Wednesday, August 13, 2014

The Second Inaugural Meeting of the Knausgaard Society

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

The Li(n)e Between Truth and Invention in Fiction

In the recent biography Updike by Adam Begley, we learn that the celebrated writer ransacked his entire life for story material. He did it religiously, assiduously. In fact, he didn’t invent anything, he merely mined his own life. I found this both a surprise and a letdown. To read Updike’s stories however, the remarkable observation and acuity with detail perhaps make up for a deficiency in inventiveness.

What I’ve learned from reading Updike is that a fiction writer needs to have a painter’s eye for detail, and this can (or used to) be enough to carry a short story. Maybe my disappointment with Updike is that he hadn’t done more than this—he made fiction look so easy just using the basic tools of life experience--admittedly not a very exciting life, at that.

Contrast this to Alice Munro, in her last collection, Dear Life, she has an addendum onto the final four stories, that they are to be read as essentially biographical. For whatever reason, I have always assumed her stories are autobiographical. Why would I assume this for one writer, but not another?

Maybe there’s a lot to be said for a writer who can take the day to day of their life experiences for story material. If most people did this, I feel like we’d have incredibly boring stories. But as soon as you call it memoir, it changes the game (Just look at Knausgaard). Perhaps as a fiction writer, you are in one or the other camp.

Awhile back I must have decided I was in one camp—invention—versus that of using material from my life for fiction. Let’s call them inventors or lifers. I believe I’m incapable of writing a fiction from life, period. I just call it memoir. And because I’ve always coveted Updike’s writing, I assumed he had a natural way with invention.

Jim Shepard’s short story approach, as far as I can tell, is to research a subject that fascinates him, and imagine a story from that. It’s possible some of Shepard’s personal life creeps in to these stories, but really, how much? For example, the details of his recent 2013 Best American Short Stories story accumulate and deliver you somewhere that an Updike-ian story would and could not. So much in Shepard’s work is joyfully inventive, and I think it is in this kind of discovery that a writer makes, rather than the prosaic details of a less than fascinating life, that are what provide the transcendence that can elevate fiction. What’s convincing is the voice, and the fantastical elements within realism, or maybe it’s a transcendence of realism.

Stories that are invented need to be convincing, or some element of the writing has to lift it above mere narrative. Is what Updike pulled off the opposite of this–that his attention to detail makes the story convincing?

I find it interesting that almost all writing of anything of psychological depth is interrogated in terms of “did this really happen?” This might be a credit to the skills of the writer; isn’t there something to being able to transmute life into a story?

What is behind these arguments and discussions about whether a fictional story “really happened” or not, is that it might make the work more compelling. Because there is less at stake, the detail carries the story. Also, a key to a story written from life is its engagement with a gossip quality. Once we know it is based on life, there’s a curious desire to figure out who the characters are based on.

With invention, the writer is relying more on alchemy of a sort. Writing from life, the story is the material. Writing an invented scenario, the material is the story (is this a canard?). Maybe the language enters into the efficacy of the telling, but at some level, the narrative can’t involve distracting language. Is it possible to write a memoir to the level that transcends the language? This speculation could be entering the curious avenue of beliefs. Does Updike’s fiction now seem more compelling to know that all this stuff in his hundreds of stories actually happened in his life?

For me, there’s more of a charge out of writing from what I don’t know. I explored this extensively in an earlier post, “Against Personal Experience”. Something I did not say in that piece was that living life might tend to make you more aware of possibilities in your writing.

Updike would just recycle his experience through characters’ lives. I think, in fact, Updike would essentially rewrite the experience as a story, but he would not place the characters in Afghanistan, or have them drive trucks in Nebraska, for example.

This is not the same thing as invention, on the face of it. I will use the psychological elements of an interaction, but not the setting or scenario. So is it simply that writers are merely using these psychological elements in more or less invented situations? Is this distinction too unclear?

What these questions might actually be getting at is the authority of the writer, how writing seems to establish a benchmark on a detail or an incident from an actual life (or rather involving many lives). If the ancillary characters (based on real people) don’t see themselves as particularly involved or invested in that incident, as they may or may not be, they will feel slighted no matter what is said. The subjective encapsulation will never be enough, or it will be too much. In Updike’s fiction, generally, this seems to be the result; he often waited years to publish some of his more scandalous stories. He still wrote it, but what he wasn’t able to reveal he avoided publishing. If readers who are undeniable subjects of a story question it, it’s like questioning the version that is being told, since it is plainly, unavoidably, subjective.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

How to Use Your Short Work to Get Your Long Work Published

The exciting Akashic Books has a regular feature on their website, Thursdaze: Original Flash Fiction Under the Influence, and they have kindly selected a piece from my novel Impossible Lives of Basher Thomas. (This novel is also forthcoming from Figureground Press in October--cover at left--more details to come as they develop.) This excerpt, "First Time, Last Time", goes live on September 11.

Also, Em: A Review of Text and Image will be generously publishing my piece, "Anger Management", in the upcoming issue, slated for the fall.

Links for all of these to follow.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

A Reading on the Penultimate Eve of the Possible

HAARP, a literary journal brought to an unwitting public and published by The Hexagon Press, and as part of The Possible exhibition in cooperation with The Berkeley Film Museum & Pacific Film Archive, are publishing one of my poems, “Of Kafka” in their third and final issue, Vol. 1, No. 3 (scroll down to third issue to see index). In addition, there is a reading at Adobe Books (San Francisco) on Thursday, info available here.

Update: The link will allow you to download the PDF of the entire issue!

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Consistency. And the rise of short forms

A foolish consistency, though it may be the hob goblin of little minds, is also the way to go for a writing career. This seems particularly true when it comes to the short story. Perhaps it’s a choice based on economics: you’ll only grab a reader for those few pages, and if you can pull it off then, you might be wise to do it again and again. Some of the greatest writers of short stories are all about this economy of scale: Raymond Carver, John Cheever, John Updike, Alice Munro, George Saunders, Tobias Wolff, Charles Baxter. I might even include Lydia Davis in this incomplete list, though I’d add that her longer short stories never quite seem satisfying enough as short stories. But she’s got her short pieces down to a science, consistently. With these writers, you might see some formal playing around, but generally, not much deviation from the guidelines that have succeeded before. You can essentially take any one of their stories and it will offer a kind of template in tone, style, length, subject matter, among whatever other qualities that could be checked off, to their entire oeuvres. That these are the most beloved and lauded of writers says something about consistency. What it also might say about the marginalization of short stories, and their estimable writers who have made their names generally under the purview of short stories, is something else entirely.

The short story might be the most conservative of forms, in this regard. David Foster Wallace was anything but consistent when it came to the short story. He bridled at consistency, perhaps out of a need to challenge himself, to avoid boredom, or just because he could. But he seems to have cared less for the incremental rewards of the equivalent of little caffeine hits, and, as so many are led to believe in the publishing industry these days are, too, that short stories don’t sell, aren’t read, etcetera. Insert any number of maligning/marginalizing epithets here. I would guess that for a lot of short story writers, or writers in general, the onus is more on finding a habit that fits, though for a writer of DFW’s caliber, consistency in formal qualities was nothing to strive for. Consistency can be a lowest common denominator, but over a career I would suspect it would feel stifling and eventually as rewarding as sending out your dry cleaning.


The rewards of reading a short story might be like the incremental hits one gets from any addiction, caffeine, a check of the inbox, etc. In this way, the argument seems to be made for the popularity of shorter forms. They certainly become more facile to write, if only for the time required to produce them. And I’d venture in a very curious suggestion, that this is where populist poetry and the short story are converging, which is bound to make poetry less of a ghetto, eventually more mainstream (and you can imagine how the capital P poets feel about their territory being impugned upon!) Whenever poetry is popularized, you can hear the traditionalists crying foul. 

The form is ready made for the web.

This arrival of short forms has arisen with the internet and the self publishing venues. Before, this niche might have been under the canopy of poetry. In fact, some of these short prose pieces are difficult to define, and might just as easily be thought new forms of poetry. (As I’ve written a kind of poetry for years—I can’t even allow myself to call it straight up poetry, though others have—I’ve taken to submitting these short prose pieces both as prose and as poetry. Who is to say what they can or cannot be called?) The purists or experts might claim there’s too much writing to wade through, and the playing field has been leveled to a ground zero nuclear fallout zone. But who knows? I’m sure it was easier to be a writer, and be recognized for it, fifty or sixty years ago. Maybe this is about adaptation to technology.

I’ve gone through something of an evolution in my own work. I never used to write these short pieces, other than to be convinced I was writing poetry, and I’m not sure when I thought of it as a good idea. In some way it’s easier when you have time constraints, but it’s also more difficult to pull off successfully, because you have to accomplish that kind of frisson moment, perhaps even to call it a catharsis, within the space of a paragraph. In the same way you might question whether your 3500 word short story is working, you have to accomplish something--more often than not--enigmatic, in 2 or 300 words. 

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.