Mark Athitakis Newsletter #11

Werewolves, fear, boring stories about boats

Front Matter

I am unqualified to copy edit werewolf porn.

This is the kind of discovery you often make as a freelancer. Freelancing full-time at home has its virtues---working on a variety of projects, no commute, naps. But it also means that my professional life often feels provisional and uncertain. Editors with whom you’ve built long-term relationships get reassigned or vanish. Publications fail or “pivot”---usually away from cultural coverage. Checks arrive slowly, or not at all. My “platform” is as a book reviewer, but, like most moderately successful freelancers I know, my work life doesn’t adhere to one particular identity. My daily to-do list consists of a patchwork of projects, some ongoing, some one-off; the majority stimulating in some ways, but some not. Writing about books accounts for maybe a quarter of my income but 75 percent of my brain space, and I spend a lot of time thinking about that gap and how to be comfortable with it. What does it mean to be a “book person,” given that gap?

Another question that I, like a lot of freelancers, think about: What would you do if half of my freelance income sources dried up tomorrow? Which brings me to the werewolf porn. Messages occasionally come to me from firms searching for warm bodies to perform editorial services. I’ve learned not to feel flattered by this; it’s high-turnover grunt work, and some companies seem as reputable as a guy with neck tattoos selling stereos out of the back of a truck. But this one was legit, offering rates that weren’t entirrrrrrrely humiliating. Want to take our editing test? Sure. I spend an hour I could have spent reading a book I’m interested in and instead take a test. Great job! Want to take another editing test for another kind of work we do? Sure. Another hour, Karen Armstrong’s Through the Narrow Gate calling to me unread from a distant shore. Great job! We’ll be in touch.

An assignment arrives: Could you copy edit this short story about werewolf sex? Well, sure. What would I do if half my freelance income sources dried up tomorrow? Great! Send the first five pages so we can do a QC check. Done. Uh-oh: My grasp of tenses and Chicago Manual of Style comma rules isn’t what it could be. Try again? Armstrong is aching to tell me about her experience leaving the convent; better-paying assignments are whimpering for attention. But, try again; What if…? Done. Uh-oh: Still some issues. Perhaps it would be best if we reassign this one.

Rejection, too, is part of freelancing, but that still stung. I don’t feel superior to werewolf porn, even if I’ve never felt the compulsion to read it. I’m ethically opposed to working on student papers, but lycanthropic bonking? Fine. It’s a fantasy space that, like any act of the imagination, has the potential to be either affecting or ridiculous. (The story at hand was ridiculous-to-rote, and I trust it’s not too churlish of me to say that fastidiously placed commas would not improve it.) But still, again, the experience stung; it served as an unpleasant reminder that there are some things I’m simply not good at, and the paranoid feeling that this may be an omen of something. I wrote a dystopian novel in my head about a future world ravaged by climate change in which a desperate freelancer---half his freelance income sources dried up one day!---spent his hours committing the CMoS to memory to better shepherd Yetirotica! Vol. 6 into print.

My grasp of economics isn’t great. But I have a pretty good understanding of the concept of opportunity cost---time spent working on one thing is time spent not working on other, potentially more remunerative things. Still, I tend to look at my work through the filter of what’s going to allow me to feel both emotionally and professionally contented. I read a lot and write lots of short book reviews, even though the pay-per-hour is only marginally better than that of a Starbucks barista, because working on better-paid grunt work would be a psychic drain despite benefiting my bank account. But working on those short reviews has another opportunity cost; what are the more ambitious essays or books I’m not writing because I don’t set aside the short-term work? It’s complicated. So I wrote a newsletter about it. The paycheck is the same as my failed copy-editing gig, but I feel better.

What I’m Reading, Essay Dept.

Adam Kotsko’s “The Political Theology of Trump” is as smart a piece about why the president is forgiven his many trespasses as I’ve read. Inside Donald Hall’s final, robustly productive years, filled with many drafts. Daniel Green’s stemwinder on the problem with book reviews (or rather, the problem with positive book reviews) is interesting but frustrating in ways I’m still figuring out how to articulate; I may address it in a future newsletter. The William H. Gass Reader is allegedly out of balance in terms of its fiction-to-nonfiction ratio, but I want to read it anyway. A sweet tale about Jonathan Richman and a tiny Maine bar.

What I’m Reading, Book Dept.

I run hot and cold with the National Book Awards, which were announced last Wednesday---I vividly being 16 or 17 and picking up John Casey’s Spartina, impressed by that NBA sticker, and having that first youthful feeling of being foot-stompingly pissed off at an acclaimed book that turns out to be tedious. But I’ve genuinely enjoyed most of this year’s finalists in the fiction and translated-fiction categories. I’d figured that Domenico Starnone’s Trick, a story about an elderly artist’s complicated few days visiting his grandson, was a shoo-in for the translation award, thanks in part to the familiarity of its translator, Jhumpa Lahiri. But I also admired its treatment of the precocity of children; the disconnect between kid logic and adult logic; the nature of creativity and the headspace required to create; and the grace of its sentences.

End Notes


Thanks for reading. There are multiple grammatical errors in this newsletter---can you spot them? Go ahead and make a list, then fire it into a black hole. All other correspondence can go to mathitak@gmail.comBuy my book. Headshot illustration by Pablo Lobato.