Thursday, June 22, 2017

Why I'm not using a Kirkus Review for my book

I kind of got a magical shortcut to a first book by winning a contest. I guess it's as good a way to get a book published as any. The nice folks at Washington Writers' Publishing House put together a pretty nice package for me:

-They pay for the printing of the book
-They publicize it on their website and social media
-They got me a couple of readings for the fall at D.C. bookstores

However, there are a lot of ways in which I'm kind of on my own. Not totally on my own: they'll give me advice. But there are some steps related to publicity that are my responsibility:

-Contact venues for reviews
-Set up my own readings outside the ones they set up
-Get papers to publish announcements (papers? honest to god newspapers? who would read the announcement?)
-Generally promote myself

One of the suggestions they made was to get a Kirkus review. What's Kirkus? They used to be the book reviewer. From what I can gather, they kind of went belly up in 2009, but then re-emerged by selling their services to authors. They seem to especially market themselves to the self-published, suggesting a Kirkus review will make the book look more legitimate. It's $425 to get a review in seven to nine weeks. That review then shows up on Amazon and...other places? I'm a little hazy on this. Basically, it will increase the visibility of my book, I guess.

Okay, fine, but it's $425. That's on me to pay. No wonder the head of the publishing house said, when she told me I had won, "You're not going to make any money off this." They were expecting that $1000 would go to stuff like this, I'd guess.

Here's the thing. I kind of already told WWPH that I would donate the $1000 back to them. (I hasten to add that I did this on my own. They are allowed to advertise their contest in certain places because they offer a prize, and they didn't at all ask for the money back. I just was really impressed with this small, cooperative publishing house, and this was something I wanted to do. Everyone who wins is then supposed to help out the publishing house for a while. This is my way of helping. I don't have a lot of other talents. It's unlikely I'll be able to do much else for them of any value. )

The upshot is that $425 is a lot of money to me. Mrs. Heretic and I have had a kind of crappy run of luck money-wise, with unexpected bills popping up here and there this last year. That's a lot of money to me. (I apologize to my anonymous reader, who dislikes when I complain about money problems.)  Kirkus can't really promise that the money spent is going to result in a lot of sales. Or any extra sales, really. The last several winners of this contest said they used Kirkus. So far, only one winner has sold at least 1,000 copies of her book, and that was because it got picked up for D.C. schools, who bought a few thousand copies.

My former advisor from graduate school--with whom I had a nice conversation, including a post-mortem of what went wrong in graduate school--has promised to get the book reviewed on American Book Review. Another member of the publishing house will help get it reviewed at the Washington Independent Review of Books. I think I'm going to just call that enough. The book is just not going to sell that many copies. Most of the people who buy it are likely to be people who know me. I don't know that many people.

Another issue is that the review Kirkus gives you, about 300 words, is typically about 200 words of plot review. I have a book of 12 short stories that don't go together at all. Fuck they gonna say bout that? Nothing that will convince people to buy the book. 

In other words, I don't know really what I'm going to get for my money. I'm okay with the fact that this book isn't going to sell a lot. There's no way, though, that I'm going to pay what would be the first $425 of my son's college fund on some vanity project for myself.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Next round of WIHPTS: Kendra Fortmeyer's "Things I Know to Be True"

I had so much fun playing my first round of "Would I Have Published This Story?" I've decided to play again. The idea is pretty simple: I take a story that has won a fair amount of praise, in this case "Things I Know to Be True," from this year's Pushcart Anthology, and I try to guess if I would have voted to publish this story if it had come at random into the literary journal where I volunteer as a reader.

This isn't really literary criticism, although I guess my opinion on the story will sort of come out in the wash as I try to guess what my own reaction might have been. The bigger point than just criticism of one story is to cast a light on how fickle publishing is. This is a story that has been deemed one of the year's best, not only by the original journal that published it (One Story), but the editors of the Pushcart Anthology. But that doesn't mean it might not have met a different fate, that there wasn't some luck involved...

Short answer: Would I have published this story?

Probably, but I wouldn't have liked it. Sometimes, I vote for a story because I can see it was written well enough that it deserves to be published, even though I don't really like the story very much.


 It's the story of a Vietnam veteran, Charlie, struggling to get his shit back together after a traumatic know...back in 'Nam. He goes to the library every day and reads something, which then often triggers some reaction in him demonstrative of his anguished mental state. For example, while reading Poe's "The Cask of Amontillado," he believes that the existence of words describing a man who is encased means there really is such a person. A story of a fire makes him put the book under water to put the fire out. Charlie has a sign above his bedroom door, his "things he knows to be true," and they are responsible for his inability to tell fact from fiction. His list: 1) The past and the future exist through stories, 2) Stories are made of words, 3) Words make the future and the past exists.

There's a coping mechanism in there for dealing with the ghosts from Vietnam, but Charlie hasn't learned to use it right. He's victim of a sort of magical-realism break with reality, when what he needs is to learn how to use words to his advantage. The key is that if words make reality, then Charlie can re-write the story of his life to control the past. Charlie eventually learns this ability, which is the climax of the story.

What's good and bad about it

What I don't like about it has more to do with personal taste than critical assessment. In the last decade, there have been a LOT of stories about veterans with PTSD coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan. Some of them even are framed as stories written by veterans as part of their PTSD therapy. Vietnam was obviously before we had things like PTSD therapy writing sessions led by MFA candidates, but this does sort of have a Vietnam-standing-in-for-Iraq kind of feel to it. The narrative style of the mentally ill person writing the story reminded me rather too pointedly of Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.

I also found the theme of narrative as a means to make the world whole again a little well-worn. I tend to be a little suspicious of themes in fiction that are about fiction itself. While it's true, of course, that the stories we tell ourselves greatly affect our outlook on life, there are also some wounds that words seem a little pathetic to try to fix. I don't think Charlie would really have a philosophy about stories like the one given to him; that's the author putting a list above Charlie's door for him, not Charlie. It's just a little too precious, fiction trumpeting the real-world value of itself. It's the kind of thing that's guaranteed to titillate editors at fiction magazines, which is why it did so well.

Still, I'd have probably voted for it. The narrative is crisp, it doesn't waste words, and it has a clear theme. (I prefer a theme I'd quibble with to a story whose theme I can't begin to fathom.) And much as the story might make too much of fiction's real-world power to overcome the past, it's probably much healthier than a story where the veteran is simply overwhelmed by his demons and can't make the center hold. Secretary of Defense James Mattis has suggested that much of the understandable impulse to help veterans of the two long wars overcome PTSD has actually led to the proliferation of a victim mindset. This story at least puts a weapon in the hands of its veteran and allows him to fight back.

A personal aside: what troubled me about reading this story

I just posted about a story I thought of on a Friday and got accepted for publication by Monday. Some of the things I've just said bothered me about "Things I Know to Be True" are things I myself did in my own story. It also uses the first-person narrative with a main character who is using writing as a means to overcome a trauma.

Rather than learning to write my stories my way, I wonder if I'm just learning to write the kinds of stories that literary journals will accept. It does seem that the stories I myself think are among my best are the ones I seem unable to get published.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Good and bad ways to break POV rules

While recently considering Chris Drangle's excellent short story "A Local's Guide to Dating in Slocomb County," I touched on something that occasionally troubles me both writing and reading in a third-person limited (or "single vision") point-of-view: the distinction between the narrator's voice and the character's voice. I'd wondered about this while reviewing another story I liked before. One reader suggested I was perhaps being a little doctrinaire, so I thought I'd dig a little deeper into this subject. It's actually kind of brushed over in the writing "how to" books. Here is an explanation of 3rd-person limited POV from the Gotham Writers' Workshop guide (which I'm using because I loaned my Burroway to someone and haven't gotten it back):

With the third-person point-of-view the narrator is not a character in the story. The narrator is a voice created by the author to tell the story...With this POV, the narrator has access to only one character's mind....The story is told by the narrator, from the perspective of a single participant in the action....The entire story is filtered through the POV character's consciousness.

Told by the narrator, but from the perspective and through the consciousness of the POV character. Hmmm....they give an example paragraph, from Elizabeth Tallent's "Earth to Molly":

     At the hotel, really a shabby bed-and-breakfast, the landlady, pinching her upper lip in displeasure at having to hoist herself from her chair, let Molly into her room and left her with the key. The landlady was a long time retreating down the hall. The dolor of her tread, with its brooding pauses, was not eavesdropping but arthritis. Molly was sorry for having needed her to climb the stairs, but of course the old woman complained her stiff-legged way up them all the time, showing lodgers to their rooms. Why, oh why, would anyone spend the night here? A prickly gray carpet ran tightly from wall to wall. It was the color of static, and seemed as hateful.

The GWW book points out that it's Molly wondering why anyone would spend the night here. Here's where I get a little shaky though: who is the one noting the "dolor" of her tread? Is that Molly? If so, then Molly knows some old-timey words that most people don't know. If it's the narrator, then we have the narrator's voice mixing in with Molly's observations. I'm not criticizing, I'm just pointing out that this happens, and that it isn't often made that clear when people write about how to handle POV. Does Molly merely see a carpet, and the narrative voice tells the reader that it's prickly, gray, the color of static, and hateful? Is this something Molly thinks? (If so, Molly thinks things I have never thought ever.) More likely, it's the narrative voice both translating Molly's senses to the reader and adding narrative editorial.

I was actually right about something 
The GWW then uses the term "distance" (which I was not sure was the right term, but it is) to explain this very thing I'm talking about: "While this narrator seems to stand just behind Molly's shoulder, or perhaps even lurk in her mind, the third-person narrator may also stand back at a little distance."

GWW even flat out tells us that 3rd person limited can be useful when you've got a character with limited intellectual powers, because the separate narrative voice can say things the character can't. So it's okay if Tallent's narrator knows the word "dolor" but Molly doesn't. Great.

So when I've wondered about other authors doing things that struck me as funny with their 3rd-person limited, it's not that the narrative voice is doing things the character couldn't. It's that 1) I'm not sure how far we can take the narrative voice's intellectually greater powers compared to the character and still feel like we're in that person's head, and 2) I think once a voice establishes its distance, it shouldn't jump around too much. Doing that is as jangling as breaking POV by suddenly giving us the thoughts of a non-POV character.

 Issue number two is easy to avoid once you've characterized the issue, which I just did (you're welcome). It's issue one that I'm grappling with as I work to figure out my own aesthetics. When I read the kind of story that makes most reviewers weak in the knees with its sinewy and stylish prose, I tend to get a little distracted, feeling that the voice is so strong it actually is another character. And where is this voice coming from? It's no longer hiding when it's that strong. It's now front and center, which means I feel like I'm now actually moving into what I would call the 3rd-person potentially omniscient. The voice doesn't know all, but it's capable of explaining anything the character happens to come across. The city dwelling character is suddenly out in the woods? No problem, the narrative voice knows the names of all the trees and shrubbery. The character is fixing a car? The narrative voice knows what every little bolt and screw is called, and is willing to look at it in a minute detail that no person I know actually looks at things with. It's like the narrative voice can direct the character's eyes and ears to do things while the character herself is off living her life doing what normal people do.

Cormac McCarthy springs to mind. I've never seen such a string of nouns of improbable specificity. It's a uniquely McCarthian thing to do, and lets you know you're reading a book he wrote, which almost makes Cormac McCarthy himself a character in his own novels.

Of course, I'm not really sure what I want as an alternative. My son recently had to read the 1972 young adult novel Watership Down--possibly the book least-deserving of its status as a classic I've ever read. In it, a warren of rabbits, when it comes across the things of men, will describe those things in extremely rabbit-centric terms. A railroad is an "iron road," for example. Any type of machine is a hrududu or something like that. (The book definitely breaks this POV trick, though, which is one of the 11,000 things wrong with it.) I wouldn't want to read endless novels where the reader is tied to the main character's ignorance.

I do know that if you spend the whole story at once distance from the character and then suddenly jump, it's going to feel off somehow. It's an amateurish thing to do as much as directly addressing the  "gentle reader" is. And I wouldn't mind seeing other narrative voices than just artistic savants possessing the sensory apparatuses of their characters. Not that I'm sure what I want instead. Maybe this is why I'm writing so much first person lately. It may not have the respect these days that 3rd limited does, but it's definitely the easiest not to screw up.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Spamming the A button FTW

My son tells me that "FTW" is old and lame now, but I don't know another way to user gamer lingo to refer back to my "spamming the A button" technique of literary submissions I recently decided to follow. Basically, I decided to submit a lot more.

I kind of needed a win. 2017 started off pretty good, with a story getting accepted in January and then I got the call about the book in February. Since then, it's been a shut-out, even though I feel like what I'm putting out now is the best work I've done.

But two weeks into my submit-your-ass-off technique, Drunk Monkeys just accepted a story, so I'm off the schneid.

Actually, this is a story that wasn't even in my head until Friday night. I was driving to a friend's house for a reading discussion of The Enchiridion, when the story just sort of came to me. Parts of it fell into place while I was stuck in traffic, and I was actually tempted to skip my quaff of Lyon's Rum and an evening of camaraderie to hurry home and write before I lost it. Instead, I wrote down what I knew of the story on a receipt lying on the floor of my car, spent the evening with friends, made it home by 1 AM and wrote the beginning of the rough draft until 2. The next day, I went into work to catch up on some work I was behind on, then came home and finished the rough draft.

I showed Mrs. Heretic the rough draft, talked it over, fixed it up, and then sent it to Drunk Monkeys' 24-hour response on Sunday. Today, I got an acceptance. So a story I had never thought of 76 hours ago will now have a home soon.

Let me here just put in a plug for that 24-hour response. It's three bucks, which is what a lot of journals are now charging as a reading fee in order to wait for six months.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Let's play "Would I have pubished this story?" (WIHPTS)

It was unfair, of course. Was it monstrous? A mistake had been made, but the numbers all but guaranteed mistakes. The sheer numbers. Every system had its failings. -Chris Drangle, "A Local's Guide to Dating in Slocomb County"

I've been reading the Best American Short Stories and Pushcart anthologies pretty faithfully for the last four years, figuring that's a pretty compact and efficient way to keep up with what's good--or at least critically well reviewed--in American fiction. When I read these stories, I often like to play a game with myself. It goes like this: If this story had come into the literary journal where I am a fiction editor, and I knew nothing about the author or had anything to mark this story off as special, would I have voted for it to be published?

Here, I offer to the public the latest round of this game I've just played, which was with Chris Drangle's "A Local's Guide to Dating in Slocomb County." This is an appropriate story to show how the game works, I think, partly because of that epigraph above. The story is about how an injured veteran's wounded dog, who is also a war veteran, is accidentally put down by a clinic, and what happens when the veteran comes to pick up the dog he thinks is still alive. It could also be a metaphor for the editing process at any literary journal: we have so many stories to go through, it's inevitable we're going to make mistakes and "put down" the wrong ones sometimes.

Quick Answer. Would I have voted "up" for this story?

Yes. It's a compelling story with a clear conflict, and the central conflict is introduced within the first page. We have two characters drawn with enough detail that we, the readers, are troubled to see them as they unintentionally come into conflict with one another.

There is a caveat to my yes, however. Our journal has a 5,000 word limit, and this story goes well over it. It's always strange to me that so many journals have 5,000 or 3,000 word limits, and that it seems easier to get a story published if you can get your word count down, but for the anthologies, it seems most of the stories are longer. I think there's still a feeling that a really short story isn't serious, somehow, even though all writers trying to break into publishing are pushed to write shorter pieces. 

What might have made me vote no?

1. A confusing passage early on.  There are two female characters, Portia and Naomi, who both work at the animal shelter where the dog is accidentally put down. Naomi is the one who fucked up. Early on, when we're still learning how to differentiate the two, we see Naomi leave a room and check a few things to see if it was her fault. We then get Portia again. Here's the passage:

     Back in the staff room, Portia was biting her nails and Dennis was stirring the instant tea.
     "How did it happen? "Dennis said.
     "I don't know."
     "This is so fucked up," Portia said.
     "Shut up," she said. "No, sorry. Let's just think."

I was confused about who "she" was in that last line. We've had Portia's name twice since we last heard from Naomi, so I'd think it was her. But it can't be Portia, because then it wouldn't have been a new indentation and a new line. Eventually, I got that it was Naomi, still in the scene, talking. But getting confused early on in a story, even for a second, sometimes puts an editor off for good.

2. Screwing up a detail about military life. There is a section that gives the back story for Fisher Bray, the wounded veteran, about how he ended up in the Army, how he met the dog, and how get and the dog were injured. I think Drangle did enough homework to get through that section without messing it up. But before that, Fisher explains that he was in the "First Battalion, 25th Infantry." If you know anything about the Army's makeup (or just look here), you know that "25th Infantry" is a division. Below a division are several brigades, each of which has several battalions. So there are many "First Battalions" in the 25th Division. Fisher Bray wouldn't say "First Battalion, 25th Infantry," in other words, unless I'm missing something.

I wouldn't have disqualified the story for this, even though I've kvetched before about people screwing up this kind of thing. It would just have given me a slight, instinctive nudge toward a no vote, and I'd have added a note for the writer to edit it. (Drangle might also have been wrong about Fisher shaving at 4:40 AM in basic training; when I was in boot camp, hygiene came at night. But that was the Marines, not the Army, and it was a long time ago, so I might be wrong. It wouldn't be a meaningful mistake, anyway.)

3. Would Fisher have really liked Megadeth? Infantry guys are know to like their hard-core rock, but this seems like something a Gen-Xer would have liked, not a kid who was 19 around 2007 or so. Again, not a big thing.

4. My often-felt uncertainty about an inconsistent narrative distance from the character. Just for review, third-person limited, which is the most ubiquitous point-of-view choice in literature today, means we, the readers, can only see the story through the five senses and the thoughts of one character. This story has different POV focus characters in different sections, which is fine. That doesn't violate point-of-view. That's just rotating third-person limited. Lots of people do it. No problem.

There is also an aspect of distance to point-of-view, however. That is, how far the voice of the narration varies from that of the point-of-view character. For example, it's very rare that a third-person narrative would have a character speak in dialect during dialogue and also have the main narration keep this dialect. The main narration has a distinct voice from the point-of-view character.

But how far this distance between narrator's voice and character's voice should be is not something discussed much. I don't feel it's something most editors read into too closely. But it does bother me sometimes when a nameless, invisible narrator gives us descriptions the main character himself/herself couldn't have come up with. That's part of the light criticism I made years ago of the story "Long Tom Lookout" by Nicole Cullen Sometimes, the narrator's voice is actually the thoughts of a character. Sometimes, it's a voice that is saying things I don't think the main character would think. If this distance from the main character is too great within the same passage, I find it a little jarring. Here's an example from "A Local's Guide":

     After lunch she stepped out for a short walk. It was seven thousand degrees outside. The cotton field behind the shelter was halfway into flowering, the dark bolls splitting around the cloudy blooms. In a month the strip picker would start lumbering down the rows, huge tires and green chassis and bright yellow teeth in front, thoughtless and methodical.

The "it's 7000 degrees out here" thought is Naomi's. The poetic rhapsodizing about the strip picker and the bolls and the thought that the strip picker rolls on impersonally like so many forces in life--that's all Drangle.

I don't think there's any "rule" against this kind of mixing in writing how-to thought. It's certainly done all the time. I do it. But it's kind of a cheat for a third-person limited narrative. The idea of the third-person narrative is that the writer is going to give you a catharsis through the life rules and philosophy of the character, not the author. But authors sneak their own thoughts into third-person limited stories all the time, and sometimes they do it though a bit of supernatural intervention into the universes they've created.

None of these quibbles would have kept me from voting for it, I think. It's an excellent story, with a sharp conflict and plot that suggest strong themes. But one never knows. If I'd been in a bad enough mood that day, maybe I'd have looked at how long it was and thrown it out as soon as I got confused for a minute on page two.

Monday, June 5, 2017

Deeper thoughts on cultural appropriation than just saying it's "bullshit"

A few posts ago, I noted, as an aside, that cultural appropriation was a bullshit notion. That's a pretty dismissive assessment of an idea that has a lot of cultural currency right now, so I thought I'd spend a little more time with it. I'm not making the easy argument, which is that some quarters are taking the notion of cultural appropriation to absurd lengths. That story about the two women in Portland whose burrito shop was run out of business because they were white and shouldn't make Mexican food is an extreme example, a straw man cultural conservatives use to dismiss the idea out of hand, rather than considering some of the more compelling cases where the apostles of appropriation might have a point.

To make it clearer what I don't mean, here are some cases in which I think cultural (mis)appropriation might be a legitimate accusation, examples of some things that ought not to be done:

1) Someone makes a ton of money off the culture of a historically disadvantaged group, and doesn't share any of that money. This is an accusation Kevin Costner faced after Dances with Wolves. After the movie, in which Wind in His Hair is super grateful to John Dunbar for being a white man who really understands the Lakota (to no avail), Costner then opened a multi-million dollar casino in Lakota territory, irritated the Lakota by trying to trade for land they considered theirs, and then never actually built the casino. A lot of Lakota were understandably angry. Dude made a lot of money acting like some white savior of Indians, then didn't really do much for any actual, living Indians, although the Lakota reservations are in pretty grim conditions.

2) Rather than borrowing from another culture, a member of one culture tries to flat out act like a member of another culture. I'm out of my depth here, but Iggy Azalea comes to mind. Or pretty much all K-Pop that mimics American hip-hop. Exhibit A. Annnd, exhibit B:

The thing about this second argument, though, is that it's more of an aesthetic argument than a moral argument. Since the line between appropriation and inspiration is hard to delineate, it's probably better not to approach it prescriptively. This video sucks not because it's immoral, but because it's a cheap imitation of something already done elsewhere, and it doesn't really add anything of its own. But that doesn't mean no Korean should ever lay down some R&B beats.

So what's bullshit, then?

I write a lot of stories about other cultures. I'm a translator, and I spend a lot of time observing people with obvious ethnic and socioeconomic differences from me. So when I daydream and then suddenly realize I've just been dreaming about a story, it's often not about people like me--bitter white dudes trying to delay suicide until their parents have died and their kids are grown up. In my upcoming book of short stories, four are from the point-of-view of Africans. Two-and-a-half are from the point-of-view of a woman. One is partly from the POV of an African-American student in Baltimore.

What's bullshit is that someone might claim this represents theft. For one thing, theft isn't anything new in art. "Good poets borrow, great poets steal" is one of those long-repeated phrases in art (attributed often to T.S. Eliot, but he didn't really say it). There is even a writer advice website dedicated to how writers can best steal ideas. Every writing how-to book discusses stealing.

There are, of course, ethics to stealing. We don't plagiarize. The idea is to find something someone else did, tear it apart, and then make it into something different, better, or more interesting. Sort of like Chinese techno-piracy only it's okay because nobody really makes money off of books anyway so you're not really infringing on valuable intellectual property.

If I used the pen name Tewodros Gebre-Igziabhier and pretended I really was a Habesha writer to get my Ethiopian/Eritrean stories published, that would be cultural appropriation. (If you don't know, one white poet made it into the Best American Poetry anthology a few years ago by pretending to be Chinese. A cheap trick, yes, but one that pretty much revealed, if anyone was in doubt, that nobody has any idea what makes a poem "best" these days. The editor of that volume? Sherman Alexie, who has written stories with characters who viscerally hate Jim Morrison for ripping off Native American symbols in his music.)

I don't pretend I'm Ethiopian. I say I am what I am--a white guy who has watched a culture from the outside, and here's what I've seen. If it's interesting, read it. I found it interesting. I don't think that's misappropriation. It's normal writing.

Like any gift given to us by theory from the academy in the last 40 years, there is probably some valid underpinning to the idea of cultural appropriation straining to get through all the bullshit. But students seem to embrace theoretical concepts without really grasping what they've read. I know that was true when I was in grad school. Without the ability to understand the theory with any subtlety, all its proponents can do is grasp onto a few key phrases and use them to beat their opponents to death with. They will assert that for a white writer to write a minority protagonist--or, in some cases to write minority characters at all--is cultural colonialism.

I realize that my reading of Ethiopians or Eritreans is filtered through my own, privileged, white, male, Western perspective. (That's pretty much everything you'll get out of reading Edward Said's terribly long Orientalism--I just saved you a ton of time.) That doesn't mean it's an invalid, immoral, or unworthy perspective.

Friday, June 2, 2017

My book will have errors in it

The good folks at Washington Writers' Publishing House had a lot of good advice for me when they told me I'd won this year's contest and we started to get my book ready for publication. But one guy, the one who won last year, had a suggestion I couldn't implement: he said it would be a good idea to hire a professional editor.  He guessed it would cost about $300-$400, which was where I got off the train. I already spend enough time and money from the family treasury on my writing, but that was just too much. I couldn't justify it.

So three members of the WWPH and I did our best to error-proof it ourselves. I thought we were doing pretty well, but less than a month ago, one of the editors had a long list of suggested changes that involved moderate levels of remodeling to the stories. That was fine: they were good suggestions, but every time I write something new, I make new mistakes.

My orthography has gotten terrible of late. The words "of, on, or" come out in nearly a roulette-wheel fashion. Same with "it, is, in." My brain is just getting muddled. I think it's partly a result of trying to carry on so much of my life in different languages. Even my mother tongue is getting knocked around up in my synapses pretty badly. There are days I go to say a world I've been saying for decades and it's just..gone. Days later, it magically reappears. One wag of a country preacher I once knew might say I'd educated myself beyond my intelligence.

In any event, I've had to read my own stories front to back four or five times since March. I'm now very sick of my own stories. On my last read-through, the one done after receiving the early proofs of the interior of the book, I did the best I could, but at some level I just didn't have the requisite energy to really error-proof it fully. And I'm sure at least one correction led to another error.

But I'm okay with that. Any errors in there are my own, and they're the result of my negotiation between what I wanted the book to be and what I'm actually able to make it. At some point, the work is finished, and what happens to it is beyond my control. That point for me is now. Or maybe two weeks before it was actually supposed to be finished.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Who steals my purse steals trash; who has my name and makes me invisible on Google makes me poor indeed

I've gone by Jake my whole life, pretty much, other than being "Weber" on sports teams and in the Marine Corps. My parents named me Jacob with the intention of using the nickname. Since that's what they called me and I lacked the energy to get new stuff with my name on it, I just kept using it. Growing up, I was the only Jake I knew. People criticized my mom for giving me a name that reminded them of old Jewish men. But about 20 years ago, Jacob became the most popular new name for boys and stayed that way until recently. I can't be anywhere with a sizable group of kids around and not hear my name called over and over. They took what used to belong just to me.

I get a similar feeling when I try to find myself on the Internet. Every time I've ever tried to Google myself since my first story came out a few years ago to see if I even exist, the results are so overrun by character actor Jake Weber that I can't even get to the end of him. Since he's older than me, I guess I can't really blame him for stealing my name, but it really is annoying to be completely eclipsed by someone else with your same name when you're trying to establish yourself. Maybe if my mom had just named me Assface Weber, I'd stand out. (Pronounced Ass-Fa-che; it's Italian.)

I had to tell the publisher the other day what name to use to draw my ISBN for the book. I decided to use Jacob, even though nobody has ever called me that except my grandmother. Even that, though, seems fraught with other choices. If you Google "Jacob Weber" right now, one of the first images you get is an imposing gentleman with a face tat that kind of makes him look like a pro wrestler. How can I compete with that kind of panache?

So I'm using Jacob R. Weber. I've now resolved two naming issues for the book, the title and my own name. I hadn't really thought those two things would be issues requiring brain cells to run when I used to dream of getting a book out. Since these little issues mean I AM, in fact, getting a book published, they're issues I'm happy to have. They're not even problems, and I'm not complaining about them. But everyone who ever published a book always warned me that when you do get a book out, it isn't like some publishing fairy comes along and decides all the little things for you. You've got to make a lot of decisions yourself, and you're going to be winging it sometimes.

From here, now that I just finished my final editing (more on that later), I'm supposed to start sending out the book to folks for reviews and doing other publicity things. None of that comes naturally to me. I'd probably blow it off altogether and live with terrible book sales (terrible, in this case, meaning eleven, whereas the upper limit I can realistically hope for if all goes well is like 500) if it weren't that I feel a responsibility to the small, co-op publisher to try to sell some books for them. When I look at the things they want me to do (like talk to people), I feel like my best bet is to get a second job and use the money to buy copies of my own book.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Spamming the A button: the end of subtlety with submissions

I don't know why I've been overthinking how I submit stories lo these past four years. I try very hard to find the appropriate venue for each story. This doesn't mean actually--as every journal suggests--purchasing and reading a few sample copies of each magazine before submitting. That would be insane, and far beyond my budget or the budget of nearly every writer. But I do read at least some free samples, if available, and I try to gauge whether the journal's aesthetic matches mine. At most, I've only been submitting to maybe half a dozen journals at a time.

That ends now. Back when my son and I still played video games together (which was back when consoles still routinely made games that had split-screen as an option), he used to get really annoyed with the lack of subtlety I showed when playing. Rather than approach situations with finesse or a sense of style, I'd just whack at the enemy with straightforward attacks. "Spamming the A button," in his terminology.

The thing is, I actually got decent results from this approach. It's never pretty, but bit by bit, it does tend to level up a character until I can use it to get past the tough levels. I might have trouble with some bosses, because those usually have some trick to them beyond AAAAAAAAA. But we ended up beating most of the games we played together, and I wasn't always the weak link.

This is the approach I'm taking from here on out with submitting stories. I'm just sending out a lot. I might end up giving away opportunities in this manner, by publishing in a smaller journal when I might have landed a top-notch one, but I think getting in the big ones is so hard to figure out, I'm just not counting on that. I'll still submit to them, but I'm not going to do that thing where I submit to them first and then wait months to get rejections before I send to others. I'm just sending out lots and lots of submissions and hoping that it all works itself out.

There's only so much time I can give to writing. I need to spend as much of it as possible writing the best stories I can. Every extra second I spend futzing with the best way to handle submissions is taking time away from the thing I need to be working on the most. And it's just not useful time spent: who the fuck knows the right way to handle submissions? Who knows who is going to like what? Six months as a fiction editor has made it clear I don't even know what I'm going to vote for or why sometimes.

I'll still follow my resolution to support every journal that publishes me in some way, even if it's just to subscribe for a year after publication. I'll give them something. There's no reason to feel guilty that I'm drive-by submitting, any more than someone should feel like they're cheating on an eventual girlfriend by posting an online dating profile to thousands of people before meeting the one.

So, from here on out, head down, dwarf mace out, AAAAAAA. If that means I only get published in South Paducah Vignettes from here on out, so be it, and the folks of South Paducah shall have my gratitude.

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:

(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.

Monday, April 24, 2017

The Doubt Trilogy, Episode Three: It took me a long time to make this crappy graph to explain my feelings

I have terrible skills. I've been trying for over a week now to make a simple graph using some tool in the Microsoft Office toolbox, and I keep failing. This graph does a pretty good job of explaining my limitations in life. I've finally opted for just drawing the damn thing and taking a picture of it. Here it is:

Behold my mad skills

This is more or less a self-explanatory graph. When comparing performance across an array of standardized tests to actual intellectual ability, the deltas in actual intellectual ability of the majority of the population can be charted in fashion that shows steady growth from one end to the other. Only the extreme outliers defy this linear growth. No amount of effort can turn a mortal into a genius, and no amount of slacking can turn you into a genuinely mentally handicapped person. At the two extreme ends, people are born that way.

Yes, I realize standard tests are flawed, and there are all kinds of intellectual abilities that tests may miss. Let's pretend those issues don't exist for the purpose of this discussion. 

One important thing to note is that the difference in real intellectual chops between someone at 98 and someone at 95 on the X axis is probably a bigger difference than that between someone at 90 and someone at 65. We normal folk are pretty much all alike, and our differences are in scale, not in kind.

As you can see, I tend to score in the low-to-maybe-mid 90s, percentile-wise, on almost every standardized test I take. I once got it into the high 90s on one part of the GRE, but otherwise, I'm very reliably in the very-good-but-not-genius realm.

I used to think I could get into the exponential growth part of the graph with hard work

For a long time, I was very angry with the way television shows portrayed very intelligent people, like Gregory House or Bones or everyone from Big Bang Theory. The portrayal was always that very smart people: 1) Just are that way, and 2) Are all weird. My belief was that usually, very intelligent people are just normal people who worked hard at something. Furthermore, I didn't believe highly intelligent people were normally good at everything--only at the things they'd disciplined themselves to be good at.

I have begun to accept that this understanding of intelligent people as ordinary people who worked hard really only applies to people like me. There is a whole class of people out there who really just are in a class I will never get to, no matter how hard I work. I've gone about as far as hard work can take me already.

The frustrating thing is that I've worked hard enough to appreciate the work of the people above me, but never can work hard enough to be one of them. This is a special kind of hell, and probably what led the writer of Ecclesiastes to proclaim that with much wisdom comes much sorrow. He must have been a low-90s guy, too.

I remember I once wrote a poem vowing to keep working until I'd become a luminary. The poem I wrote took an epigraph from Luis Cajas Silva's "El Contador de las Estrellas" (The Counter of Stars). Cajas' poem features the image of a young boy counting stars: one, two, three, four. Of course, you can't count them all. But in my poem that riffed off Cajas, I vowed I would keep counting as though I believed I really could count them all. It was like Yossarian rowing to Switzerland. No matter how absurd, I was committed to it.

For some reason, I saw writing as the most important cluster of stars to count

Writing for me was the best yard stick to measure of how many stars I'd counted. Maybe because it was hard, or because it required knowledge of many subject to do well. So I put a lot of effort into it, when maybe I'd have ended up a lot happier and in a better place in life if I'd just put that level of effort into becoming a programmer or an engineer or an HVAC technician. 

I don't think it's in me to be a great writer. Not truly great. I'm good, maybe very good with some of the best stuff I've written. But I'm not great. If you set out to be a great engineer and only turn out to be good, there is still a nice living to be made. There's only room in fiction for about nine people to make a living doing it. More important to me than making money out of it, there just aren't a lot of writers who get read, who have any influence.

While working as a fiction reader for a journal that pays only $40 for published stories, I just can't get over how many good writers there are in the world. I've never felt as superfluous as I have in the last six months. And I feel superfluous a lot. I work for an organization so big, it takes me 15 minutes to walk in from the parking lot.

So there you have it: my trilogy of reasons to feel like focusing so much on writing is a huge waste of time, even though I've just finally had a tiny bit of forward momentum with it.

When I was young, I felt it was important to try for what I really wanted to do, even if the odds of failing and the consequences of failing were so severe. It's normal, I guess, for young people to dream big. Now, I'm older and a little bit tired. I worry about money all the time. It's not uncommon for me to wish my younger self had helped out my older self by throwing effort after something a little more practical.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

The Doubt Trilogy, Episode Two: Literary Erectile Dysfunction

Pop quiz, hotshot.  I’m supposed to be doing my homework, but you find me upstairs reading a Playdude.  What do you do?  What do you do?” – Bart Simpson 

“I make you read every article in that magazine, including Norman Mailer’s latest claptrap about his waning libido.” – Shary Bobbins 

I have a pretty simple way of deciding when I've got a real story I need to write and when I've just got an idea I should let lie. A real story has the urgency of a sexual impulse: you're going to do what needs to get done in order to write the story, and nothing's going to get in your way. Think of horny teenagers, and all the obstacles they have in their way to fulfilling their sexual desires: no private room, sometimes no car, curfews, parents checking up on them. They seem to overcome these issues without any great problem, because they want to have sex more than they want to anything.

Now imagine, that your are in your forties and your house is being fumigated. So you, your spouse and your kids are temporarily living in your parents' home. And one or the other comes knocking on your door every 15 minutes. How in the mood would you feel? You're 45. You've got work tomorrow. You going to overcome the obstacles, do what it takes to accomplish the objective? Imagine 16-year-old using these excuses to pass up a night in the same room and the chances to have sex it would afford.

Age just seems to take the urgency out of it. I mean, you can still perform, but it's not the same thing. It can wait while you take care of other things.

That's what writing has started to feel like. It's not that I've become unable to write at all (that never happens to me, baby, I swear!), but the obstacles in the way seem a lot more formidable than they did even just a couple of years ago. If I had a story that came to mind back then, I was agitated until I got a complete rough draft done. Two days later, I'd be touchy to be around until I felt I'd made it look more like a complete draft. I needed to be moving forward. I just don't feel that way now. I've had the same character note sitting on my notepad for a month, and I just wrote a page of a rough draft today.

The book that's coming out has something to do with it. I've been editing and re-editing the same stories, and that's not the most joyous or purely artistic part of the writing process. So many I'm just drained from overwork.

But this lethargy coincides with a physical and mental deterioration I've felt speed up in the last few years. I work out as much as I ever did, but I'm about 10% weaker now than I was at this time two years ago. Mentally, I'm starting to have a very hard time remembering words or people's names that I've known for a long time. Not with every sentence, but with a few sentences a day. I have to re-route the word or name I'm looking for by using associative clues until some synapse in my brain is able to route the thing I'm looking for. None of this is enough to keep me from writing, but it's clear I'm past my prime. I really wish I'd figured out some of the basics earlier in life, when I still had the mental vigor to put it to use.

I wonder how worth it the struggle is to try to keep moving forward developing as a writer when I can feel myself diminishing in so many ways. Some writers extended their writing careers by waxing philosophical about the passing of youth, but they'd already established themselves with more energetic stuff when they were younger. I still need to get my best stuff out, but to do so means keeping up with a more insatiable mistress than I might be capable of.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

The Doubt Trilogy, Episode One: What good is an artsy story?

Self-doubt so deep, it's going to need some sequels...

I read a really great short story a couple of weeks ago, so of course I've kind of been feeling like shit since then. The story was "The Devil's Triangle" by Emma Duffy-Comparone. Karen Carlson, who just keeps doing her thing at A Just Recompense, was nice enough to point at that Duffy-Comparone is also the writer of "The Zen Thing," which, like "Triangle," won a Pushcart Prize. I thought both were great stories.

I don't feel shitty because she's far more successful than me. That's true of zillions of writers. It's complicated. I'll try to unpack it. I tried to get all the overlapping zones of uneasiness I'm feeling into one post, but it was impossible. Let's start with one more or less consistent thought.

It's good in a way I can't be good...

She has a knack for punchy and imaginative metaphorical language. I can go to almost any page to find an example:

"Claire's guinea pig, Pam, sat on chicken wire, breathing rapidly. Mika had taken her when she moved out of the apartment. Now the animal was barely recognizable, polka-dotted with scarlet sores like sucked cough drops, her nails brown and corkscrewing into her feet, her left eye oozed shut, the right cloudy as if rinsed with half-and-half."

...but that's not the problem

I just don't write like that. Which is fine, everyone writes to their strengths. A lot of writers I admire don't write like that. But I guess I've lately felt shamed into thinking I should want to write like that. A friend recently sent me this interview by David Vann, in which Vann praised "the quiet and beautiful books, Latinate in style, not violent, slow-paced..." The literary equivalent of Manchester by the Sea, let's say. Sometimes, I feel like that kind of writing is the only "serious" writing. Or at least the only writing that is taken seriously.

but what's the point of that kind of narrative?

I liked Manchester by the Sea. I really did. Okay, not for like the first hour. But eventually, I liked it. It was "quiet and beautiful," to use Vann's phrase. It was also very "slow-paced." The subdued tones, the attention to small things, made the few outbreaks of raw emotion far more poignant when they broke out. I'll admit, I found that scene, when Lee and Randi finally try to talk about the loss of their children, extremely moving. There were two characters I found very believable for the way they tried with so much earnestness to say the unspeakable to one another, and it's hurting them that they can't find the words, so they strain harder to get the words out, but they just can't.

Duffy-Comparone's story had a similar emotional approach and outcome. It is the story of triplets, but one is gone and, by now, beyond just "presumed" dead. The other two, who are now just "twins," are trying, each in their own failed ways, to move on. After pages and pages of slowness, of cloudy-brained wandering through a landscape of sharp details, we get an explosion in the last few pages. The ending, when they both seem to have hit their rock bottom and appear ready to maybe eventually take some baby steps toward moving on, is probably close to how the actual getting over something like that would be. So maybe the reader has experienced vicarious loss and redemption on a microcosmic scale by reading it.

But what has all this emotion accomplished? St. Augustine mistrusted poetry for causing these very same kinds of vicarious emotions:"forgetting my own wanderings, and to weep for the death of Dido, who slew herself for love, while I looked with dry eyes on my own most unhappy death, wandering far from Thee, O God, my life. For what is so pitiful as an unhappy wretch who pities not himself, who has tears for the death of Dido, because she loved Aeneas, but none of his own death, because he loves not Thee?" 

To put it in a more secular way, what good does it do for me to feel emotion over a story if it doesn't result in a change in my way of living in the world? Or, barring that, at least a significant change in my thinking? Proponents of literature like to say that literature (and stories in any form) make us see life more sympathetically by living it through the perspective of another. Fine, I suppose Manchester and "The Devil's Triangle" did that. Moreover, maybe by experiencing the pain of another person whose life we can view with a blend of both emotion and objectivity, we can learn to better process our own pain. 

Those seem like nice things, but they can't be enough to give literature the honored place in world culture it has had for thousands of years. 

An example I can actually think of where fiction might have made me a better person

Here's an example of a story that changed my life: I was about to leave Chicago to come to Maryland and start my job after graduate school. I saw Monster, which is based on a true story, but parts of it were obviously imagined. Aileen Wuornos just has bad damn luck. Most of the world shits on her. A few people are kind to her, but their kindness is not enough or not timely enough to make a difference. The movie doesn't really excuse Wuornos for becoming a serial killer, but it does make one wonder how things would have turned out for her if she had received a little more kindness when it might have still done some good. The last murder she commits is of a man who picks her up and, when she offers to have sex with him, says he'd rather offer her a meal and a place to stay. He and his wife have a room, he says. But it's too late for her. 

I left that movie wondering what difference it would have made if he'd been there ten years earlier. So I decided I would try to make enough money that I would have a spare room in my house to give to someone who needed it. 

I don't think that's the point of most current fiction

That's a pragmatic outcome of fiction. But I don't think that's the outcome most contemporary fiction is going for. A story is considered successful if it merely creates a simulacra of real emotion in the reader/viewer. It is, to use the phrase from Anis Shivani I've already quoted a few times, "cheap counseling for a bereaved bourgeoisie." 

Contemporary fiction often seems not to be offering anything to say about the nature of suffering its characters go through. It's trying to be, itself, a way to experience and overcome suffering. It's not a means to express something, it's the ends. The words and images and internal emotional logic of the fiction are a world unto themselves. The idea isn't to say something true about the world, to hold up a mirror to society. It's to become its own world. A story has succeeded when it becomes itself.

 Meanwhile, in the real world...

 One of my first workshop heretic moments came in 2003, when I openly wondered in class about what the point of writing the kind of poems and stories we were trying to write was. One poet got very angry with me. How could I say there was no point to writing poetry? A woman in Nigeria had just been acquitted of stoning to death for adultery because people wrote about it! I wanted to ask her how many poems she thought the judges had read. More than likely, they read about one document: an order from a government official to let her off. And that official had probably read a threat from a Western ambassador or two. No poems, I'm going to guess.

 I posted a few weeks back about the struggles of a woman I know to get medical care for her daughter, who has a severe medical condition. That post was partly the result of buzzed blogging, but it was also a result of listening to Chris Hayes' interview about his book A Colony in a Nation. He took time to talk about how the proposed changes to the Affordable Care Act would especially hurt mentally ill people. It was non-fiction, and I found it far more moving than any story I can remember reading lately. 

What story could I write that could be as necessary as Bandi's The Accusation, which is fiction but of a pointed political nature, a cry for a people and a finger wagging directly at a dictator?

But this book's coming out...

I have so much more work to do now that I have a book coming out. I have editing. I have decisions to make about the cover, the credits. I'm supposed to do readings and promote myself and send my book to be reviewed and get people to write blurbs for the back of the book and generally become my own literary pimp. Then, I need to write more so I can follow this up and keep marketing myself.

A friend of mine was once a chess player with a very strong rating. I'm jealous of that, because I like chess and wish I were as good as him. I'm always surprised he stopped playing. I recently asked him why, and he said, "I got to be better than 99% of players with X level of effort. But it would take X^2 level of effort to become better than 99.1% of players. I thought my time would be better spent getting good at something else."

As I think about jumping into the deep end of writing and whether it is a humanly enriching enough activity to justify a much deeper time and energy commitment than I have so far given it. How, for example, will writing allow me to keep that room in my house for someone to use? If writing can't provide something better for the world than that, what I am doing spending my time doing it?