Saturday, September 23, 2017

Yeah, you keep cracking wise...

The New York Times followed the U.S. media's long tradition the other day of treating North Korea dismissively. In this case, it was yucking it up over the use of the word "dotard," claiming people everywhere were scrambling to find out what the word meant. The implications of this laughter are that North Korea uses antiquated words, and is therefore easy to deride and take lightly. They can't even use normal words, who can take them seriously?

Of course, neither Kim Jong Un nor his ghostwriter said "dotard." The word shows up twice in the English version:

Action is the best option in treating the dotard who, hard of hearing, is uttering only what he wants to say.

and

I will surely and definitely tame the mentally deranged US dotard with fire.

The Korean, for those able to play along, was the following:

말귀를 알아듣지 못하고 제할소리만 하는 늙다리에게는 행동으로 보여주는것이 최선이다.

and

미국의 늙다리미치광이를 반드시,반드시 불로 다스릴것이다.

I don't really object to the translations. The statement clearly wanted to achieve hyperbole, and there's no way to soften that and give a true translation. The word 늙다리, translated as "dotard" doesn't really have a better translation. Other ones might have been equally good, though: old coot, buzzard, dinosaur, etc. It's an old person whose age has weakened his/her faculties. (Did that many people really have to look up the meaning of "dotard" in English? That was surprising to me.)

It's not that unusual a word in Korean, though. It can be used about anything old. An old animal that's past its prime can be a 늙다리.  I think most adult Koreans would know what the word means, unlike (much to my surprise) most Americans with the word "dotard." It isn't, in other words, a particularly strange thing to say in Korean. On the scale of KCNA pronouncements, it's actually kind of normal.

I wouldn't  begrudge folks having a laugh over such a pedantic point, except that it seems like the U.S. media has only one note with North Korea, which is to make fun of everything it does or says. It's all just a big joke, all the time. Well, it's not a joke to North Korea. It's an existential matter for them. Nobody there is laughing.

Friday, September 22, 2017

Resentment as a motivator

I've read a lot of articles over the years about how athletes used the resentment they felt from a perceived snub as a motivator to achieve greatness. Warriors basketball player Draymond Green remembers all 34 players taken in front of him in the 2012 draft. Michael Jordan's Hall of Fame induction speech was sort of a litany of all the wrongs done to him. A lot of players get traded and use that as proof that the team that got rid of them never saw the value that was there, and they become all-stars the following year.

I can see how convincing yourself that the world is against you and you need to pay them back is a good way to get the most out of your off-season workouts. But it's obviously false motivation. No team intentionally throws away talent. It's just hard to evaluate. If they had known how good someone would be, they'd have taken that person. But until the moment talent shows itself, it's extremely difficult to judge.

Some people have suggested using resentment as a motivation for writing. One day, I'll have a Pulitzer or a best-seller, and then I can laugh at everyone who missed their chance at me. When I found out I was getting a book published, people suggested I throw it in the face of others. I just don't feel that way. For one thing, after facing so much rejection, whenever I get the least bit of acceptance, I feel nothing but grateful. Secondly, I know that nobody is rejecting me because it's personal. It's just hard to decide what's good enough to publish.

But mostly, does it make any sense to write from resentment? The best writing I've ever read, your Shakespeare or Melville or Vonnegut or Cervantes, can often have a caustic, derisive sense of its subjects, but it's also infused with love for the same fools it's deriding. You cannot write about humanity while full of hate. That's like being told as a young man that you'll never achieve your dream of becoming a missionary, then motivating yourself through Bible college by telling yourself I'll show these assholes. I'm going to show these fucking starving people the love of Christ like a motherfucker. Some means annul the hoped-for ends just by invoking them. 

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

A big honor from a blog I admire

For a few years, I've been trading comments with Karen Carlson, whose blog "A Just Recompense" discusses, year after year, every story from the anthologies Best American Short Stories and the Pushcart Anthology. I've complained before that literature has almost no community. We read that BASS and Pushcart are influential anthologies, yet if you try to find discussions about stories from them online, it's pretty slim pickings. Compare that to the million YouTube viewers of a Rick and Morty remix that comes out just a few days after the latest episode. Karen's determination to keep blogging about these stories--in between the many MOOCs she takes to improve herself--gives us one place a writing community can assemble to find other people to whom literature matters and to talk about literature that's worth talking about.

Today, Karen posted about my book. I won't go over what she had to say about it; you can go read that for yourself. What's important to me is that it's given me a chance to talk about things that were once just in my head. Really, this is why I write. Something is burning a hole in me, and the only way to get it out is to put in on paper. Once it's there, I want to find a good reader somewhere to look at it and talk about it with. You can agree or disagree, like it or dislike it, as long as you read it intelligently. Talking about literature is always great, because you're talking about ideas that matter. Talking about literature you wrote is a whole other level, because it's the most important ideas to you, personally.

Getting a book published, even a small, artsy book of short stories read by a small number of people, can be thrilling and also incredibly saddening. There's the exhilaration of knowing that what you wrote will now have semi-permanence, but also the depression when it's over of knowing that life goes on like before.

Getting the chance to talk to people about the book is really the best part of the whole experience. It's an honor that I got to talk to Karen about it, and that she extended the conversation to her readers.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Actually, William Faulkner, I think about your daughter a lot

I was sick some this week, sick enough that I got tired of being side-eyed by the germ-adverse at work and stayed home some. That gave me a chance to catch up on a lot of writing work that I intended to do over the summer but never got to. A lot of it was administrative, submitting stories all over the place. September and October are the months more journals are open than any other, so I've got to make hay. I've submitted 20 so far, and I'm going for another 20 by next week (not that I've written 40 stories: we're talking about 6 stories submitted to 40 or so places). I'm also still plugging away at getting my novel query letter out to the magic 50 agents--that number somehow being the underground wisdom for how many you should write before you begin to think something is wrong with your novel.

I also did a little actual writing, finishing a story that's been taunting me since I started it on Memorial Day. I think it finally came together, although there were times I really wondered if I knew what I was even doing there.

My original plan was to have a busy September, get a ton of queries and submissions out there, and then shutter things up for a while with writing, to return to it after an undetermined time. I have been feeling like I both: A) need a break, and B) ought to do some other things, like pay attention to my son's homework or Mrs. Heretic's school year-induced fatigue (she has something like 120 students this year). I also am always aware of the need to retrain myself for work, mainly on Information Technology types of subjects. Probably wouldn't hurt to do some re-training in the languages I translate, either. This would all be self-training, but it still has an opportunity cost of time and energy. I'd need to give up some things, and nothing sucks up my time like writing.

There's that famous story, which apparently is not apocryphal, about William Faulkner, where his daughter asked him to please not get drunk during her birthday party. Faulkner replied, "Nobody remembers Shakespeare's children." Meaning, I guess, I'm a world treasure, and your suffering is nothing compared to the value of the art I produce. I told that story to a non-writer friend of mine one. He went pale and said, "That's terrible." I agree.

I said in my twenties that I'd gladly give up family for writing. I didn't have kids then. Pretty much from the moment Mrs. Heretic was pregnant, I have disavowed that stance I once held. A person is real, a story is not. A story might make the lives of people who read it better, it might not. But investing in a human being always means something. Especially a person I'm uniquely responsible for.

 After I get all this work done, I'll be at another cross-roads. I've published a book. I could call it a day, say I did all that a part-time writer could realistically hope to accomplish, and move on. Or I could keep hammering away. I know a lot of writers insist they write because they have to. Sometimes, I feel that way. I do feel compulsion, but I think it's also a compulsion I could control if I felt it were necessary. Is it necessary?

The "if I won the lottery" question

If I won the lottery, I wouldn't sit around and write, I don't think. I knew what I'd do with the money about six years ago, when I visited Mrs. Heretic's then-school in Baltimore and saw an entire run of about eight row houses, all vacant. If I won the lottery, I'd buy a bunch of vacants like those, rehab them, and set up some type of recreational facility within them, with rock climbing, indoor paintball, etc. There'd be some room somewhere for homework mentoring. Just a place for kids to do something other than get into trouble. Like the Boys' Club, only with stuff I like to do, not boxing.  Hopefully, it could provide a few jobs, too.

There are all kinds of problems with this dream. First, I'm an idiot at real-world stuff, and likely to lose all my money in a year doing this. Secondly, as I've discovered, when you try to help people with a lot of problems, you end up with a lot of problems. It's not a romantic world where you are adored as a white savior. It's hard work. I'm not sure I'm equipped for it sometimes. People with years of training in handling this stuff burn out. I'm likely to, also.

But let's just say that Baby Haysoos came to me in a vision and gave me a choice. Either I can write a novel that will gain recognition and become part of important cultural discussions, or I can have a non-profit that I will somehow manage to run successfully and it will have a tangible benefit to dozens or hundreds of lives. How should I answer that question? If I'm not a monster, I have to pick door #2, don't I?

Of course, I don't have a Baby Haysoos crystal ball. All my decisions are based on guesswork. Maybe writing will never lead me anywhere beyond where I am. Maybe it will lead me to a best-seller, and I'll sell the movie rights and use it to buy my row houses and start my non-profit. Maybe if I put writing away, I'll succeed more at work and get paid more. Money is always useful for helping people. Or, maybe I give up something I love doing and it gets me nowhere.

My guesses about what I should do change almost every day. The important thing to me is that when life asks me to not get drunk today, metaphorically speaking, for the sake of someone else, would I be willing to put the bottle down?





Monday, September 11, 2017

At last, my Swedish fans are satisfied

Googling my book to see if it's been reviewed by anyone I sent it to yet, I saw...this:


I'm guessing that 164 krona for the book, and that the language is therefore Swedish. I...am...confused. I mean, I guess they just link into some database, and if someone for some reason ordered one, they'd just order one themselves. It's not the same as a bookstore in Stockholm stocking an artsy book of short stories from a small American press, which would involve some sort of opportunity cost. But still, it's a weird place to find oneself. I already had a friend in Australia buy a copy, making me an international phenomenon. Dare I hope someone in Sweden will make me happening on three continents? No, I don't dare. That's stupid.

Saturday, September 9, 2017

My roller coaster goes up

I apologize if any of my posts, such as the last one I wrote, come across as entitled or pouty. I've committed to blogging about the struggle to find my way as an unknown writer of what I hope is serious fiction. That's going to involve some dark nights of the soul. So I don't shy away from writing about them, because to do so would be dishonest.

I was looking up some information about the Pushcart awards yesterday when I stumbled onto this article. It's an "open letter" from some guy who advises writers not to list Pushcart nominations in their biographies.  I thought it was ultra-fastidious and ridiculous. He argues that because a Pushcart nomination is common to thousands of writers, it's meaningless. This strikes me as nonsense. In the first place, as I've said before, your credits really aren't that important. They might get you a more sympathetic reading, by which I mean if I don't like something, I might give it a page longer than I normally would if you have a top-shelf credit to your name. But 95% of my decision comes just from the story there. I usually don't even look at the bio before I start reading the story.

To me, a Pushcart nomination means someone not only published your story, but thought it was one of the better ones they published that year. It's not a huge deal, but it's certainly not a negative.

One commenter really nailed it. Here's an edited version of what he wrote:

Publishing a story anywhere is goddamned hard enough. You... should tout that journal and then go around and brag the hellz about it because here’s the deal:
No one flippin’ cares anyway.

Not your writer friends. Not your mom. Not your priest. Shit. Even if you get a notable publication in a place high up on Perpetual Folly’s Pushcart nomination list... find someone who gives a shit. ...

You know who does care. The damn editor who accepted your piece in the first place. Listen to him or her, strangle-hug him or her, and bragz the flying F out of their zine because the chances of you convincing another schmuck to like your crap is a million to one. Literally. There are a million lit journals and you happened to find the one journal that liked your stupid story. And you’d turn your nose up at that?.. Who the hell are you?

Unless you’re one of five writers in America (and I suppose Canada and maybe a few other quasi-American speaking countries) who can expect a call from the New Yorker, you should just assume your story is shit and it won’t be read by anyone. So, writers-who-turn-their-noses-up-at-the-only-lit-ragz-they’ll-ever-get-published-in, I bid thee thus: Play with the first damn dog who sniffs your butt. Then yip your nutz off.
100% of the world doesn’t care where or how you were published and the infitesimally small percentage who does care knows how flippin’ hard it is to get someone to, first, read your work and , .B., get someone to actually like it.

Be one of the 60,000. Print out your Glimmertrain finalist certificate and paste it to the back window of your car. Goddamnit. Make a bumper sticker that says “I’m a published Hint Fiction author.” And tell all your cousins that you placed a poem at poetry.com and you have the 1996 anthology to prove it.
You’re writers, you bitches. Everyone hates you and no one cares.
Jesus.

Normally, the comments section anywhere on the Internet is a source of despair. But strangely, although this comment doesn't really offer much hope that anyone will ever notice what I do, I find that somehow hopeful. It was very hard to get my book published. It's an accomplishment. If nearly everyone now ignores it, that kind of just means I'm doing it right. 

Thursday, September 7, 2017

My book drops tomorrow, and I feel a little lost

There have been two sides of me writing for the last few years. One knows I'll never make money off this, and does it because there is something burning inside me that has to come out. So he writes because he has to. To this person, writing is its own reward and its own curse.

There is another side of me, though, that I can't quite get to hush. It dreams of somehow, miraculously, in spite of all the facts about publishing these days and how unrealistic it is to dream of ever making real money at this, somehow turning writing into what I do for a living. Part of that is just that I want to leave my current job. I don't hate my job. I probably have it better than most working people in America. It's just not always a great fit for my personality. I feel a lot of anxiety, mostly because I'm afraid of what happens if I fuck it up.

95% of the time, I manage to squelch the voice that would beguile me into thinking of making a living out of writing literary fiction. But 5% of the time, that voice breaks through, makes me dream unrealistic dreams, and then I'm all the more crushed when reality inevitably settles on me again.

For the last few years, I've been using writing as the thing that makes my day job bearable, the thing that shows I'm not just what I do at work. But writing also keeps me from doing what I sometimes think I ought to do--get another bachelor's degree in something other than English and find another career in life. I'd have to give up writing for a while to pursue a new field that would allow me to do something new with my life. But writing is also kind of what sustains me in the here and now. Which is why I sometimes fall into the foolish trap of dreaming of making a living off writing.

I didn't expect my book of artsy short stories to sell a ton of copies. But right now, I'm a little bit humiliated--I don't know another word strong enough for it--by the lack of sales. For Chrissakes, I know a lot of people, even though I'm a heavy introvert. But unless Amazon's sales tracker is very, very wrong, almost none of those people I know bought a book, in spite of my uncharacteristic, unpleasant self-promotion of it on Facebook and in person. And nobody who doesn't know me has bought one yet. I refused to give up and self-publish all those years, but there are plenty of self-published books outselling me by a wide margin.

At least one of my brothers hasn't bought the book or said anything to me about it. Lots of friends seem to have not realized that this was a big deal to me, and I really needed them to step up, buy a book and maybe write a review. I don't get paid for them buying a book--not unless 1,000 copies sell, at which point I start to get a share of the sales. It's not about money. It's about legitimizing what I do so it feels like a real thing.  It's about making a strong showing with this book so I have a chance of selling the novel that is my real goal here.

I worked hard for years to get a book published. Tomorrow is the official drop day, and all I'm thinking of right now is how I want to put this whole stupid midlife crisis writing phase behind me and do something practical with my life. People seem to need HVAC repair more than they need artsy stories about death, poverty, and male identity.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Is Andy Dwyer an indictment of fiction?

Since I've been on the subject of how fiction might not be good for you of late, I thought I'd follow up with a little deeper probing of one of the ideas supporting that thesis: fiction makes us accept things we would never accept outside of fiction. Here, I'd like to consider the proposition that it encourages us to accept ignorance as a morally acceptable condition.

I said "morally acceptable," which is something not often considered when discussing intelligence in a human being. But I rather accept Lionel Trilling's contention that in a democracy, there is a moral obligation to be intelligent. One cannot control many factors that contribute to intelligence, of course, but one can read and struggle to become as intelligent as possible, given one's constraints.

But fiction--and here I'm going to throw in movies, literature, plays, and TV, since fiction in all of them operate off similar psychological principles--often encourages us to love stupid people. Carl Sagan was chagrined when Dumb and Dumber became the number one movie in America in 1994, but if he had lived into today, he'd have countless more examples to shake his head at.

Let's consider Andy Dwyer from Parks and Recreation. If you're not familiar with the show, this montage ought to give you a pretty good idea:




Even if you don't know the show, you probably know Andy, because "Andy" has been done to death in the last 20 years in American TV. I didn't even own a TV for five years once, but without trying, I can come up with: Phoebe from Friends, Kramer from Seinfeld, Peter Griffin and a few others from Family Guy, Homer Simpson from The Simpsons, half the town of South Park, Coach and his replacement Woody from Cheers, Luke Dunphy from Modern Family, Rose from Golden Girls, Malorie from Family Ties, and that's just what I can do without Googling.

Although the rise of the "goofball-hero" has been a characteristic of American TV of the last 25 years, it does have antecedents in literature. I'm not talking about characters who are dumb and evil, but characters who are dumb and also meant to earn the sympathies of the audience. Don Quixote leaps to mind. Although Cervantes himself apparently meant for Quixote to be much more scorned than he has ended up being, many readers throughout history have sympathized with the eponymous hero, with some interpretations such as the musical Man of La Mancha actually romanticizing him. Lenny from Mice and Men is another stupid character we are meant to root for, although Lenny appears to honestly not be able to help it, unlike many modern American goofball-heroes.

Characteristics of the goofball-hero

The goofball-hero makes claims on our sympathies because while he may not be bright in a traditional, bookish sense, he's a "good guy." He'd never scheme against you, in large part because he is incapable. He cannot even conceive of guile, or if he tries, it fails so badly, one doesn't hold it against him, because the attempt is so pathetic. In this sense, our attachment to the goofball-hero is much like our attachment to dogs.

The goofball-hero also often has a certain mystique of wisdom attached to his or her persona. Nine of ten statements the GH makes are meant to get a laugh because of how simple, foolish, or mistaken those statements are, but then every so often, the GH says something profound. This wisdom is assumed to be the product of a life unencumbered by all those book lernin' thoughts that weigh us down. By sacrificing traditional intelligence, the GH obtains an esoteric wisdom not available to the rest of us.

This was a device the writers of Friends resorted to often. The entirety of Chauncey Gardiner's character in Being There is built around the delivery of unintentionally thought-provoking aphorisms.

Not that there's anything especially wrong about it...

We all know people in life who just aren't that bright, but have good hearts and mean well. Even if everyone in America committed themselves tomorrow to bettering their minds, exactly 49% of the population would always be of below average intelligence, and not all of that 49% would be bad people. We'd want them on our sides in a tough spot, and indeed such people often are, maybe even more so than the smarties in our lives, because their brains don't give them reasons not to be there for us at a personal cost to them. I'm not talking about people with genuine developmental issues. I'm talking about people who just were never interested in school, people who don't read now, whose minds are both stubbornly made up in some ways and yet dangerously pliable in others.

One use of fiction is to make us see things through other perspectives, and it's certainly possible to see things from the perspective of the GH and appreciate that there is value in the life of a person who is not traditionally intelligent. On the other hand, if becoming intelligent is, indeed, a moral obligation, then the willful failure to do so must be immoral in some sense. But the entire thrust of the GH's depiction for the last several decades has been to ignore the immoral aspect of a lack of intelligence.

But there's definitely something wrong with the flip side of it...

Nowhere is this more easily seen than when we get a depiction of someone supposedly intelligent. The Big Bang Theory has been presenting intelligent people as hopelessly socially inept for over a decade now. Even while they are the protagonists, they are still the butt of the show's own jokes. Intelligence is seen as a condition one is born with, and it comes with a major downside one also cannot do anything about. It's the flipside of the GH: the GH also really can't do anything about the way he is, but there is also an upside to being born that way. Indeed, in Jonathan Franzen's novels, being born with advantages that lead to a developed intellect is almost certain to lead to crippling personality disorders.

All of this demonstrates the most radical kind of democratic view of things, in which nobody can really be critiqued, because we all just are the way we are. If nobody can be critiqued, nobody can be praised, either. This ends up with a worldview that skews slightly in the anti-intellectual direction, because the presence of someone who has become intelligent by his own bootstraps is an indictment of everyone who hasn't. So we have to mock the intelligent as pretentious and self-important.

This is actually as old as the very first American literature. The jock, Bram Bones, gets the better of the stuck-up prig school master Ichabod Crane, who wanted something in life above his station. So the jock pulls a practical joke on the nerd and chases him off, leaving room for the more likeable genes to be passed on. It's an archetype deeply ingrained in our cultural psyche.

This isn't necessarily an indictment of literature, but it's close

Of course, if literature can get us to accept one worldview, it can get us to accept another. There is nothing preventing me from using a story that demonstrates that being smarter really is better than remaining ignorant. But that's a hard sell. Buffoons do much better with audiences than smart people do. Using a fool to get around the prejudices of the audience and communicate some truth is a tried and true technique in Shakespeare, although Shakespeare's fool was never unintelligent, only iconoclastic. There is nothing especially wrong with tricking the audience by holding up a fool to laugh at, and then using those good feelings toward the fool to get the audience to accept a truth it would have resisted from someone else. But in the process, we seem to have come to love truly foolish types of fools, far more than might be good for us.