arts, and Humanities Program

Taos Writing & Wellness Retreat for Health Professionals presented by the University of New Mexico Health Sciences Center Office of Continuing Education and The Permanente Journal, Kaiser Permanente

The Writing and Publishing CME course at Harvard Medical School

The Yale Internal Medicine Residency Writers’ Workshop for Yale residents

Journals that publish creative writing about the medical professions

Of course, any literary journal can publish the creative work of a physician, but the publications listed here specialize in the topics of illness, healing, and the medical professions.

AJN: American Journal of Nursing
Abaton – Des Moines University
Ars Medica
The Barefoot Review
Bellevue Literary Review – New York University Langone Medical Center
Blood and Thunder – University of Oklahoma College of Medicine
CHEST Journal
Connective Tissue – University of Texas Health Science Center of San Antonio’s School of Medicine
The Examined Life Journal – University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine
The Healing Muse – SUNY Upstate Medical University’s Center for Bioethics & Humanities
Hektoen International
Hospital Drive – University of Virginia School of Medicine
The Human Touch – Anschutz Medical Campus at the University of Colorado
The Intima: A Journal of Narrative Medicine – Columbia University
JAMA: The Journal of the American Medical Association
Journal of Medical Humanities
Journal of Poetry Therapy
Journal of Progressive Human Services
Leaflet – The Permanente Journal, Kaiser Permanente
Lifelines – Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth College
Medical Literary Messenger
Narrateur – Hofstra North Shore—Long Island Jewish Health System School of Medicine, Hofstra University
Narratio Medicina
Oasis – Wake Forest School of Medicine
The Perch – Yale Program for Recovery and Community Health
The Pharos – Alpha Omega Alpha
Plexus – University of California, Irvine, School of Medicine
Poems in the Waiting Room
proto – Massachusetts General Hospital
Pulse: Voices from the Heart of Medicine – Department of Family and Social Medicine, Montefiore Medical Center and Albert Einstein College of Medicine
Survivor’s Review
Wild Onions – Pennsylvania State University College of Medicine and Milton S. Hershey Medical Center

Learn more

Creative Writing for Surgeons by Carol EH Scott-Conner, MD, PhD

“A song to go to the soul of things”

mixtape of new songs

    (Photograph courtesy of Michael Lorenzo)

I keep some mixtapes upon the shelf. They hide a nasty stain or gloss over some messy memories from another era. Actually, they’re mix CDs. I still like them, and I’m still sensitive to the urge behind their creation.

Because playlists have become technically easy to assemble online, I suppose we’re inclined to make them effortful in some other way, so they’ll remain meaningful. In “Why we crave human-curated playlists,” Justin Fowler touches briefly on how we try. Elsewhere, the blog Largehearted Boy features Book Notes, which are playlists compiled by authors who want to elaborate on themes in their books. Finally, is making it simpler to use embedded playlists. Merely listening to one doesn’t require user registration, which has been an annoying obstacle with other music streaming services.

Most of the music I now buy was shared through social media or used as part of the soundtrack for a film or television program. I work in silence, so ten minutes of listening is the equivalent of a smoke break. The recommendation algorithms built into streaming services are helpful, but I owe more to the old mixtapes that introduced me to metal and blues and to friends who find and post throwbacks and new songs.

The title of this post is a line from Lorca’s “New Songs” (“Cantos nuevos”) translated by Catherine Brown. Go on down the rabbit hole, if you’re of a mind to. A.S. Kline’s translation of “New Songs” is on page 9 of the freely distributed book Twenty-Six Early Poems of Federico García Lorca.   pdf icon

Doing business in the public eye

business in the public eye

(Photograph courtesy of Mompes)

Most of a literary agency’s business is conducted quietly, behind the scenes. Attempting to bring any of it to light is difficult, because significant context often is missing. Every profession shares this quandary. Looking in from the outside, observers are forced to oversimplify and stereotype other occupations and businesses, because it’s impossible to experience all of them firsthand.

My work as an agent is neither routine nor boring, which makes it fun. After five years, I no longer feel like a novice, but that doesn’t mean I can ever stop learning. Most knowledge workers recognize that continually educating ourselves and monitoring industry intelligence are necessary aspects of our jobs; otherwise, we’d consign ourselves rapidly to obsolescence.

Many of us have been watching and commenting on the latest machinations of big corporations. Because of their size and reach, the largest companies involved in publishing and bookselling must contend with heightened public scrutiny. That’s good, because we need to be reminded that these big corporations establish de facto standards for balancing competition and cooperation, which other businesses in the industry then will emulate. If the biggest companies succeed by dodging taxes, being aggressively adversarial, poaching talent, emphasizing volume over quality, crowdsourcing free content, eschewing customer service, and exploiting their employees, then every other businessperson within the book publishing industry’s entrepreneurial ecosystem will begin to see value in those strategies. Ruthless tactics can appear much less unethical when they’re necessary for survival.

The outrage and dissent, even when inarticulately expressed in debates riddled with inaccuracies, help to reassure me that we haven’t completely lost our ethical sensibilities. And by the way, in the grand scheme, I really enjoy being in a position to advocate for the artist.

Exactly when did kindness and courtesy became unbusinesslike and unsexy? Certain old-fashioned business practices are worth reinstating.

Literary agents for textbook authors

Instead of textbooks, I prefer to handle the licensing of trade books, which are sold to the general public. Some books might be suitable for either type of publishing, but often the author is not. If the author thinks of herself or himself as a textbook author, then heading in that direction probably is a good idea.

The first 4 things a textbook author needs to know

  1. A concise explanation of the different types of book publishing can be found on the University of Chicago Press website in a free chapter of William Germano’s Getting It Published: A Guide for Scholars and Anyone Else Serious about Serious Books. Without an understanding of these fundamentals, it will be a struggle for a textbook author to make the appropriate connections.
  2. THINKING LIKE YOUR EDITOR by Susan Rabiner and Alfred Fortunato

  3. The elements of a textbook proposal have been described thoroughly in Thinking Like Your Editor: How to Write Great Serious Nonfiction and Get It Published by Susan Rabiner and Alfred Fortunato. The book can be found at a nearby library via Information on this topic is easy to locate online using a search term such as “textbook proposal.”
  4. The meaning of “author platform” should not be alien and should not be confused with CV.
  5. Textbook publishers offer on their websites helpful, detailed guidelines for authors, because it’s assumed that many authors will contact the publishers directly with their book proposals. Currently, some of the largest English-language textbook publishers are Macmillan Higher Education, Pearson, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, McGraw-Hill Education, and Cengage. There are many other textbook publishers.

Who might be able to help

Literary agents who specialize in textbooks

If a textbook project has sufficient commercial potential, the author might be able to enlist the assistance of a literary agent. Submissions guidelines can be found on each literary agency’s website. For example, Susan Rabiner, who is particularly interested in science and economics, says, “What I want to see is an author who is well connected in the field and knows how the field is being taught and what is lacking from existing textbooks.”

The agents listed here are working primarily in the English language.

Barbara Collins Rosenberg
The Rosenberg Group
Marblehead, MA

Carole Jelen –
Waterside Productions, Inc.
San Francisco, CA

Elizabeth Evans
Jean V. Naggar Literary Agency Inc.
New York, NY

Jeff Herman
The Jeff Herman Agency
Stockbridge, MA

John W. Wright
John W. Wright Literary Agency
New York, NY

Michael Lennie
Lennie Literary Agency & Author’s Attorney
San Diego, CA

Michael Snell
Michael Snell Literary Agency
Truro, MA

Neil J. Salkind and Lynn Haller
Salkind Literary Agency / Studio B Productions, Inc.
Great Neck, NY

Rubin Pfeffer
Rubin Pfeffer Content, LLC
Chestnut Hill, MA

Sam Stoloff
Frances Goldin Literary Agency
New York, NY

Sandra Dijkstra
Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency
Del Mar, CA

Stephanie Ebdon
The Marsh Agency
London, UK

Sterling Lord
Sterling Lord Literistic
New York, NY

Susan Rabiner, Sydelle Kramer, and Eric Nelson
The Susan Rabiner Literary Agency, Inc.
New York, NY

Will Lippincott
Lippincott Massie McQuilkin
New York, NY

Zick Rubin and Brenda Ulrich
The Law Office of Zick Rubin
Newton, MA

Publishing attorneys with hourly or percentage-based fees

Lloyd Jassin
Law Offices of Lloyd J. Jassin
New York, NY

I’ll be happy to update this list with additional suggestions and agencies. Feel free to comment or send email to mail(at)