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.

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.

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: http://www.nomadicpress.org/reviews/impossiblelivesofbasherthomas

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 (http://robertmdetman.blogspot.com/2014/10/ben-marcus-responds-to-my-question-on.html), 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.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Ben Marcus Responds to My Question on Goodreads

Ben Marcus answered your question
As a writer who writes in a great tradition of the more esoteric and experimental vein of fiction, how do you explain your work to people who probably will not understand it (when they read it), or to those that you can be certain will not understand it?
I don't. That way no one gets killed, no one is harmed, no one grows sad or uncomfortable. I don't think I can assist understanding, or enjoyment, with some magic sentence or two.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Girl with Curious Hair: On David Foster Wallace as Storyteller

David Foster Wallace never seemed to care if a reader engaged with his writing or not. So much of his work seemed to strive for clever performance at the expense of readability, shunning those willing to go along for the ride.

There’s a sense Wallace was writing for himself, and in retrospect, we now read his work and see in it the construction of the edifice of DFW. It is a façade: how much of the criticism of DFW is just cutting through to all of the talk that surrounds him now? It is difficult to remove the tragic writer from the work. There are hints of it, couched as often funny fabulist asides in, I’ll venture, nearly every story. This is the way a desperate act of negation casts its shadow over everything. As this piece on his copious book annotations makes explicit, it seems that, in our lifetimes, we’re never going to cease to see him as a Kurt Cobain of literature. We needed him. We need him. We read him because he’s become this figure.

So much of what’s in here now seems well assimilated into the fictional culture. The collection is now 25 years old—in writing terms, that’s barely enough to claim generational impact—but that we know the impact of mythic DFW. In fact, for so long, anything strange I had written could seem to have had a foreshadowing in Wallace’s work: where was I getting this influence if I had not even read him yet? Of course, there are collections I’ve liked which I could say indirectly crept into my “style” (Joshua Cohen’s Four New Messages, certain Ben Marcus stories, etc.) and certainly these writers were influenced by Wallace.

With a writer of this caliber, because of all of the mythos, the dissertations and symposia that will likely go on for some time, he will be read and scrutinized. This is what will make people return to his work. Yet, on the basis of hit or miss work, it makes you wonder why he’s so beloved. As if because of how he writes, or that there’s a sense that some esoteric fiction appeals to people who only claim to fully grasp it. It may be “how” he writes, but it’s not necessarily that engaging for what he writes.

I could have used a reading guide on the more arch and intricate stories in Girl with Curious Hair. I’ll even go so far as to say, much of the writing is tedious—in which there was nothing to grab hold of, nothing for a reader to feel compelled to read on. I suspect that what’s so amazing about Wallace’s talent is on display here, but overall, on the basis of this collection, this isn’t enough to elevate him into the stratosphere.

It’s clear that, from the basis of a handful of successful stories in Girl with Curious Hair, that Wallace could write an earnest and powerful story. Where he trips up is not caring enough about a reader’s experience. For as much of Girl with Curious Hair that is unbearable, there is an equivalent of writing that inspires awe, shock and surprise. There is immense readability, and riches, in the first four stories that make up Girl with Curious Hair.

It’s a relief, and a joy, really, to read much of Girl with Curious Hair. With its formal invention, sly gimmickry, one-upmanship, and wonderful characterizations (if a bit too unmercifully graphic) of Lyndon Johnson, et. al. The stories are well-formed, if however at times, elliptically. And what he achieves at times is sheer readability and comprehension, unlike much of what I’ve read from him (I stalled two thirds of the way through Infinite Jest, though I intend to finish it). When it works, he seems to have understood his mastery and control, and uses it to literature’s ends.

I found myself reading, and enjoying, these stories initially, with very little flagging. I was on a roll until “John Billy”, which trips up by its syntax and unrelieved monotone. As well, the stories occasionally veer into condescending portrayals of stereotypes. Is it still exceptional in some way—technically? Perhaps. Is it audacious? Undoubtedly so. It is just one story I could not read through to the end without feeling my eyeballs hurt.

The first four stories, and “Here and There”, carry their own ecosystems within them. In each there are passages that reveal a careful ear and eye; in “Lyndon”, I sensed that kind of transport of the alchemy of fiction, and this is enough to recommend the book  (“Lyndon” is about as perfect a short story as we’ll have from Wallace, along with “Forever Overhead”, the one story that doesn’t fit in the collection Brief Interviews with Hideous Men), even if some felt to me confusing and hermetic—a hermeticism that I felt excluded from. Or perhaps that I’m seeing the workings of Wallace’s mind in those words, and it’s a place I’m not always certain I want to go, but for the fact that letting him take me there at other times has proven occasionally enlightening or entertaining.

And yet, this is the all too common register for Wallace. From it one gets the sense that he knew how to show off—and when you come to the end, the stories frequently feel less like literature and more like exercises. It’s as if all that writing that he admired and pronounced on, he could not take seriously within himself enough to treat of the material with equanimity. Even in “Lyndon” and parts of “Little Expressionless Animals”, he resorts to fabulism and absurdity. He might have made arguments endlessly about life in our television obsessed culture, but this doesn’t excuse that much of his story writing is unenjoyable. I’m not attempting to say that entertainment is the only end result of the fiction enterprise, but you get the sense the bombast was a default mode for Wallace, and it can get old fast. Maybe his preoccupations with pop culture/consumer/corporate culture, could be a little too much an obvious item to point one’s finger at (or maybe only in the quarter century retrospection). Sure, he could riff like a maniac in some of his characterizations, but it’s hard to take him seriously. Or rather, it’s difficult to always appreciate the workings, the greater goal of literature, because of the showy nature of it. Because, even though he tries to come off as an entertainer, his work is bogged down by an endless need to impress and perform. The performance only works when it is not self-conscious. This is what many critics of fiction would call being clever. The idea being that the writer only thinks they are clever, but no one else does.

What’s clear is that Wallace didn’t know—and maybe didn’t care—when he was boring. But this awareness is part of, I believe, being a successful fiction writer. It’s interesting that for someone who was such a perfectionist, this didn’t extend to making his work any more engaging. And it also makes me think of another writer who has been hyped to death posthumously, but whose work is equally hit or miss, Roberto Bolaño, though it seems fair to assume that Bolaño was less of a perfectionist.

Even as he nails a portrayal of David Letterman in “My Appearance” (another of the stories that work)—the reasons why are also obvious, I think, Letterman is a character in public consciousness—it feels less insightful and weird even than his Lyndon Johnson. Though in the portrayal of character, his Lyndon can seem like a cornpone caricature. For all that, the impact of the storytelling, its means and ends, gives “Lyndon” the greater depth and frisson as a piece of literary fiction.

In spite of all of this harsh criticism, I’ll admit there’s much bravura in this on—maybe half the time—collection.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

"First Time, Last Time" up at Akashic Books

Akashic Books has posted my short piece, "First Time, Last Time", for their supplement, Thursdaze: Original Flash Fiction Under the Influence. This is an excerpt from my forthcoming novel, Impossible Lives of Basher Thomas. (See the wonderful cover at left.) This piece is not, I repeat, not autobiographical!

Here's what Akashic says of the series:

About the Drug Chronicles Series: Inspired by the ongoing international success of the city-based Akashic Noir Series, Akashic created the Drug Chronicles Series. The anthologies in the series feature original short stories from acclaimed authors, each of whom focuses on their fictional experience with the title drug. Current releases in the series include The Speed Chronicles (Sherman Alexie, William T. Vollmann, Megan Abbott, James Franco, Beth Lisick, Tao Lin, etc.), The Cocaine Chronicles (Lee Child, Laura Lippman, etc.), The Heroin Chronicles (Eric Bogosian, Jerry StahlLydia Lunch, etc.), and The Marijuana Chronicles (Joyce Carol Oates, Lee Child, Linda Yablonsky, etc.).

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

The Second Inaugural Meeting of the Karl Ove Knausgaard Society

A Review of My Struggle: Book Three: Boyhood by Karl Ove Knausgaard

When searching for an explanation for the popularity of Knausgaard’s My Struggle, the real answer lies in the writing. The usual questions arise about the veracity of a translation, but lacking anything else to judge by, all we have is the prose. The popularity and hype has now been doled out in spades. And if there is anything that can make skeptics, it’s this. Now critics start writing merely about the hype tsunami that inevitably occurs with a work like this, and it can become distracting, as in this piece. Beyond the writing about the hype itself, which is secondary, there is the reality of the reading.

In volume three, initially, I sensed a minor note of faltering, and wondered if this volume would not hold up. At times, I puzzled over an occasional strange observation that was either incredibly poetic, or that somehow lost its meaning in translation. These oddities are forgiven, because for the most part, the reading glides along like well sharpened skates across very cold ice.
The volume starts off with the earnest quest of young Karl Ove and his friends looking for a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow. Soon enough, we escape this and are into the life. You will keep yourself in check to remember, this is a writer documenting nearly every crude reality of teenage years. There’s a good deal of Knausgaard’s appealing to the reader about his holier than thou childish goodness. We make of this that it is the naive sincerity of youth, though this comes across as hollow, even a bit played out when you witness the young Karl Ove throwing a rock at a car not fifty pages prior to his self-exculpation at the hands of his mischievous classmates. Granted, this is the young protagonist, not the eminent adult and estimable father of the second volume. This is the flawed would be precocious teenage former class president Karl Ove. He doesn’t need to make arguments for the behavior of the young Karl Ove; we are perhaps meant to see it as a manifestation of the young Karl Ove’s point of view, but this is not always explicit in the writing.

At times, young Karl Ove can seem like a pitiful little Lord Fauntleroy. He cries at the slightest hint of unease. That the adult Knausgaard can so readily reveal these embarrassing qualities is perhaps a testament to the author’s insight into himself.

Much of what runs through this narrative explicates what was fully promised in volume one, but which sat like a viper sunning itself for 600 pages, was hardly given name or cause, and was largely absent in volume two. This absence was clever. By portraying his own difficulty with raising his children, we never see Knausgaard falter, never see him lay his troubles at the feet of his children--though he certainly voices some frustration--his love for them comes early, and is unconditional.

Knausgaard could be the first writer to give voice to fatherhood in the way he does. This is a kind of literature of fatherhood. It is somewhat a universal experience, universal enough, let’s say, that it’s interesting to note that it’s not really been done before.
What we learn, after two and a half volumes, after all of this, is that his own father is the source of the struggle. This is encapsulated efficiently in a page or two of volume three with the blunt: “My father terrified me.”

We are always grappling with our own parents. You dread the days when things will change unaccountably, and that’s the source of all the frictions, when things change. Then you become a parent and your own children become the source of the change. Knausgaard has tapped that. I’m not sure why more writers don’t other than because it is too personal of a subject, too fraught to feel comfortable writing about it.

So, at the mid-point of the series, there’s still the narrative drive, maybe lessened by a few degrees of torque; what is that drive, and how has he done it so we, as writers, are able to bottle it up and use it for ourselves?

Part of what I enjoy in Knausgaard is his meandering quality, as much as it can feel maddening, unfocused. It's what happens when (probably) you write six volumes of memoir. So you cannot bottle it up, you just write it. Maybe he really did write this material as if he believed no one was ever going to read it.  

I return to something I said in my last post: what is compelling in memoir is the sense that the writer is being brutally honest, writing from life; yet would we all, being brazenly honest, be able to achieve this level of readerly compulsion? There is a thoughtful narrative design at work. There’s something to be said for how the first two volumes essentially evade the subject or subtly reinforce it through the protagonist's experimentation with alcohol. I didn’t think it required that much acuity to discern what was up though I suspected I might be speculating when I wrote my review in Trop Magazine. (Though I realized, after the fact, the subtitle of volume one was “A Death in the Family”.)

An irony that this work points out is how those remembered are often the ones we would have least wanted to remember. Yet this is what makes for an interesting memoir.

Knausgaard gives us a window onto a life that we might idealize for its whiff of--if not exotic, maybe idyllic--childhood in clean, pine scented prose, laid across snowy vales, alongside those quiet boulders and crags the color of Wheat Thins, balanced seemingly precariously over blue waters, teeming with the glottal stops and the sea scents that remove it just enough from familiarity and highlight childhood’s joys possibly exempt from the American experience. It harkens to a kind of Currier and Ives nostalgia for a turn of the century small town. I felt that I had this similar childhood to Knausgaard in so many ways, but I would not see mine as so idyllic. Maybe this appeal to American sensibilities is a projection; the idealization of a Nordic world we have never known. Beyond the terror of the father, Karl Ove’s Norwegian childhood, notwithstanding the occasional fear of the unknown, is what anyone might have wished of their own childhood. The grim shades seem manageable; even Knausgaard admits how happy he was.

So what are we to make of this narrative? You take him on his word, and read for pure pleasure. I don’t fully know where he’s going, but I trust he’ll get us there.