Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Agent disappointment

Trying to get something you've written and care about published has some incredible lows. Last weekend, I decided to quit messing around and send query letters out to agents for my novel. I've sent some, but got discouraged and sort of used "waiting to hear back" as a reason to quit writing. Thirty minutes after writing one, an agent responded with "You have my attention," and asking for a PDF of the novel. That was pretty exciting.

The idea often strikes me that this novel is the main reason I was put on Earth, and that I have a responsibility to try to get it out there. (I also often dismiss this as magical thinking and tell myself I should grow up, suck up more at work, and then go fix the weed whacker.)

I got this response today from that agent:

Jake, I’ve read half your novel, and there’s so much to love. You’re really funny, and I’m fascinated by this look into ((the)) culture ((of the place where I work)). And what you’ve done with the...worldbuilding (I HATE that word but I’m using it anyway) is rather impressive. However, I’m struggling to find the takeaway. It’s clever and you’re obviously talented, but I’m not finding the depth or layers necessary needed for me to feel the satire is working at the level it has to in order succeed in this tough literary fiction arena.

Thanks for sharing this with me, Jake. I appreciated the chance to consider. Best of luck to you!

For like thirty seconds, I thought I'd found an agent, and was on my way to getting this book published.  Getting the agent seems to be the biggest of the hurdles. This was the first time I'd even gotten one to pay attention enough to ask for the manuscript, although I felt like the premise was at least compelling enough I thought I'd get a lot more knee-jerk interest. 

It's a really kind, decent email, and I can't say a thing bad about the agent. He was incredibly fast and sympathetic and seemed to get it. He's in a tough business where you have to make quick decisions about what you think you can sell. I get it. I make quick decisions all the time at the magazine about what I think we should publish and what we shouldn't. I totally understand. Still sucks for me.

I'm really not the kind of person who just brushes off setbacks. I can't even think about another query letter right now. There was a time in my life when I had put writing away, embraced bourgeois normalcy, and felt rather content. Why did I ever start writing again and ruin that tenuous balance that only holds if you don't ask questions of it? I'm much less happy now than I was five years ago. Common sense would seem to dictate that if something is making you unhappy, you should quit doing it, but every time I try, I end up back at the computer trying to write that one more story or try one last place to submit something. 

I am so tired of being good but not good enough. 


Sunday, June 25, 2017

WIHPTS? "After Reading Peter Bichsel" by Lydia Davis

It's time for another round of Would I Have Published This Story (WIHPTS), in which I attempt to demonstrate the arbitrariness of short fiction publishing by taking stories that have earned critical praise and trying to guess if I'd have voted for them to be published in the small literary journal I work for if I'd have seen them come in without anything to flag them as special.

The first two times I did this, I was pretty confident I'd have voted to publish the acclaimed stories, which kind of undercut my theory of arbitrariness. Let's see what happens this time, with "After Reading Peter Bichsel," originally published in The Paris Review and later re-printed in the 2017 Pushcart Prize Anthology.

Here is my caveat about what this game means and doesn't mean:

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, 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?

No! I'd have rejected it, probably with extreme prejudice, after reading perhaps two or three pages. And I'm relatively confident other editors would have agreed, and our journal would have rejected it with a non-personalized note. There is one other editor in particular I'm thinking of who would have called this story "thinly fictionalized memoir."


This is an achingly slow and subtle story, something the narrator (author?) offers a bit of apologia for early on. She recounts being given a book of stories by Swiss writer Peter Bichsel. She wants to read the book to improve her German while she is traveling throughout Germany and Switzerland. The narrator remarks on these stories that:

He (Bichsel) will also sometimes begin a story, or remark in the middle of a story, "There are stories that are hardly worth telling," or "There is almost nothing to say about X," and then sometimes follow that with a "but": "But I have wanted to tell this story for a long time now," or "But it has to be told, because it was the first story in my life, the first one that I remember." He then goes on to tell a lovely, quiet, modest story, a story that glows with human kindness, or love, or some combination of compassion, understanding, and honesty. (Or am I, these days, finding this quality so marked in his stories because I am seeking it?)

The narrator says, before launching into the main narrative, that this characteristic applies to her own story: "I wanted to say...that there was not much to tell...there was a scene, one that involved a peculiar character, and later a coincidence." Not very promising to be warned early on that there isn't really much of interest in the story.

Why would I have voted no on it?

1. I already alluded to the main reason: it feels like memoir. It sounds like a travel anecdote, barely fictionalized. I'd have wondered if the writer meant to send this to  the creative non-fiction category.

2. It's adjective heavy: In the first page after the main narrative launches, we get: "small, undistinguished, reliable, attractive, crowded, noisy, buxom, energetic, peaceful, small (again), large, placid, agreeable, vague, comfortable, companionable." I don't have quite the revulsion to adjectives that some writers/editors do. Sometimes, I'd rather have one succinct adjective rather than a long rendering of why the author applied that adjective. That is to say, sometimes, it's okay to tell, rather than show. But so much of this right at the outset of the story, after first being waylaid by a lengthy framing of the story, would have made me feel the story had something of an amateurish feel.

3. Putting in the bit about reading some Swiss writer--in the original German--felt to me like a humble brag on the part of the writer. Actually, if this had been presented as creative non-fiction, I'd have accepted this much more readily. But labelled as fiction, this felt like there was too narrow a distance here between the narrator and the author, and the author was trying to show off that she spoke a foreign language and that she read someone in that language. Given that I've pushed through my share of novels in foreign languages more difficult than German (my own humble brag), I wasn't that impressed.

Of course, we might have been totally wrong to overlook this story

The point I want to make through this WIHPTS series isn't that some stories get praise without deserving it. It's more than your story or mine that has been overlooked might not have deserved to be overlooked. With this story, I'd have applied some pseudo algorithms I've developed over time to help cut down on my work load and get through the slush pile more quickly. One is that if I don't want to keep reading after a page or two, neither will a magazine reader.

But reading this story not as a slush pile candidate but as an already validated and lauded story, I can see something of why people see value in it. The point of WIHPTS isn't criticism, so I'm not going to go into it deeply here, but there is definitely something interesting in the reaction of the narrator at a few points in the story. She hesitates to give a woman a pen, although she has a spare. She wants to ask something about the woman when she sees her again later, but she is overwhelmed by the logistics of getting through it in German. She reads to improve her German, but doesn't actually speak to anyone, which, of course, is also a way to learn German. At the end she sees a man on a train who is an avid reader like herself, and when the train moves, he braces himself against its movement. Is that what reading is to some people? Just a way to prevent being moved, being changed?

When I made myself read the story, I actually somewhat liked the non-hurried pace of it. So many literary magazine stories are frenetic, because we writers are told how critical it is to keep the story moving. This has a feel to it like a story from a century ago, when writers were still self-assured of their own raison d'etre they weren't always in a rush, didn't always have to have explosions.

So this story might very well deserve its place in an anthology of the year's best, although I'd still have rejected it from our small literary magazine in ten minutes or less. I'm pretty sure an unknown author would have had a very hard time publishing this story.

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.