Monday, July 31, 2017

A man crush leaves a comment, so I write a critique which is actually more of a general aesthetic treatise

A few posts ago, Anis Shivani, or someone doing a cyber impersonation of him, left a comment after one of my posts. This was pretty exciting for me, since I've quoted him a lot on here and really find a lot to love in his Against the Workshop. He has given voice to a lot of misgivings I've felt not just about workshops and writing programs, but the modern fiction establishment. I suspect when he writes these critiques, he's saying things many have felt, but few have the courage to proclaim.

I decided to read and then write a critique of his first book of short stories, Anatolia and other stories. After reading it a few weeks ago, I've been stymied about how to write this critique. I'd hoped that I'd find in his stories an alternative aesthetic I could aspire to, something different from what dominates the journals and winning short story anthologies year after year. Turns out, I didn't really connect much with this group of stories. I liked them less than I like most modern fiction, not more.

Which led me to ask myself: have I become so inured to a certain hegemonic aesthetic that I'm incapable of responding positively to alternatives? This is a strong possibility. So, rather than write a straight critique of Shivani's work, I've decided instead to try to trace what it is that makes his writing different, what there is about it that makes it belong to another time, and then interrogate my own assumptions about fiction that make me prefer a modern approach, or at least an approach that's more ubiquitous in modern literary fiction.

Hopefully, this will also serve as something of an answer to a friend of mine, who has sent me his fiction before, and I've found myself saying "I like it personally, but I don't think I'd publish it if you sent it to me, because I don't think it succeeds at certain things." I hope this will explain what I mean better than I've done so far.

Distance between author and narrator

One characteristic of Shivani's collection that's different from most modern fiction is that there is very little daylight between the point-of-view of the narrator, in whose voice the stories are told, and the author, Anis Shivani, lurking behind that narrative voice. Modern fiction-writing theory teaches writers to practice a form of Shakespearean negative capability popularized by the Romantics, that we should withhold ourselves from interjecting too much of our own selves into the work. Shivani (and my friend) are nearly opposite this kind of approach: the author and narrator are often almost one and the same (or the main character is antagonistic to the author's philosophy, and there as a cautionary tale). It's fiction that's strongly tied to the philosophical novel.

Shivanian aesthetic

I know where Shivani, the author behind the works, stands on each piece of fiction in this collection. Because one story is about a writer who goes to a sham of a writer's retreat called "Go Sell it on the Mountain," I don't even have to guess what Shivani's aesthetic is. He tells us. His first-person participant in the retreat says the following lines, both to reject the writing he sees others writing and to describe his own type of story-telling, which is rejected by other participants:

Her ((another writer at the workshop)) writing was curiously glassy on the surface: it gave you no entry point, no means to project your living, breathing mass of flesh onto the consciousness of the author. This kind of writing was in vogue now, while I wrote in the old-fashioned raconteur's spiraling manner, leisurely getting to the core of the story. My models were the forgotten writers of the thirties, forties, and fifties, like Roderick Lull and Morley Callaghan, who killed you with their explosive revelations of your own culpability in injustice.

Or, in another instance, the narrator shares these thoughts in a workshop with another writer, only to have his thoughts attacked by the workshop moderator:

"...what is the narrator's moral stand toward the lead character's afflictions? Does she have a moral opinion? Or is she neutral to her ups and downs? I don't see the author present behind the scenes.

The author in Anatolia and Other Stories is always visible, and often barely behind the scenes. In addition to the story of a writer finding his aesthetic out of place with hucksters selling false hope to the talentless, there is another story of Arthur, an old professor who feels out of place because he is being crowded out of the world by an academy and wife who espouse theoretical notions he thinks are ludicrous. Change "Arthur" to "author" on that one, too.


This voice where the thoughts of the author are often pushing into the narrative has a certain feel to it, like we can only proceed so far before we get a summary of what we've just gone over. There are frequent insertions of phrases like "Of course," usually preceding a sneering recounting of some fallacious habit of some character. (There are 43 instances of "of course" in the book.) In another place, it's "Oh, I'm sure he said something about the need to pace ourselves..."

I used to hate hearing the workshop stock phrase that a story "floats," meaning it doesn't have enough flesh and bones to tie its ideas to Earth. But these stories float a lot. There are powerful ideas in play here, so powerful, in fact, that there cannot be any shortcuts past incarnation. But in many stories, the word comes to dwell among us without first being made flesh.

In no story was this more evident than "Repatriation," a frustrating, semi-apocalyptic tale of people not sufficiently Anglo-Saxon enough being shipped out of the United States to...well, they never do make it anywhere. The story is nearly haunting, nearly palpable, but it keeps resorting to summarizing statements of how we got to where we are, brief quips from a fictional history. There is a tantalizing line in the story about how the refugees on the ship, not allowed to have books with them, "trade in poetry." I wish the whole story had been about that. Instead, it's part tirade, part oh-yeah-by-the-way-some-things-happened-on-the-ship, part details from the life of a hazy first-person narrator before the roundup.

Telling over showing

"Show don't tell" is one of those workshop mantras that rightly deserves some rebellion against it. It's not historical. It rejects the "instruct" in "instruct and delight." It overlooks that wanting moral instruction from stories is a core aspect of human nature.

Shivani tells a lot. Even when he shows, he often follows it up with telling. In "Independence," we get this summary of a character, rather than hints from action, dialogue, etc.:

Was it that he faced his mortality in the mirror the innocent boy held up to him? Was it that he saw in the boy's mindless questions and motiveless harmony some challenge to the ordinary man Saleem himself had become? Saleem had never been a rebel; he'd never gone through the wild phase his university classmates had, putting their fathers through the ropes, driving their poor mothers to distraction.

In one instance, right after we have a scene rendered, with Julie pinching the cheeks and ruffling the hair of her child, we immediately get an explanation of what those actions meant: "The good thing about Julie was that she didn't jump into defending her mothering skills when Saleem accused her of shortfalls in that area. She listened seriously, like a good pupil." Or later, "Their father pinched and rolled his chin, in an expression of concern." That's showing and telling in one sentence, the action and the explanation of the action all in one.

I'm not really criticizing this trait; this is more of a description of where Shivani lies on a spectrum of descriptive and prescriptive narrative. I'd like to see more fiction written near this end of the spectrum. I just didn't find this collection was a particularly effective representative of its spectrum.

Or am I just a tool of my environment?

Shivani the critic has convincingly--to my mind, anyway--attacked the modern academia-publishing complex in serious fiction for its dogmatic insistence on an unimaginative, bourgeois form of realism, what he would, after over a decade of developing his thoughts, come to call "plastic realism."  I realize that in my critique of Anatolia, I've assumed a position well within the mainstream of this kind of realism. Perhaps, as much as I've railed against M.F.A. programs and suggested I don't find much on the scene that deeply inspires me (all of my top five authors are dead), I have, without meaning to, been commodified by this system. Maybe in the process of trying to get published by literary journals, I've ended up adopting the aesthetic I think is likely to get me published by them, and become, in the process, the sort of person who can't appreciate something like Anatolia that doesn't conform.

I don't think this is the case. I wanted to like these stories. I admire Shivani the critic so much, I was dying to love Shivani the story teller. He commented on my blog. I wanted to write about how I really got his fiction. I just didn't. Not that there was nothing to like in these stories, but nearly all the gold in it were thoughts similar to what Shivani has penned elsewhere in non-fiction form. As a story teller, I think he's a very good critic.

The stories I want to read and write

I don't mind being told how to feel about a story. I like it. I prefer it. But the moral grounding has to come organically from the story, or at least feel like it does. When Dori tells Marlin "It's time to let go!" it's pretty clear we've come to the climax of both the story and of Marlin's narrative arc. There's nothing thematically subtle about that line. But that line also works, because it is grounded in a real drama of a guy trying to find his kid. 

I once tried to write these types of philosophical narratives, where I'd have some thought about the world, stick it into a character, and then try to make that be enough to bring a world to life. It never worked. Jonathan Franzen's intellectual characters work not because they have brilliant thoughts--although they sometimes do--but because their brilliant thoughts do not solve all the problems in their lives. Sometimes, they are the source of nothing but anxiety. Franzen's characters do not exist just to have thoughts Franzen wants them to have. They have thoughts because that's part of what they do as fully formed characters. They might be characters similar to Franzen, but that's not the same as saying they're puppets Franzen has giving us his prophetic vision of life through the guise of a nominal story.

Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe I'm a Philistine, or just an unimaginative critic. Maybe I'm unable to transcend the bourgeois tastes of my time. That's completely possible. Maybe I've developed such a knee-jerk response against what I think won't get published, I've equated it with something that shouldn't get published.

I might be wrong about what I like, but I don't think I've confused what I like for what I ought to like. Not yet. And my requirements for what I like are definitely not modern. I've never improved much upon Horace's "instruct and delight."

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Confessions of a literary journal reader: overcompensating, and not the penis kind

I've written before about the fallacies, logical and otherwise, that might befall a literary journal editor, and how these fallacies might affect whether your story gets picked for publication. Editors are humans, and sometimes, the things we do are just weird.

You can control a lot with the way you write a story. Your skill as a writer can probably control, with about an 80% degree of accuracy, whether your story gets looked at more closely by the front-line readers or tossed aside. But when it gets down the the tough decisions of whether to publish the many stories a journal gets that deserve publication--many more than they can actually publish--there may be some things going on that you can't control.

Here's one I've caught myself doing lately

Although I neither like cars nor guns, in other ways, I kind of fit the male American stereotype. I like sports. I like sex. I like a particular kind of narrative voice, aggressive, quick-hitting and jocular, that tends to come from male writers. I'm aware of this tendency, and sometimes, I find myself overcompensating for it by intentionally trying to vote for female voices, sometimes even ones I don't really like. Maybe I'll vote down that hilarious story about the misogynistic womanizer with a secret soft side, or I'll vote up the story about consignment needlepoint workers in Kenya even though I could barely get through it. I don't exactly keep affirmative-action type quotas, but I am aware, usually, of whether the last few stories I voted for were written by men or women, or whether they featured male or female characters.

In case you were wondering--ladies--I do not drive a sports car. I have an old Corolla. So I'm not overcompensating. Or am I aware that people know men with sports cars are overcompensating, and I'm overcompensating for that? Hmmm...

This is similar to the other fallacy I wrote about, where I am more likely to vote for a story if I haven't voted for one lately, and less likely if I just recently voted for one. I'm not sure exactly what kind of cognitive bias this is--it's something like an availability heuristic, but maybe also something like the gambler's fallacy. I'd call it a fairness bias--a sort of one for you, one for me, incredibly clumsy kind of thinking.

Even being aware of it, this is still lurking at the back of my mind. I'm not only aware of it, I'm also aware of being aware of it. I don't want to give in to it, and I also don't want to swing too far the other way trying to avoid it. It's a very uncomfortable thought looking over my shoulder as I read and do my best to get it right.

There's really nothing you, as a writer, can do about this kind of thing. Which is why one point I keep trying to get across is to take all rejections with a grain of salt. It'll be a grain of salt in your wounds, I know, but really, just don't beat yourself up too much. 

Monday, July 24, 2017

More of an HTGP than a WIHPTS: "Raptor" by Charles Holdefer

I've been doing a lot of Would I Have Published This Story (WIHPTS) installments lately, while reading through the Puschart Anthology from 2017. The last story I read was so good, I'm not even going to do a WIHPTS for it. Yes, I would have published it.

Instead, I'd like to offer a quick HTGP (How to Get Published). Very quick, actually, because that's how this story introduced the main conflict. Here's two things any fiction writer trying to get past numbskulled first-line readers (like me) should do:

1) Get into the conflict in the first page. Here's how "Raptor" does it: The first sentence teases it, "Cody was the only one to see the raptor descend." We then get two quick paragraphs telling us who is involved and where we are, then the conflict literally descends into the picture:

With a swoop the raptor grabbed Ronny and the baby chair and then began to arc upward, pumping its wings furiously

We have a family that was on one arc now completely redirected by something not only tragic, but freakishly unlikely beyond all imagining. That gets us knuckleheaded readers past the first page.

2) When you need to go into a flashback or offer some kind of exposition, give another lead-in with as much force as your opening sentence to the whole story. You've established one kind of momentum, but when you shift on the reader, you risk losing all that if you don't give it another shove to overcome gravity settling on it.

Holdefer did this with three sections that begin with "even if not for the raptor..." Even if not for the raptor, the mother and father might have had marital problems. Even if not for the raptor, the mom was prone to substance abuse and depression. Even if not for the raptor, the father might have started cheating on the mom. This uses the inertia-defeating thrust from the first section to power the backstory, making the exposition as quick-hitting as the main action.

Here's something I'd like to emphasize to writers: this is really excellent writing, but it's not something writers of average talent can't emulate. This isn't the kind of verbal painting that only the greatest virtuosos of the English language can hope to achieve. It's just good, normal fiction writing. More and more, I'm seeing that it's possible to write a really powerful story without necessarily having to have access to language that's beyond the reach of all mortals. Just stand in there and tell your story your way.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Two posts, one day: my book is on Amazon! (pre-order)

I didn't even realize this when I posted an hour or so ago, but my book of short stories is now available for pre-order on Amazon. Here ya go:

Me a tree on a summer day

I got my preview copies a few days ago, and I gotta say, even though I was really over the whole experience of having a book published and thought it was lame to get emotional about it, I got kind of emotional. My stories seem so much more grown-up in a book than on my hard drive next to my son's plagiarized homework.

Word to the wise, if you're thinking of ordering it to be nice to me or whatever: there will be an e-book version, so you can save yourself $8 or something by waiting for that to come out. Not sure I'd pay $17 for a paperback. But then, I don't love anyone like you all love me, right?

Summer is a terrible time to get motivated about submitting stories

I do things in cycles. I won't clean the house for six weeks, then I clean it all in six hours. I may have a mild form of manic-depressive/bipolar disorder. I make it work for me by doing everything when I'm up and coasting when I'm down. This summer, without nightly arguing over homework to occupy me, I've been trying to get serious about taking some of the very best stories I've got, making them look super shiny, and then sending them off. I mentioned a while ago that I'm going to take a scatter-shot approach and send them literally everywhere, but part of that strategy has been a commitment to including some of the top journals in the mix. A lot of them, actually. The top journals take more work, because a lot of them don't just work through Submittable. You have to use their separate submission service or once in a while even--God help me--mail it in. But I'm up for the task right now.

The problem is that most of the top journals are off for the summer. Their schedules really do not match the arbitrary nature of my gumption. They all seem to open back up at about the same time in the fall. Will I still have the will then to blitzkrieg my way through sending out submissions? Time will tell. In the meantime, I guess I'll busy myself with sending off more query letters to literary agents about the novel...that also won't get read because everyone takes the summer off.

What I'm getting at is what anyone who's been writing seriously for a while probably already figured out. You need to align your drives with the writing season. Fall and spring are where it's at. Align your biorhythms/chakras accordingly.

Monday, July 17, 2017

No for three in a row: WIHPTS, "Midterm" by Leslie Johnson

For this round of Would I Have Published this Story (WIHPTS), I make my second foray in recent memory into the seedy underbelly of the teenage, American, female psyche. A few months ago, it was for 13 Reasons Why, but today it's for the next story in this year's Pushcart Anthology, "Midterm" by Leslie Johnson.

The usual caveat: this isn't exactly "criticism," although my views on the story sort of come out while answering the question of whether I think I'd have recommended this story for publication as a reader at a literary magazine. The bigger point, though, is to look at the reasons, logical and illogical, why one editor might accept or reject a story, and to use that to help writers out there understand why their own stories might get rejected. 

How would I have voted?

Yet again, I'm fairly certain I'd have voted no. And yet again, I think I'd have probably been wrong.

Why would I have voted no?

There might have been a bit of an irrational reason to reject the story for me: the other day, Anis Shivani, something of a literary man crush for me, commented on my humble little blog. (Or it was at least someone convincingly playing the part of Shivani.) Soon after, I got his first book of fiction, "Anatolia and Other Stories." One of the stories in there is about a man at a writer's workshop retreat, who rather drolly notes that all of the women in his workshop seemed to be writing about anorexia. Which kind of made me subconsciously roll my eyes in sympathy with that main character when I got to "Midterm," about the struggles of a college freshman girl with anorexia named Chandra. I may have taken the proximity of Shivani's story as a clue I should reject the one by Johnson.

Even before I read that story by Shivani, stories about anorexia would have been a tough sell for me. They're kind of--and this is really not to dump on people who have it--played out and after-school-specially to me. My blogging buddy Karen Carlson said the voice of the lost-in-the-sauce female protagonist was "off-putting," even while it was the right voice for the story. Even Johnson herself seems well aware of how many readers might take such a character, and tries to let the reader know she has guessed the reaction by having Chandra's professor beg her not to write "another paper about anorexia" for class.

Johnson actually correctly guessed my thoughts twice in the story. The other time was when Eli, the boy who takes interest in Chandra, starts talking about his philosophy of how we all need to just be present and live our lives. It's the way only a self-important college student tool would talk, which is why Johnson has Eli say, after one monologue, "I sound like an asshole?" Well, now that you mention it, yeah...

Johnson understands that her story is a tough sell for the reader, but she's determined to make us care about Chandra anyway. Just because Chandra's troubles are kind of cliche, first-world troubles doesn't make them less troublesome for her. In fact, that's what makes it so pernicious: she looks very much like she's on her way to becoming a statistic, another girl who washed out of college in the first year. And she's such a cliche, the people in her life seem unable to summon the energy to help her adequately.

Johnson manages to make the reader care about Chandra, in spite of all the obstacles, which is quite an accomplishment. But I kind of think I'd never have gotten far enough as an editor to find out that she'd done it. I don't want to put hypothetical votes into the mouths of other editors I work with, but there are a couple of women at the journal whom I've seen on more than one occasion reject a story with the note "a little too 'YA' for my taste." If either one of them had said that about this story, I'd have probably agreed without thinking too much about it.

It's really remarkable this story managed to get past the inevitable knee-jerk reactions against it. I have to give the Colorado Review props for having accepted it in the first place. It shows a lot of willingness on the part of their editorial staff to hear a writer out. I'm not sure I'd have done as well. 

Monday, July 10, 2017

If I wrote blog posts modeled off glam rock ballads, this is what I'd write

The other day, Mrs. Heretic and I, nostalgic for Korea, went to the get some 잡채 and 콩나물 for a late lunch, then followed it up when we got home by drinking soju on the back porch. After a while, we moved from the porch to the kitchen table, where we passed the time watching music videos from the era we regard as our childhood, more or less the 80s. Unlike my feelings for Korea, I'm not at all nostalgic about the 80s. I regard it as the time in my life when I realized I was not good enough at sports to become a pro athlete. I dislike almost all of the music I grew up listening to. For some reason, though, with enough soju, it became fun for a while to listen to these songs as Youtube chose them for us and be reminded why I dislike almost all of them.

At some point, Youtube moved us back to 1977 and Meatball's "Paradise by the Dashboard Light," which we listened to, even though I was too young when the song came out to remember it from back then. I don't think I even knew who Meatball was until my late teens. I have no strong opinion on whether "Paradise" is a good song. I'm nearly serious opinion-free on music in general. It's never been a huge part of my self-identity. As a kid, I mostly listened to what was on the radio so I could keep up with conversations at school. (Edit: Mrs. Heretic says people will not get that "Meatball" was a joke. Fine. He's the other staple ground beef meal in American homes.)

I'll say this for the song, though: it's long and it's several things at once and it's self-assured and indulgent and there's a certain joy in that. The song would never get made now; it's too unwieldy and hard to program. It's a vestige of a time when rock stars made the fucking songs they wanted to make and people could play their songs or not. (I guess. I don't know anything about rock and roll history.)

It reminded me of Lydia Davis's "After Reading Peter Bichsell," which I blogged about recently. I said that if I'd seen the story come in to my literary journal as an editor, I'd almost certainly have voted no on it, but reading it gave me a strange pleasure, in part because it took certain liberties I don't think writers take much anymore.

I seem to be doing the same thing with this blog post. I've already spent over 200 words just introducing the concept of the structure of this post. And now here's where the song changes.

Today was one of those "hit a great shot" kind of days

Golfers often talk about how they spend most of the time hating golf, but then once in a while, they hit a great shot, and it keeps them coming back and suffering through a terrible game for a while longer. That was me today. I was really giving thought (again) to pitching it all, mostly because of how unhappy the whole publication struggle makes me sometimes.

Then, today, I had two things happen that were encouraging enough that I'm probably still in it for a while longer.

One was actually a rejection. But it was an encouraging rejection, and it was from The New Ohio Review, which is a really good journal. I have a friend to whom I've tried to explain what writing is like for me, and his reaction to the notion that an "encouraging rejection" is actually a thing was an incredulous "Fuck's a rejection encouraging?" but it really can be. It means that something about the story made them at least take notice. It means there really was something in that story.

The second thing that happened was another agent asked to look at the manuscript for my novel. This could very well just end in disappointment again in a few days or weeks, but at least I'm getting some movement with it.

Those don't sound like very impressive things now that I've written them down. But that's what happened, and now I'm back to grinding some more.

Fucking Anis Shivani

I've quoted this lightning rod critic/poet/novelist several times on this blog. I find much of what he says instantly compelling, because his critique of the academy, of M.F.A. programs, and of modern writing in general seems to match conclusions I'd arrived at on my own. He's suspicious of M.F.A. programs because they're really just socialization of writers, a socialization that teaches us all to be nice, to say nice things about our betters, and that if we do, we'll be rewarded with occasional publications and maybe writing jobs. He says this has led to an insular type of academy-proctored writing, one that is divorced from the public, who largely ignore everything this system produces.

Last year, Shivani was giving an interview. He was talking about his rather ascetic personal training as a writer, in which he turned away from family or even sex, and more or less locked himself away and read. He started to talk about how much reading a writer should do, and said this:

So my question to you, if you want to be a writer, is: Are you willing to shut yourself down and read, read like a writer, the ten or twenty thousand books you need to read before you can know anything about writing? Are you willing to give the best years of your life to reading and writing, are you willing to make writing the first and only priority in life, more than your family and the people you love or money or health or security or anything else? And all by yourself, in solitude? If yes, you can be a writer, if not, you can’t. Community is optional and dispensable. It’s something you do, perhaps, after you’ve established your identity as a writer, not before. But today the cart comes before the horse, it’s the opposite of what it should be.

Those are the kinds of statements that make me think I should pack it in as a writer. I'm not that dedicated. I'm not willing to punt my family for my writing. And maybe, as a result, I'm not that good.

But something about that doesn't sit right. Shivani has himself criticized writers who have no real life experience, who know only teaching and books and the narrow things one learns from domestic life, such as having children and divorce and parents dying. They lack Melville's misery on a merchant ship, or Faulkner's experience in the factory. I've written before about how I prefer to read Carl Sagan, a scientist who writes, to Andrea Barret, a writer who sciences. It's maybe okay if I'm not a pure writer, if I'm a guy who's done some stuff, read some stuff, thought about it and is trying to learn to write well enough to share it.

I haven't read 10% of what Shivani has probably read. When he mentioned the Italian hermeticists in this essay, I had to admit that I didn't even know who the fuck the Italian hermeticists were.

But do I just give up because of that? I do have some stuff in my background that makes up for not being the most well read person out there. (And that's not litotes when I say "not the most well read." I'm not woefully under-read. But I am a slow reader, and I've spent a lot of time reading in foreign languages, books that sometimes took me months to finish. It's limited what I've been able to get through in my life.)

There is enough going on in my brain that it's worth trying to squeeze out, and I'm not just talking about the perfect .gif from a contemporary American sit-com. In any event, I'm not yet despondent enough that I'm able to overcome the compulsion to write.

Friday, July 7, 2017

Finally, some actual literature from me

A few months ago, I wrote about getting a story accepted where the editor actually asked for a few changes. The biggest change, which I now think of as a really good one, was the name. This Christmasy story was originally called "City of Dawit." It's now called "Silver Spring," after the city in Maryland where a lot of Ethiopian/Eritrean folks live.

There's not much to say about it, other than it's not short (about 7,000 words), so if you plan to read, get comfortable.

I wrote this back when I still thought Trump becoming President was the most laughable idea in politics. I didn't know then how important immigrant stories would become.

Here's the story, courtesy of The Green Hills Literary Lantern.

This story will be one of the twelve in my upcoming book, due out in about two months, so you can consider this a sneak-peak. 

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Rejection Thursday special: a quick idea for literary journals to easily provide more than just a no

Work informed me that today was "Thankful Thursday" and asked us to share our gratitude. I thanked the lady who sells me my coffee. She's probably more efficient and performs more tangible good in the world than anyone else I see at work. Then again, I thank her every time she gets me coffee. I'm an asshole, but not a jerk.

Anyhow, I've decided to dub the day "Rejection Thursday," which has zero alliteration, but is still 97.2% less dumb. The day after posting about a really strange coincidence where a story I voted on in the literary journal I work with showed up in the copy of Prairie Schooner I was reading, I got my own rejection from Prairie Schooner. Not really a big deal; it's a tough journal to get into. But this is one of those stories I really have an extra amount of attachment to. It's inspired by my daughter, who is not officially my daughter, but who needed a place to stay six years ago and I've called my daughter since. It's not much of a real-life-transcribed-into-fiction story--almost none of what happens in the story happened in real life--but it is the best shot I've taken at expressing some of the things I've felt and learned having her in my life. It's got all my own inadequacy and failure to be for her what she needed, all her elusive charm built of her own survival mechanisms she's developed while dealing with things I can't--and don't want to--imagine. I felt drained after writing it. Every rejection I get for this story feels like I've failed her somehow.

So what do I want journals to do?

I understand all too well that journals can't respond to every submission. They can't even do it for 10% of the stories they get. But here's something I'd like to see journals try: have each reader/editor who weighs in on the story assign it a 1-10 rating. They don't have to justify the rating, just based on the stories they see come in, is this a 1 (utterly unredeemable, horribly written), a 10 (publish!) or somewhere between? I'd say a 7 or above is a story you probably read all the way through.

The writer would, in addition to the standard rejection notice, get a readout of the number from each reader who provided one (naturally, the readers' names would be kept off the ratings).

I know journals will never do this, because it opens them up to all kinds of hate from writers. Journals already face occasional anger and bitterness from writers who are certain their stories were better than what got published. A unexpected low rating to go along with it would only fan the flames.

But it would be extremely useful to me, especially when trying to figure out where to go from here with a story I can't just walk away from. I know the number would be something the reader spent two seconds assigning, but that's actually useful, since the up/down decision also happens nearly as quickly. It's not the same as criticism: that requires a full reading every time, no matter how bad it seems. It's just a quick, first-number-that-pops-into-your-head reading of how close a reader was to yes.

As much as I doubt any journal would ever try this, I think it'd be a really interesting experiment for one to try for a single reading period.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

A very special WIHPTS

This is now the fourth round of Would I Have Published This Story? (WIHPTS), and it's by far the weirdest. A little while ago, I thought I was going crazy. I picked up the summer edition of Prairie Schooner and went to the first story in it, which is a breezy little story called "Sometimes I'm Suzanne" by the Australian writer Merran Jones. Congratulations, Merran.

It's a quirky story of a boy named Matthew who has a second person rattling inside his brain, in this case, a middle-aged woman named Suzanne. She's there like some people might be born with an extra finger, not really malignant, just one of those things that happens from time to time and makes Matthew a little different. She sometimes takes over Matthew and does things an older woman would do. She and Matthew have some dialogue between them. But she's not always there, which is why Matthew says "sometimes" he's Suzanne. But sometimes, he's just himself. On his own, he's not particularly effeminate. His father, who had daddy issues of his own, eventually hates the girly behavior of Suzanne so much he leaves.

The thing is, I knew I'd read this story before. I just couldn't think of where.

Finally, it struck me. She submitted it to our journal, the one where I'm a volunteer editor. I remember it because we, the editors, talked about it a lot. We very nearly said yes to it. Two editors said yes, two said no, one said maybe. While we were kibitzing over it, the story got accepted by Prairie Schooner.

How did I vote? I voted no, with a great deal of hand-wringing. It was one of the first stories with a split vote I'd weighed in on. Might have been the very first. Here's my note in Submittable:

I see why there's division on this. It's witty and quick and ultimately kind of sweet, but it hits a few wrong notes. Beyond "fell into a sar-chasm" (wah-wah) there's the tell-not-show of "Kev could never escape his dad's Stockholm Syndrome-clutch." I'm voting down, although it feels like in doing so, I'm voting against moms. 
 A few days later, the story was withdrawn when it was accepted elsewhere. 

The "sar-chasm" joke, by the way, is still there in Prairie Schooner, so I guess they liked the joke that I didn't. The line about Stockholm Syndrome is there, too.  I feel some parts are edited somewhat from what we read, but I'm not sure. One of our other editors mentioned that Kevin, the father, seemed like something of a cut-out, just a one-dimensional boorish lout. I feel like the version that's in P.S. draws him a little fuller, but I might be totally mistaken about that. Maybe we just thought one thing about him and the editors at P.S. thought something different.

In any event, this story really proves what the WIHPTS series is supposed to prove: that fiction editing by literary journals is far from a science. I guess it's not a total crapshoot: the story did get our attention, so we treated it with more care than most of the stories we get. Both we and P.S. realized we had something worth taking a closer look at. But we still ultimately differed on whether it was "good enough."  

Three other things to think about: 1) This story ended up getting accepted by a top 50 journal, so just because an "easy" publication turns you down doesn't mean a "hard" one will, too. There's a good deal of luck involved no matter where you send it. 2) The first two votes on this story were yes for us. The third was maybe, which led to more editors taking a look. If voter #3 had just said yes instead of maybe, our chief editor very likely would have accepted the story then, and we might have gotten it before P.S. The difference for one editor between maybe and yes ended up leading to two more no votes, which, had P.S. not accepted it, might mean Jones would still be trying to get it published because of that one near-vote. 3) I think I'd maybe vote differently on this story now than I did then, after more than six months on the job. You can't control as a writer how experienced or smart your fiction reviewer will be. So just keep submitting.

It's also possible to draw this conclusion: what the fuck do I know?

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Where are all the good Ohio literary agents?

I've gotten back up off the mat after my disappointing near-miss with an agent, determined to get to that magic number of 50 rejections before I allow myself to lose hope of getting this novel out.

While churning through the list of agents, I'm amazed how many are in New York City. Even though this article suggests authors should turn up their noses at anyone not in New York (because they can't hob-nob with publishers, and, therefore, presumably can't get you a deal), I'm flabbergasted that they can afford office space in New York when publishing is supposedly becoming such a bad business.

I think if I saw a literary agent with the stones to set up shop in Youngstown, Ohio, I'd want to sign with that guy. Means he's not driving up his commission to pay for his office and his lunches with the publishers.

I assume that so many agents and so many publishers being in New York also leads to certain kinds of novels that appeal to New Yorkers becoming ubiquitous. I'm know I'm sick to death of New York as a setting in movies. It's not just that the story is in New York. It's the way New Yorkers talk about their city like Cross-Fit douches talk about Cross-Fit. Like anyone who doesn't love it and want to live there no matter what is an idiot.

I probably won't have the luxury of picking an agent from Canton, or even North Canton. The reality is that right now, I just want the book to live, and if it required a half dozen bus trips up to New York to get it done, I'd gladly do so. But it does make one wonder to see page after page of agent offices in one of the most expensive places on Earth to set up an office.