Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Landscape Lacking Weather

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Unprecedented Literary Renaissance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

One Star Reviews

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, September 30, 2012

The Southeast Review

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

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Exploring Vollmann’s Labyrinth

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

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Hate This Book!

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

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

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

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Plagiarism Career Strategies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*Jayson Blair, fallen of the NYTimes

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Insistence On Persistence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Doing The Numbers

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Novel Postmortem Absurdum

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Experimental Versus Realist

The work of fiction doesn’t really exist until it is read.* And thus the effort of keeping a reader’s eyes and mind (and maybe heart) glued to the page is attending to the entertainment value of the work. This brings up the question of, is what we do as writers meant to entertain? This idea can seem sacrilegious, because we’d like to believe our work is about artistry. Yet why should artistry exclude being entertaining?  Though I’ve often felt people will try to argue me into this position, particularly those people who imagine they will become the next Steig Larson—claiming that “Fiction isn’t art, it’s only meant to entertain.” The problem with this is the absolutism. A lot of the party lines established in these arguments exclude this one notion by which a work succeeds or fails: did the writing keep you reading?

Sometimes in reading you can become bored and can be assured that the writer must have been bored when writing.

This is a truth I hold to be self-evident: At the very least, a piece of fiction has to keep you reading.

This, for some reason, has become the determinant of the experimental versus realist divide.

There is an assumption that if you like avant garde work, or experimental fiction, that you can’t have much interest in making your work desired to be read, and this follows around any writer who professes an interest in experimental work.

While researching the review for Ben Marcus’s The Flame Alphabet, (available to read here via Rain Taxi), I read his long Harper’s essay “Why Experimental Fiction Threatens to Destory Publishing, Jonathan Franzen, and Life as We Know It: A Correction.” Written in 2005, the piece, which isn’t dated at all, is an intriguing insight into just how much of a struggle there is in this divide for a would-be commercial fiction writer who aspires to practice in a strain of the experimental.

One conclusion? Jonathan Franzen suffers from having bought into the idea of the ascendancy of experimental literature in the late 80s and early 90s, only to have failed to have actually written any novels with spine or teeth--or known skeletal structure at all--and then feeling betrayed by the failure to achieve the requisite fame from his religion, only going on to find success when he sold out his po-mo leanings to write straightforward realism. Selling out his “radical” past is what he’s been doing ever since. Eventually atoning to the gods of realism because he feels betrayed by the evil Gaddis, Coover, Hawkes, et al. This occurred, according to Marcus, in the years between 1996 and 2005.

The turnaround for Franzen? He had been writing books that no one wanted to read. Which is not to say they resembled anything experimental. Rather, Franzen’s early work is only partially successful in terms of reader engagement, and bears no semblance to anything experimental. Mostly, I think, they are just unsuccessful as novels. If we’re talking about quality, it’s easy to criticize a writer who seems not to want to be left out of the flavor of the month game.

After The Corrections he figured it out. He wanted to keep a reader reading. Freedom is the full flowering of his mission and is successful on this eminent readability count, though the unexpected praise that he received from N+1 for this novel was strange and unwarranted adulation from a group that acts like it wants to be the rear-guard action of the avant garde.

With a lot of these arguments, I find myself questioning the either / or nature of whether one is an experimental writer or a realist. In my ideal world, I would like to think that one could write a number of different ways that suit their purposes for whatever piece they are writing. Yet so often, one seems required to pledge their allegiance to this camp, or that one. There is almost a defensiveness that creeps in to arguments as to the definition of the fictional journey for oneself.   

To quote Marcus, there is a strand of realism; “[a]t its worst, it’s uninspired, dull and oppressively devoted to its modern forebears Cheever and Updike, and it wears such a heavy tire mark on the exhausted assumptions of psychology that reading it is akin to constantly crawling from a trench of received ideas.” (Harpers essay, pg 43)

I’m guessing one could attribute to the opposite camp, for all intents and purposes, experimentalism, a similar kind of diagnosis—and any dull or uninspired fiction would fall into the category. In fact, I think it could be argued that this is more likely with experimental work, for how varied the parameters by which it might be judged successful. I feel a little sting at Marcus taking a gut shot at Cheever and Updike, yet I’m also skeptical. There is room for many approaches, even one that might find inspiration in Cheever, of whom frequent Marcus champion and, himself, equally criticized practitioner of his own realism (of a kind), Michael Chabon, has been known to idolize.

Though I have an open heartedness toward, usually, anything innovative and challenging which can border on an excited eagerness to read—maintaining my own not so secret pedestal for Beckett—I often imagine my leaning is toward the experimental (so many of my advisors were clearly in ghettoized experimental camps), though I’m quite sure I haven’t pushed the boundaries and am rather more working in the realism tradition. I assume that what Marcus is saying is, we should challenge ourselves, ultimately. And if you are engaged with your fiction, it’s hard to see how this won’t produce something novel, compelling and hopefully, inspired. And that will keep readers reading.

*I would have timidly denied this before I ever had anything published, I’m sure; now I tend to understand this idea as putting my will into my writing so that someone will want to read it. And it has to be at that level for me to put it out there—like I’m signaling a sinking ship, throwing up flares for some distant horizon.

Monday, April 30, 2012

The Flame Alphabet

My review of Ben Marcus's The Flame Alphabet is online at Rain Taxi, here. Notably, this review was posted alongside another reviewer's take on the novel, Laird Hunt, who has written several novels himself. Kudos to Ben Marcus, who seems like a nice guy (gauging his reading at City Lights Books last January). "Marcus's portrayal of a world on the brink of the end of writing and communication, however fantastic a premise, signals an intriguing aspiration towards some new life for the novel."

Friday, March 23, 2012

Ecstasies of Influence*

To consider the bookworm who first attempted to write novels, a fan and voracious reader, Jonathan Lethem’s writing is all about influence. The trouble with fandom is sometimes you’re going to lose your audience if the references are not appealing, necessarily, or if they are not gotten, or are cribbed in some way that smacks of calculation. Lethem’s work cycles around the idea of the reader as adept, the seduction of influences, the segregation of highbrow from lowbrow and the favoring of the underdog, populism by way of speciousness. It also manages to be inexhaustively positive in the exaltation of limitations.

Thus, The Ecstasy of Influence, a collection of essays and odd pieces.

Lethem is a self-taught intellectual, and it’s clear from his discussions about it, that this something he is proud of, feels unique in, and hopes you, the reader, will identify him as such and thus, identify with him. He has that knack of the auto-didact that prevents him, sometimes, from speaking (writing) more directly, perhaps; though such enthusiasm is hard to begrudge. Lethem is that writer who takes know thyself as a credo, and rewards those who, like him, feel no shame in being self-congratulatory about it.

It must be difficult to know ones’ influences enough to say with confidence what their writing is like, as he does in “Against “Pop” Culture,” yet Lethem seems so self-assured in pointing his out that it’s hard to deny him. You have to believe him. And yet he sounds a lot like someone boasting because he knows no one else has these same specious, even archaic and mandarin (his word) influences. Yet it makes for an intriguing personal narrative that even creeps into his novel, The Fortress of Solitude.

The essay reflects perhaps the claiming of high culture over low culture artifacts of the contemporary status quo, ie., DeLillo over Graham Greene, akin to the argument that Franzen seems to make. Some artifacts, in other words, are “out of the canon,” and it’s thus a popularity contest to make the right claim. Lethem is adamant about how he’s unique, and he’d rather you know he’s more in solidarity with the losers. And don’t even try to call him “experimental.”

Or maybe he’s just saying you’ve got to stand for something or you’ll fall for anything.

The art of a writer who can convince you he’s so mercilessly assimilated his influences wouldn’t need to call attention to them, but that wouldn’t be fair in an essay like “The Ecstasy of Influence.” That would be considered plagiarism. But often the plagiarist question is the unknown influence, when the writer “claims” they don’t know how that other writer’s words got in there, or of the wink and nod variety of Lethem, or David Shields. To simply utilize another writer’s words (appropriation) isn’t a crime unless it’s unattributed; it’s considered sacrilege in a work of fiction, usually.

How to put the MacArthur into perspective? It strikes me as being well-deserved, but he might not say so, nor would he want to talk about it. The idea of it forces him to find a new way to talk about all of his obsessions, and the result is “The Ecstasy of Influence”.

There might be a kind of arrogance is Lethem criticizing a critic (James Wood); after all, the very fact that this critic is writing about Lethem's book--and not in unfavorable terms--is a magnanimous gesture. It’s less on Wood because the author seems to be crying “but you aren’t getting all of my inter-textuality!” etc.

I applaud Lethem’s productivity, on the other hand, it’s a bit churlish to engage in the dialogue as he does.

Of course there is buying into and accepting the myth of greatness, which is only a construction; so many cited for greatness get slack and never reach the level of whatever got them there in the first place. We’re always disappointed in our heroes, ultimately. But the perception is there, and if you are not one of them, you are probably making your own contribution to the myth by engaging in the conversation. The danger in honesty and frankness is that someone will always perceive it as a weakness, as something to tear down because you are not willing to construct a false fortress around your image.

I think this game or role playing is probably the one thing I always think Lethem is actively doing; though I like what he says, I’m not sure it’s not carefully choreographed. But I think most writers would not choose to present themselves so earnestly. It’s a self-protective function. Just like in life, one constructs the image which reflects most favorably on them; for writers it is: don’t engage in criticism, praise others as you would like to be praised. In other words, don’t do anything that could hurt your market, your brand.

Lethem has gotten in the backdoor, the way Rick Moody has, I would say. They’ve arrived, and there’s no threat of self-destruction or false pretence to trying to save the world, or to present themselves as so above everyone by these golden artifacts they occasion to publish every ten years or so. Lethem began largely through a genre door. Make no mistake, these authors have to produce, but what does account for the scarcity of their name-making efforts? The point is that this is all about the maintenance of the myth, and not about any real impetus to actively being a writer; you have to give Lethem credit for acknowledging it.

The more abstract and turbid pieces of the collection (“Postmodernism as Liberty Valance”) show no publication attribution; it seems Lethem could have used a critical editor here. Often, the circling back of logic in such convoluted sentence making had me on the boards. I called uncle. And I’m not one who easily lets interesting thoughts go.

There are quite a few instances when my inner philistine felt really small (it’s smaller than my id to begin with), and I admit the impulse to jot down the word or reference Lethem tapped to add to my own collection.

He can seem almost too self-congratulatory, as in his spinning preface; he’d almost have to have already won you over, I think, for you to venture into the essays.

Maybe the best thing about reviewing is that the “I” never comes up, or maybe shouldn’t, it’s just the learned voice hovering over the proceedings, in the background. Sometimes Lethem’s “I” gets him carried away. In the pieces where it does occur, he could use some restraint--because when it’s not there, it is hovering in the background.

His voice is most appealing in the mode of interrogating and confronting his own long held obsessions (“Izations”) with comic book heroes. Here Lethem takes on an investigative reporter’s skepticism as he becomes a man on the street drawn into something like gossip mongering.

Since the pieces are all over the place, omniscient Lethem does a deft job of curating and editorializing as he shoehorns the oddments in. There are missteps in the collection (the turgid “Donald Sutherland’s Buttocks or Sex in Movies for people Who Have Sex”), and though Lethem makes ample excuse for them in the collection, it seems to me they do nothing to enhance his oeuvre, but subtly undermine it. 

Through the inclusion of what amounts to juvenalia (two short science fiction stories) he makes a connection to that may be true, though it briefly send the reader flipping ahead to see how long they have to read until the next piece.

The Lethem of the nonfiction is in danger of being everywhere, being all things to all people, becoming tiresome through ubiquity. Yet wouldn’t any writer relish that particular soapbox? And I feel I’m only criticizing as he might expect; my immense pleasure, and respect for his work, ultimately overrides my small, philosophical quibbles.  Lethem, a fan boy himself, has proven he can inspire this in his own work; it’s a kind of infectious enthusiasm that is a model of the writer’s life well-lived, and probably well-earned.

*This title replaces the one that was so ponderous that few read the post (Synthesizing Extrainstitutional Intellectualism), which itself was somewhat meant as a joke, was part of Lethem’s response to the New York Times, in a comment on the activities of a group of unemployed New York literati.  

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Barney Rosset, R.I.P.

The afternoon Barney Rosset’s wife Astrid called me to ask if they could publish my story, “It Was a Tree that Saved Me” in the Evergreen Review, I couldn’t believe my luck. It was the fifth or sixth fiction publication I’d had, and it capped a year of many, which felt like a wonderful omen. I recalled those reprinted compendiums of the Evergreen Review with the original jerky and small, serif-less text layouts that looked slightly anachronistic even for their time, and the counter-culture black and white images that connected, in my mind, to a historical movement in American fiction that has waned to its detriment. Getting into their journal felt like the culmination in some ways of so much that I’d been writing for, and I felt recognized, if only in this humble, small way. As an avowed fan of Samuel Beckett, I’d heard quite a bit about this ornery iconoclast Rosset, who had first published Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, and I was happy to be included in the ranks of their publishing legacy. Watch the terrific documentary Obscene to get a sense of what the man was like, and what he contributed. I consider Evergreen Review one of the best journals out there--even if it is merely online at this point--and know Mr. Rosset will be missed in the publishing world which grows ever colder and difficult to understand and negotiate for young writers. So long, Barney Rosset, 1922-2012.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Website Relaunch 2012

I’ve updated and relaunched my website robertmdetman.com, which has select publications links, a link to this blog, and a contact page. I’ve added a few quality blurbs from journal editors which will hopefully stir the cockles of potential readers, and I’ll be refining the design as I get the urge.

I’m not going to tout it’s wonderful new features, or how it makes an optimal experience for the user, because, frankly, no one cares. I’m just launching the thing, and love it or hate it (I love it a little bit), I hope you’ll take a look and read some of my fiction and maybe want to read more. Thanks to my professional UX instructor who guided me on Dreamweaver.