Sunday, March 2, 2014

Schadenfreude Unlimited! A review of Lorrie Moore's Bark and Apotheke

Schadenfreude Unlimited!--my review of Lorrie Moore's Bark: Stories, is live today at the wonderfully eclectic Trop Magazine. Props to all the folks behind this terrific journal. Here's a teaser: Lorrie Moore will "expand whatever postage stamp-sized garden of humanity you will needlessly, excessively toil over with yard implements and fertilizer for a season, just to grow one ****ing cherry tomato."
As well, I've begun a blog experiment with some short, enigmatic pieces (short shorts, these are usually called, a term I don't like) that I've either not placed anywhere, or not bothered to try to place, having become convinced that I might as well put them into the web-verse, rather than let them sit and stagnate. I have files full of these, and I'm going to post one a day for the near future. These can be found here, at Apotheke.

Friday, February 28, 2014

A brief review of Ben Marcus’s Leaving the Sea: Stories

Having immersed myself in Ben Marcus’s fiction for awhile, it dawned on me: every fiction writer creates their own world, ready made. Marcus’s new story collection Leaving the Sea is wide ranging, if variable and perhaps uneven because of the terrain it covers, from the experimental, to the more traditional narrative with a gloss of dystopia—which for being distilled and strained through the Marcus language machine, are still somehow, experimental. Marcus is bold for being an experimental writer with the full endorsement and backing of the mainstream publishing venues. However, here, the variety suggests that some of the approaches aren’t overwhelmingly successful. The most successful stories rely on trusty narrative hooks (“The Loyalty Protocol”), and a sense of scene building, ultimately driven by an ensemble of characters at odds to the protagonist. Often these stories rely on a kind of extreme antagonism between family members, frequently between a father and son. In this way, Marcus mines familial territory with the anomic detachment and numbness of Kafka, and the barely contained rage of a Beckett figure forced into society under duress.

Marcus has roughly three periods: early (enigmatic), middle (slightly less enigmatic) and late (more familiar, if still shrouded in occasional cryptic trappings), corresponding roughly to his three previous books. This collection is almost evenly spread over these three periods. Marcus, besides making this jump from his earlier, often cryptic narrative making, into a more straightforward, perhaps accessible story telling in recent stories, establishes himself as firmly rooted in the modernist tradition. This is to see such a position as a duty to literary history—and the study of it—and perhaps a responsibility, a la David Foster Wallace.

Attention can lag in a few of these stories, in particular “Watching Mysteries with My Mother”. This story might suffer the diagnosis Marcus made himself in “On the Lyric Essay”, a 2003 piece in The Believer, when he talks about “[…] the implied tedium of fiction not driven by story, particularly if a reader is expecting one. ” Is it then still a story? What set this story up for this was the frequent refrains, which felt like code words for “now the author is going to reintroduce the repetitive phrase,” while it didn’t feel as if the story was progressing. The story’s agenda did not meet the reader’s prerogative.


Where he doesn’t use this language toward estrangement, as he does in the early stories, he provides alienating scenarios, particularly as a means of buttressing the dystopia. Where successful, I sensed something new for Marcus was blossoming on the page, as in “The Language Protocol”. The beauty, and fascination for me, of Marcus’s writing, tends to come with seeing his meticulousness with the possibilities in the language. Or, as I said of Notable American Women (here, in a review of The Flame Alphabet), Marcus has a knack for “remarkable description [which] leads the reader to recognition and surprise from which irony elicits hilarity.” One of the earliest published of the stories in Leaving the Sea, “First Love”, feels as if it might have come as a revelation between The Age of Wire and String and Notable American Women. In this story, there’s a sense that the use of language as applied to a physical activity described in the story, is fresh, as if being discovered by the author. Marcus has so often reapplied this approach, however, that in the later stories the effect can feel stale and overworked. That’s why the newest stories, though traditional in narrative form—even, perhaps, conventional—though a departure from his signature style, are a welcome and interesting development. These are stories not of the usual world, but one a few degrees off kilter in an alternative existence. 

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

A brief review of Racher Kushner's The Flamethrowers

Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers has restored my belief in first person narratives. She somehow seamlessly conveys this character in a way that is at once sympathetic, and very convincing. Particularly when it comes to the secondary characters, who come to life through dialogue. First person has always been problematic to me, maybe because of the insistence on the voice of one. Yet Kushner delivers on all of these characters (sure, some more than others) which requires the conviction of the narrator/protagonist to convey.

First of all, Kushner has a good premise, though it’s also just unbelievable enough to work. What I mean is that much of her plot seems to rely on highly unlikely confluence of events. But what remains behind is the story, and getting from A to B to C to Z. It’s as if she had these events, in most cases bigger than the usual personal narrative as a kind of stand in for plot, but the personal also intermixes with the larger events. (The motorcycle racing; the riots in Rome, etc.) So she establishes these premises, and brings the narrator to the fore. This structure of the political/historical frames the narrator’s life story in a way we can viscerally grasp. As if to say, “How would I react to this circumstance?” This novelistic approach seems obvious, yet as a writer, you have to look hard to establish what these events/frame could be. In retrospect, these are among my favorite novels, those that do not necessarily fictionalize history, but use an aspect of its drama to inform a novel “in situ,” shall we say.

This is why realism is so much more compelling than genre, which usually feels off to me. I need to believe the story’s fact base. The limitations, and possibilities, with what we have in this world, are enough. I’m more interested in psychology, in relationships. In genre, secondary characters are usually functionary to the main character. Now, it could be said of The Flamethrowers, that the secondary characters are functionary to the main character, but it doesn’t entirely feel this way. It’s more the difference between round and flat characters: you almost have to be willing to venture into those other characters’ lives, and tell their stories, for them to be believable. (This is, incidentally, the same problem that Downton Abbey is having, according to David Wiegand, and I don’t disagree. You cannot take characters that are round and proceed with “batting them about with amateur abandon” to provide entertainment). As soon as you are biased, or create a character merely to hold up some aspect of your main character—or plot line--I think the story goes dead on the page. It’s not necessarily the case with memoir or non-fiction because all you have is the event and the protagonist driving the narrative—there’s a clear line of plot that is to be arrived at. I’m thinking of Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, which was an unrelenting page turning wonder. In these non-fiction/memoir accounts, the secondary characters are often composites, or established to best illustrate the narrow, yet highly specific terrain of the story’s premise.

Of this main character, Reno, I’m not entirely sympathetic. I don’t know if she needs the reader’s sympathy, because she is such a strong character herself. As for Sandro, her love interest, he seems to live down to his expectations, and they only thing you might hope for from this relationship, is that she gains some empowerment. I’d have rather not had her equivocation about Sandro at the end, and would have preferred his fall so to speak, to be more dramatic. But I’m sure novelistically, this would have been too easy, perhaps, or even too conventional. And above all I liked this novel it’s willingness to be both feminist and obliquely sexist, ie., true to the characters. (This is an entire other subject that The Flamethrowers complicatedly presents, perhaps to explore in a longer post.) So Sandro is not a total louse after all, just a victim of Italian patriarchy.


Maybe the novel is a bit too invested in imagery—as per Kushner’s closing note/essay—but I feel she pulled it off so compellingly that I accepted it. Pulled it off in smart, hyper-literate prose; not so ultra hip as you might think by the seventies gloss and Technicolor, but hip enough, and hipper than most. I never flagged in my interest in this book, mainly held by this sophisticated prose. And it fits right in there with the novels that I love enough to remind me why I love them (Norman Rush’s Mortals, Bolano’s 2666, Anna Karenina, Cortazar’s Hopscotch.)

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Three Firsts: Ten Pubs for Year, Four Pieces in One Week, and Two UK Journals

Trying to place work can frequently feel like head butting a stuffed rabbit. Still, this year (so far) has produced ten publications for me--a first. Also, this week, four pieces are appearing in four journals (second first), two of which are UK based journals (third first).

My recent semifinalist acknowledgement for the Hudson Prize and Black Lawrence Press for my story collection, The Survivor's Guide, has convinced me to hang in there--not that I was ever going to quit. But sometimes, I can forget that, to paraphrase Karl Ove Knausgaard in the ridiculously readable My Struggle: Book Two: “Writing is the only thing that matters.” You can read my related review here, at Trop Mag, from this past summer. 

"Our Satellite Problem" is up at the incomparable Eyeshot. Thanks to editor Lee Klein, who accepted my piece after I pulled a fast one on him. I also can't seem to forget this detail: I first sent this piece to The New Yorker Shouts and Murmurs (hint: "O.S.P." is humor), and their editors were encouraging. Although they rejected the story, they admitted they did so, "despite its evident merit." An experimental piece "Cogitations on Self" appears in a journal across the pond, Sein und Werden, for their auto de fe issue.

Since I decided early on that I wanted to be a working writer, as opposed to one who daydreams about shiny fake gold engraved plaques and hollow encomiums--which I do daydream about anyway--I suspected reviewing was one way to get readily published. Current reviews are: MaddAddam by Margaret Atwood in Review 31 (UK), and Sunland by Don Waters in the venerable Rain Taxi print issue.

Monday, October 28, 2013

The Myths and Realities of Writing Every Day

I used to make a habit of writing a thousand words a day. I have done this in various weeks long or months long pursuits of a goal, but never consistently. Now, I’m content with around 500 words most days, or four out of five days. I’m doubtful of writers who claim to do their writing as if it is a job, four to eight hours a day. If you have that luxury, because there’s such a demand for your work, then more power to you--I just don’t believe you. That also might be for the factory of thriller writers, but for the literary writer--where the words are considered with regard--there’s more useful strategies.

I try to get a few pages in every day with some regularity, half of which might be channeled into an active piece aiming for publication. On a very good week, I might produce several thousand words, which is the level I think you have to be at to produce a novel with any useful efficiency. I say efficiency, because you have to keep at a novel. When you put it down for too long, you can lose the thread and the inspiration, if you had that to begin with, and it’s difficult to pick that up again unless you are a genius. The pressure comes in at this sustained level, because then you have to find the time to dedicate to the sometimes teeth-gnashing goals of a quota, in pages or word count.

For anyone who is starting out writing, the idea that you have to practice, that you have to produce every day in order to make any headway, can be daunting. It takes years to get there, but it also can happen overnight simply by vowing to write a bit each day.

Any writing can get the gears turning, though for the most part, I think this process is something you don’t hear a lot of established writers talking about: how unproductive daily writing can feel. And yet you have to get over that hump to produce the work, and remind yourself with great patience that writing is really about re-writing. For most of the last few weeks I’ve been up around 6 or 6:30, and written at least 2 pages, sometimes more. How focused was I on the story I’ve been writing? Loosely, I had an idea and wrote to that end. When I sat down to read my twenty plus handwritten pages recently this week, I caught glimpses of a Nabokov-ian spoof filtered through my own concerted seriousness to say something compelling.

Usually, or ideally and rarely, I would be burning with a story to write, and would crank it out as soon as possible--usually in the early morning. Sometimes I’ve awakened at four in the morning with an idea that I could not shake, and forced myself to write, then after an hour and a half fury of near illegible scratching on a legal pad, I go back to sleep. Some of the best things I’ve written have occurred like this. There’s something about the synapses in the morning that are unpredictable and wildly able to go anywhere, it can seem.

I imagine the reason writers don’t often talk about this process is because it’s not romantic, and doesn’t convey the heroic notion that usually puts the vocation into a hallowed and sacred act that leads to the magical writing of magnificent, well-received tomes for mass consumption--if we could all be so lucky. In contrast, that idea that one writes as a job can be equally daunting sounding. If a writer does treat it as a job, I can almost guarantee for the full four or eight hours they are not continuously writing--either that, or the writing is mostly garbage. There’s a kind of sweet spot about how much time and how much you write each day that is probably optimal, but there is no formula. Everyone has to discover their own practice.

I’m not sure writing isn’t ten percent inspiration and ninety percent perspiration. I think because I have experienced the inspiration driving the writing, I’m inclined to believe anything less is wheel spinning--though wheel spinning can indicate that the mechanisms are at least working.

When you generate this much writing, at some point you have to realize its potential. At five or six thousand words, is it going to be a story you pursue or not? And then, further, are you working on a story, or a novel, or something else altogether? I’ve put some much editing time into even relatively short pieces, that I know a novel takes a yeoman effort. In the futile seeming generation of all of this raw material, you might begin to think it is all a waste of time.

It’s not a waste of time. All writing can lead to this next story or article that will, or could, be the piece that pushes you to the next thing. That’s largely what writing is about, having the faith to continue on in absolute uncertainty. This is easier to consider in thought than practice, but it’s true.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Double Barrels: Political Humor and a Double Review

It's been a good few weeks for placing work. This week, my satire, "Kim Jong-un's Unread Spam Emails to Obama" is appearing in The Higgs Weldon, assuring that I'll never step foot in North Korea. Also, a double review of Karl Ove Knausgaard's My Struggle: Book One and Tao Lin's Taipei is to appear in Trop Magazine, assuring that I'll never undertake reviewing two books in one piece again without being paid an extremely exorbitant sum. Also, I've updated my website publications page.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Misspent Youth Chronicles, Vol. II

A further dispatch from Misadventures in Deconstruction, the latent memoir of my tragically impressionable apprentice years in architecture, appears in Glint Literary Journal. "Abandoned" portrays the time tested game of cat and mouse occurring with that unknown quantity, the dorm mate, in my case a future hopeful Nobel economics candidate.

Go here to read the one published prior to this. You might laugh, you might even cry.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Gary Lutz and Postmodern Sentence Poetics


The ideal writing does not necessarily make for ideal reading. At first blush, this can be the effect of a Gary Lutz story. The immediate, visceral appeal of his stories, with their emphasis on the dynamics of word sounds and affinities, suggests an objective beyond  storytelling. Traditionally, the fiction writer deploys a series of hooks or leads or clues--items that convince the reader that something is being gained (or learned, deciphered, comprehended, gathered, earned, etc.). It usually is not enough to be beautiful (though it can be) or unusual (though it can be), but in the standard approach, the reader can fashion certain objectives from the work. The motivation for understanding implies that the writing supplies objectives.
In practice, the goals of fiction are often geared toward the writer’s construction of a prose puzzle, something from a complicated and unquantifiable internal dialogue, which can encompass more than the traditional signposts. This is how I read Lutz’s stories.
I began to think about form and the gymnastics of sentences in reading Gary Lutz’s essay about writing in The Believer “The Sentence is a Lonely Place”. Lutz, a student and proponent of Gordon Lish, discusses his preoccupation with words and sentences; Lutz doesn’t even consider story, in fact. It’s all about language. But in reading this piece, with its extreme emphasis on technique, I kept thinking, “balance.” There is the inevitable question of where, when and how much? We’ve all read prose that’s too wound into its own self-consciousness to be readable, which returns the ball to the reader. Most folks will check out if they don’t “get” it. Beyond the verbal endspiel, the reader’s experience can go by the wayside. But is it even necessary to think about this? I ‘d guess Lutz would say this is what his work does. But for its often cryptic seeming effect, he creates something almost esoteric in the form of a short story. At least this approach forces a writer to become more attentive to the words. Is that ever a bad thing?
I suspect a lot of these processes Lutz talks about in the essay happen as much accidentally, through careful and religious editing, as they would when they are consciously deliberated. In other words, much of his method could be achieved by a writer’s paying careful and systematic attention to the sentences’ and words’ deployment.          
There might be a common line here between poetry and storytelling. Lutz clearly revels in the formality of sentences. But it also feels like his writing has a strong influence from poetry. The process of writing poetry--to oversimplify far too much--is often grouping sympathetic words before a sentence is declared; this is also a Lutz technique. Lutz’s writing reminds me of my experience at Goddard studying under Carla Harryman--and trying to understand her process--and some of the investigations with writing that I undertook at her behest. Which sent me to the Norton Anthology of Postmodern American Poetry for a refresher course.
Regarding post-modern poetry, the writing is often a preoccupation with form, of process versus a final product; finding a form that fulfills the promise of the language. Not to oversimplify, but understanding some of this work can enact its toll on even a patient, attentive reader. This does not make it good or bad-- insularity is always somewhat inaccessible.
The following is a sampling from several of Lutz’s stories:

                “The house was mostly beaverboard and ungroomed carpet and concerted backdate appliances.” (1)
                “The youngest, a boy, was a little loose and unfortified in what he knew. He called the floor “the ground” and did not so much walk as trifle his legs forward: there were negligences, even criticisms of the filled world, in his lawless progress toward the table where supper could no longer wait.” (2)
“It was a period, understand, of rationed, grating embraces, and then one day she came out with a baby, sprang it on me in a bassinet upstairs. I know I must have eventually confused the thing with mock holidays, and lonely toilet drills, and homemade cereals that just sank in the milk, and I know I must have stood the kid up in front of uncles and ball-rolling aunts, and then she vanished with it into her vague-faced, waiting family.” (3)
“Afternoons, the sky volunteered its birds and its sun-showers. We would be out on the patio again, each with a rubble of white chocolate in a ruffled paper baking cup. The one skymark was a radio tower, laddery and ablink.
Anything, she kept demanding, is the seat of passion.” (4)
               
(1) and (2) “Fingerache”; (3)“Femme”; (4) “Uncle”: Gary Lutz, I Looked Alive, 2008 Black Square Editions & The Brooklyn Rail, 2010

I don’t always comprehend Lutz’s work, which is perhaps, naively, what I find so compelling about it. Or I get it insofar as I get the process by which he creates it, and I can derive my own understanding of it. In an interview in New York Tyrant, Lutz says this about his work: “[...] I like writing that’s capsular, conclusional--writing that gives you the precipitate of experience and not the experience itself. For me, the residue is usually more interesting than whichever person, place or thing the residue might be residual of.”
                That what Lutz writes are nominally stories with their words’ careful rubbing together, tend to enlarge their writer’s status in a sea of traditional expressions of the form. A reader might get the impression that this language work is somehow saying more. It could be. It is definitely saying it differently. To paraphrase Gertrude Stein, it is impossible to put words together without sense. Why shouldn’t a writer aspire to deploy words in such an interesting, intensive manner?

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Misadventures In Deconstruction

An episode of my misspent youth attending architecture school, in my unpublished memoir Misadventures in Deconstruction, will be published next month in The Bacon Review. Thanks to TBR. This piece, entitled "Storage Room" answers the question about just how ineffective I could be in the workplace.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Against Personal Experience


After toiling for years to heed the ridiculous, self-satisfying exhortation of blithe creative writing instructors all over the planet to “write what you know,” I must finally confront that, when it comes to fiction, alas, I am incapable of this.

If you want to write fiction, this is the first rule of thumb to throw away. 

When I began to write seriously in my early twenties, I had not done much living. I was a fanatical daydreamer. And so when something significant happened to me, I tended to recycle it for weeks and months afterward. Meanwhile, not living, I attempted to prove I was a writer by re-visiting this experience that someone had bestowed on me out of pity, kindness or a morbid curiosity. I wasn’t yet capable of going for what I wanted, due to a crippling fear of rejection. Let me rephrase: I was incapable of knowing what I wanted, so I couldn’t begin to go for it. So I just sat back and thought up poetry about my latest, usually too brief, adventure. I thought about it as fictional fodder, while rarely straying from the straight line I had to take to get to and from work each day.

This is not to say how I’m suddenly experienced-up, but I have had uncountable life experience since twenty years ago, experience that puts to shame the efforts I toiled so earnestly over for far too long. This might seem to be me throwing out the baby of my life’s experiences with the bathwater, but the mellowing reflection of age coupled with experience has contributed to my ability to write fiction by giving me the wisdom of discernment. It’s of no service to fiction to become agenda driven.

The stories that have clogged my files for years and that I can’t seem to revisit, and have otherwise given up on, are usually stories that derived from re-imagined experiences. Either someone I knew was the basis for a major character, or I had written the story with some goal of a more glorious outcome. These stories often involved a vague longing to re-right (rewrite?) an episode that embedded itself into my psyche, though it is certain I have long since forgotten why. Perhaps in my avid attachment to the sources, I’ve never been able to remove myself from the material enough to make convincing fiction; these narratives never make the leap in my imagination that would allow them to leap off the page. They never achieve the necessary estrangement which would prevent me from piling the narrative under layers of sub-conscious psychological baggage--which seems unavoidable when I base a story or character on something or someone I know. This taints them for consideration, and I stop short of believing they have any more merit than of personal exorcism.  This is not to say it cannot--or should not--be done, it is just that I find it nearly impossible. I need to trick myself, then trick everyone else. If I can’t pretend I’m not using my own experience, the story is dead in the water.

On the other hand, the material, or the event the story is based on, must have been compelling enough to get me to write and work on it for so long. But this impulse was just inexperience, and being unwilling or unable to try anything else.

File these efforts under Apprentice Work.

Truth is I put a lot of time in on stories like this, and some of them might be passable, even good now. I might be far enough removed from their source material to not be hindered by whatever compelled me to write them initially. I have frequent dark nights of the soul to debate about this. I often think how I have already “wasted” seven or eight years writing this way, but I am guessing it all helped in the long run. So far, for me, writing fiction from my own life is a failed enterprise, mostly. In compiling a story collection to submit to competitions, only two of the stories are loosely based on personal experience.

Almost without exception, the stories I’ve had success with have originated in news events, non-fiction accounts, documentary, or straight up imagination. Whatever their sources, they all end up going through the imagination mill. It is much easier to make things up this way; my imagination is more agile than my recollection or regeneration of past experience. Which highlights another flaw in writing from life. It’s difficult or nearly impossible to break something from a fixed recollection. If it never happened to you, you are free to explore myriad possibilities. By their very nature, stories from life try to contain some experience that is not containable, and thus, the element of freshness and the unusual is probably lacking, having not been discovered in the writing. If I don’t make the discovery in the writing, it is unlikely the reader will, either.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Shadow is Substance

Many thanks to Burningword Literary Journal for selecting “Object/Multiple Singularities/Be Here Now” for publication in their quarterly, upcoming on April 1st. This piece was inspired at my alma mater Goddard and the Pratt Center Library's bunker-like lower level on a snowed in January day several years ago.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

The Literary Index


Number of page views since inception: 10,025

Year by which The Literary posts are projected to reach three digits: 2013

Average number of hours per week spent on blog: 6.3

Estimated average hours lost for writing of fiction: 1404

Number of short stories unwritten since blog began: 11.7

Number of novels: 1.3

Number of blog posts written, edited and abandoned before posting: 81

Number of reams of paper used in writing of blog: 3.28

Number of times per month that I get a sudden inspiration to write a blog post: 2.7

Percentage of posts that get written: 35

Slices of Tartine chocolate tea cake that inspired blog posts: 7

Cups of coffee consumed during writing of blog: 585

Hours spent preparing coffee: 48.75

Minutes per day that I am distracted from paying work by writing blog: 87

Earnings lost since blog inception: $86,627

Number of books read: 328

Number of books reviewed in part or whole: 27

Percentage of books read that were reviewed: 8

Number of reviews I’ve written for specific journals that I’ve had to withdraw because the editor was unresponsive: 2

Number of writers who were my roommates at Goddard and who have had their novels turned into an eight times Oscar nominated feature film this year: 1

Degrees of separation from Kevin Bacon now: 4

Percentage of The Literary index that actually shares any resemblance to “Harper’s Index”: .07

Chance that anyone at Harper’s will ever know or care that I used their trademark feature in my blog: 1 in 4,239,351

Number of times per interview that Fresh Air’s Terry Gross subjects her guest to an annoying question: 2

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Re-upping Indie Credibility


The estimable Spork Press will be going live in March or April with three experimental thematic pieces I wrote: “Ejection Seat”, “Shine”, and “Ski Patrol”, proving to me that it’s never too late to re-up my indie credibility. Gravity has a lot to answer for.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Submit or Bust


Print is still--and maybe always will be--the coveted realm of publication, so it seems odd that print journals are more and more striving to banish hard copy (aka snail mail) submissions. From a recent attempt to put together some mail submissions, my cursory survey indicates that the tide seems to be going this way.

I’m noticing a lot more online only submissions from journals that used to take mail submissions, and I’m of mixed opinion about this. Since print publication is the coin of the realm, it seems counterintuitive to have the work processed electronically by quality print journals (Willow Springs, Sycamore Review, Gulf Coast, among many others). Many charge $3 for this service, through the dominant submission site, submittable (which had the unfortunate name submishmash for awhile, which is how I thought they probably felt about the deluge they were asking for with this system). After signing up and using the service for a few journals, I didn’t realize until recently that one password would allow access into a system that offers no indication of which journals it serves, knowledge which could have spared me confusion and inevitable password headaches. When using submittable, you see a list of your submissions in a spreadsheet, the name of the journals you have submitted to with the annotation of either “Received” or “Declined.” Some must also see “Accepted,” of course. Many of the smaller or less profile journals use the system, though without a $3 charge.

The $3 may seem no more than a nominal charge considering how much an actual mail submission costs: postage, anywhere from a dollar to two or more, envelope, return envelope with postage, and printing paper, as well as the time involved. In a sense, these journals are getting the money you would otherwise spend to send a hard copy.

For all the time investment and inefficiency of snail mail, I prefer it because, like the lowly and costly journal in paperback form it aspires to, it puts something substantial and tactile in hand. It won’t evaporate with one key stroke. It is, more and more, put into a recycling bin when it fails to impress--but its chances of being a felt presence on an editor’s desk seem more comforting to me, maybe because it materializes something that came out of my mind.

As for the electronic format, if the work is only published online and not in print, it can have a brief, lowly half-life when someone hacks the journal’s website and destroys hundreds of writers’--and editors’--work. This happened with a journal I had work in, which I’ve never been able to confidently call published because the website is gone. There is often this notion that work committed to the world wide web is public forever, but somehow, it’s never the work that you might want to be available.

I am warming up to the electronic transition. But not much. I don’t particularly like reading on a screen, though I have adapted to it out of necessity. At one time, I absolutely refused to send work by e-mail or through online submission sites, though I now accept that this is the future.

The argument is made that online submissions are greener--which may be true--but I think there’s something more insidious going on against the writer, which highlights the plight of the marginally published.

As there are presumably more writers submitting work in this form, it is also easier now to send work. This can make rejection so much more efficient for journals. Because there is less paper for them to wade through, it is easier to ignore. The slush pile has become the melting polar ice cap. It’s going away and no one will miss it until it’s too late.

Online submission systems might tempt harried and overworked editors to skim over possibly good work. If the work is unknown, what are the chances that it will be that good, anyway? You can almost see the logic to this assessment. Of course, this can just as easily happen with snail mail. When you have toiled and edited your writing to a careful finish, it can feel like nothing to submit and pay your $3; if it’s this expedient to send, just image how much more likely the work could get passed over merely because there’s too much work for editors to read through. The numbers reality: there’s likely more good work out there, too. Maybe now more than ever, it is all about luck, or almost crazed persistence on the part of the writer to land a publication.

If journals don’t banish snail mail, they are making it much more difficult to submit this way, often instituting exacting guidelines to follow. I find them to be an intentional annoyance, and sometimes lose track of them when I’m putting work together to submit. If I miss something when I mail, such as accidentally forgetting to address a piece “Attention: Fiction Editor,” I don’t really fret about it that much. But often, these journals’ requirements can come to sound like the red M & Ms of a diva pop star’s dressing room requirements: “Never address us as ___.” “Under no circumstances, should you ever do X.” How low do you need to bow and scrape? You will because you want them to consider your darlings. Or maybe you’ll give up and hit send when you realize how much more work snail mail requires.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Landscape Lacking Weather


Saying a piece of writing lacks emotion is about as useful as saying that a landscape painting lacks weather. It doesn’t even sound like logical criticism, and it usually is not. “You need more emotion” seems to be a default comment when people aren’t connecting with the work. Fair enough, they are not connecting with the work. Yet I’ve become suspect that “playing the emotional card” is when a reader simply does not like a piece of writing. Or, this comment is trotted out when someone does not have anything useful to say, and yet feel they need to say something. Because it cannot be pinpointed to anything concrete in the piece, it is always a general idea about emotion. This is such a safe and broad comment as to be almost useless. Emotion is always what’s not there.

Emotion is often the quality, in lieu of other qualities, that a lot of readers want to latch onto. I would say, they only think they want to latch onto it; the other qualities probably are not apparent to them, or they don’t want to acknowledge the use of language, the characters, etc. Perhaps one person’s heat seeking emotional content is another’s insurmountable distaste for the story.

What actually may be meant by putting emotion into the work?

According to several professional writer websites, the way to get emotion into the writing encompasses everything from “put yourself into you character’s shoes,” to “proper word choice,” to “showing emotion rather than telling,” (whatever that means) and to “write about things you are emotionally invested in.”

But this diversity of opinion on emotion in writing, as well as the broad based explanations for how it can be arrived at is enough to suggest that, emotion in writing might just be like pornography: You’ll know it when you see it.

I suppose I’m a reader and writer who is less interested in emotional content, and more interested in other qualities that draw me into a story: expressive prose, interesting and dynamic characters, unusual, even disorienting narrative structure, and a story outside of my own experience. A reason I’m skeptical of this insistence on emotion is that I tend to find overt displays of emotionally toned material to be manipulative, and at their worst, sentimental. It helps to know where you stand in this regard, so that you don’t fret too much over readers who demand to be moved. I may be expressing an unpopular, even a reckless, opinion, when I say, if the writing is compelling, you won’t need to strain to infuse it with emotional toll taking. But emotional quotas should hardly make or beak a piece. Taste is wildly subjective.

Writers worth reading whose work isn’t usually considered emotional, offer something else.

I consider the ending of Cormac Mc Carthy’s The Road to be exemplary of emotional writing, mostly because the story--unique among McCarthy’s oeuvre--made me cry when I read it. Much of the criticism of The Road centered on the story’s bleak setting, or the stylized prose, or the utter incomprehensibility of the scenario of a father and child wandering the post-apocalyptic wastes of the earth. With this emphasis, I would suspect many might overlook the emotional quality in McCarthy’s work. McCarthy might err on the side of manipulation, but in this case, somehow it works for me.

I find David Foster Wallace to caricature his characters. It’s as if they are all minor characters in service of some broader point. Except in a few pieces, and in particular the story “Forever Overhead” which I would call emotionally effective, I’m not sure I could even say his work otherwise lacks emotion, though emotional connection is not what I think of when I read him. Wallace has so much else going on in his work usually emotional resonance isn’t high on the list of why I read him. According to D.T. Max, in Every Love Story is a Ghost Story, even Wallace, the once great ironist, wrote ”Forever Overhead” contrary to the manner of the fiction he was producing at the time, which was typically overflowing with irony. Wallace eventually dismissed this story as sentimental. Often, where others see emotion, I see sentiment, but not in this story. There might be a case to debate the fine line between sentiment and irony.

Finally, Joan Didion might be criticized for a lack of emotion. Yet I suspect the discerning reader might come away from The Year of Magical Thinking with a sense of awe at the narrative accomplishment. Surely this memoir should be chock full of the kind of emotional cards that are regularly requested so often, and yet her style is a kind of cold-hearted, sobering prose. And yet the emotional impact of the story is so overwhelming that it has the effect of a well-composed symphony striking all the right minor chords.

So, you are not Mc Carthy, Wallace or Didion. Maybe you want to play the emotional card after all. Of the previously mentioned prescriptions, the one that might be most useful is to write about what you are emotionally invested in. This brings up the idea of sympathetic characters, as in, if you care about your characters, your readers (probably) will also. No guarantees. In the case of Wallace’s “Forever Overhead”, you almost wonder if he was talking to his younger self in that story, so carefully guiding is the second person narrator.

There’s nothing wrong with emotion--it’s just that its absence should not always be a handy default buzzword for what’s wrong with a piece of fiction, or any writing, really. Not every piece of writing needs to have the emotional quotient. In the same way that a plot can be subtly residual when it isn’t over-determined, sometimes the emotion sneaks in; I’m not going to fight it.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Unprecedented Literary Renaissance


 When I started writing seriously, I could easily get caught up in one or two writers, for example, James Joyce and John Updike. Joyce, because I’d set myself the task of reading Ulysses, and Updike, pouring through a backlog of New Yorker’s at the cafe where I pulled espressos and dreamed a much older person’s dreams (I was in my mid-twenties). In between I wrote fiction. You could wonder if someone so limited in their reading could say of themselves that they were writing “seriously.” There were a few writers before that I’d read extensively (Thomas Mann, Henry Miller, and Samuel Beckett), but perhaps not gone beyond admiring, and certainly not knowing how they might influence my own writing. Needless to say, it took me several more years of unbridled reading until I began to get some sense of what I wanted my own writing to be. By unbridled reading, that meant latching on to a few writers at a time--not unlike the way I read now--until I assimilated some of their influence (if I chose) and moved on. At that rate, it wasn’t a surprise that I could get no one interested in my work. I’d had no general idea of the current world of fiction, and felt more comfortable with my nose buried in work that was decades old.

Now I’d like to believe I read widely, enough to have a sense of what’s happening in contemporary literature, while still dipping into the past to remind myself of what first got me interested in writing.

Just on the basis of the Best American Short Stories 2012, the short story has changed quite a bit in the past few years and has become incredibly, almost ridiculously, vibrant. This collection is one of the strongest groups of stories I’ve read in awhile. I haven’t looked at the BASS in several years, but to compare it to equivalent collections that I have read, almost every story here surprises in ways that don’t feel formulaic, and don’t derive all from a single kind of narrative style. The variety is inspiring. Where in the past I might have recommended only two or three out of twenty of the stories, in the Best American Short Stories 2012 I’d only steer a reader clear of two or three out of twenty.

I don’t know the numbers or statistics, but I believe we’ve seen a renaissance in fiction writing in the last ten years. My own interest had been reignited almost simultaneously with following what was taking place in the world of fiction, writing and publishing, and so much of this came about because of the pervasiveness of the web. I might even argue that it’s nearly impossible to write in a vacuum anymore (i.e., just reading the ancients); or there’s no good reason to do so if you are trying to get your work published. I’m sure there are writers who choose this, and some might slip out of the slush piles and get something published; but besides being pointless (without at least some broad knowledge of what’s happening in contemporary fiction writing), why wouldn’t one be interested in reading what’s out there?

In this renaissance, there has been backlash and critique of MFA programs with the rise of MFA programs, and this has probably forced the tide of short fiction and fiction in general. It already feels like a tired complaint to bemoan their proliferation. No matter what, writing short fiction today might be best categorized as a free for all. Any and everything seems to go. In terms of form, style, subject matter, you name it, the only rule seems to be, there are no rules. There’s  a lot more variety.

Because of the sheer variety, the number of publishing venues, the diversity of voices and viewpoints, we’re no longer in the quaint realm where an alcoholic working class writer in Chico, whose greatest contribution was a naval gazing minimalism, could be claimed as the leading influence of a generation. But even that ‘generation’ label limits the group of writers producing exciting and interesting work today.

Now we have the effects of David Foster Wallace’s modalities, which were even in his hands limited to a post cold war American culture formed primarily via the television. Strange how Wallace, to my knowledge, never ventured with depth into the internet and yet, because his approach feels intrinsically connected to it--his rise has come about with the rise of the web--his imprint has been even more pervasive on the writers that have come after him. More pervasive an imprint than Carver might have ever made in his time. Wallace, in an earlier time, might have had marginal impact on the larger scene, or only in academia. The web’s saturating influence is lending to the multiplicity and variety of radical stylistic shifts that are taking place. TV has become little more than a joke with minor influence, in the new landscape.

There are few journals that have what approaches a similarity of style, or as was once claimed, a derided “MFA workshop style.” Though the general guidelines are about “writing of the highest quality,” that doesn’t mean much. You almost have to get the gist of a journal’s stylistic proclivities. And if you are entering contests to win, in fact it’s best if you have an MFA or better still, a Ph.D., and a professorship at one of the millions of MFA programs doesn’t hurt, either. Yet I suspect, if my own publishing experience is any guide, you should write whatever you want (adhering to high standards of quality, of course) and someone will find you--rather, you will luck across them. Don’t count on the contest circuit. If you wonder where your work fits, it will (or should) find its place.

Long live fiction, and the train wreck of MFA programs. It’s a great time to be a writer.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

One Star Reviews


The skeptic’s approach to selecting a novel to read from among those that have been hyped to death and promoted by their irrepressible publishers? Look at the one star reviews (on Amazon) first.

These reviews certainly provide a lot of wildly subjective takes. But you learn to read them, and must practice a subtle discernment to tap the sincere ones (if anyone giving a book in a review one star can be sincere), and if nothing else, the general consensus offers an honest and straightforward take. A smattering of one star reviews by a bunch of general readers tell me more about a book than a lofty drubbing by Michiko Kakutani.

My approach could apply to any novel, usually one I’m on the fence about. This is not counter-intuitive, as the novel in question may be from an author whose previous book did not excite me, which almost justifies in my mind the one star reviews I’m curious to read.[1]

I read one star reviews as a way of finding a book to read that I might ultimately come to love. I find I often want to read a novel because it has many one star reviews. In fact, because of my prurient curiosity, I’m probably more inclined to consider reading it if no one likes it. If it’s a book I’m certain I’m going to read anyway, good or bad reviews, I’ll likely only read the one star reviews hoping to glean some essential truth of the work. Here I will point out that when I refer to one star reviewed books, these are the ones in which the number of positive reviews (five stars) are relatively balanced by the number of negative reviews (one star) of the book. These books tend to be the ones that I really like, which must say something about my tastes. Maybe that I’m the text book demographic that follows the latest literary hype.

One star reviewed books tend to speak to me as a possibly misunderstood genius (Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke: 40 one stars, 40 five stars), intentionally interesting snobbery or unappreciated intellectualism (Norman Rush’s Mating: 19 one stars, 34 five stars--I recall that it had more one stars--maybe Norman Rush fans came to the cause), typically brilliant and air tight prose in the service of what-was-the-author-thinking (Philip Roth’s The Humbling: 12 one stars, 9 five stars), or not reaching the bar set by their hype (Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, which has an almost equal split: 306 one star, and 304 five star).

What would be very helpful for readers, though horrifying, I’m sure, for most writers--would be a search option for number of stars reviewed. Because if a book only has five star reviews, then it is safe to say no one is being honest about it, or no one is willing to speak of what might be wrong with it. I like a bit of flaw, a little weird, some character imperfection. I don’t think any book is perfect; I know no book is perfect. If the reviews are predominantly five star reviews, the book in question is most likely the literary equivalent of milquetoast. There are the books that have been around awhile with NO one star reviews. If I do read one of these only high count starred review novels, I read it with a strangely skewed, cautiously skeptical eye.

I’m not sure negative reviews matter. If anyone wants to read it, they will, no matter what critics say. I think now you could rarely find a novel that is so bad it’s received only one star reviews, and maybe a few sad two star reviews, and a paltry one or two three star reviews, but I could be wrong. There again, I’d say maybe the consensus is generally accurate. I’m sure some writers secretly fear this happening to their work. I suspect just this kind of speculation can make a writer with a lack of self-confidence pretty much never dare offer their work up for scrutiny.

This reminds me of the flap with those writers who were posting positive reviews under pseudonyms on all of their friends’ fledgling novels (Of course this behavior is not privy to just writers). As if the presence of the positive reviews would cancel the negative reviews. But those one star reviews are there for a reason, too. On the other hand, the more voices, good or bad, the more that people are talking about the book. In which case, the truth of the notion that there is no such thing as bad publicity. After all, you have to sort out the overly strident and bone-to-pick one stars from the frank, I-just-didn’t-love-it one stars. Though I do think the honest ones might sting a little.

And sometimes, no matter the reviews, I just don’t like the book. Or I love it. I read it, at least.



[1] This novel might be one that has been out long past its shelf life before I can expect it to go to paperback (when I’ll more willingly shell out to buy it and test my theory). And thus, in spite of negative reviews, the book must be selling well, or the publisher is trying to unload the extra copies they unwisely produced and recoup their losses. It seems that this is a tactic publishers use when the book isn’t any good.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

The Southeast Review

The Southeast Review has kindly accepted my review of Tom Bissell's Magic Hours: Essays on Creators and Creation, to appear in their upcoming print issue.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Exploring Vollmann’s Labyrinth

There can be a mesmerizing appeal to novels in which something is slightly off. Frankly, this could be from the mind of the author, but it's never easy to pin down. This sounds like it could be a disastrous attraction, but the “off” sense seems to come out of the writing process more than from any plan the author might have had (although, who knows--it could as well be an affectation), and rather than detract from the art of it, this quality usually makes  the novel a more powerful and compelling read. So often, the best writing is rarely picked dry bones perfect; what is better, to my reading, is the bold idiosyncrasy of the writer’s mind revealed in the prose.
A cult-ish and high literary writer generally overlooked by the establishment, and an unclassifiable counterpoint to all of the squeaky clean novelists--whom usually fail to live up to their hype--is William T. Vollmann.
Vollmann is poly-literary: essays, manifestoes, calculi, and novels that he subtitles enigmatically “dreams” that wildly blur the line between fiction and reality. Vollmann riddles text with the footnotes and epigraphs of a lifetimes’ reading, which helps deny convenient demarcations. Notorious for his prodigality, and with a remarkable willingness for excess, I recall him in an interview talking about how he’s nearly destroyed his own hands with carpel tunel from his marathon writing labors.
In The Rifles, Vollmann imagines himself as a member of a failed expedition to find the Northwest Passage that met its tragic end over one hundred and fifty years ago. Vollmann writes as William the Blind, Captain Subzero, Wm. Franklin, et al. Vollmann portrays living a parallel existence in two time periods as he delivers history, critiques of the rampant blood thirsty hunting culture introduced by the repeating rifle, and personal asides, including an inadvisable affair with a partially deaf mute Inuit woman. 
In one of the gripping chapters of The Rifles is a perfunctory survival tale that shouldn’t be. This is when Vollmann went to the defunct weather station at Isachsen on Ellef Ringnes Island near the North Pole with plainly insufficient cold weather gear and tried to replicate the experience of those in that failed Northwest Passage expedition. Why Vollmann would have needlessly subjected himself to an almost suicidal series of decisions that delivers a kind of campfire tale with shaggy dog proportions seems like nothing less than the writer trying to prove himself to himself first, and the interested reader, second. It’s as if he wanted to experience his characters’ ill-fated turns. Vollmann strives, at all times, to make a virtue of fallibility, with a survivalist’s indomitable resourcefulness.
The narrative seems to grow organically and out of its own imperative, and doesn’t feel hemmed and hewed by needless story boarding or scene peddling. A Vollmann narrative can feel less like a development than a conflagration, an uncontrolled burn. In a less confident writer this can come off as stultifying and mannered, and at its worst, arbitrary. But Vollmann trusts his logorrhea, perhaps, an obsessive pursuit of specific, charged detail.
Often defying logic in terms of straight ahead narrative, his novels are mythmaking in their self-references and staggering in their encyclopedic breadth. Some of his thousand pages plus tomes with their dense pages often makes them prohibitive to casual reading, but for the welcome they offer once you are fully engaged with it.
Vollmann the artist illustrates his texts with distinctive pen and ink sketches that reveal a skilled and highly idiosyncratic translation of the world that map, diagram and render talismanic and symbolic self-portraits.
Vollmann’s crackling sentences are of an honest writer seemingly without peer, seeing a world he has as much chosen as made, through an idealistic lens he wishes to translate faithfully. Vollmann makes his poetry incidental, and he’s not self-conscious about it, as in this passage from The Rifles: “He had to wear his headlamp, and it gleamed cheerlessly ahead, reflecting his own black shape in the glass of dead exit signs so that some monster was always coming toward him.”
Once venturing into the Vollmann labyrinth, it is, to me, a very comforting place. He makes no apologies for his investigations and presents himself as the steadfast hero in his formidable travels. His approach is that the “world is my world (and you are welcome to come along)", with frequent ill-advised border crossings, side trips and harrowing misadventures.
The apparent faith Vollmann puts in his fellow beings reveals a rare and magnanimous character, burdened by avid appreciation for the underappreciated of humanity. Though he is presenting what at times seems to be a persona, as a writer he doesn’t seem any less reliable because of it. Vollmann makes no excuses for his predilections, and out-quirks his contemporaries who have got to be thinking: any self-respecting writer would avoid such a profile or risk being labeled a narcissist. To quote Vollmann in the collection of writings, Expelled from Eden: “It is not so hard to be honest, merely a little embarrassing.” Vollmann is often brave, foolish, bawdy and a touch unsettling, but I never question his sincerity. He’s a writer I am grateful to, and read with as much awe as deliberation. But his writing style, inspiring in its risks, often reminds me of the virtue in being passionate, and in particular, how as a writer of vital things one should grasp how big a waste of time it is to worry about what anyone thinks of you. How as a writer of vital things one should trust in their inspirations, however unusual. 

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Hate This Book!


Many of the people who write about books are probably engaged in writing their own, and/or would like to publish someday, and with the way things are now, why would one stomp on the hand that might feed them?

Jacob Silverman in Slate asks for more critical response from these book reviewers, though clearly, anyone who is a critic would have to be passionate enough about the work to understand the process by which it is created, and this explains the sympathetic and friendly strain in criticism. His argument seems to come down on how social media is really becoming too friendly for any real criticism. It’s easier to not dwell on a book you don’t like, and far more uplifting (as well as positive to one’s career, perhaps) to review one you do like. This is nuanced, I believe, what he’s asking for, but it’s not like every reviewer is thinking of unicorns and rainbows. Just look at B. R. Myers in The Atlantic. I don’t agree with everything he says, but much of it is right on, particularly this piece

On the other hand, what I like about this piece from Lev Grossman is that you can almost be certain which book he’s talking about, and it’s a shame that he doesn’t want to come right out and admit it, because the writer in question has so much apparent power in the industry, such that if Grossman did say something, he could imagine losing his position at Time, his publishing contract, his career. Might I add, nothing could be as bad as a book that came out last year with art in the title, but with art nowhere else in the book. 

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Plagiarism Career Strategies

We are led to believe that the pressure to up the ante caused a speciously esteemed writer formerly of The New Yorker, Jonah Lehrer, to make up quotes from Bob Dylan, as well as re-use his own writing  for two separate publications.

I thought there was something odd when Lehrer quoted the Dylan story on two separate interviews on the occasion of his latest book's publication. I’d never heard that tale of how “Like a Rolling Stone” came to be written, and as a Dylan semi-literate, I thought I’d heard every detail.

Making up quotes is one thing, punishable and condemnable to stupidity for perpetuity, but I want to address the second point. The self-plagiarizing--which isn’t actually plagiarism--perhaps, it’s just as stupid. Maybe my indignation is to realize Lehrer got paid essentially twice, and couldn’t bother to do his job (writing!) and was arrogant enough to just rehash something without thinking twice. Don't tell me he simply cut and pasted. He knew what he was doing.

With so much opportunity for miraculous second chances in the publishing industry, plagiarism, or even plain old misrepresentation, has become a career strategy. Even the reporter* who caused such a scandal at the NYTimes took the opportunity to blog about the missteps of one whom he must believe can help foster and reinvigorate his stained career in journalism.

I’ve been told of a famous fiction writer teacher and medical doctor from a hallowed school who regularly stole from his best students’ work. The power structure prevented anyone from calling this guy out. Several times I’ve found my work copied and used on websites word for word with no attribution given to me such that I stopped thinking about it. I would imagine that this happens frequently on the web. There’s a certain amount of pride maybe, that someone thought enough of what I’d written to reuse it elsewhere--but geez, at least they could have given me proper credit.

I almost laughed when two people on NPR said that they thought this would end Jonah Lehrer’s career in journalism. Before I finish this blog he’ll be up and running again, with little recall of his indiscretion.

Lehrer with his Oxford Rhodes and ivy league anointment, will not suffer for it in the long run. Inevitably, someone will grant a pass to this writer and say, “he's only human”--which will really be saying, gosh darn, this guy is so talented, the profession can't afford to lose him. He'll have a remarkable rebirth via an eager agent and publisher who will temporarily and theatrically condemn him publicly, while they slap him commiseratively on the back and  plot his reemergence.

Disappointed are all those writers with integrity but without Lehrer's pedigree who face diminishing opportunities to earn something for their hard work. 


*Jayson Blair, fallen of the NYTimes

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Insistence On Persistence


This is maybe an echo on the last post, which I put out hastily, but with no elaboration. This is the elaboration.

Reading the Wallace Shawn interview in the latest Paris Review, I thought, it’s hard to imagine this writer would not be doing what he is and have become good at it, if he was merely pompous. Which is apparently what Wallace Shawn is accused of being, pompous.

Barring a stable set of readers, I realize I’m not going to appear to a random reader to have anything new to say--and maybe I’m not. But if my work touches one person, it must be worth the effort. Then again, you have to overcome a lot of skepticism to deign to believe you can add to the conversation.

That’s one of the first steps in being a writer, and maybe it’s too falsely achieved--that quality of believing you have something to say. We’d sometimes like to accuse others in the struggle that they should consider if they really have anything of worth to contribute, but we could heed Wallace Shawn here:

“. . . without writers, humanity might be trapped in a swamp of idiotic, unchanging provincial cliches. Yes, there are writers who merely reinforce people’s complacency, but a writer like Rachel Carson inspired the activism of millions, and writers like Lady Murasaki, Milton, and Joyce have recorded people’s brains! And for any writers to exist at all, there must surely be a tradition of writing. Maybe in order for one valuable writer to exist, there must be a hundred others who aren’t valuable at all, but it isn’t possible at any given moment for anyone to be sure who the valuable one is.”


Who am I to say whose efforts aren’t worthwhile--including myself?

I like to think there is something to persistence, on the other hand there’s the notion that if you repeatedly keep trying to do something and repeatedly fail at it, that this is the definition of crazy. I’d also sometimes like to believe that I don’t have a set tolerance level, that I’ll keep trying to achieve an elusive (seeming) goal without ever calling the attempt into question. But I’m guessing tenacity pays off. Every story or piece of writing didn’t exist at one time, and after it did, it maybe will have taken dozens of attempts to get it noticed (i.e., published). Writing, in this way, becomes the penultimate illustration of this theory. I’d already more or less given up on many stories (not with cause) simply because I spent years sending them out to no avail, and by some fluke I sent one out two or three years after I’d given up on it long enough to come back to it, take it off life support, and send it flying into the void again--for no discernible logic--not that I ever stopped believed in in said story. Another self-serving notion I cop to is that “it just wasn’t time,” or, “maybe next time,” which are really ways of persisting at something even though, clearly, there is no apparent justification for the hope.

Unless the fact of the story eventually finding a home is one.

The kicker of this is that I still try. I still doubt I should, or say I’ll give up, but as time passes, I write more that gets me excited again, and while sifting through the new pile, I find something buried in the old pile. I’ll think, this hasn’t been sent out in two years, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with it (hubris has no place in the determination to get published)--in fact, I could just change it here and here, and I’ll send it out. To date, that’s how most of my published fiction got picked up. So even if I had to spend a lot of time going through the slog of postage, contest entry fees, grosses of 20 pound 96 bright paper and countless unenlightening trips to the office supply store, I can’t really say it wasn’t worth the effort.

So, maybe I’m feeling particularly resilient these days, or am trying to coddle myself into thinking I am this way. I just don’t know if I would get anywhere if I wasn’t at least paying lip service to this theme of indomitable persistence.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Doing The Numbers

It’s been years since I’ve submitted up to 200 pieces in a year, and from my stats I can see this is the number it takes a year to get published. Though in some cases, I actually had two pieces published from this quantity, so maybe the actual number is 100 pieces submitted for each publication (I have a post on this which talks about stats, and it’s a slightly different equation which I’m not going to bother explaining here). I am confident a story I’ve been sending out this year will soon find a home, and am beginning to think I should self-publish a short story collection, of which most of the stories have already been published in various quality lit mags. (Antioch, SMR, Evergreen)

The difficult reckoning is knowing one has a quality body of work that only a handful of people might have read. So why not just keep submitting? I am, but with much less quantity, though no less lacking in focus than before. I use most often the ready, fire, aim method. Yes, it’s as scattered as it sounds.

In any case, I think I’m mostly done with pursuing agents. I never thought I’d say this, but I have had far more interesting response from publishers for my novels than agents. I will pursue publishers until I’m sick of that and before I give up in total despair and go the self-publishing route.

Yet, I don’t know what publishers are looking for. If anything, I think the strengths of my work that get them interested on a sample, is consistently there through the entirety of the work. It’s not like I wrote a great novel up to page fifty and said fuck it. How did I get all of this other work published? Here’s my litmus test: if James Frey was sitting on one of my novels, you can believe his agent would be over the moon to publish it. Or Dave Eggers for that matter.

I’m as ever, perpetually baffled by the publishing industry. (And maybe that’s the key word to note, it’s an industry).

I’m not an active social media guy. I still feel like I’m going to keep writing and pursuing these specious interests until long after the world has moved on to more remunerative pursuits. A perspicacious admirer tells me that I need to do more social networking; let’s just say this little personal note is my calling card. And I am on Twitter when I can cough up 140 character witticisms. Other than that, it’s called love--of what I do. I vow to keep at it. One thing I can say--frustrations be damned--I am having fun with it.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Novel Postmortem Absurdum


Among the reading public, it’s become fashionable to say "I no longer read fiction," as none other than Philip Roth did last year in the Financial Times. Yet since when has this become a rallying cry of disgruntled writers? Writers, mind you, not readers. Suddenly, writers are saying, "I don't read fiction, either." And the fiction police are waiting in the stacks (of fiction) with their billy-clubs to knock the offenders--or should that be, the offended?--in the kneecaps.

You usually expect this complaint from writers of non-fiction.

This attitude might spring from the epiphenomenon of anonymous comment logs on every piece about so-called dwindling returns of fiction. Maybe the backlash comes from the offended being offended by all those who are writing novels, because it seems everyone is, these days; everyone is also writing a memoir about their salad--or fast food--days, writing it of course after they've learned so much in trying to write their novels after pursuing their MFAs. So, if everyone hates fiction so much, why are they all working on a novel?

With  another announcement of the death of the novel, the success of e-readers and the proliferation of self-publishing, comes, remarkably, more novels to consider, sure, sometimes possibly of lesser quality, and thus more to complain about. But to me, the death of the novel seems closer to the brink when everyone is reading--and praising--the latest Krispy Kreme writers without a dissenting word among them. (Sweden, are you reading? Stieg Larsson? Begs the question of how a member of a certain academy had the gall to call out America’s literary output). But is this any different than any other time? If all of the dozens of novels published in the last year sucked, there'd be no hope, sure. But no doubt more great novels await being written by un-tested novelists who also happen to have memoirs stashed away they are thinking about dusting off.

I too, regularly burn my candle at the altar for fiction, until I find a novel that blind-sides and alters my outlook forever after. Because isn’t that the beauty of a novel, how it can change your life? To me, the novel never ceased being the main game.

I find it hard to believe that Roth would get nothing from A Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, Skippy Dies, or The Flame Alphabet. It seems that these days, readers of fiction are almost always just a step away from giving up on fiction. But for someone who writes it? To make a blanket pronouncement implying all fiction has become ceaselessly lame, has to make you wonder if such an attitude--from one who realizes he might have to relinquish his throne--might actually be indicative of a bounty.