Reading Notebook #15: Americans Don’t Like to Listen

From a phenomenal personal essay: “Go West” by Peter Hessler in The New Yorker (April 19, 2010). Note: All of Hessler’s pieces for The New Yorker are incredible.

The American appetite for loneliness impressed me, and there was something about this solitude that freed conversation. One night at a bar, I met a man, and within five minutes he explained that he had just been released from prison. … I learned there’s no reliable small talk in America; at any moment a conversation can become personal.

… in the States, I often had trouble responding to personal stories. But soon I realized that it didn’t make much difference what I said. Many Americans were great talkers, but they didn’t like to listen. If I told somebody in a small town that I had lived overseas for fifteen years, the initial response was invariably the same: “Were you in the military?” After that, people had few questions. Leslie and I learned that the most effective way to kill our end of a conversation was to say that we were writers who had lived in China for more than a decade.

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Jane Friedman (@JaneFriedman) has 20 years of experience in the publishing industry, with expertise in digital media strategy for authors and publishers. She is the publisher of The Hot Sheet, the essential newsletter on the publishing industry for authors, and was named Publishing Commentator of the Year by Digital Book World in 2019.

In addition to being a columnist for Publishers Weekly, Jane is a professor with The Great Courses, which released her 24-lecture series, How to Publish Your Book. Her book for creative writers, The Business of Being a Writer (University of Chicago Press), received a starred review from Library Journal.

Jane speaks regularly at conferences and industry events such as BookExpo America, Digital Book World, and the AWP Conference, and has served on panels with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Creative Work Fund. Find out more.

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