Sunday, January 8, 2017

On the Future (Further) Intersection of Technology and Literature

One form of literature, at least the one that thrives through publishing on the internet, has been transformed by the internet. I’m talking about short fiction, the kind that is most amenable to the attention spans of individuals who use electronic devices. This is one way that we could posit that technology has made an impact on literature. This literature, in fact, is most often where the cutting edge appears because it’s not produced and hashed out by a marketing team.

What does the future of cutting edge literature look like? It’s not in traditional books, or rather, it’s no longer necessary for books to exist in order to present it.

I’m of a generation of writers who are almost a “creation” of the web. Of course, the web did not create me, but if it did go away, so would go away--at least in the digital ether--much of what I consider to be my best and most important work. Essentially, my work came of age with the web. Or I came of age when the internet did. I don’t know if I could conceive of the writing path that I’ve taken in the last fifteen years or so in any other way.

If you consider technology to be indispensable, maybe you ask that question, what if the internet goes away? On the one hand, there are those who believe it’s foolish to have any investment in the web (they shun having their work published there; they either can afford to, because they are safely ensconced in legacy publishing, or they don’t care about the web, consider it a fad or whatever, and maybe they do or do not use it as a tool, etc.), and on another extreme are those I would call the immersives who believe anything is possible, for example, that the web could evolve to the point of spontaneously producing intelligence. (If you think I’m grasping here, just watch this clip from Werner Herzog’s Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World) The web, and its inherent potential, is essentially out of our hands. It is uncontrollable.

If the internet vanished, there are still the people who have created the work, they will create more, and there will be new creators to come. Are we “dependent” on it like life support, or is it rather that we don’t--and can’t--imagine it going away? And even if the internet did vanish, something new would be created to replace it, probably Web 2.0.

To look at the changes that technology has wrought to publishing over just a few years: new ways of marketing, and more venues for one to promote themselves--these tactics can seem merely superficial. On the other hand, the broad reach and availability of these tools has made the web pervasive. What is significant is the impact of the web and its potential to reflect a zeitgeist. An arguable point is that the web has only become more essential, more necessary. For those firmly entrenched in legacy publishing, the internet is a supplement, if it’s not a foregone conclusion by virtue of what it lacks in relation to traditional print publishing. Equally, print might seem irrelevant to a lot of techies.


Again, no matter what changes and developments come, as far as the web and publishing, technology will always bring something new. Because we are constantly working within the technology, it is bound to change; technology constantly evolves. It is almost a “live” organism, in this sense. Whereas there have been no major innovations in the basic technology of the printed book for thousands of years.

In some sense, even writing is static. But perhaps the capacity of the creative minds that produce literature is a realm that is unpredictable, with a potential that we might never fully understand enough to have the capacity to reach. And this touches on notions of artificial intelligence creating a kind of literature. Such expectations I think are still beyond viable; it ultimately takes a human mind to craft the narratives and imbue the poetry of language with the lyricism that humans can grasp.

Since the dawn of the internet, every social media company with a significant financial stake in it has been trying to figure out how to monetize the web; the only way--or the main way--is subscriptions and advertising. If you put any intellectual content out there, you try to monetize it. Those producing it may not have a significant or pressing financial relationship to it. People may not feel obligated to pay for something they can ultimately get for free. This puts someone like me at a disadvantage. My options would seem to be to get into more paying venues. But the truth is that I’m not going to stop writing because no one is paying me.

No matter what speed technology can provide for the processing of data, reading and writing occur at a relatively slow pace, which is more or less fixed. It’s the same as it was 100 years ago, or as it was 500 years ago, and further. Could this convince us that book technology won’t change  for a long time, if ever?

The book, in some form, has been around for thousands of years. The computer, the tablet, et al, for less than a few decades. None of these advances have changed the book. Writing is a quiet and ancient technology in contrast to all pervasive technology as we know it. The change for writers, if they choose to utilize it, occurs mainly in the means of putting the work out there. The book is a relatively stable artifact. If we consider the futurist thinking of far flung possibility, maybe at some point a chip or device planted in the brain will allow access to all books. Then you’ll never need to read a book, you will have vague memories and knowledge of having already read it. Or you will be able to access it from the cloud you plug in to your brain. But even this won’t really change the way the literature that it contains is created. Someone still has to write the literature.

(Photo by Kyle Bean "The Future of Books" website, here.)


Saturday, December 24, 2016

Coming of Age in Bergen: Karl Ove Knausgaard's My Struggle: Book Five

Outside of a classic that contemporary readers often feel obligated to read, for example, Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, few probably ever spend 3000 pages reading a single writer. There are only a handful of writers who I would admit I would stay with for over a million words: J.M. Coetzee. Norman Rush, possibly. Beckett, of course. Beckett’s entire oeuvre likely doesn’t equal 3000 pages. I also think of William T. Vollmann, with his voluminous output, some of which I’ve read and dared to read, but I’ve never read anywhere near 3000 pages of his work; 3000 pages is merely a fraction.

Having read almost 3000 pages of My Struggle thus far, I’ve been with Karl Ove Knausgaard for the long haul. Every book of My Struggle has had me eager to read the next one.

It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what draws me in and keeps me coming back; there’s voyeurism in looking at his life. I found myself fully engaged reading Book Five, feeling a mix of recognition tinged with despair, and the satisfaction of simple narrative anticipation.

Whereas there was a kind of romantic youthful innocence an easy settling in Book Four, with Book Five we live with Knausgaard through that difficult period that is the twenties. Of the five books so far, Book Five is where Knausgaard reveals himself becoming serious about his life. This might be the most fraught, most difficult time of a man’s life. For Knausgaard, it’s that period where he discovers the first inklings of adulthood with the casual recklessness of relationships, the reckoning with a career and the daunting prospect of trying to imagine life going forward. As this is a writer’s memoir, Knausgaard is searching for his voice at this time, also, to become a writer and find the inspiration to take to the page. I’m reminded of Bryan Charles’s There’s a Road to Everywhere Except Where You Came From, though in that memoir the writer is coming to terms with similar issues, a kind of extreme social anxiety was the narrative driver.

I’ve had many of the same experiences that Knausgaard had growing up in the seventies, though of course with different landscapes and cultures. There’s the curiosity of the unfamiliar, which is embodied in the Norwegian customs and rituals, the rural differences. This is an enthrallment of an unfamiliar, or an eerily familiar, like an alternative universe paralleling my own. All of which made me feel present and involved in his life in the way the best fiction manages to engage. His musical references are mine, also: XTC, The Smiths, Simple Minds, are among some of the bands he is often profoundly affected by. On the other hand, I never went through the desperate relationship that he had with his father, nor did I have a gravitational attraction to alcohol. In some way, the crying he readily admits to feels manipulative of the reader; it can smack of forced sentiment. But his life is lived on his sleeve. The helpless anxiety that Knausgaard expresses at believing his future wife, Tonje, is going to slip away from him and fall into his brother’s arms--is palpable. It has already happened, after all, with another girlfriend early in the book. The pain and shame that is clearly a burden of an alcoholic father and wrestling with a major drinking problem himself, as well as a tendency to self-harm, feels painfully real to me as a reader.

Reading Knausgaard becomes an act of empathy. On the other hand, Knausgaard comes off as a sad case, and the inclination to take pity on him is there. But he’s not exceptional. His initial words on the book are retrospectively bleak:

“All that is left of the thousands of days I spent in that small, narrow-streeted, rain-shimmering Vestland town is a few events and lots of sentiments. I kept a diary, which I have since burned. I took some photos, of which twelve remain; they are in a little pile on the floor beside the desk, with all the letters I received during those days. I have flicked through them, read bits and pieces, and this has always depressed me, it was such a terrible time. I knew so little, had such ambitions, and achieved nothing.”

This might be a near universal sentiment for anyone looking back on their youth. I avoided seeing his story this way, perhaps out of some further sense of identity with him. Halfway in to the book comes the recognition that the engine that drives his life, is Knausgaard coming to terms with a shame instilled by an abusive father.

Knausgaard overcomes the role his father portrayed: brute, quick to anger, alcoholic, everything that’s the opposite of Knausgaard’s mother. This awareness is a component of the first few volumes, assuming one has read them in sequence, and this knowledge, I think, colors our subsequent reading. In a sense, a man learns the role from his father, good or bad and all in between. The male of society is not typically thought to be a natural nurturer.

Questions linger, unresolved in Book Five. Why do the two sons—Karl Ove and Ygnve--hate their father so much--and how overwhelming to them is his death? They are rife with sadness, as much as his passing might be a relief to them. In Knausgaard’s life, the death of the father becomes a kind of transfer of the role. When Knausgaard goes into family life, he seems to want to overcome his own father’s terrible life and legacy. That’s the struggle of My Struggle. Shame is the more obvious statement, as some reviewers have grasped onto, but is it shame at being like his father? Or not being obedient enough as his father demanded of him? What is really the source of shame? When you are sensitive, and you are shamed for it, it can be one of the most crippling experiences. I almost added the phrase “to overcome”, but I think one does not overcome their true nature: one learns to live with it.

Moving forward with a family for Knausgaard, would seem to suggest a sort of bargain. He’s confused about his life going into his thirties; as difficult as the family situation is, however fraught or full of joy and tribulation--it’s not easy. But as he leaves his family, he returns to one. The difficulty of his life with his father lingers and seems almost unresolved. AS much as he struggles with his new life, having children saved him. At least it makes him less self-involved. In them, his life carries on.

In a sense, in Knausgaard’s closing words at Book Five, his escape from Tonje and Bergen is, as he says, a way of not thinking. To play armchair psychologist, could we surmise that his eventual marriage and four children is also a way to move forward without thinking about the past? In other places in the memoir he talks about how he will do right by his children--it is stated almost as if it’s in spite of himself. It seems more as if he believes it’s the only thing he can do to not become his father--which some would say he is fated to do anyway.

Friday, December 9, 2016

Vicarious Narratives Part I: On David Szalay’s All That Man Is

The relationship of a reader to a work of fiction, when it works, is symbiotic. In the best instances--or at least the most conducive to a level of enjoyment for the reader--there is an element of the vicarious. This is the sense that you, as a reader, are privy to certain information. The irony of this is that you can feel this way--when anyone else who picks up the book will get the same experience. I’ve often thought a gossip quality in a narrative can serve a similar function as it allows the reader an entry into the piece, and a sense of engagement; maybe this is the same quality as “getting something” from the text and akin to what occurs for genre readers (horror, thriller, romance, et. al.) I’m thinking of this as I read David Szalay’s much praised All That Man Is which, though the opening story did not feel compelling to me--in fact, so underwhelming is it that I considered stopping. The only reason I did read the entire novel (which is essentially a novel in stories) was having favorably read chapters that had appeared in the Paris Review. On the whole, there are elements of several chapters that offer what I’m calling a vicarious experience, and these made it worthwhile.
Szalay does not write charming characters, another quality I’ve been fixed on as a necessity for an engaging read. Maybe the vicarious quality makes up for this lack of charm. With a degree of winsomeness, I can summarize the book as a series of male characters in their attempts, however pathetic, to find willing members of the opposite sex. As Szalay’s novel exemplifies it, this is a formative primal urge.
As often as it is there, this welcome and engaging quality of the vicarious is as often missing in Szalay’s work. I’m not sure if Szalay has deliberately tried to dampen his character’s appeal to the reader, and for what reason. Nevertheless, he frequently manages pulling a reader in to the narrative. This is the gift that a writer must strive for, and achieve.
I suspect Szalay did not start out the book with that first story, as I doubt many agents or publishers would have found it compelling. This aspect is something that I become conscious of in my own work, usually with the novels. It is obvious that the narrative needs to carry a reader. I think post Knausgaard, this quality of the vicarious is one that I need, as well because I’m finding less fiction engaging these days. Or I need to find this quality in order to commit to reading.
For Szalay, the curiosity for me began to kick in fifteen or twenty pages into the second story. Up to that point, I believe I was thinking, “where is this going?” while suspecting it would have to go to the obvious places. But isn’t this then just an instance of having my expectations met? If so, is that merely a kind of escapism, and is that what I’m really looking for? I think I teeter on the edge of that: the expectation of having my expectations met, and the expectation, still, of surprise.
Szalay isn’t always clear on where he places the focus in the novel. The opening ot the third story is almost bewildering in its lack of clarity as to the narrative’s direction. I don’t believe this is intentional, but the sense is that the author is trying to work within a close third person. As with the first story, the storytelling puts the reader at sea in trying to understand the writer’s intent. I get the sense that Szalay may have started the story with one idea, then shifted focus (and none of the chapters have titles, just numbers).
Szalay is often sloppy, and lacks precision (it might be argued that that is one and the same thing). I think I wanted to like All That Man Is more than I did, based on those constructed notions that the author was writing for me, not coincidentally the vicarious quality I believe we are praising Knausgaard for. But in this case I come away with an equivalent sense of unease, as if I’ve just had to listen to someone’s tawdry coming of age tales on a cross country (Europe) bus trip, and maybe that was ultimately more of a disappointment.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

The Inward Gaze (Part I), and “My Dinner With Andre”

The position Andre takes in My Dinner with Andre is a despondent one of privilege. He’s so conscious of his despair that it seems a thing of study, a project, and he comes off much like a maudlin Woody Allen character. Wally points this out to Andre, but in the process he becomes almost strident, and defensive, while Andre maintains a cool unflappability. For all of his despair--and outrageous experiences that verge on the implausible--Andre is the one we are meant to perceive as a sage. (Let me just say up front--I have always loved this film.)

The movie has much to say about the evils of capitalism, which, by virtue of its obviousness, you might think yourself crass to not immediately drop everything to go trek into the woods to live. This critique of capitalism is a position I am familiar with, and have found indispensable at certain periods of my youth. Yet seeing how entrenched society is, I have come to resist my old railing against the system in favor of the inward look, the solace of, for lack of a better notion, poetry (not poetry explicitly, but poetics, perhaps, the search for apt words, the struggle to speak, to articulate; this does include poetry, of course).

Brian Eno believes it is all inside of us--by which he means god or the divine, as does Jung (“...who looks inside, awakens.”), and I want to agree. It’s that which I give to myself that grows rich and spends me (Rilke). I don’t know when, or if, I have ever really had to go looking outside of my own passionate engagement with my creativity in search of something, an answer, a cure-all--though I’m sure I’ve made the effort; particularly when it was asked of me. Or expected.

Is the inward gaze an apt countermeasure to the perceived evils of our technologically driven society, or is it akin to apathy? I worry this attitude might be false contentment, or cold comfort: the world is going to pieces while I’m navel gazing. I recall a friend pulling the phrase out (“cold comfort”) in a way that made me think he was a tourist observing his own neurotic tendencies, as he seemed to have a new diagnosis every few weeks or so. This, again, is the privilege of the intellectual, the social commentator, the crank--the Luddite? That’s what I sense from Andre in the movie, that his despair is a pose bundled into a convenient cultural criticism that allows him to be clever, and self-regarding about his diagnosis.

For many of us, I suspect, observation and comment can seem like the only and main comfort. Is this any different than tweeting or sending text messages to cohorts? Is the resort to social media a quick fix--is the careful delineation of thoughts posted for an unknown audience in any way approximate to the inward gaze? Maybe only in terms of one being private, while the latter is public. The use of social media is often only a quick fix. It’s often merely reactionary.

To my own argument I’ll say, my expositions here don’t require the jittery feedback of an immediate response. My work is more on the slow burn of accumulating thought. I’m not looking to deaden my senses; the work I do is to awaken myself to the possibilities inherent in language. I consciously make the choices I do with my time. These activities are, to me, not escapes; of course, I can conjure the voice of an Andre saying, “You do not see them as this, but that’s what they are.”

I consider the plight of Andrew Sullivan, who laments his dependence on technology in a recent New York magazine, and imagine that for him, what he complains about is actually his bliss: his mind being sapped for a constant hit of dopamine. How is my presumptive bliss--this, writing, reading--any different? Isn’t the loss of our mind to a fictional world for hours at a time no less of a concern?

I think back to Mihaly Csikszentmialyhi’s essential book, Flow, which first established for me the importance of maintaining that inward gaze. There’s a popular class at Stanford, and now a book (Designing Your Life: How to Build a Well-Lived, Joyful Life), in which the authors have utilized these concepts to help people figure out their true calling in life. Frequently, I try and fail to find flow in my work, but I’m not going to trade in the search to follow some daily stream of nonsense on a screen. I don’t have a smartphone to keep myself entertained. (Not to seem too virtuous, but I do have periods of my youth spent at mindless screens (video games), and later, mini-web rabbit hole searches; but I always resurfaced, and never stayed with these activities for long). Maybe this is the key to flow: ultimately, I find my own creative process more stimulating and satisfying than the soporific feed of the web.

I’m aware of how lucky I am. Maybe my concern be more of a concern for my fellow men, who may not have the same wherewithal. I tend to presume that everyone has enough self-restraint to wise up and take care of themselves to put their devices away when the muse beckons; I can’t complain about a lack of willpower.

In My Dinner With Andre, Wally reckons with the panic that he can’t still his mind--this film was made in 1982, long before we became immersed in the web 24-7, so this is prescient--and for a lot of technology junkies, a moment of quiet within one’s own mind is a difficult breach, possibly far more dreadful than anything imaginable. I believe I know this fear, also, but if anything have learned how to turn it into a tool for my writing; indeed, I think it’s the only way writing gets done.

What if this condition of the unquiet mind is as rampant as it seems to be, or we are led to believe? I sometimes suspect it is far worse than I can imagine; that the mass of men (and women) really do live lives of quiet desperation. Maybe this is the present form of quiet desperation: the immersion of our devices, another app. Is this why it can seem that people turn to technology for the next quick fix, much the way Andre goes hopping among pseudo mystical retreats in search of an answer?

I try not to imagine a bleak technological future, and maybe I’ve convinced myself that I remain at a safe, self-imposed remove. I neither feel a need to shout among the train riders engrossed in their devices, nor do I salivate for the next gadget.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

2016 Best of the Net nomination for "Building the Perfect Wings"

Decomp magazine has nominated my piece, "Building the Perfect Wings" for the 2016 Best of the Net. Thanks to the editorial staff at Decomp for selecting my work!

As well, my first official published poem, "Reversal", will be appearing in Crack the Spine Literary Magazine next month. Thanks to them, and to all the editors who have given these votes of confidence for my work, now and over the last eleven years.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Five (Make that Six) New Works Going Live Soon

It's been a busy and productive time, and this explains the dearth of recent posts. However, I have new pieces upcoming in five journals, in the following alphabetical order (links added as available):

Draft: The Journal of Process, and their Marginalia blog will feature my piece "False Memoir, True Fiction: The Slippery Slope."

JMWW will publish "Survey" on August 17th.

Fiction Southeast will publish "Be Proud, Be Brave, Aspire!" on August 25th. This piece was originally written for a feature in a national magazine, and focuses on my ambivalence about the writing life.

Fjords Review will publish "Verse for the Averse", my review of Ben Lerner's "The Hatred of Poetry". I've been an avid Lerner-ite since I've read his two novels, and have recently started dipping into his poetry.

Juked will publish "Domestic Triptych", which continues in a vein of short fiction I've been writing about relationships.

Newfound will publish "Writing Contra Technology", my review of Sven Birkerts's "Changing the Subject: Art and Attention in the Internet Age". This book is a follow-up to his Gutenberg Elegies.

Thanks to the terrific journals and editors of the above. Links to follow when available.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Creative Nonfiction in Gravel Magazine, "The Other Animals"

A new work of memoir / creative nonfiction is live at Gravel Magazine. "The Other Animals" details my crafty evasion of the future Trump demographic, while camping in Michigan's Nordhouse Dunes several years ago. In the piece, I give a nod to the late Jim Harrison, who provided silent counsel on that singularly life changing trip. Many thanks to Gravel Magazine for their great work, and to Michigan for providing the picturesque setting.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Flash Fiction vs. The Novel: How to Make a Writing Practice in Today’s Market


The path to a successful writing career is not always clearly marked. I think of Samuel Beckett writing Waiting for Godot, and his surprise and despair at its eventual success. Over the years, this unprecedented play would eventually astound and confound audiences worldwide, making the author’s name. Yet Beckett had been writing fiction for years, and his foray into playwriting was initially out of frustration with how his fiction was being received. After Godot, he continued to write plays and fiction, and in his fiction, perhaps in reaction to the success, he went inward, creating even more obscure and consciously inaccessible work. Ultimately, his playwriting defines his body of work as frequently as his fiction does.
The road my writing career has taken is ultimately not the one I had envisioned. If anything the way I imagined it was to be more traditional (read: with more financial rewards). But somehow, without a clear path to having my novels published, I have tried to adapt to the market. I could as easily say I have adapted my writing practice to the limits on my time to write. The two aren’t mutually exclusive. Though I’ve not lost any of the ambition I have for the novel, the restrictions on my time have led me to writing quite a bit of shorter fiction. As I have adapted, I’ve begun to feel the trend away from the traditional route is inevitable, but also another potential path.
In terms of the online writing market, there are far more outlets for what could be considered esoteric and experimental short work, which seem to dominate the online journals. This may be because there are more people writing, and there is an accommodating rise in a need of outlets for this work.
Starting out as a writer of fiction, I was hungry to publish. This then became a desire not merely to publish, but to publish more. Naturally, this led me to writing and submitting shorter work. Yet I was already writing this type of material in school--informed by my reading--before I knew there was a market for it. Essentially, this type of writing has fallen under the rubric of traditional flash fiction, though it goes by many other names: short fiction, short experimental fiction, hybrid writing, etcetera. In fact, much of this type of writing is similar to what Beckett was producing in his Texts for Nothing, and fizzles. What I’m not talking about are short stories per se, but the work that predominates online venues such as Decomp, Spork Press, Word Riot, and many others.
               I’m sure there is some correlation between the length of a piece and its likelihood of getting published. There’s probably also a correlation between the intensity and effect of short fiction, versus that of longer work. The intensity can’t be maintained for 70,000 words. In fact, most people wouldn’t want to read it. (It’s called Finnegan’s Wake.) Yet often enough, with short experimental work, I believe I’m writing at my best. I don’t have to adapt to any style or form. There are no expectations, frankly, and fewer rules, for what this short fiction can be. In it, I find I can thrive.  
Much of the time, I try to carve chunks of time to finish a traditional novel, an ever present grail project, because the reward for that can be multiples of what one receives from publishing a piece of short fiction. Still, that kick from getting my work published is always rewarding. And it’s much more expedient to write a 500 word piece than it is a 70,000 word novel.
Where does this place me as a writer among thousands of other writers? I still aspire to a traditional career, but over time I am adjusting my original expectations and goals. I am ten years into my writing career, and I’m accumulating a body of work that has been vetted by many editors I’m grateful to. I consider this short fiction some of my most exciting work. Is it because I don’t rely on writing to support me financially, that I’ve been able to pursue a career in this way? This notion, though in some ways merely convenient (I would have made money on it if I could have figured out how), validates the idea I have for myself of being an outsider. The trade-off with a traditional career is that I can write whatever I want--whatever comes to me in the odd hours and can’t be shaken. This might actually force me to experiment, if not simply to compete, then because I’ve made it a point to subvert my own expectations for my work.
              Yet there is a paradox here. I’ve spent many hours on novels--years, really--and exponentially less time on most of the work that has gotten published. This could imply that I’m better off to keep pursuing the online fiction writing markets. The success I’ve had publishing has me often wondering if I am trying to hard to peg myself, and my writing. (This happens in my reading also, as I spend inordinate amounts of time trying to find books to read, and am often as disappointed as those people who feel duped into reading the next big thing. My gut inclination often, thankfully, gets me to veer from this reading.)
A novel can become an all consuming project; Henry James’s “loose, baggy monster” is a reminder to keep perspective and not overthink the work. Yet a novel is a rationally plotted compendium; though it might be made up of those pieces that could resemble the short fiction, the end must conform to the larger project. A novel is much less open ended than a piece of short fiction. I’m ambivalent about this.
               In my writing practice, I teeter between the unearthing of my subconsciousness, those visions tapped in dreams, and the material where I try hard to attain clarity and project a plausible story. If I have any frustration, it might be the limits of this way of traditional storytelling. With short fiction, I break the rules all the time. Inevitably, this is what grabs an editor.    
              I rarely let this work inform my novel writing. I might do this because I don’t see any writers as models for this approach. In a sense, a writer can be ghettoized by their success; it might be difficult to convince oneself that it’s worthwhile to venture into a different form. If only this was my problem.


Monday, February 1, 2016

New short fiction in Decomp Magazine, "Building the Perfect Wings"

Thanks to editor Jason Jordan at Decomp Magazine, who has accepted for publication my fiction "Building the Perfect Wings" for their February issue. This is another fatherhood related piece, my pet theme lately. Decomp is a terrific old school literary web magazine with a discerning emphasis on experimental and short work. Publishing since 2004, they have an estimable web legacy--and plenty of award nominees and recipients in their ranks. I'm pleased to join them. You can read it here.

Thursday, December 31, 2015

"The Trials of the Father" forthcoming new fiction at Literary Orphans

Fiction usually enters the world under mysterious circumstances. Over time, it can molder in a file, or it can take on a new life through the process of publishing. As I’m always extremely grateful to see my work published, there's almost a greater satisfaction in seeing a piece published after it is rejected by the venue that it was originally written for.

Literary Orphans, commenting on their blog, state that: "The world we struggle to create on these binary pages is a world that will make you uncomfortable and reflective." That encapsulates what I often aim for in my work. As I think of the pieces I send out as orphans, this journal seemed like an apt home.

Thus I’d like to thank Literary Orphans (and their blog, The Tavern Lantern) who have accepted the three 100 word pieces that make up “The Trials of the Father” for their upcoming issue. (You

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Bringing Secondary Characters to Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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

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



Thursday, October 8, 2015

Roth’s First Person Point of View in Operation Shylock

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Interested in reading Part I? Check it out here.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Are there literary uses for boredom?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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