Thursday, December 18, 2014

Review of Nell Zink's The Wallcreeper at Nomadic Press

The terrific Nomadic Press and editor J.K. Fowler have published my irrepressible review of Nell Zink's charming The Wallcreeper, in the reading of which I learned more about bird watching than I ever thought possible.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Publishers Weekly's glowing assessment of IMPOSSIBLE LIVES OF BASHER THOMAS a novel by Robert Detman

Here, in its entirety, is the review from PUBLISHERS WEEKLY on the novel:

"Detman pulls together various forms and styles in an ambitious novel composed of transcripts, letters, and footnotes, told in sharp prose. On August 17, 1982, renowned photojournalist Nathan “Basher” Thomas is fatally shot. Decades later, Harry Ogletree, one of Basher’s closest friends, decides to write a screenplay about the murder. Harry visits Basher’s mother to speak with her about the project and collect a box of Basher’s personal effects. The contents of the box spur recollections of a road trip across the Mexican Baja peninsula, arguments in Michigan, and drug abuse in Paris, and also provide insight into Basher’s death. Harry follows these clues to Rancho Nacon, a mysterious Guatemalan jungle villa with an enigmatic caretaker. On his pilgrimage, Harry hopes the people he questions and memories he uncovers will help to deconstruct the mystery of Basher Thomas. Because of the book’s unconventional structure, the narrative is fragmented. Although the disjointedness complements Harry’s fractured search for information and meaning, the story’s momentum is often slowed by passages that are needed to prevent confusion and explain earlier elements of the novel. The best scenes focus on the intimate details and relationships between the characters. Detman’s stylistic choices succeed in the moments when Harry’s memories and Basher’s documents blur into the present, layering various methods of storytelling to create a fresh and intriguing work." 

Please help me out and go to the link, link back, tweet, and like. 

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Free giveaway of IMPOSSIBLE LIVES OF BASHER THOMAS a novel by Robert Detman


Doing a free giveaway here. For the first five people who contact me, (contact info available on this site) I'll send you a copy of IMPOSSIBLE LIVES OF BASHER THOMAS, my novel, which has received the following glowing praise from Publishers Weekly:

“An ambitious novel…layering various methods of storytelling to create a fresh and intriguing work.”

You just have to follow these instructions: Tweet my blog and provide a link to this website, also to @literarydetman with the hashtag #ILoBT and then let me know.

I'll have to get your contact information, but I'll have copies sent out as soon as I receive them from the printer. It may take a few weeks!

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Another orphan finds a home: Superstition [Review] publishes "Fire"

The estimable Superstition [Review] has selected for publication my short story "Fire." This long forgotten gem, many times altered inextricably from its origins and almost as many times re-titled (formerly known as "Double Kayak"), once went toe to toe with a dozen or more challengers as a finalist for the 2008 New Letters Literary Awards. Goes live December 4th.

Friday, October 31, 2014

On having to explain one’s work (or that dumbing down logic)

There is the idea that, as an artist, you should not have to explain your work. If there’s any need to explain, it seems to highlight some idea of there being a flaw in the work. If I attempt to explain my work, which I often feel compelled to do, it is usually out of a sense that the work will be misunderstood. Or it is just as much to alert an unsuspecting reader that this may not be what you expect. And since I think I can assume a number of folks who will feel compelled or curious to read Impossible Lives of Basher Thomas don’t normally read novels to begin with, I feel as if I have to brace myself for the impact of their eventual failure to get it--if there’s anything to “get.”

Thus when I asked Ben Marcus that question (, it was because I wanted to know if he ever felt a need to explain his work. Do I note a bit of tetchy sarcasm in Mr. Marcus’s response, as if I’m acknowledging what he is all too aware of? A lot of casual readers will probably not understand his work. This will continue as he tries to become a more mainstream author. If you are notoriously difficult, you can get shuffled into that gray zone: the experimental folks don’t think you are that cutting edge, and the realist folks find you too abstruse. David Foster Wallace, who would seem to require a lot of explanation, often gets a pass, and gets picked up probably as fast as he’s eventually put down by those readers in search of something new to read. And I’m not sure his explanations were any easier to understand than the work itself.

Not to say my predicament is anywhere near what Beckett might have faced, but for him, the necessity to not have had to explain seems paramount. His writing is hardly accessible. Then there is the curiosity of those who hear you expound on this (favorite) difficult author. Inevitably they turn to you, seeking explanation; explication. And in such situations I feel the onus of literature’s great, myriad, plainly inexplicable project that, rather than having one easily consumed and digestible nugget, is rather a project for a lifetime’s study. But no one seems to know this, or thinks it, particularly when they find something not conforming to their preconceived, even received, notions of literature. I can’t help you, I often want to say, as if committing my approval of a difficult writer’s work then requires me to become the village explainer.

There have been moments of panic, while editing Impossible Lives, that I might need to dumb things down a bit, or at least go further to make explicit why I have written it the way I have. But this is not to say Impossible Lives is so difficult or esoteric that it won’t be understood. When I’ve accomplished anything worthwhile, it’s often because I realized I’ve not had to please anyone but myself. This seems to me the exact opposite of the impulse that the agents and editors of the mega-conglomorate publishing-opoly would require of me. I would never be happy with my work being turned into, essentially, the equivalent of a ken doll. 

This points to the wonderful freedom of writing short fiction, where that dumbing down by others doesn’t usually apply. I think that the nature of short work gives a creative writer wide latitude because, if any publisher wants to consider it, they can read it in a sitting and grasp the whole of it quite readily. Editors are rarely going to come back to you with a ridiculous list of what you could do to your 500 or 1000 or even 3000 word story so that they will consider it. Rather, they take it or they do not. And when it comes to submitting a story, no explanation is required. No synopsis. No handy comparisons to similar works. Try getting a novel read like that. After submitting a short story, you might get a few editing suggestions, but they’re never on the level of fundamentally rewriting what you’ve already written. You’d never bother, if you are wise, and neither would they. Whereas with a novel, in the dumbing down logic, and with considerations by the marketing machine of a large publishing house, where they are literally banking on you, you would have dozens of lame opinions geared toward marketing. I take this information from the piece in Poets & Writers, “A Day in the Life of a Publishing House” (Vol. 42, Issue 5). Who hasn’t read one of these novels that’s been generated from some humble author’s work and found it to be exactly what it reads like: a mess, a neutered hodgepodge?

In other words, the first thing that happens if your novel has been anointed for publishing by the biggies is a disrespect of your work, which, if you want it to be published, you will accept. I can’t think of anything I’m more fundamentally and violently opposed to.

I will continue to read books put out by the industry heavyweights, only too aware how often the quality is off base. Like many readers, I’m a sucker for the hype. I usually need to read the hyped novel for myself to find out what’s so great about the next big thing. I came to Knausgaard early, purely out of curiosity and before there was any hype; now of course, the speculation runs rampant about this work and its quality. I found it eminently compelling, while I cannot say the same of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch. It was merely ok, even passable, but it’s hard not to feel like the hype is usually misplaced for so many name writers (add Murakami and Junot Diaz to the list). Much of what’s hyped in the mainstream feels steeped in a narrow mind-set and for me isn’t, in fact, strange enough.

As an avid reader, you know what you like and maybe even why, so invariably you take a chance on a hyped to death work, because you’ll never know unless you look into it. It’s easier to believe a lot of these established writers aren’t being guided by the editorial teams of their publishing houses, though the same probably can’t be said for the marketing department; you can be sure said author’s next work will be promoted as the “revolution of the novel” or whatever.

At least I can say, Impossible Lives is as pure a vision of its original intent as intended. I should not have to explain myself further.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Guerilla Marketing V 2.0

Almost without exception, everyone in publishing speaks of marketing and selling a book in terms that are, let’s be honest, anathema to most creative writers. The fact is, I doubt very much my fictional works are going to give you anything of value. I’ll go further and suggest that they are going to cost you time and maybe some small expenditure of money, and, in the worst extreme, if you despise the thing, I’ll have earned your wrath. You will only grow richer in terms of getting whatever value I might have imbued in the novel, however that is possible. I will go even further and say what most of the writers who attempt to heed sage marketing advice do not say, that my writing is basically a selfish endeavor. But I have always tried to write what I find interesting—and hope the reader also finds it worthwhile.

So it is that a writer pursues the dream, humbled by a bunch of publications under my belt, and almost always surprised when I can come up with something to say that I can put down with the ease and freedom I don’t take lightly, onto the web where possibly one or 1000 people might read it. At times I wonder, would Thoreau have had a blog? Tolstoy? Barthes? Most definitely. Ignoring the myriad technical questions such a thought implies.

Because of the ease and speed of the internet, the volume of written stuff must have grown exponentially each year in the last fifteen or so, to where I can now be reasonably assured that, because there are so many people attempting to put out their little darlings--which might be better off dying gentle suffocating deaths in file cabinets everywhere--that few, if any, will read mine. I have made some peace with it, possibly by having taken the matter into my own hands. Still, in the effort to drum up some old fashioned, even arcane technology for my own marketing campaign, I have produced a bookmark which I began distributing this past few weekends in a couple of bookstores in Los Angeles, and a bunch in the Bay Area. In L.A.: The Skylight Books staffer was kind enough to stick a stack on the gimme counter, among a variety of Xeroxed flyers and such—I’m relying on the appeal of the ubiquitous book mark presence—its utility, its necessity, its minor novelty. At Booksoup, I was told by the manager that “We have no room for them.” In most cases, booksellers were more than happy to allow me to leave a stack (which they may have left on the counter—though in some cases, I saw they were putting them in the gimme card section). Still, any visibility was good to me. Will this have any impact on the target audience for such a work of fiction as Impossible Lives of Basher Thomas? I’ll admit I have faith in my own ability to produce a graphically striking, hopefully iconic, book cover, because I couldn’t think of anything else, other than bombarding unsuspecting individuals in my e-mail address book and potentially wiping any good karma I might have established by resisting such “Ten things you must do to get your book sold,” tactics in the past. My method relies on a personal approach which I’m still not entirely at ease with, though I know I should be.

For anyone who wishes to purchase a copy of Impossible Lives of Basher Thomas, I am offering it at a discount of 25% ($12.64 after taxes and shipping). Just click on the buy button below the cover image at left. I will ship orders as soon as I receive them from the printer. Also, through Goodreads, I'm doing a giveaway campaign, also at the left.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Ben Marcus Responds to My Question on Goodreads

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

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Girl with Curious Hair: On David Foster Wallace as Storyteller

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, September 11, 2014

"First Time, Last Time" up at Akashic Books

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

Here's what Akashic says of the series:

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

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

The Second Inaugural Meeting of the Karl Ove Knausgaard Society

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 Loyalty 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.)