Thursday, November 12, 2015

Bringing Secondary Characters to Life

In the midst of trying to solve a writing problem in my fiction, I tend to “go to the literature,” to quote Joan Didion. I used to do this when I was a far less confident writer though with mixed results, since I wasn’t always certain about what I was looking for. Presently I’m looking for ways of bringing a secondary character to life in my first person point of view novel.

After reading the first three chapters of a draft of this novel, my writing group honed in on the character of my protagonist’s wife. “We need more dialogue,” they resoundingly agreed. “We need to see her.” Something in my presentation of this character made her feel unformed to them.

Of the three or four books I turned to, one example that jumped out of a first person narrative showing a secondary character with some specificity was found in Matthew Klamm’s one and only book Sam the Cat and Other Stories, which I’d forgotten, or just put into the recesses of a cobwebbed memory. Right away I recalled Klamm’s deft handling of bringing a secondary character to life, which feels somewhat sleight of hand.

Klamm’s language is frank, blunt and naked. His dialogue is even more revealing. Yet it tends toward turning the narrator, typically first person, into something of a buffoon and a lumpish failure, what was once called, I believe, a milquetoast. This seems in the service of conveying his women (yes, plural) of the type a la Esquire magazine’s self-congratulating feature “Women We Love.” As if no such woman has any flaws worth noting, or these flaws are merely charming, so enraptured are they by her beauty. These effects are often achieved with dialogue, of course. Klamm’s writing excels in an easygoing talking style, as of a good friend telling you intimate details over a pint. This style might be used to make an unsympathetic narrator more sympathetic. Does it matter that these secondary characters are rather typecast? Probably. As successful as this is, I became suspicious that Klamm’s stories appeal to a specific demographic that I might be on the outs with. This might be half the problem with my own first person narrative--my readers are not entirely in synch with the narrator.

Thus I thought, rather than merely bringing in additional characters more to life with more dialogue, I would need to do a lot more to appeal to the demographic that isn’t agreeable with my first person character. But I also began to wonder about the ready advice, “Use more dialogue.”

Why am I so willing to conclude that dialogue is an easy way--or as it’s also frequently thought of--the main way, to bring a character to life? I suspect the idea is that in first person, dialogue is an opportunity to not have your narrator endlessly talking, after pages and pages. Dialogue can seem live, and in this way it brings whatever character is talking to life. I don’t disagree with this assessment. But I believe you can fall into these soft traps of a ready made solution without figuring out if it actually works.

Yet, even after writing several pages of more dialogue centric scenes in my novel, I didn’t necessarily feel any closer to bringing the protagonist’s wife to life.

What I recognized was that I needed now to approach this in a more organic way. I begin to ask questions: what am I trying to convey exactly? The problem for the narrator is that, after returning from a mountain climb, he’s become permanently disabled; in light of this, his wife has returned to help him after a separation. That specific plot point aside, I am trying to convey multiple problems in this novel, and this is just one facet.

Certainly dialogue will carry emotion and feelings, here. Because I need to have the narrator explain some of his situation, I don’t believe it is unexpected--or really wrong--to have him offer his interpretation of events--this is the purview of first person, after all.

With a novel, it is normal to have to juggle multiple objectives. This story with the wife is only a subplot within the larger narrative. The main narrative might be summarized as a man tries to understand his life after confronting a life altering injury. I don’t think every character has to have a curriculum vitae and a diagnostic workup. In fact, with first person, it might even be expected that secondary characters get short shrift, and that they may be presented with some degree of bias. I can’t make them full fledged in the 250 pages I have for the novel. I think my approach has been to give the secondary characters enough material to function in service of the larger plot.

This is the kind of problem I expect from handing out a first draft of a novel. The reading group’s bias comes in because they are not seeing the whole picture. Granted, it’s a delicate dance between keeping the reader interested and not making them despise a potentially unsympathetic narrator. As much as I want to hold my argument up as explanation, the reality is that anyone else who reads the novel might come to a similar conclusion. I discussed this attempt to appeal to everyone in the following blog post Cheese Pizza Effect.

Beyond these issues, I believe there is more at work here: the wife is thought to be two dimensional, or flat, as they say; god forbid that I should portray such a character--such an important character--as flat. And this is when I realized: this character is the one my writing group is most predisposed to. They are reacting to my narrator as I am to Matthew Klamm’s. The chorus becomes, “Well, nobody wants to read about them,” or, “The narrator needs to be more sympathetic.” I get their point, but I also think there is a place for a narrator who is occasionally reprehensible.

One of the lessons I’ve learned over the years of writing and revising is knowing how to pick and choose advice. When the tenor of this criticism is too strong, as I feel was the case with my group, I realize I have hit a nerve. I take this advice cautiously, usually. The group is getting a firsthand impression without having read the full novel. Do I try to make it more conducive to their expectations, knowing this might be the way an agent will read it, or do I stick to my resolve and not lose sight of my goals for the narrative? I recognize why readers might be reacting so vehemently to the narrator, and I will consider their suggestions, but it’s not the secondary character’s story, after all. 

Interested in reading more about the conundrums of writing fiction? Check out an earlier post: On having to explain one's work (or that dumbing down logic).

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Roth’s First Person Point of View in Operation Shylock

I find that, in spite of my own sage advice to myself, I am working on a first person novel again. John Gardner, in The Art of Fiction, says “In any long fiction, Henry James remarked, use of the first person point of view is barbaric.” And yet, if this is the case, we don’t seem to lack for first person point of view novels, I’d venture far too many to count since the beginning of time. Is there something inherently apt for our technological times that lends itself to first person?

One of the reasons I’ve avoided first person in a novel is that it always feels too limiting being locked into one character for several hundred pages. My inclination is to always want to go big, broad, reach for a larger perspective, something more readily done in omniscient or third person (the all knowing, all seeing and indifferent God paring his nails.) It’s interesting that in many reviews, point of view barely gets discussed, but it’s impact is fundamental, and inextricable--though saying this sounds ridiculously obvious. Nothing has more effect on character than its being written in first person. First person is character.

I think the challenge for a novelist writing in first person--or one of them--is that unless you’ve got a compelling voice for this character, you are at a disadvantage. First person requires an extended performance. In a sense, the narrative never drops out of that register, and thus, it becomes difficult to reveal the other characters except from one specious point of view, which may (will be) biased, critical, and short sighted. The ancillary or secondary characters don’t get an equal hearing, unless your first person narrator can be entirely magnanimous. Or these characters have to become first person narrators, too. This is also a strategy, though I think the difficulty would then be how to distinguish one narrator from the next. But this doesn’t seem thematically what I want from a novel, though of course anything is possible. It’s an egalitarian point of view structure that favors one voice, which opens it up to being one-sided, lacking in complexity.

Roth, to my brief survey, has evaded these problems using first person masterfully in Operation Shylock, and thus reveals why and how it is a viable point of view--challenging, but worth trying to pull off. Or at least trying to learn from Roth. 

According to Claudia Roth Pierpont in her biography Roth Unbound, of the writing of Operation Shylock, Roth said: “I felt like I was dancing as a writer.” It shows.

From the start this novel heightens complexity, not in the least by using a double, an imposter (supposedly) of the character Philip Roth. This forces Roth’s first person to challenge him by posturing himself as someone else in confronting the imposter, which reveals another way out of the first person dilemma, dialogue, which creates an immediate, unavoidable tension. This provides for brilliant conversation in which, apparently straightforwardly, the Roth imposter presents his views on Diasporism, to which character Roth can respond, incredulously, vehemently. This is wonderful, inventive satire. (And Roth makes it look easy; as well, he does this so beautifully that it is inspiring.) The doubling even extends to the character of John Demjanjuk--”So there he was--or wasn’t.” Even the possibility of uncertainty hangs over his identity as a Nazi camp guard.

In Operation Shylock, Roth complicates what could merely be simple. With Roth, we’re always being poked narratively far deeper into even the most mundane surface (this is rather euphemistically, being pushed deeper into shit, shall we say). Here’s an example in a bit on Apter:

My tiny cousin Apter, the unborn adult, earns his living painting scenes of the Holy Land for the tourist trade. He sells them from a little workshop--squeezed between a souvenir stall and a pastry counter--that he shares with a leather craftsman in the Jewish quarter of the Old City. Tourists who ask his prices are answered in their native tongues, for Apter, however underdeveloped as a man, happens to be someone whose past has left him fluent in English, Hebrew, Yiddish, Polish, Russian, and German. He even knows some Ukrainian, the language he calls Goyish. What the tourists are told when they ask Apter’s prices is, “This is not for me to decide”--a sentiment that, unfortunately, is not humbly feigned: Apter is too cultivated to think well of his pictures. “I, who love Cezanne, who weep and pray before his paintings, I paint like a philistine without any ideals.” “Of their kind,” I tell him, “they’re perfectly all right.” “Why such terrible pictures?” he asks--“Is this too Hitler’s fault?”  “If it’s any comfort to you, Hitler painted worse.” “No,” says Apter, “I’ve seen his pictures. Even Hitler painted better than I do.”

Roth expands a narrative with telling anecdote: it reveals, like good dialogue of which it is only one component--the subtext, and enriches the whole.

Yet Roth achieves all of this without reverting, necessarily, to any outlandish “voice” or device. The language is relatively straightforward; his ability to bring the complexity to the fore makes it compelling.

An aspect of Roth’s first person is that the narrator isn’t solely focused on himself; the first person point of view manages to invoke the personalities of the other characters through dialogue, and their behaviors, their descriptions, as well as when he or she makes pithy observations about them. It’s as if the first person narrator is  putting himself in the background. The “I” never calls excessive attention to itself; in the dynamics of plot, the “I” never overshadows.

Joshua Cohen in The Book of Numbers, utilizes a similar theme of the double while using the first person point of view.  Cohen strains at this, at times. An extended reading is both necessary in order to get him--in essence, to learn how to read him--and to begin to get into the flow of the writing. His nerve, audacity, wordplay and storytelling is both exciting and infuriating, simultaneously. But then there is the question of length (the novel tops out at 580 pages); at some point, the reader has to come up for air. Cohen risks alienating a casual reader. There’s too many verbal tics, the use of onomatopoeia, the coinage of words and phrases. I might be an ideal reader for Cohen, but I’m in danger of feeling alienated. Nonetheless, Cohen is always an interesting writer, one of the most interesting young writers today.

Roth is working within an invented satire. Though he is often addressing serious matters, he’s also going for comedy. It doesn’t always work. There’s often a drawn out quality--which is part of the satire, an over the top quality--in some of the scenes. These are relieved often enough by a shift in the scene, or a jump to another scene. I found some of the conversations with Aharon Appelfeld to be seminars in that writer’s work, and far more verbiage is spent on these encomiums than seems necessary or useful to the novel.

In its exuberance, Roth’s novel is not exempt from criticism. It can be  wordy and somewhat excessive; it’s not perfect. First person always forces the author to speak, by design, almost constantly. I’m reminded of ways of evasion, such as DeLillo does in Great Jones Street--a not wholly successful first person narrative. This evasion is one way of escape that a first person narrator can use to avoid the “I”; essentially, this is to talk about everything but oneself. In some way, this is also a strategy Roth uses, though in DeLillo’s novel, the gesture is far more deliberate and part of that character’s enigma. Perhaps because the story in Great Jones Street is about the mysterious actions of the protagonist--with nothing more than his anti-heroic thoughts and curious acts to inform us. 

Though I find writing first person initially limiting, I’m not convinced that it has to be. Roth, bears this out, exploring so many high absurd scenarios--and Cohen, too--though Roth relies on more variety of voices, through dialogue. I think the example does not have to limit the writing of first person to absurdity and humor strictly speaking; there’s as much opportunity to use these techniques in a more nuanced work. Still, there is somewhat of a temptation to go for the humor jugular, in a sardonic way, but the writer should beware of overkill. Perhaps we have moved into a time when the limitations that seemed intrinsic to first person point of view are rife for overturning.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

A Variation on the Writing Path: Part II: The MFA

You may never feel like a real writer until someone gives you that first resounding acceptance, and requests your work for their journal. At least I never did. In my time at grad school, I had a few publishing nibbles that somehow convinced me to never give up. But ultimately, I lived in the convincing bliss--and still do--that there is something worthwhile in the act of writing.

In regard to having a career in writing, I got minimal support from my advisors at Goddard. If anything, this wasn’t even a consideration. It’s as if there is an unwritten rule that everyone pursues an MFA to become a working writer, but no one talks about it. This seemed particularly true at Goddard. In fact, if there’s one thing you sacrifice for going to a lauded school that no one seems to regard enough, it’s that you may come away from it lacking in the knowledge you might find most useful. The awful thing is you won’t realize this until it’s too late. The real world experience you get from just writing is about all you can count on.

I probably could have done more at the time I was in school, but no one provided any encouragement or direction, and I didn’t have a clue. I don’t blame myself for my naivete, because even when I managed to ask for guidance, I received stern resistance, as if my enthusiasm turned them off. This is perhaps not so surprising. These advisors were just struggling writers like we all aspired to be, most with a few modestly published books from obscure presses. I got the sense that none of them wanted us students to venture into their hallowed halls; we acted like they all had some secret society to protect, and they never disabused us of the notion.

I used to staunchly defend Goddard against this shortsightedness, but the truth is, I’d advise anyone to not go there unless she has exceptional self motivation. Almost ten years out, I only know of a handful of my classmates that are still writing (I’m referring primarily to the fiction writers). I would be curious to see the statistics on post MFAs in creative writing who are still actively pursuing that dream. Unfortunately, it can seem as elusive as that, pursuing a dream. I’ve also lost touch with most of my classmates--perhaps a reality of the long distance so many end up traveling to attend a low residency program.

I didn’t go to Goddard for a career, exactly. I wanted to get the training and instruction of an MFA in order to become a better writer. I can honestly say at the time I applied, I was desperate to get my foot in the writing door, and Goddard’s program looked appealing.

Since then, I’ve pursued literary journals, publishers, and agents in the face of often daunting indifference. That I’ve managed to eke out a writing practice is more a testament to my perseverance--I would be hard pressed to give much credit to anyone else. I’m always curious about these young writers whose debut novels or story collections have three pages of acknowledgements, as if it takes a village to make a writer. I suppose it does require one to produce a book, and then when the blurbs are given out, more names to thank again.

Several years on from my MFA, I have begun to find some support and encouragement from a community outside of Goddard. Yet even this has the taint for me of feeling unnatural, even contrary to its purpose. I’m still looking for a way to establish my presence in the proverbial community of writers. The village isn’t on any map.

No matter my gripes about Goddard, I am almost certain I would have felt far less comfortable in any other program. I made do with its peculiar limitations. I should stress that the work was not easy, but it was rewarding and worthwhile. After the initial struggle, I became adept. I was eager--maybe too eager for my advisors’ modest expectations. But I learned how to read critically there, and how to apply what I was reading to the enrichment of my own creative work. This was useful for me in eventually writing reviews. This is what I made of the program for myself. I could have done it more easily if I had wanted; I chose to push myself. I had to overcome my own limitations to stay on top of the reading and writing. It was like riding a wave in shark infested waters for two years; though you might lose your balance a few times, you never fell off.

In this regard, I don’t mean to sell short Goddard; I actually loved my advisors there, who instilled in me my practice. I still write regularly, which is usually daily. Without question, it is an important part of my life. I can’t even keep up with all of the new material I generate, though unlike Vollmann, I don’t have the wherewithal to get it all between covers--though I’m sure I wouldn’t even if I could.

Writing is one of the most self contenting vocations because it creates its own projects, its own problems, its own momentum. That is, before or after you strip away the sense of humiliating slights, the chronic rejection, the crippling envy. Even in spite of these difficulties, it can be practiced without much to impinge from the outside world. I was thinking today why I do any of it: why work so determinedly on a fifth novel when the first four may never see the light of day? I don’t know if you need to have an audience--but it is nice on occasion. Just the fact that I’m writing this somewhat intimate confessional on a blog gives me the sense that it will reach a few interested readers. As for the novel du jour and the hard hours of obscure toil that go into it, there’s a small hope for its discovery by someone other than myself. Who doesn’t want the rewards of a celebrated work?

One certainty: no two writers follow the same path. Although I can say that I got serious about writing when I decided to pursue my MFA, I had expected the completion of the degree to make the choice of writing as a vocation a bit more comfortable, more conducive to my aspirations; looking back, it’s been anything but that. 

Interested in reading Part I? Check it out here.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Are there literary uses for boredom?

I’ve read innumerable novels and stories that have slowly and surely bored me to where I was ready to hurl the book through a window just to get it as far away from me as possible. I’ve read recently a number of novels that have been selected for prize shortlists--which would seem to remove them from running in the boredom contest. Instead, I found myself wondering: what defines when a work is boring? The impetus of this question was the prompt in the New York Times Bookends: “Are There Literary Uses for Boredom?”

After a reasonable amount of soul searching, I’ve decided that boredom as a concept is so complex and subjective that an attempt to define it is impossible. So how do I negotiate a concept that I have spent years of my writing practice trying to avoid? Like any writer, I write first for myself, believing, in this way, that I am also writing for an ideal reader, one whom I suspect like me has an interest in what I’m writing and hopes to not be put asleep by it.

One literary use of boredom would be if the writer wasn’t interested in having readers. I’ve made a cardinal virtue of elevating and echoing any number of practitioners of fiction writing who suggest, in more or less these words--always be interesting. Part of what drives me is the process of writing, which involves re-writing, editing, and often writing again, when what you have written fails to excite. In a longer work, a novel or a story, you hope you don’t become bored; if you do, no doubt so will a reader. And if you are re-reading as much as necessary to get a novel into shape, you’ll know by the second or third draft if it’s irredeemably boring, or you should be able to recognize it. If anything, the activity of re-reading your work until you get it right is potentially a boring part of writing; after multiple reads, the newness wears off. But this also might be where the nuance, the stuff that surprises and makes you want to read--and write--further, comes in. In fact, this may be what has led to the proliferation of shorter and shorter forms for writing fiction: it’s hard to be bored with a piece of writing when you don’t have enough time to get bored.

For a number of so-called popular works, it strikes me that the authors aren’t aware that their work may be boring, or, if they are aware of it, they do not care. Maybe they don’t have to care and legions of readers will read them because of their name and reputation. Of course, it stands that they are in jeopardy of damaging that reputation if they ignore this factor.

Many difficult books are known to be tedious--but these works have managed to enter the canon, and doubtless a consciously boring work might never have a chance of exciting the readers of its time, no matter what one’s opinion of Moby Dick, or Ulysses, may be. And admittedly, there were a few boring parts in Ulysses, which I made myself read just to acknowledge I’d read it all. Joyce was said to have sprinkled enough breadcrumbs through his work to keep scholars busy for years. Was he so assured of his readership--and his longevity for that matter? Was his hubris from the certainty of his success in the past, and his stature? If he’d never been read this would be a moot point.
To ask if there are literary uses for boredom might also imply that worthwhile, difficult books are ultimately boring. Maybe the boredom comes in when we as readers are not up to the challenge the writer puts forth. Then again, there is a certain amount of second guessing as to whether a work is boring, or simply difficult. If the writer put the time into making a work of complex art, they might also want to be sure that it is read. Difficult and not boring are not mutually exclusive.

There are also works that aim to be merely entertainment, and a lot of the time these are unreadable because they are frankly, not very stimulating. I suspect these writers dumb their work down so much that it becomes boring, as if it seems necessary to lead the reader along without any work to do. On the other hand, it may not be that difficult to write something that is, essentially, boring.

Because reading is an activity, it takes effort to overcome if the act becomes boring. So no doubt that a “difficult” book would be considered, boring. Perhaps if one is bored with work they are reading, it might be worth asking, is it the reader, or the writer? Often, the difficult part of such a work, the intellectual challenges within, is what makes it enjoyable. Certainly I’d prefer if it were also somehow enjoyable to read in the process. So are there shades of boredom in the activity of reading? Does it come down to the use of language, the words on the page, or merely subject matter, or is it a broad combination of factors? Boredom is subjective.

I think the New York Times Bookends question might have been asked in light of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s successful memoir My Struggle, since so many have written about the Norwegian phenomenon, and how he can effortlessly write a single unrelieved scene for fifty or more pages. The criticism leveled is that this must be boring to the reader; at the very least, the idea of a fifty page scene might sound boring to the general reader. But even in the long digressions and passages I never found Knausgaard to be boring. Because it’s one thing to suggest that a concept is boring to a reader, and it’s another to write a very detailed, and compelling scene that can maintain narrative drive for fifty pages.

The number of times I have tried and failed to finish boring books lately makes me think this is my problem. Maybe I’m just bored easily.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Guest blog post up at Superstition [Review]

The Literary is fast approaching seven years old in August. When Superstition Review asked me to write a guest blog post, I was given carte blanche to write about anything I wanted. After four fits and starts, some of which made more sense in a different context, I hit on a novel idea. In honor of the seven year itch, I decided to write about--this blog. That piece, "From Journal into Blog: Seven Years of Writing on Writing", is available hereBut this brings up something more important I want to say.

In the ten plus years that I have attempted to craft words, I have never found so welcoming and encouraging a literary journal as Superstition Review. First of all, they saved from mild obscurity a story that had made the rounds so many times it was like a bad date you keep reminding yourself to forget (though I remind myself, this had nothing to do with its merit as a short story). And after it resurfaced, I realized that yes, I still love that story as I love a little all of my stories, long after they’ve been published and more or less forgotten. Then S[R] allowed me--asked me if I was interested, rather--to sit and promote my novel at their table during AWP in Minneapolis this past April. And finally, they asked for a guest blog post! Great folks.

So, I’m extremely grateful to Trish Murphy and the staff at Superstition Review--check out the photo from AWP, above.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

A Variation on the Writing Path: Part I

When I first began writing, on my own, with no teachers, no schools, no resources other than the friends I gave pages of carefully formatted prose to, I didn’t know even the tip of the iceberg when it came to the business of writing. In fact, it might be said that finding the resources for tapping into this information were scarce. This has been nearly 25 years ago. It’s often a wonder to me that, coming as far as I have, there are young writers starting out now who have all of these resources at their fingertips thanks to the internet. The writer’s path is much more deliberate now if you choose it, since writing has essentially become popularized, a desired career in itself, though the irony is of course, in order to really excel at it, it requires hours of solitude and discipline, commodities that would seem to be lacking in the culture that so fetishizes the writer as the kind of ultimate creative force. In other words, so many taking part in it seem to be heavily versed and immersed in the social media that invokes this conversation, that I begin to wonder--how do these people actually put any time in for writing? (The truth of this of course is that a writer doesn’t normally spend their allotted time--be it 8 hours a day or more if they are fortunate or supported, by writing--at writing; though social media, even if I were a full time writer, would still be a draining time suck to me).

I didn’t begin sending workout until probably ten years ago, already well a decade into my pursuit of writing; I’m not sure I even knew or understood before then that this was a regular thing that aspiring writers such as myself should or could do. Maybe part of this was really fear of rejection, though I genuinely think I had no concept that you would simply write a story and submit it to one of dozens, if not hundreds, of journals (now it is accurate to say, thousands, as there must be this many markets out there). If I scratch the surface, I might have erroneously believed that any fiction, like journalism and essay writing, was solicited. On the other hand, I’m not certain I had any familiarity with literary journals. I do remember my writing group talking about one of our members being “ready to send a story around.” I recall a distinct feeling of, “How dare he? That work isn’t worthwhile.” Or, at seeing the kind of hand made xeroxed “journal” they were in, I didn’t want anything to do with it. I’m sure I knew of institutions like the Paris Review, but again, I assumed anyone who wrote for them was approached by an editor and commissioned, possibly. So again, my pre-1997 approach to a literary market place was to imagine it as an off limits, almost hallowed place that for some reason I didn’t feel I was worthy of. As much as I began writing short fiction as a piece I might submit--and because it fit the writing group aesthetic--I’m not sure I was interested in it as much as I was a novel I’d been working on for years, which was known as Passenger. I was geared toward being a novelist, though one who had no apparent connection to the outside world (!).

When I applied to the top five or six graduate programs for an MFA in creative writing in ‘97, I remember being miffed by the letter from Brown University. It had said something like, “Most of our applicants have established themselves through publication in literary journals…” and my feeling then was, frankly, f___ you, Brown. Though the writing was, essentially, in the letter, it would still be a few years--at least seven--until I finally began to send work out to literary journals. This would only happen after moving to San Francisco, bathing in the light of the burgeoning writing community, amoebic and otherwise, that was suddenly, everywhere. Zyzzyva was one of the prominent journals I knew of--I’d picked up discarded copies at the local thrift store and pored over the work Vollmann had in them. Also, my boss had played on a softball team with Howard Junker in the seventies; he had encouraged me to send Junker stuff, calling his number at work and telling him I was going to do so. All I ever received were rejections with “Onward” on them. (Zyzzyva, by the way, has really become an elitist establishment literary journal since Junker left; their objective is to be a NY-arriviste-centric publication, or maybe another hyphen to add is--Bay Area elitist.)

Soon, I took a writing class or two at U.C. Berkeley Extension, with the hopes of applying again. I applied for the Stegner after learning about it from reading Stephen Elliott, and of course, I pursued the top programs again. After this, my second failed attempt at grad school applications, something must have clicked. I took a writing class at the Writer’s Salon with the wonderfully encouraging Linda Watanabe McFerrin, and thereafter, I began to submit my work to journals whose names were coming up among fellow writers. Now, to be shamefully honest, I only took the class because I wanted and needed someone to write me a letter of recommendation. Miraculously, or because I had genuinely showed promise, I asked Linda for this on the second class meeting, and she was happy to do it for me. But again, I was already looking down the road before I’d even had the tools to get my vehicle there. This time, saying to hell with my elitist aspirations, I applied to Goddard, a low residency program in Vermont, and got in. I was ecstatic.

Now, you’d have to be living under a rock, or perhaps on Mars, to not recognize the vastness of literary culture that is pervasive in 2015. I think it can make people who are not familiar with it or not all that interested in literature imagine it as a career or vocation that is readily available to anyone should they so desire it. And the culture itself doesn’t help to dispel this mythology, making genius writers of everyone from a promiscuous geriatric memoirist writing about her year of abandon, to an autistic child writing inspirational self-help.

Interested in reading Part II: The MFA? Check it out here.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

The Life of Reading

I recently finished volume four of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s beguiling and satisfying My Struggle. I was reluctant to get to the end, feeling the immense, possibly false affinity that I get as a reader, believing I’ve found a friend in the writer. (It didn’t help that I pitched him my novel when he was at City Arts and Lectures, and he graciously heard me out.) Eventually, I had to finish the book. But what I realized is that, while reading My Struggle, I had no desire to read anything else.

Now I’m in that strange predicament of looking for another book to whet my reading appetite, and am randomly reading five books at the same time because I cannot entirely give myself over to one as I sort of like them all a bit, and am still unsure where I stand with any one of them. I find myself in that space a lot, probably because there isn’t one book I am wrapped up in. In fact, I’d say I usually read several books at one time, as if a model of my mind and thought process. If a book is good enough, I’ll make the time to read.

I find it hard to just read any book--the time and usefulness trade off is too considerable for me--though I know a lot of people on Goodreads and such that seem to read a lot and varied and widely. I guess I just trust that everyone reads all of the books they claim to read as they indicate on social media, but perhaps this is a facade. I have a hard time not being honest about what I have or have not read (Ulysses: read; Infinite Jest: 4/5ths read; Magic Mountain: One third read; Moby Dick: read; The Brothers Karamazov: half read) Did I read enough of these novels, or do I intend to finish them some day? There’s something of a moral complacency I feel, as a serious writer and reader, by copping out as I must have, and probably will, on so much of my serious literary fiction reading. And then there is the question of which unread masterworks I still, one day, intend to read.

I don’t usually give up. In the case of many of those aforementioned books, I began reading them years ago, and it was years ago when I stopped reading them. My tendency is to find a reason to finish a book: guilt, having to review it (or wanting to), or simply because I like it. Maybe I would be more equipped to see them through to the end, now--or maybe not.

Much of the time I’m doing wide reading hoping one of the books will catch on, though because I’m reading fiction and non-fiction simultaneously, much of what I choose to read then is based on my mood. If these five books I’m considering now had the Knausgaard magic, I’d love them, too. The odd thing is that My Struggle is comprised of 450 page volumes, of which I’ve read four. I can’t quite get through any of the other long works I have had on my night table for awhile (Murakami’s 1Q84 and Vollmann’s Imperial, though I dip into them occasionally.)

I’ve also made a habit of reading toward reviewing, and so I gravitate toward books under 150 pages since I can probably read them reasonably fast. Also, if I am to review it, I will read it right away, even if this means forcing myself to finish it, which might mean that the book is a slog, and thus I probably shouldn’t review it. I usually won’t review it then if I can help it, because somewhere along the line I decided if I can’t say anything nice about a book, I shouldn’t say anything at all. I’m actually wondering if I should reconsider this approach.

When I solicited a number of name authors who I’ve had glancing acquaintance with (which might be considered low level stalking) to read my novel ImpossibleLives of Basher Thomas, in the hopes of getting them to blurb it, they all said one of three things. Either a.) they didn’t read other writers’ work for the purpose of blurbing; b.) they only read their students’ work; c.) they were too busy, etcetera. I got the distinct sense that, having not heard of me, or not remembering me, rather, they were afraid of reading execrable work. So they nip it in the bud. As it is, I happened to have read much of these writers’ work, so in some way, you’d think they might have been willing to humor me, but alas, no.

I’m not one to be given recommendations to, and in this I take heed when I try to recommend a book to someone. I’ll only recommend a book if asked, usually, and then I tend to pile on caveats. I somehow don’t want to be responsible for someone’s bad reading experience--though if that reading experience is good, I’ll gladly take credit. There are some people I naturally can suggest books to, possibly because I’ve had success getting them to read a book I recommended (and they, either truthfully or just playing along, loved it too.) The last book I recommended to so many people was David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. Even with that book, I came to feel I suggested it to a few too many people who were not prepared to read a 500 page novel, and couldn’t appreciate the language and story, among dozens of other possible reasons why I liked it so much. There are some friends who have read so much and in such synchronicity with me and my reading, that I might take their recommendations--or used to--without question. Now I’m so selective that I just rely on my gut and a strong sniff test. There are some people who recommend heartily to me a book, going so far as to give me a copy, and rare is the occasion when I will actually crack the thing open and read it. There’s some guilt in not reading it, but not too much. I’m usually already busy reading several other books.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Getting Out of My Own Way: A Note About Hubris vs. Perseverance

For the longest time, though I desperately wanted to be a writer, I was convinced that I was incapable. It took me a ridiculously long time to prove to anyone that this wasn’t true.

Many years ago, in Chicago, my first writing gig was reviewing books for a popular weekly. Somehow I had the confidence to land this plum position, which possibly could have led to a career. But I had no sense how to foster my small corner of literary real estate.

I’ll skip ahead here to when my first piece appeared, and I nervously flipped pages through the weekly to find it, and almost as quickly, my heart sank.

I was so angry I couldn’t see straight.

In the tradition for writers everywhere, I faced the great indignation of having my work messed with by an editor.

That same afternoon while at my day job (unrelated to writing), I phoned this editor--I’ll call him Sam--to argue the deconstruction done to my four hundred word review. As my voice got louder, I drew curious daggers from co-workers. I was convinced Sam had it in for me, attacking me through my work--as if he had nothing better to do. Annoyed with me, he explained how out of line I was and hung up.

A few weeks later I was surprised when Sam included me in his e-mail list of prospective reviewers, of which several were well known local authors. This must have been a mistake. Seeing my name in that email made me feel . . . humiliated. Realizing I had oversold my ability, I never followed up. My writing career seemed finished as fast as it had begun.

In the long look back, it’s a wonder that I managed to continue with writing.

This was around the same time I had weekly confrontations with a writing group that bedeviled me about my meager grasp of fundamentals.

Up until that point, I had written little more than some passionate journal scribblings about books I loved, pieces that wouldn’t cohere, and a floundering novel, as well as a handful of fragments that I’d tried to anneal into stories, or had installed like garish set pieces into my lumpy novel; I had published nothing. So when I got the job, I was overjoyed that an editor was willing to take me on--it must have meant I was a writer.

Before that fateful review, I knew nothing of how to organize a piece of writing, how to bring it under control, let alone how to edit. It’s fair to say crafting a piece of writing was an unknowable, alchemical process that I would have to spend years at, before I could appreciate, in retrospect, the triage done to my work. My writing then was in that precious stage where allowing anyone to touch it was an affront to my creative sensibility. I’d prided myself on my iconoclasm, but I was merely driven by naive hubris. I wanted to be published as a sign of legitimacy, so that I could say, “I’m a writer”; clearly, getting published came about twelve steps too soon.

I still find it astounding that I was cavalier in the face of an editor who had tried to give me a break. Mostly I’m humbled at my younger self’s willingness to put himself into a strange trial by fire before he’d even understood the ground rules. It’s hard not to think that this job could have helped me get further along, sooner, had I not retreated so quickly.

What that humiliation did was forced me to overcome all of the voices telling me (including my own) that I couldn’t do it. Perhaps I was afraid I could not improve, and then I’d eventually be rejected by the next editor. Maybe I was convinced that I couldn’t write, and I was letting my earnest attempt--because it was earnest--become a foregone conclusion.

Those years between that first writing assignment, and when I decided to really get serious about writing, was a necessary interregnum.

One point was clear: if I really did want to be a writer, I was going to have to learn the rules if I wanted to break them. No more could I rest on the assumed laurels of my journal writing. I would have to prove myself every time I put my work out for a reader, be it someone in my writing group, an advisor, or an unknown editor.

It was only after I began to listen and understand about what needed to change that I improved, and in that time I gained the confidence to start sending out my fiction to literary journals. Sending work out meant facing inevitable rejection--many many rejections. I once had a goal of getting 100 rejections and then I was going to celebrate. I got so busy sending work out that I forgot to celebrate. But I did, eventually, get published. In the years since, I’ve received encouraging recognition along the way, and publishing has occurred almost as a matter of course. Certainly, getting published offers a frisson of satisfaction that can have a long term positive effects, but I see my earlier expectations differently, now. The reality is, I wasn’t ready when I landed that gig. I needed years of practice before I could understand that you have to put in the time and effort to become a writer.

Writing is about writing. Doing the work: completing a draft of a story, or a novel, so that I can go back and revise it. It’s about perseverance in the face of rejection and indifference.

Because I have persevered, writing, the hard work and years of commitment, have gotten me closer to where I wanted to be when I couldn’t have even imagined it was possible. Small irony--perseverance is one of the lessons I learned from writing. That I stuck with it and eventually did get my work published, can sometimes still seem to me a miracle.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

"Anger Management" New Experimental Fiction at (ĕm)

My experimental short fiction, "Anger Management", leads off issue #3 of (ĕm): A Review of Text and Image, which can be downloaded as a free PDF from their library. Thanks to my fellow contributors to this terrific magazine, and to editor Jim Miller.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

My Review of Jacob M. Appel's Einstein's Beach House

My review of Jacob M. Appel's short story collection Einstein's Beach House is up at Nomadic Press. I first discovered Mr. Appel's work when I began submitting my own efforts many years ago--and found his terrific stories published in nearly every journal I came across. So I was intrigued to finally get to review one of his outstanding collections. Check out the review here at Nomadic Press.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Wide Ranging Interview with Robert Detman at Wisdom of the West

Many thanks to generous fellow blogger Jim at Wisdom of the West, who over the years has left insightful comments on items in this blog. Jim is publishing a serial interview with me about my novel, Impossible Lives of Basher Thomas. This complete interview is available here. The interview took place last month, and covers a variety of items, mainly concerned with character development, themes in the novel, politics in literary production, and the curious question of whether a reader should like or find a protagonist sympathetic.
Here's the introduction to "The Detman Files".
Here's part 1 of the interview.
Part 2.
Part 3 completes the interview.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Rave Review of IMPOSSIBLE LIVES OF BASHER THOMAS from Nomadic Press

Nomadic Press has provided a rave review for Impossible Lives of Basher Thomas:

This is a novel that will stick with you because of its poetical means of exploring the human condition and Detman’s uncanny ability to weave beautiful, and haunting, imagery.

Full review here:

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Review of Nell Zink's The Wallcreeper at Nomadic Press

The terrific Nomadic Press and editor J.K. Fowler have published my irrepressible review of Nell Zink's charming The Wallcreeper, in the reading of which I learned more about bird watching than I ever thought possible.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Publishers Weekly's glowing assessment of IMPOSSIBLE LIVES OF BASHER THOMAS a novel by Robert Detman

Here, in its entirety, is the review from PUBLISHERS WEEKLY on the novel:

"Detman pulls together various forms and styles in an ambitious novel composed of transcripts, letters, and footnotes, told in sharp prose. On August 17, 1982, renowned photojournalist Nathan “Basher” Thomas is fatally shot. Decades later, Harry Ogletree, one of Basher’s closest friends, decides to write a screenplay about the murder. Harry visits Basher’s mother to speak with her about the project and collect a box of Basher’s personal effects. The contents of the box spur recollections of a road trip across the Mexican Baja peninsula, arguments in Michigan, and drug abuse in Paris, and also provide insight into Basher’s death. Harry follows these clues to Rancho Nacon, a mysterious Guatemalan jungle villa with an enigmatic caretaker. On his pilgrimage, Harry hopes the people he questions and memories he uncovers will help to deconstruct the mystery of Basher Thomas. Because of the book’s unconventional structure, the narrative is fragmented. Although the disjointedness complements Harry’s fractured search for information and meaning, the story’s momentum is often slowed by passages that are needed to prevent confusion and explain earlier elements of the novel. The best scenes focus on the intimate details and relationships between the characters. Detman’s stylistic choices succeed in the moments when Harry’s memories and Basher’s documents blur into the present, layering various methods of storytelling to create a fresh and intriguing work." 

Please help me out and go to the link, link back, tweet, and like. 

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Free giveaway of IMPOSSIBLE LIVES OF BASHER THOMAS a novel by Robert Detman


Doing a free giveaway here. For the first five people who contact me, (contact info available on this site) I'll send you a copy of IMPOSSIBLE LIVES OF BASHER THOMAS, my novel, which has received the following glowing praise from Publishers Weekly:

“An ambitious novel…layering various methods of storytelling to create a fresh and intriguing work.”

You just have to follow these instructions: Tweet my blog and provide a link to this website, also to @literarydetman with the hashtag #ILoBT and then let me know.

I'll have to get your contact information, but I'll have copies sent out as soon as I receive them from the printer. It may take a few weeks!

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Another orphan finds a home: Superstition [Review] publishes "Fire"

The estimable Superstition [Review] has selected for publication my short story "Fire." This long forgotten gem, many times altered inextricably from its origins and almost as many times re-titled (formerly known as "Double Kayak"), once went toe to toe with a dozen or more challengers as a finalist for the 2008 New Letters Literary Awards. Goes live December 4th.

Friday, October 31, 2014

On having to explain one’s work (or that dumbing down logic)

There is the idea that, as an artist, you should not have to explain your work. If there’s any need to explain, it seems to highlight some idea of there being a flaw in the work. If I attempt to explain my work, which I often feel compelled to do, it is usually out of a sense that the work will be misunderstood. Or it is just as much to alert an unsuspecting reader that this may not be what you expect. And since I think I can assume a number of folks who will feel compelled or curious to read Impossible Lives of Basher Thomas don’t normally read novels to begin with, I feel as if I have to brace myself for the impact of their eventual failure to get it--if there’s anything to “get.”

Thus when I asked Ben Marcus that question (, it was because I wanted to know if he ever felt a need to explain his work. Do I note a bit of tetchy sarcasm in Mr. Marcus’s response, as if I’m acknowledging what he is all too aware of? A lot of casual readers will probably not understand his work. This will continue as he tries to become a more mainstream author. If you are notoriously difficult, you can get shuffled into that gray zone: the experimental folks don’t think you are that cutting edge, and the realist folks find you too abstruse. David Foster Wallace, who would seem to require a lot of explanation, often gets a pass, and gets picked up probably as fast as he’s eventually put down by those readers in search of something new to read. And I’m not sure his explanations were any easier to understand than the work itself.

Not to say my predicament is anywhere near what Beckett might have faced, but for him, the necessity to not have had to explain seems paramount. His writing is hardly accessible. Then there is the curiosity of those who hear you expound on this (favorite) difficult author. Inevitably they turn to you, seeking explanation; explication. And in such situations I feel the onus of literature’s great, myriad, plainly inexplicable project that, rather than having one easily consumed and digestible nugget, is rather a project for a lifetime’s study. But no one seems to know this, or thinks it, particularly when they find something not conforming to their preconceived, even received, notions of literature. I can’t help you, I often want to say, as if committing my approval of a difficult writer’s work then requires me to become the village explainer.

There have been moments of panic, while editing Impossible Lives, that I might need to dumb things down a bit, or at least go further to make explicit why I have written it the way I have. But this is not to say Impossible Lives is so difficult or esoteric that it won’t be understood. When I’ve accomplished anything worthwhile, it’s often because I realized I’ve not had to please anyone but myself. This seems to me the exact opposite of the impulse that the agents and editors of the mega-conglomorate publishing-opoly would require of me. I would never be happy with my work being turned into, essentially, the equivalent of a ken doll. 

This points to the wonderful freedom of writing short fiction, where that dumbing down by others doesn’t usually apply. I think that the nature of short work gives a creative writer wide latitude because, if any publisher wants to consider it, they can read it in a sitting and grasp the whole of it quite readily. Editors are rarely going to come back to you with a ridiculous list of what you could do to your 500 or 1000 or even 3000 word story so that they will consider it. Rather, they take it or they do not. And when it comes to submitting a story, no explanation is required. No synopsis. No handy comparisons to similar works. Try getting a novel read like that. After submitting a short story, you might get a few editing suggestions, but they’re never on the level of fundamentally rewriting what you’ve already written. You’d never bother, if you are wise, and neither would they. Whereas with a novel, in the dumbing down logic, and with considerations by the marketing machine of a large publishing house, where they are literally banking on you, you would have dozens of lame opinions geared toward marketing. I take this information from the piece in Poets & Writers, “A Day in the Life of a Publishing House” (Vol. 42, Issue 5). Who hasn’t read one of these novels that’s been generated from some humble author’s work and found it to be exactly what it reads like: a mess, a neutered hodgepodge?

In other words, the first thing that happens if your novel has been anointed for publishing by the biggies is a disrespect of your work, which, if you want it to be published, you will accept. I can’t think of anything I’m more fundamentally and violently opposed to.

I will continue to read books put out by the industry heavyweights, only too aware how often the quality is off base. Like many readers, I’m a sucker for the hype. I usually need to read the hyped novel for myself to find out what’s so great about the next big thing. I came to Knausgaard early, purely out of curiosity and before there was any hype; now of course, the speculation runs rampant about this work and its quality. I found it eminently compelling, while I cannot say the same of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch. It was merely ok, even passable, but it’s hard not to feel like the hype is usually misplaced for so many name writers (add Murakami and Junot Diaz to the list). Much of what’s hyped in the mainstream feels steeped in a narrow mind-set and for me isn’t, in fact, strange enough.

As an avid reader, you know what you like and maybe even why, so invariably you take a chance on a hyped to death work, because you’ll never know unless you look into it. It’s easier to believe a lot of these established writers aren’t being guided by the editorial teams of their publishing houses, though the same probably can’t be said for the marketing department; you can be sure said author’s next work will be promoted as the “revolution of the novel” or whatever.

At least I can say, Impossible Lives is as pure a vision of its original intent as intended. I should not have to explain myself further.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Guerilla Marketing V 2.0

Almost without exception, everyone in publishing speaks of marketing and selling a book in terms that are, let’s be honest, anathema to most creative writers. The fact is, I doubt very much my fictional works are going to give you anything of value. I’ll go further and suggest that they are going to cost you time and maybe some small expenditure of money, and, in the worst extreme, if you despise the thing, I’ll have earned your wrath. You will only grow richer in terms of getting whatever value I might have imbued in the novel, however that is possible. I will go even further and say what most of the writers who attempt to heed sage marketing advice do not say, that my writing is basically a selfish endeavor. But I have always tried to write what I find interesting—and hope the reader also finds it worthwhile.

So it is that a writer pursues the dream, humbled by a bunch of publications under my belt, and almost always surprised when I can come up with something to say that I can put down with the ease and freedom I don’t take lightly, onto the web where possibly one or 1000 people might read it. At times I wonder, would Thoreau have had a blog? Tolstoy? Barthes? Most definitely. Ignoring the myriad technical questions such a thought implies.

Because of the ease and speed of the internet, the volume of written stuff must have grown exponentially each year in the last fifteen or so, to where I can now be reasonably assured that, because there are so many people attempting to put out their little darlings--which might be better off dying gentle suffocating deaths in file cabinets everywhere--that few, if any, will read mine. I have made some peace with it, possibly by having taken the matter into my own hands. Still, in the effort to drum up some old fashioned, even arcane technology for my own marketing campaign, I have produced a bookmark which I began distributing this past few weekends in a couple of bookstores in Los Angeles, and a bunch in the Bay Area. In L.A.: The Skylight Books staffer was kind enough to stick a stack on the gimme counter, among a variety of Xeroxed flyers and such—I’m relying on the appeal of the ubiquitous book mark presence—its utility, its necessity, its minor novelty. At Booksoup, I was told by the manager that “We have no room for them.” In most cases, booksellers were more than happy to allow me to leave a stack (which they may have left on the counter—though in some cases, I saw they were putting them in the gimme card section). Still, any visibility was good to me. Will this have any impact on the target audience for such a work of fiction as Impossible Lives of Basher Thomas? I’ll admit I have faith in my own ability to produce a graphically striking, hopefully iconic, book cover, because I couldn’t think of anything else, other than bombarding unsuspecting individuals in my e-mail address book and potentially wiping any good karma I might have established by resisting such “Ten things you must do to get your book sold,” tactics in the past. My method relies on a personal approach which I’m still not entirely at ease with, though I know I should be.

For anyone who wishes to purchase a copy of Impossible Lives of Basher Thomas, I am offering it at a discount of 25% ($12.64 after taxes and shipping). Just click on the buy button below the cover image at left. I will ship orders as soon as I receive them from the printer. Also, through Goodreads, I'm doing a giveaway campaign, also at the left.