Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Very short P.S.A. from your friendly, local literary journal reader

The word "amble" and its various conjugations appears a lot in stories sent to literary journals. I understand you want something more descriptive than "walk" or "move," but I don't think this is your choice quite often. Just like you've probably read not to overdo fancy words that are just dialogue tags (e.g., just use "said" instead of "remonstrated), it's maybe better sometimes to use "walk" or "move" than amble, when amble really doesn't seem to fit. I won't disqualify your story because you said "amble." Just FYI, since a lot of stories are of nearly equal merit, and every little bit you do to not make the judges squirm in their seats will help you.

Carry on writing.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

You can't win if you don't play. Also, you probably can't win.

Way back when I first started sending in stories to see if I could get them published, I saw an off-handed comment somewhere on the Internet that went something like this: "Famous Author X thinks it's weak to always submit to places with a high chance of publication. You should go for the big game." That probably slowed me down to getting my first publication considerably. I really wasted a lot of time only sending in to magazines like The Atlantic. Eventually, I adjusted, and soon my fourth story will be published, followed soon after by the promised book of short stories from Washington Writers' Publishing House.

Still, I can't get over the lure of the big boys. How great would it be to get published by Glimmer Train or New England Review or Prairie Schooner? Wouldn't it bring instant gravitas when I submit further work in the future? Wouldn't it give me a leg up searching for agents for my novel?

I wrote a couple of stories earlier this year that I regard as the best I've done yet. I decided to try to shoot the moon and go for some of the big boys I've been avoiding. The rejections are just starting to come in now. You'd think it would be easier to take a rejection from a top-tier journal, but it's not. I can't help but getting excited when there's a response from a publisher that could really bring a breakthrough. That means the let-down hits me a little bit harder. If you get a rejection from a smaller press, there's always the chance your story was actually good but they're just too overworked to notice. With the top presses, a rejection feels more authoritative.

Also, one journal has a mean form rejection letter. Instead of the many formulas for "we're not saying it's bad, only that we're not publishing it," this one said "Unfortunately, it's not for us." That sounds like something I'd say about jello with pineapple in it.

I've read a lot of writers use the strategy of going big then going small. Try a story out with the big guys, then go for something more approachable. If that fails, maybe rework the story or put it away for a while. That makes sense, but it's a frustratingly slow way to do business. Getting published is like playing a really tough boss level of a video game, only there is a three-to-six month lag between trying something and seeing whether it worked or you have to hit re-start.

I'm happy getting published by smaller presses. It's really enough that anyone reads something I've written and likes it. But 2017 was supposed to be a year that gave me some clarity on how much effort to keep putting into writing, and for how much longer. It started off with a bang, a quick acceptance and then the big news of the book. I really wanted a second big breakthrough with a major journal, but now that very effort has got me back to feeling like I'm grinding in vain. With odds this big, it really feels like I'm waiting for that unreliable girl to show up for our date, and she's an hour and half late, and everyone in the restaurant is starting to feel sorry for me.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

How my last post signals the death of reading

This may come as a shock, but my blog is not one of the most frequently-trafficked sites on the Internet. When I put out a new post, typically I get between 80-100 visits to the site in the next 48 hours, at least 20 of which I assume are my anonymous reader checking to see if I've updated anything or responded to his comments. After posting about a dumb teen television show, though, I got about 200 visits. I can't imagine why. Are there people out there with Google Alerts for everything related to 13 Reasons Why, just waiting to pounce anytime anywhere in the world mentions the show?

The fact is that even though I'm a writer who reads more than the average American,  I still watch a lot of Netflix. It offers things a book can't. One major advantage it offers over books is the change to experience fiction in real-time with Mrs. Heretic. We're currently trying, for the second time this year, to read a book together (Jennifer Egan's Visit from the Goon Squad). She tried to talk to me about it yesterday, but I wasn't caught up to where she is yet. When we watch Game of Thrones, we both experience everything at the same time. It makes the experience far more rewarding and social. Add in all the people in the office who've seen the show and are talking about it. Everyone likes to belong once in a while, even misanthropes like me.

Book clubs just don't seem to cut it. It is nice to read books on the recommendation of friends and then possibly discuss them over a cigar. (Did I mention I smoked a cigar the other day? I'm very manly now.) But a moderated group of people with a list of questions to discuss has never really excited me much. Books are just hard to transfer into social topics of conversation like a series you can all watch at once and comment along to on social media.
When you want to be manly AF while discussing the teen drama you just watched

Why is this? It wasn't always this way. Salons used to be pretty much nothing but big book clubs, and they were the best social gathering in town. Are we (a pronoun I'm included in) just dumber?

TV is easy to watch. It requires little effort. Everyone else is doing it, so it brings social acceptance. Books are hard. No wonder a staggering percentage of adults do not read books. I'm going to guess it will get worse. There is hardly any shame any more in not being a reader.

This site is far too small to take as a data point, but consider this: This is a blog about writing. Presumably, the few people who read it care about literature. When I posted about Viet Thanh Nguyen's views on the workshop--the central issue of this blog--I got maybe 60 views. I got 200 for some throwaway stuff on a teenage show. Even in communities that value reading, streaming video is more popular than reading.

Monday, May 15, 2017

13 reasons I hate that "13 reasons I hate '13 Reasons'" article, and also hate the original "13 Reasons"

I realize that critiquing a show about teen angst:

1) means I've watched the show, taking away any bona fides I have as an intellectual
2) is shooting fish in a barrel

But I can't resist bashing it for the same reason I ended up watching all 13 episodes of the longest after-school special in history: it says a lot about American culture that this show is even popular in the first place, so watching it seems like interesting social research.

I was going to post a straightforward "13 reasons I don't like '13 Reasons'" post, but that seemed so obvious, I knew it must have been done. It was, and by the Huffington Post, which means it really was a terrible and obvious idea. Besides, I only really have like 9 reasons to hate 13 Reasons Why, so I'm going to add together reasons I hate the show with reasons I dislike (not really hate) Sezin Koehler's critique of it, and maybe together get to 13. I'm certain nobody on the Internet has concocted a title yet as convoluted as the one I just came up with for this blog post, so at least the approach is mildly original.

1. Its popularity is evidence of a perpetually infantilized culture (show). My sister-in-law introduced the show to me. I love my sister-in-law, because she's family, but if you're 45 and talking to me about how much you love some teenage kid on a show, you might have some issues with stunted emotional growth. She wasn't the only one, though. My office is full of grown-ass people who loved this show. Anis Shivani wrote about how fiction writers today churn out bildungsroman stories where there is never any real coming-of-age. That's this story. It's all angst and none of the wisdom that angst is supposed to eventually engender. I get that the catharsis is supposed to happen to Clay, not Hannah, but his epiphany seems to be nothing more profound than "people should be nice to each other."

2. A drinking game I invented that would have killed me if I'd played it (show): Watch an episode, any episode. Take a drink every time a character awkwardly excuses himself from a scene because the writers just need to get themselves out of a conversation with the dramatic tension still unresolved. "Uh, I need to get to class." "I have to go to meet Tony." "I'm late to meet someone for coffee." Use something low-proof or you'll die.

3. Calling the narrative structure "manipulative" (article): Koehler criticizes the show for having the "mother of all manipulative narrative structures." If you haven't seen the show--and anonymous commenter, I know you haven't (and shouldn't; it's terrible)--a girl named Hannah makes 13 tapes where she tells 12 people (one gets two tapes) the roles they played in contributing to her decision to kill herself. I actually was interested in getting to the end for the first four shows because of this format, until I realized nothing interesting was really going to happen. At that point, I was like Elaine Benes from Seinfeld, just wanting to get to the end of the free sub.


But isn't that what a show is supposed to do? Is it really "manipulative" to hook viewers so they finish the show even if they really don't want to? If so, may we all be so lucky as to write stories that are equally manipulative.

4. Having obviously gay actors play asshole heteros (show): A girl at work was very excited to inform me that the actor who plays Alex was dating the actor who plays Justin. Color me shocked. Not that I or anyone else in 2017 gives a shit about someone being gay, but I didn't really find anyone's performance as asshole hetero believable. Only Zach struck me as a believable jock (although he can't shoot a basketball for shit). Look, there are lots of gay actors in the world convincingly playing straight dudes and vice versa. I'm not saying you can't cast someone as something because of some personal characteristic in the actor that doesn't match the character. I'm just saying these particular actors didn't sufficiently get out of themselves and into their characters to be believable. That's understandable--they were being asked to play terrible people. Maybe it was hard to find that register. But their inability to find it made the whole construction of a high school societal microcosm built around predatory jocks hard to buy. 

5. The bad guy isn't really bad (show): Okay, the character rapes at least two girls, which is beyond criminal. It's just that I've known really bad, dangerous men. The actor playing Bryce didn't strike me as scary. He seemed like a bad actor sleep-walking through being a dick. A good actor would remind me of true, morally terrifying people.

6. Pretending anyone gives a shit about Judith Butler (article): Koehler critiques the show for "pandering to the heterosexual male gaze," and claims this gaze "needs to be deconstructed, not elevated." For the majority of people who didn't waste their lives with literary theory, she's borrowing terms from feminist theory. Here's an explanation of "the male gaze." I hate when anyone acts like they can just throw around terms from theory that aren't part of normal parlance and feel they've made a point thereby. Or like normal people really ought to know what "the male gaze" is. Besides, rape doesn't gratify a non-pathological male gaze. Teen sex doesn't gratify a healthy hetero male gaze. (I assume the actors are really at least 18--Tony looked like he was 37--but pretending the characters really were their age, I certainly wasn't getting horny watching that shit.) The only thing that moves in the direction of pandering to the male gaze is the lesbian scene--and that scene is pretty fucking fully deconstructed when the voyeur is caught and ridiculed.

7 and 8. Treating suicide like it's either a reaction to local conditions (show) or something to treat psychologically (article) instead of a conclusion someone might come to quite logically: My work occasionally loses someone to suicide, and then the leaders treat us to a round of hand-wringing, encouraging us all to look out for each other and to get help if we need it. I hate that in all the talk about suicide, nobody ever seems to consider that it might be an entirely sane conclusion. Camus' magnum opus was entirely dedicated to taking the question seriously. He began by saying most people don't commit suicide because they never get past their basic, animal instinct to survive. There's nothing to praise in this.

I'm generally uninterested in what psychological and psychiatric professionals have to say, because I don't find them to be terribly interesting people. I wouldn't want to live their lives. So I don't know why I ought to take their word on something like suicide as any more authoritative than what anyone else thinks about it. Why is suicide always treated as a pathology? There's a bias there that assumes life is always better under all circumstances. There are more ways to look at suicide than from the point-of-view of public health. Philosophers and artists have a say, too.

9. Hannah's tapes don't talk to her parents (show). When I think of reasons I don't strongly consider suicide, #1 on my list is that I'm a parent and I know what that would do to my parents. Hannah's parents aren't perfect, but they do seem to care about her. She talks to them. They talk to her. They find her when she kills herself. She never talks to them on the tapes. She talks to 11 dickheads who screwed up in a variety of mostly adolescent ways and one kid who liked her but was shy. This doesn't really say much for Hannah's character. That's really a narcissistic inability to connect to the feelings of others--the same thing she made 13 tapes to complain about in everyone else.

10.  Rape (show): Koehler was right about this. Her beef was that showing the rapes sexualized the girls. That's true, but for me, I was more just concerned by how tawdry a plot device it was. When I wondered in episode one why she might have killed herself, rape seemed like a pretty good bet. When it turned out it was actually guilt over watching a rape she didn't stop, that seemed to me like a decent plot twist: her getting raped would have been too straightforward, and this got at it from the side. But then she goes and gets raped, too, in episode 12, meaning they really went to that rape well a lot. It's like the writers were making a soup of bad things that would happen to Hannah to make her sympathetic, and when they got to the end they tasted it and said, "needs more rape." But those two rapes throw the whole rest of the plot out of whack. Hannah's really been through so much from just those two incidents, the rest of what happened seems like nothing worth mentioning. Isn't the idea to talk about how a bunch of small things can add up to something big, not how a bunch of huge things make something stupid?

11. Suspension of disbelief is hard (show): The first kid would have panicked and gone to an adult. Someone would have gone to the authorities with evidence of rape. The show tried to account for this so it could keep its device, but really, no. Most of the kids weren't sociopaths, and not all of them had that much to hide.

12. Criticizing the notion that the show says we're all alone (article): What if, rather than a lot of condescending garbage about how suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem, we were honest about how alone we really are sometimes? If we quit knee-jerking away from suicide? If we honestly answered what amounts to a decent question: when life doesn't seem to offer more pleasure than pain, why keep at it?

It occurs to me that the greatest movie ever about suicide, It's a Wonderful Life, manages to be life-affirming precisely because it takes on George Bailey's question--would everyone have been better off without me?-- head-on. It's a more edifying answer than life usually gives us, but before that, it at least honestly depicts disappointment. There's nothing especially wrong with admitting that life often just sucks.

13. Season Two (show): I know I sound like a calloused bastard ripping on a show that tried to tackle the subject of teen suicide. The show isn't for me. It wouldn't have been for a teen-aged version of me. But I'm sure there are people it helped. Its popularity probably has pushed some teens to talk to someone and keep going. I don't want teens to kill themselves. They're too young to make that decision. There is an age at which I think one can make that decision and not be psychologically pathological, but teenager isn't it. So I could forgive the show for its gratuitous insertions of random bits of teen culture to show its hipness, its rape-happy plot line, its many head-scratching plot holes.

Until I realized they're going to do a season two. That basically means they've lost any ability to claim this is a venture aimed at promoting the public good. Netflix realized they had a hit, and they decided to keep going with it.  Even though it makes no sense to keep going. She's dead. I don't care if the books the series was based on kept going. As a Netflix series, it makes no sense except as a cash grab. They're even going to bring back their cast of "kids" who look like they should be about ready for their first mortgage. All of which makes the show now seem like it really is exploiting a vulnerable segment of society.


14. My 13 reasons goes up to 14. In the first episode, they tease us with Clay having some kind of past psychological disorder he once took pills and met with a shrink for. It leads one to wonder if we are getting the real story when we see things through his POV. Other characters tease the possibility he actually did something bad in the early episodes. But by the end of the show, it's clear he was just a nice guy who didn't realize how much trouble Hannah was in. He didn't really do anything. So that whole bit at the beginning about his past issues was a weird red herring.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Agreeing with Nguyen's view of the "hostile" writing workshop, even while disagreeing with it

Viet Thanh Nguyen, he of the 2016 Pulitzer-Prize winning The Sympathizer, wrote recently for the Times about how writers' workshops can be hostile. I agree with a lot of what he says, even though I have nearly opposite impressions of some aspects of the workshop system from him. Someone who has never been to a workshop would probably have been surprised by some of the assertions Nguyen made.

Show don't tell

Nguyen scores some points early by accusing the workshop of being rife with unquestioned assumptions. One assumption he correctly takes the workshop to task for is the mantra of all writing workshops: "Show, don't tell." He rightly claims this is ahistorical. Most of literary history is full of examples of stories that show and tell. This is one of the central tenets of contemporary commercial aesthetics in literary fiction I struggle to cope with. I feel like I often have to hide the reason why I've written what I've written. This "hiding" isn't new, of course. ("Therefore I speak to them in parables; because while seeing they do not see, and while hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand." Or, 1800 years closer to the present, "Tell all the truth/but tell it slant.") But I can't help feeling that a lot of fiction/poetry out there that gets the establishment seal of approval has hidden its thematic core so well, it's effectively encrypted beyond breaking.  Jesus may have said that he hid his meaning in parables, but I don't think we find them terribly hard to crack.

Nguyen also calls out a related malady, the depreciated value of plot, which is seen as the province of genre writers. I've suggested before that literary fiction could be defined as "literature in which plot is not very important." Which probably has something to do with why I have pondered that maybe I do not really write literary fiction, although I don't know what other genre I might fit. 

Craftsmanship + workshop=manly aesthetic?

Nguyen, drawing on the connotations of "workshop" and the oft-emphasized notion of "craftsmanship," sees these notions as emphasizing masculinity and physical labor over mental labor. He claims this masculine aesthetic can make the workshop a threatening place for women and minorities. 

I'm tempted to blow this off, because as a former jock and Marine, I've met actual masculine people, and the folks I knew in graduate school did not fit the description. Furthermore, the very aesthetic he critiques, the "show, don't tell" approach, seems to me like a feminine one. At least, it seems like something that came into play when feminism and other isms that challenged white, male hegemony of the university were gaining influence. Nguyen himself claims the rise of the workshop aesthetic coincided with the post-war era, and this is precisely why it is apolitical--because strongly held political feelings were associated with communism. I accept his timeline, but question the outcome. Rather than result in hyper-masculine literature that preached a certain way of living, it resulted in hyper-detailed, ethereal writing that avoided politics. 

Of course, this is based on my own white, male perspective. I don't say that sarcastically. My race and gender come with limitations and blind spots. I'm equating "feminine" with a type of writing I don't like, one I find a little bit frivolous. (Not unlike Hawthorne, who complained of the tribe of "scribbling women" writers.) If women and minorities find the workshop hostile, I do not discount their feelings. They perceive it that way, and that means something. 

Masculine or feminine, the current aesthetic itself isn't all bad: I don't want to read a bunch of allegory all the time. It's nice to give characters the semblance of real agency. I just don't want that agency to get beyond the plan of the creating intelligence. Watch your kids. 

Can any part of college be apolitical?

I'd guess most people who haven't been in a writing program would be surprised to hear a complaint that they are apolitical. If anything, most people would suspect they are lousy with politics. After all, aren't agitating professors turning every campus in America into a political training ground?

But Nguyen is actually only too dead-on. Another Asian-American critic of the literary establishment I quote a lot, Anis Shivani, has explained the apolitical nature of the current American fictional aesthetic:


Contemporary literary fiction has chosen to marginalize itself from mainstream culture. It has its own niche, like specialized Foucauldian sociology or Derridean philosophy, catering to the sensibilities of other experts in the field. The writer adopts a politics-neutral stance, excluding any sense that characters' lives are influenced by politics. The fear is of being branded politicized, in which case no serious reviewer will want to deal with the writer anymore, and of being called preachy or moralistic or sermonizing by the reviewing community.

The typical fiction writer tends to be vaguely liberal about womens' or gays' or minorities' rights. He is ultra-sensitive about not writing anything offensive to any constituency, and mortally fearful of painting with broad brushstrokes. He takes care to mark down any budding writer who might want to speak truthfully about minority or majority groups (it's open season, however, on white males, in the teacher's own writing). Beyond that, he doesn't have a grasp of politics. 

Nguyen sees a lack of seriousness in literature, an unwillingness to talk about the things that matter most to him, that matter most to all of us: politics, history, theory, philosophy, ideology. (I'd add religion and science.) American literature has, in fact, gotten to a place where only outsiders, it seems, can talk seriously about anything. I recently wrote a story that attempted to respond to the reality of the Trump era, and I know it will never get published. I didn't hide what it was about enough.

That being the case, although I am heartily sorry that minorities and women feel like outcasts in the workshop, I hope they will take heart in knowing that being treated with hostility is a sign you are onto something. If they coddle you, it means you lack talent and they just want you to stay in the program and pay your tuition. But actual opposition is a positive sign.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Another round of "why do I still write with all these doubts?"--this time, the lightning round

From the beginning, this blog has been as much about why I might be better off just giving writing up as it has been about finding my way to elusive success--whatever "success" is. Last month, I finished a trilogy of posts on perfectly sound reasons why writing stories might not be the most useful way for me to spend my life. (Part One, Part Two, Part Three) But I'd already said similar things over two years before that. My attraction to literature has always been coupled with a doubt about literature's utility. When I wrote that earlier piece on doubts about writing, I followed it up with my best answers I could give to the obvious question: Well, if you doubt so much, why do you still write? Answers here and here.

Here, I present a shorter answer to the "Why do I still write, then?" question. This is an answer I actually give myself often when I get up in the morning to work on a story before work.

Vonnegut's Kilgore Trout

I had read a little Vonnegut early in life, but it's only been in the last few years I really tore through a lot of his work. I was doing this at the same time I was trying to make my mid-life push to accomplish my early-life dream of being a writer. It turned out that Vonnegut was the perfect writer to read while questioning whether writing was worth doing even though the odds seemed pretty good nobody would ever read me. You can look up a lot of the details about Kilgore Trout here, but the short version is this: He's a reoccurring character in Vonnegut's novels. He's a failed science fiction writer. He has good ideas but his writing is kind of terrible. Most of his work appears as filler in skin magazines, just text to fill out the volume enough to allow the press to put a spine on it. He lives in ignominy and abject failure. But somehow, his work always seems to find its way into the hands of some character who is influenced by it in some profound way that alters world history. True, it's usually to alter history in a bad way, but that isn't entirely Trout's fault. Trout's details are a little different in every novel he appears in, but the one that most influences me is the Trout of Breakfast of Champions. There are three passages from this book that have a lot to do with why I keep hacking away at what is almost certainly a pointless hobby:

1. "He tried." Before Kilgore Trout's twist-of-fate in Breakfast of Champions, he is thinking of what he wants on his tombstone. This is his choice:

Somebody
(Sometime - Sometime)

"He tried"

I find that kind of naked failure somehow noble. Failure is almost inevitable for a writer. I don't mean primarily commercial failure; Trout's ignominy commercially is just a symbol for the larger failure of every writer to say something worth saying. To try anyway, to really put your best effort into a monument to your own failure...somehow, that's enough to get me back to putting my own epitaph on my own pathetic grave.
2. Trout's answer to the "why write?" question. Trout encounters the big question, of all places, scrawled on a bathroom wall. Someone has graffitied "What is the purpose of life?" on the wall. Trout answers it in a way that also answers the "Why write?" question. "To be the eyes and ears and conscience of the Creator of the Universe, you fool." Agreed. Since the Creator of the Universe seems to have abdicated the responsibility to do have eyes, ears, and a conscience, it's up to the creation to do it for Him.

3. Trout's ownership of his failure: In Breakfast of Champions, Trout is invited to an arts festival by a mentally deranged man who thinks Trout is the greatest living writer. Trout considers not going, because he knows he is not a good writer. He eventually makes up his mind to go, however, and this is why: "I'm going out there to show them what nobody has ever seen at an arts festival before: a representative of all the thousands of artists who devoted their entire lives to a search for truth and beauty--and didn't find doodley-squat!" 


So there you have it: my three quasi-nihilistic inspirations I draw from Kilgore Trout that keep me writing, in spite of my ability to write endless prose about why writing is a waste of time. I doubt you'll get this kind of inspiration at Positive Writer, a wretchedly optimistic blog dedicated to convincing writers that they are A-okay. It's written by a guy who, from what I can tell on Amazon, has ONLY written books about how you can be a writer. That's not what we're about here at Heretic. We're not so much "You can do it!" as we are about "You probably can't do it, now get back to work!"

Friday, April 28, 2017

Blurb blahs

I'm supposed to get people to write blurbs for the back of my book. You know the kind of thing: "Weber's trenchant insight into the human condition left me for days in a state of emotional priapism so intense, I had to call my doctor." I can't believe anyone buys a book based on the blurbs, unless maybe an author you really admire signs off on the work of another writer.

I don't know anybody in writing. I've asked one person I remember from graduate school if he'd do it, and he agreed, but then in the same breath said he'd be unavailable until after the deadline. I asked some of the other editors at my literary journal, and none responded. It's probably a lot to ask of people who already volunteer to read a lot of literature for free. If I were a better self-marketer, I'd ask one of my advisors from grad school, who are reasonably big names, but I feel like it would be annoying to them to do, and they'd either say no or say yes unwillingly.

I can't bring myself to do the legwork to get someone to do these, not when I think it's such a borderline dishonest bit of advertising anyway. Has anyone ever put something like "Weber's bloated prose is equaled only by his pretentious syntax" on a book cover? Of course not. They're always positive, and so they're meaningless. Blurbs are always more inflated than a community college's grading system.

In the end, I'll probably keep bugging people from the magazine until somebody caves. I'll get this done, but it's another indicator to me that if being a writer involves a lot of energetic self-promotion, I'm not cut out for it.