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Books, Books

Dear Rebecca Mandelstam,

I’m responding to your “Dear Friend” letter, which I received via e-mail yesterday.

First, I hope we are “friends,” in some sense, or at least might be, should things work out appropriately between us.

I notice immediately you say you’ve been busy recently. You send a very attractive photo of yourself: young, attractive, and drinking (what?) in public.

You immediately state that the photo was taken at a cousin’s wedding, “the highlight of my year so far.”

I’m curious. Where and how do you live for this have been “the highlight of your year?” Did you not see anything this year – perhaps an animal, a child, a painting, the moon in half eclipse – that might be claim to be a “highlight?” Did you not feel joy and redemption at something happening in the news? Were you not stricken with plenitude after finishing reading a book? Hearing live music?

Indeed the wedding, such as it was, is quickly subsumed by you telling us that the real highlight of the year for you was the publication in a magazine of a story you wrote, “Emotional Morons.” Which I happened to have read, and liked (“Sun” Magazine, July 2022) but not to the extent of putting it among my favorites of the year. Or for me to have found anything else by you to read, though I did try.

Unfortunately, my list of things I want to read is absurdly long already. And daily grows longer. I am fatally exposed to the NYTBR, the LRB, the NYRB, L’Obs, “L”Histoire,” The American Scholar, The Paris Review, Granta, Harper’s, and The Atlantic. We’re talking dozens of titles a week. Hundreds a month. Well over a thousand a year.

My M.O. is to request five or ten books a week from my (excellent) public library. Buy one or two books a week from my (excellent) local bookstore (Mrs. Dalloway’s). Send away for a few from Half Price Books. Never buy anything from Amazon or anything that looks like it might be a part of Amazon.

Then I make a pile, and read a few pages from each.

On the pile currently are:“Cleopatra Goes to Prison” by Claudia Durastanti; “The Unloved” by Deborah Levy; “The Midcoast” by Adam White; “All The Lives We Never Lived” by Anuradha Roy; “Secrets of Happiness” by Joan Silber; “Nuclear Family” by Joseph Han; “American Baby” by Michelle Glaser; “Empire of Light” by David Czuchlewski; “How To Be Depressed” by George Scialabba.

In reading your letter to me, I start to wonder about you. Because you, too, offer a list. On it are names I don’t recognize: Anna Wiener, Julia May Jonas, Kawai Strong Washburn, Caitlin Scarano Gigot. I should say I’m not a conspiracist. But I am aware that there are relatively benign and very non-benign things going on in the world. One of which is the rise of a constellation of ”platforms” known as “influencing,” a subset of an especially vile activity known as “marketing.” Are those names on your list real authors who’ve written real books? Have you read them? Or are they fictive elements, ways invented to try to extract money from addicts like me who tend to fall into heady honeypots?

I also see that you, or someone created to be you, are offering a class that costs money in “Advanced Short Story Writing.” And that you, or someone claiming to be you, will be in residency on someplace called Fisher’s Island. Which normally has fewer than 100 winter residents in its cabins off the coast of Long Island.

Magnetically exotic! But are you sure that other than soul restoration (not nothing!!) you aren’t going so that through loneliness, lust, longing, or sheer accident you will find future “highlights?”

Worst of all for me, is the chilling possibility that everything in your “Dear Friend” letter could have in fact, have been created by students who “major” in Marketing as undergraduates. And then get “advanced” degrees in it as graduate students?

A favorite instructional model might look like this:

Problem 123:

You want to create or increase sales for a fiction writer. How do you gain penetration for her forthcoming book?

Assume that her publisher is established, an adequate promotion budget is promised, publication dates are assured. How do you accomplish “buzz” sufficient to get notice?

You should create a “Dear Friends” letter, written in the first person. The letter writer should be chatty, Insightful, funny. It should contain references to well-known highly respected writers, as well as highly praised, ”exciting” recent talent.

Remember the two “E’s: “exotic” and “erotic!

Include a hook – baited as much as possible - to “lift” response.

Once they’re on board, or almost, get back to them quickly! Personalize all further communication, like Dear Sheila,”Wonderful to hear from you! And what a coincidence that you’re in (insert name). I fondly recall when I (insert impressive but pleasurable experience) there a few years back. Is the (insert landmark) still there and as good as ever? Anyway we’ve put you down on our list of prospective attendees. Attached are the details (low ball the money amount, more can be requested later). If you’d like assistance with travel arrangements or any further information, let us know!

Peace and Health,

Anyway, I hope it all works out. I’ll look out for your name, and the others you cite. Like everyone, I am more than a marketing target. If I were just that I’d be a difficult one. Elderly, disabled, immobile, insomniac, depressed, haunted. But reading a lot. And as active politically as such a limited person as myself can be.

Peace and health!

Larry Bensky 

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