Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Is this a typo or do I not know English?

Because I've submitted to hundreds of writing journals, I get constant email reminders to submit to them again. I ignore most, but for some reason, I opened up one from the Cincinnati Review yesterday. I did this even though I've submitted there four times, never been accepted, and they accepted a story that sounded kind of dumb written by Jane Villanueva in Jane the Virgin.  Here's what the banner said:

I believe this is a typo, and they meant "bring us your finest literature." The only time I've ever heard "literatures" as a plural was in a comparative sense, e.g. "The literatures of Spain and Portugal are not as similar as one would think." But here, it seems to be using it to mean "multiple pieces of literature." In this sense, when I write two books, I don't just produce literature, I produce two literatures.

My spell check doesn't even like that word. Am I crazy here, or is the reason Cincinnati Review never accepted me because I'm too dumb to even know the possible uses of the word I'm supposed to be producing? My Googling seems to support me, but maybe insiders in the profession are starting to use the word in a new way?

Sunday, August 5, 2018

Reading David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest is a microcosm of the writing life of a would-be writer

Mrs. Heretic asked me, when I started reading Infinite Jest, why I was reading it. I had a little bit of difficulty answering the question. I've had more difficulty continuing to answer it since I started reading it. I put the book down intending to definitively quit on page 134, but felt guilty two hours later, and now am on page 182. That's a week's work. I guess I've also read 13 pages of the footnotes at the back of the book, two of which were several pages long.

Why am I reading this book? Because of late, I've been thinking that maybe literature isn't the stupidest thing for me to invest my time into. Because it's considered one of the most important fiction books of the last 50 years. Because if I'm going to invest time into literature in a serious way, it's a book I ought to have read. Because what I know of David Foster Wallace seems interesting. For example, his belief that literature can and should be sincere. (Contrast this to Harold Bloom's dictum, "All bad poetry is unfailingly sincere," which had a lot of influence on me twenty years ago.) DFW also wrote about other quaint ideas, like how the point of literature is to decrease our feeling of loneliness. He seemed to have believed in a lot of classic, humanist ideas about what the point of literature was. So if there was a guy whose oeuvre was worth sinking a lot of time into, it was him.

It's not an easy task, though. First of all, I'm a terribly slow reader. I get distracted easily. I have no idea how some people read entire books in an evening. I made it through graduate school by being willing to put forth super-human effort to get my work done. If it took me ten hours to read something most people read in five hours, then I would spend ten hours reading it. But this is 1,000-plus pages of fairly dense writing, and there are a lot of other things I could be doing.

It's not so dense I can't do it. It's not Joyce. It's not Derrida. The question isn't whether I can read it, it's whether it's worth all the time. And that's how reading this book is like writing itself. Each step forward requires not just effort, but faith that the effort will be worth it. Dave Eggers' forward to Infinite Jest notes that it took him a month to get through it. That means it'd likely be about six weeks for me. That's six weeks where I'm plowing forward, hoping the effort will pay off in the end. With a book like this, it's a little difficult to tell as it goes along whether it's going somewhere worth going. So I have to believe that all those people who finished it already and declared it worth the effort know what they're talking about.

I wouldn't expect it to be the best of all possible uses of those six weeks. That would be like expecting the person you marry to be the best possible match of all the billions of people in the world. But it would be nice if it were the best of the several uses of those weeks I was otherwise immediately considering.

The concern that I'm wasting my time is actually one of the most common thoughts that distract while mid-reading. At least once an hour, I have to fight back the feeling that this is all a lot of effort for nothing, that it's not really going to change me or how I see things in any meaningful way. The same thing happens while writing a story--the odds are always long that anything I write will get published, that anyone will share with me the breakthrough I think I've had while writing it. 

I used to get through this feeling when I was younger by telling myself that even if what I was doing wasn't the best use of my time, that wasn't a problem because eventually, I would work so hard I'd read everything and do everything, and in time, I would hit upon the best selections. But I'm far too familiar now with my own limitations to still think that.

It's humanist optimism that pushes me forward, the belief that by applying my intellect, I can improve myself in some sense and maybe the world around me. But in many ways, that's like thinking I can bail out the ocean with a bucket. In my case, my brain isn't the most effective bucket, either. Still, I've been committed for a long time now to the quixotic quest to try to bail out that ocean, even while knowing the whole time it's a fool's quest. Maybe that's why I'm drawn to books like Infinite Jest--or Moby Dick or Gnomon. Books that indulge a bit, that invite criticism like "there is a well-crafted 400-page novel somewhere inside this 750-page book"--those books are the ones to me that encapsulate the spirit of throwing oneself with abandon at an impossible project.

I recently became the same age DFW was when he gave up trying. Maybe that's why I feel such a sense of urgency to keep pushing. If I stop feeling like I need to put everything I have into it, I'm afraid I'll feel like it's no longer worth putting any of myself into it.

I guess that's why, when I'm done writing this, I'm going to try to force myself to sit down for another hour or so and see how much more of this book I can chip away at.

Saturday, August 4, 2018

There is nothing new under the sun, which is a totally original idea I just came up with

"The Bare Naked Ladies Sang 'It's all Been Done,' and even that was done a 100 years ago." -a college professor of mine, who probably doesn't remember saying it because he was likely stoned when he said it. 

Of course, every writer knows the moment he starts whacking at the keys there is precious little that can be said that hasn't already been said in some way before. The best you can hope for is maybe a new juxtaposition of old ideas, or maybe bringing an old idea up-to-date by putting new clothes on it. Still, I thought in the first short story I ever got published, "American as Berbere," that I'd at least started off with a fairly fresh simile:

When he was twelve, Tesfay came to the conclusion that all Habesha music had a drumbeat that sounded like somebody had chucked two shoes into a Laundromat dryer, and soon thereafter developed a contempt for Ethiopian music—and perhaps Ethiopia in general—that stuck with him.

If you've ever listened to a typical song in Amharic or Tigrinya, you might recognize what I'm talking about. Here's an example, with the drums picking up around the one minute mark:

I was listening to that song back when I was trying to teach myself Tigrinya. It might have been the song I had in mind when I wrote that line, but there are thousands of songs like it. In any event, that idea of a dryer spinning around with a pair of shoes in it really was how the music made me feel. I could imagine some guy at a laundromat at four in the morning, strung out and bleary-eyed, falling into some sort of feverish reverie as the shoes circled around, then hit in two quick thuds over and over. Maybe he'd had to wash them when he stepped in dog shit on his way home from somewhere. I thought the simile fit the sound and the feeling. I was pretty happy with that image.

This week, I started the project of reading David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest, which I've put off for a long time. On only the third of the book's 1000+ pages, I read this line:

My chest bumps like a dryer with shoes in it. 

Well, shit.

I mean, we used the imagine in different ways. I'm not even sure how a heart can beat like shoes in a dryer, because a heart goes blam-blam-blam when it's beating hard, not bump-bump. There's the "lub-dub" you can hear with a stethoscope, but I don't think Hal felt that inside his own chest as his nerves rose during his college interview. It's a throwaway simile for Foster Wallace, whereas it was important enough to me I led with it. But still, he used it 20 years before I did.

I don't know if it's freeing or crippling to realize you can't do anything new. Maybe it's nice to know you can't really succeed at newness, so that takes the pressure off. On the other hand, I hate the notion that I might be called out on plagiarism charges at any time for something I didn't even know existed.

Sunday, July 29, 2018

Did Derrida and Lacan create post-truth politics?

Carlos Lozada's recent editorial in the Washington Post, in which he both outlined the contours of contemporary post-truth politics and reviewed a number of books on the subject, was the latest in what I take to be a refreshing trend: liberals in a moment of introspection about the role we have played in pushing us to the current political moment. He quotes Lee McIntyre:

McIntyre, whose book is perhaps the most thoughtful of the post-truth set, also urges us to root out untruth before it festers. But he calls for introspection, even humility, in this battle. “One of the most important ways to fight back against post-truth is to fight it within ourselves,” he writes, whatever our particular politics may be. “It is easy to identify a truth that someone else does not want to see. But how many of us are prepared to do this with our own beliefs? To doubt something that we want to believe, even though a little piece of us whispers that we do not have all the facts?”

It’s annoying advice, for sure. It takes the focus off Trump and his acolytes. It casts the gaze inward, toward discomforting self-reflection, at a moment when engagement and argument seem like all that matter.

But that doesn’t make it untrue.

That's good advice, and I wish more people I generally agree with politically followed it. In fact, I'd be more likely to join a political party based on HOW it determines its agenda rather than the agenda itself.

All the theorists I hated in college coming back to haunt me again? 

There's another point Lozada develops in his essay. It has to do with the extent to which post-structuralist, deconstructionist, and post-modern theories that ruled universities from the 70s to the early aughts led to the current difficulty society is having with determining that truth matters. Lozada cites Mike Cernovich, a "pro-Trump troll and conspiracy theorist," the one who put forth the Pizzagate rumors.

“Look, I read postmodernist theory in college,” Cernovich told the New Yorker in 2016. “If everything is a narrative, then we need alternatives to the dominant narrative. I don’t seem like a guy who reads [Jacques] Lacan, do I?”

Many of the books Lozada reviews include a discussion of the influence of theorists like Derrida and Foucault, and whether their out-sized clout among intellectuals for decades helped create the current political scene. I don't think that's completely groundless; in fact, that's a big reason why I disliked these thinkers in college/grad school when they were being pushed on me. In a sense, the whole mess of semiotic deconstructionist thinking left a lot of students wondering why, if Hamlet and Bazooka Joe comics were both culturally dependent narratives, we ought to study one rather than the other. Was our gut feeling that Hamlet was somehow a better, worthier narrative false? I'm sure a lot of students ended up walking away from those thinkers wondering what, if anything, really mattered.

Still, I think the influence of continental, post-modern theorists might be overblown. For one thing, nobody outside of the humanities knew much about them. Their writing was so intentionally abstruse, very few people who weren't in the profession of talking about culture would have picked them up. They resisted the merely curious reader. There was, I think, an intentional use of cognitive dissonance resolution on the part of the post-modernists here. They wanted reading their work to be like college hazing: something so arduous that once you had done it, you'd be much more likely to declare reading the work worth the effort, because you wouldn't want to admit to yourself you'd put all that work into reading something that was stupid.

Secondly, I don't think even most people in the humanities actually "read Lacan."  We read key passages from Lacan and we read explanations of key concepts in Lacan's thought, but hardly anyone actually read full works of Lacan. Foucault was a little more likely to be read, but still, I knew very few people who had actually read an entire book of his. If they had, it was likely Discipline and Punish. Derrida nobody read in full. I don't believe Cernovich really "read Lacan." I think he knows some ideas from Lacan, much like I do, and he is cashing in on those ideas to justify doing what he damn well wants to do.

Those French thinkers were notably slippery when anyone tried to pin them down for criticism that their philosophies led to a nihilism that would be unable to withstand tyranny. They often insisted that they were being humorous and intentionally using hyperbole and that readers who were troubled by their writing misunderstood them. In this, they were not unlike Trump in his Twitter tactics, but the followers of Derrida, although strident in the academy, were less so socially and politically. Partly because understanding what the hell Derrida was even saying was so difficult, deconstructionist students never really became much of a political force.

Finally, I don't think most propagandists need to resort to any French philosophers that are hard to understand. Modern propaganda has changed as technologies do, but the basic techniques of spinning everything to suit your preferences hasn't changed in a very long time. I fell under the sway in the 80s of creation scientists who presented what looked to me then like real science, but was actually just propaganda that aped real science enough to trick the gullible. What they did was really not that different from what a biased news site does now. I doubt any of those creation scientists had read any French philosophy other than Descartes.

The answer to nihilist relativism is not absolute dogmatism 

I'm glad some liberals are taking the time to consider our own role in creating a culture that is cynical about what is true. But because culture seems to list back and forth from side to side wildly like a ship foundering in a storm rather than iron out its wobbles and steady itself, I am afraid that as liberals try to undo the damage we imagine was done by relativist and deconstructionist narratives, we will end up becoming dogmatic about the existence of certain truths. I wrote about something in this vein a couple of months ago, when I worried that the #metoo movement might, while rightly trying to change years of bad male behavior, end up propagating a new sexual puritanism. It would be a puritanism that had room in it for LGBT and non-polar sexual behavior, and it would allow for sex outside of marriage, so it would be better than past versions of sexual puritanism, but it would be puritanism nonetheless.

A Christian friend of mine posted this on Facebook a while back. It's from the Babylon Bee, which is an evangelical satire site in the spirit of the Onion (yes, such a thing exists in the world).

(The actual article is here.)

The point behind the satire is this: once you reject timeless and eternal truths as given and fixed, like God's truths, the slide into a world where nothing is true is inevitable. For the Babylon Bee, the only antidote to post-truth is absolute truth.

It's enticing, but it's entirely wrong. First of all, it is confusing facts with truth. I can assert that the speed of light is known with certainty but the meaning of light is not. I can hold that the Earth is objectively getting warmer but be open to various solutions to what could be done about it.

Secondly, and more to the point, "all truth is relative" is just a dumbed-down version of what many non-absolutists think about truth. For people like me, there is no Platonic beauty, no perfect version of what beauty looks like, and so no version of what beauty is will ever fully express what beauty might encompass. For all that, I still think beauty exists. It exists in a problematic way, but it exists. I don't believe truth is relative. It's just a lot more work to get to than an absolutist would think. It's not a point you arrive it; it's a roughly sketched-out  region on a map with borders that are in dispute. But every argument over where the borders truly lie makes the map clearer and more meaningful, not less so. A willingness to accept a game with difficult and vague rules does not mean I want to stop playing the game altogether.

As rational people--a set which surely includes roughly an equal number of conservatives and liberals-- ponder our role in fixing post-truth politics, we need to keep in mind that our goal is not to re-make a world in which we pretend to be sure of more than we really are. It's to draw a nuanced difference between a world in which meaning is constantly being developed and a world that is meaningless.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

An allegory of our republic

In fiction, it’s very hard to make a metaphor or (God forbid) an allegory that doesn’t come off as heavy-handed. Writers go to great lengths to make anything that could stand as a symbol for even the most remotely abstract notion appear to spring organically from the story. There are a few stories from my actual life, though, that serve as almost perfect allegories (or microcosms, metaphors, what you will) for something much larger than the stories themselves. If I wrote them as fiction, the story would seem concocted. 

One of those stories took place in January 1992, at Marine Combat Training at Camp Geiger, one of the small offshoots of Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. Marine Combat Training (MCT) was the brainchild of Al Gray, the then-commandant of the Marine Corps. Gray thought the Marine Corps had become too soft, and he wanted every Marine to have at least some basic understanding of how to operate in an infantry environment. "Every Marine a rifleman" is a credo he left the Corps, and for the six years of my enlistment, well-meaning officers and NCOs would interrupt my attempts to become a proficient Korean translator by trying to make me resemble a bad rifleman. 

General Gray, Weber can translate for you like a motherfucker, but if you've got Weber holding one of these things, you're already fucked, Sir. 

MCT came at a weird time for the new Marines enrolled in it. We were all just out of boot camp. We graduated from boot camp on December 6th, took ten days of leave, then showed up for MCT. We knew nothing, but almost the only thing we took away from boot camp was an unearned sense of confidence. Confidence, and--for many--aggression. 

It was also a weird time for MCT institutionally. General Gray got MCT going by 1989, but when I went there in late 1991, it was clear they still didn't have everything ironed out. The instructors were a far cry from the drill instructors we were used to. They didn't care, they were unimpressive in terms of knowledge and ability, and there didn't seem to be enough of them. This was probably made worse by the fact that we were all doing our four weeks of training right through the holidays; I imagine there was a fair amount of attrition due to leave plans. 

What all this meant was that several hundred young men who were used to constant, close supervision and probably needed it didn't have nearly enough of it. We all came in from the airport on a shuttle bus, checked in, got an MRE to eat and were sent to an old squad bay. There were no instructions about which bed belonged to whom, or which wall locker to stow our things in. Everyone grabbed spots, and then fights instantly broke out over who the rightful owners of those spots were. There was no NCO in the room the whole night. 

Right before dropping us off at the squad bay, some staff had apparently told two of the new Marines that they were supposed to have "fire watch," or night-guard duty. They didn't say anything about changing off during the night, and nobody came back to check on us, so those two never felt like they could go to sleep. 

Sometime around the middle of the night, they got sick of being awake while others went to sleep. They started shouting throughout the squad bay. They were the things most raw Marines say, mostly just parrot-like imitations of things our drill instructors had said in boot camp. 

These things were funny in a newly sentimental kind of way for about ten minutes. Then it got real old, real fast. When eighty or so guys are prevented over and over from falling back to sleep, the mood gets tense in a hurry. It led to a an escalating war of words that would heat up, die back down, then heat up all over when the night watch would start shouting again. At one point, one of the guards yelled out that "if I'm not sleeping, none of y'all are sleeping." He had a point. We really should have been able to sort out among ourselves some sort of rotating schedule of fire watches for a few hours. But we didn't. So the shouting continued until the morning, when one of our instructors finally came to take us to draw our gear. 

This cycle played out over and over throughout the four weeks of MCT. Whenever we were unsupervised, someone would start shouting. This led to even louder remonstrations against the shouting, which in turn invited replies that were louder still. The worst was when someone would, in all earnestness, try to passionately reason with people. There was something pathetic in the hopefulness of these speeches; a new Marine who believed his trial by fire in boot camp had now made a leader of him, hoping to inspire those around him to show common human decency and respect the need for peace and quiet. Before this would-be William Wallace could get done leading us to the freedom of a moment of silence, some of the cleverer trolls in the platoon would start to agree with him--at a very loud volume, which inevitably led to the whole thing starting over again. 

If you've ever been on a very large email distribution when someone started a reply-all storm, you might be familiar with this phenomenon. There is an email to a large audience, and then someone--usually inadvertently--replies all to the email, when clearly a reply to the author was called for. This leads to a third person sending another reply-all email saying that others should not use reply-all. This third email might or might not have been meant genuinely. Soon, though, there is an obvious troll who gets in the mix, and then, it's off to the races. This guy writes something like, "Please do not reply all to say 'do not reply all.'" Which leads to more people writing more emails telling others to stop writing emails. 

Most of the people responding after a while are trolls, trying to see how long they can keep this game going. Some of the people responding are sincere. They just want everyone to stop writing. They think a simple, one-time appeal to reason will do the job, and their email will be the last. But it never is. Nothing can stop an email storm like this except the end of the day or an admin nuking the whole chain. 

That's what nearly all of MCT was like for me: one long reply-all email storm, played out in real life like performance theater. If we were in the squad bay, I could escape to the bathroom and read. (Yes, the Marine Corps wanted me to call it a "head," but I hated using their patois then, and I refuse to use it now.) If we were anywhere else, though, there was really nowhere to go.

It was only four weeks, I told myself. I couldn't believe how long those four weeks seemed, given that boot camp had been thirteen weeks and MCT was supposed to be a lot easier. It did help that we got long breaks from training for Christmas and New Year's; otherwise, I honestly don't know if I would have made it.

The somewhat dangerous climax

I might have forgotten about this little quirk of MCT as quickly as I forgot how to fire a .50-cal if it weren't for something that happened on the final day of training. All the trainees were stuffed into the back of a big transport truck--a "cattle car," as it was called. These trucks were not comfortable, although they were a good deal more comfortable than a ruck march, or "hump" as we called them. (The first hump of MCT, I had to walk in boots that had no supports in them. At the end, my feet were bruised so badly, they hurt for the rest of MCT. That is my second lingering memory of those four weeks.)

We were stuffed in there together cheek to jowl.  It was the end of a long day of training, most of which was humping about with a lot of weight to carry. We were tired enough to more or less lie still against one another for a while, until the first person cracked the first "Hey, yoohoo." It was met half-heartedly at first, and it might have died out, but someone was tired enough to launch into the most sincere invective yet against this kind of aural assault. That got the trolls going.

Most of us were too tired to protest, but enough people were tired enough to be angry that it quickly got dangerous. The mood went from joking to serious so fast, it took us by surprise, and we didn't know how to react. Nobody had time to deflect the mood. We had been shivering for four weeks in the cold, and suddenly we realized that we were hot, we were packed in together, we smelled bad, and we were all locked in together.

It was at this moment I suddenly felt the need to rise up and be heard. Although I'd been watching the futility of impromptu speeches for four weeks, for some reason, in that moment, I thought that surely, what this situation needed was for me to come to the fore and reason with the denizens of the cattle car close enough to hear me. In fact, it seemed that what must have been missing all along the last four weeks was the clarity of reason only I could provide.

Just as I was about to launch into my invective, the guy next to me, who'd been my friend throughout boot camp and MCT, did something unexpected. He got the attention of one of the more active trolls who was seated near us. He told the guy he thought all his trolling was pretty funny, and then he asked where the guy was headed after MCT. They started talking, and suddenly, at least our immediate vicinity quieted down. The rippling tide of anger that was circling around the inside of the truck continued on apace, but with one little dead zone it kept hitting, it never quite got to critical mass.

My heavy-handed interpretation

If I'd have jumped into the fray, that might have been the last straw. Once the heavier atoms, the hardest ones to agitate, start oscillating in the heart of a star, it's about time for the whole thing to blow. But my friend managed to cool the engine down enough in the area right around us that it had an effect on the whole truck. (He'd gone into the Marines at 26, for some reason, so he had wisdom that the rest of us lacked. He probably deserved a medal for keeping us all from killing each other.)

This is also the only way to deal with a replay-all email avalanche. The sane people need to exert a moral influence, offline, on the people in their immediate vicinity that keeps those people from jumping into the fray. You won't stop it, but you can slow it down somewhat.

Is this not exactly our precise political moment? What is the news cycle every day but a new reply-all email chain? Every day, it seems, we get something from the troll-in-chief or one of his designated sub-trolls that starts the whole cycle rolling. Liberals prove incredibly easy to bait, and we spend the day locked in a shouting match that distracts everyone from the real work that needs to be done.

Of course it's important to speak out against evil. There is a time for courage, a moment for the prophet to shout the truth in the marketplace and for it to be echoed from the rooftops. But that moment does not arrive every damn day over every damn issue. A sun whose core can be agitated that easily is near is last moments.

It's a scary moment, I get it. For rational people, when we hear incoherent statements, it makes us nervous. (I was going to link to something there, but there are just too many choices.) We feel the needs to flap our arms and scream "fire!" But it might be good to consider using discretion. Some of those moments might be the exact time to act completely nonplussed, like everything is perfectly normal.

Consider social media interactions. The other day, when Kavanaugh was announced as the nominee, I saw a couple of Facebook friends put out something like, "Here come the unbalanced rants from the libtards!" There can be a number of reactions to that: a 12-paragraph retort, complete with citations; a quick, "you got owned" flame retort; an attempt at a gentle answer; unfriending the person; or ignoring. I chose to ignore it.

When I do engage, I try to keep it at a conversational volume, so to speak. I hear a lot of liberals insisting that Trump's more ardent followers are evil, and that evil people are not owed civility. I don't accept that premise, but even if I did, one has to accept the simple fact that those supposedly evil people are stuffed into the same truck as the rest of us. If a fight breaks out in the truck, we're all going to get punched. So it's in our interest to get along as best as we can.

Yes, I've posted that clip before. I know the series is a joke now, but that scene remains one of the best statements of political reality I've ever seen.

As counter-intuitive as it sounds, sometimes, when there is a ton of dynamite sitting just below us and a whole bunch of oil and matches all around us, the best thing to do is not to scream and yell about how we're all going to die. It might be best to act like everything is fine, then quietly try to start moving a few things out of the house.

Thursday, June 28, 2018

What to do with a novel I can't publish?

Obviously, I'm not doing much with writing these days. I'm not blogging much, and it's not because I'm furiously writing my next batch of short stories. I've moved on.

But I still have this novel I wrote. I really like it. I pitched it to thirty-some agents and got only a few responses. They were all no responses, even if some claimed they really liked it.

A few weeks ago, I got a delayed response from someone else I sent it to. This would be another "no, but I like it" kind of response. Here it is:

I'm afraid this one isn't for me. But, I have to say, your writing is tight and very accomplished. And - most important of all for a writer who is trying to be funny -- the voice IS funny! When the narrator breaks the fourth wall and speaks directly to the audience, I think most writers make a mess of it. But you accomplished this task 100%. Congrats on that. So, so difficult to do.

I would suggest that you focus a bit more on leading the reader into the story. Right now, it feels like we're all over the place. There's a lot going on in the first few pages and, while the narrator does an excellent job at telling the story, it still feels like we're jumping around - one moment you're talking about the job, then your son, then (the country) and its history. Overwhelming the reader early on doesn't give the reader a chance to really sink into the story. I want to know the point early on, and then get hooked and dragged along to the end. 

It's difficult to know what to do with a response like this. The main reason he wrote it, probably, was just to be nice and let me down easy. He thought what I wrote was decent, but not what he was looking for, so he very kindly decided to add a little encouragement with the rejection. He also tried to give some reason for why he didn't pick it. But he probably spent very little time considering either the positives or the negatives of what he wrote. His main goal was to get the message out that he was saying no but to make me feel not too terrible about it.

Which is why the critique doesn't really make much sense. How can the writing be both "tight" and also "all over the place"? I think what he means is simply that each of the first three chapters have completely different settings, and I keep on rotating the setting of the chapters throughout, although not always with each new chapter. That is an intentional, conscious decision, one that hundreds of novels use each year. Rather than confusing the reader, I feel like it keeps the novel from seeming dull from right out of the starting line. If there is anything that leaves you confused, I'm hoping the humor and observations are enough for you to trust I'm taking you somewhere. It's possible I used that technique poorly, but this feedback seems to be criticizing the novel just for the technique itself. That's a strange response to a standard literary technique for a publisher that leans toward the literary-fiction side of things.

I'm in no way complaining. It was nice of him to write anything. The fact he tried at all means he might have thought it was better than most of what comes across his slush pile. But I've seen these kinds of explanations for a no answer all the time when working on the Baltimore Review--the editor feels the need to justify the no, but doesn't have a lot of time for it, so he relies on vague statements like "it didn't take me anywhere" or "the characters didn't come to life for me." It's meant to make the point that you tried to explain your response without really having to put too much work into really explaining it. It's what he had time for. I appreciate it, but it doesn't tell me anything about what to do with the novel.

What to do now

I'm out of patience with trying to get it published. At the same time, I like the novel, it's about an important subject, and I have more personal insight into that subject than most almost anyone who's  written about it. That doesn't mean it's a good novel. Even if this particular criticism isn't that on-the-money, the story might just not be that good. Still, I just can't escape the notion that I'm supposed to put this novel out there, even if it's a complete failure commercially and critically. I could do that by self-publishing it. It wouldn't be what I'd want, but I'd feel that I'd fulfilled whatever obligation it is in my head to put this out in the world.

That's a ridiculous way of thinking, flawed by magical thinking. People do not have destinies they were meant to fulfill. They have things they are good at, and they should try to use those abilities to fill voids in the world and be useful. I ought to keep moving on with other things. Trying to publish a novel now would just be a distraction.

I was thinking I'd take the summer to edit the novel, which is now two years old since I wrote it in a blur in late spring and early summer 2016. I thought I'd see how I felt after editing it. But even an edit now seems like a lot of time to invest in something that's a bit of a fool's errand.

Several years ago, I had no reason to think anything I wrote would ever be published, no reason to think I was writing for any purpose beyond having done it. But I had limitless energy to write back then. Now, I've had a little taste of success and nearly saw the novel get to an agent who wanted it, but I feel like writing is pointless. The reasons why aren't unique--I wonder if writing is useful and if mine says anything worth saying. But they're reasons I feel pretty strongly. Writing seems like an incredible act of faith, such that I can't even find the will to bring to completion work that I've mostly finished already.

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

I really am that uncertain

In Hegelian philosophy, after a thesis is met with an antithesis, you're supposed to end up with a synthesis, merging the two clashing thoughts into a new thesis, which then leads to a repeated process of refinement. When I have a thought in my head, though, and I then start to question that thought, the two poles tend not to synthesize so much as collide and cause mutual destruction. 

In my last two posts, I posted two opposing ideas that popped into my head while re-watching The Office over several months. On any given day, I might honestly believe either one of those two opposing ideas. I think I'm a little more likely to lean in the direction of the first post, which was why I put it in the lead, but there are days I really, really think the second one was more correct. 

Being able to embrace opposing schools of thought like this might mean I'm a reasonable person. But I don't think reasonable people tend to be that interesting. To be interesting requires being a little bit off-balance. It requires a little bit of shutting one kind of thinking out of your head and favoring another. That's why saints are so unfailingly odd, as are great artists, social do-gooders, and even great athletes. 

I wonder if maybe one reason my writing is stuck where it is has to do with this kind of reasonable-to-the-point-of-dullness agnosticism. Most people who captivate aren't agnostic. They might be horribly wrong about many things, but they aren't agnostic. 

I don't think I can make myself the kind of person who is a true believer. I can't make myself so off-balance the see-saw is always full of potential energy. It's all I can do to keep the bare minimum incline necessary to keep things from stopping altogether. I think a better goal is to try to be more concerned with practical matters and stop thinking so much about metaphysical and philosophical issues I can't solve. 

No book I could write will probably ever do the tangible good for humanity this man did with his 61-second YouTube video. I know I certainly appreciated it yesterday. I think I should aspire to be useful like this man, rather than brilliant like the unbalanced:

I don't even care that he thinks it's called a garbage "disposer."