Sunday, November 25, 2018

An idea for an anti-workshop

I think I've made it clear I don't like the writing workshop. Lately, though, I've been thinking of trying to teach a writing class, which is making me confront the idea of the workshop. There are two reasons I'm interested in teaching writing. First, I'm dreaming of being able to change jobs some day, and I hope that starting to build a resume in writing, or teaching generally, will help me to do that. Secondly, I'm starting to have enough confidence as a writer that I think I could actually do this and be helpful to others.

I also just really like teaching, at least when I don't have to follow a curriculum someone else created.

Here's my idea for how to handle a fiction writing class: as the instructor and presumed guy who knows what he's doing, I'd handle most of the close critiquing and suggestions for how to make what students give me better. I'd use examples from writing in each meeting/class to demonstrate common mistakes and how to fix them.

Instead of using the class time to go around and let everyone comment on the stories we're commenting on that week, I'd use the class in a different way. Student feedback is important, but not necessarily for improving the mechanics of the stories of their peers. Instead, I'd like to use them as testers of real readers. I'd tell each of them to read the stories we're looking at that week. Then, they would fill out a sheet anonymously saying whether they read all the way to the end or not. If they didn't, they should say where they stopped and why.

Readers are cruel. They have no reason to be nice. It doesn't take any special competence to be able to provide that service to writers trying to develop. Anyone can be a focus group. Even if you have a stupid reason for not liking the story, that's useful, because there are stupid readers that writers will have to deal with. As long as we're framing that feedback as realistic reader feedback and not helpful peer suggestion on how to improve, it's got its use.

I always wished that my creative writing classes in grad school were just one-on-one feedback from the instructors, not peer review. When I asked my adviser why we didn't do it like that, she said it's because the students in the class were, in many cases, going to go on to be writing instructors themselves, and they needed to learn how to give feedback. That's maybe valid at a college MFA program, but I don't think your average developing writer wants that. Most students are there to learn to write better and for no other reason. That's especially true of the classes I'd be looking to teach. So it makes sense to me to give them that and only that.

Anyone ever do a workshop like this? Any other ideas for how to run one, keeping in mind I'd like to avoid the traditional format?

Monday, November 19, 2018

Is literary society monocultural? On that Quilette opinion piece by Matthew Binder

Occasionally, news happens in the literary world with enough noise, even my non-literary friends hear about it. That's what happened when Matthew Binder, author of the soon-to-be-launched novel The Absolved, posted an opinion piece on Quillette on Friday. I actually heard about it from a mathematician friend before I started seeing literature folks posting about it.

There's not much controversial in the novel he wrote, it seems. It's a futuristic piece about the world of 2036, in which automation and AI have replaced nearly all the meaningful work in the world, leaving humankind listless. Binder compares the concerns of humanity in the 2036 of his novel to those of various groups in the 2016 election, only now, "they've gone beyond demagoging foreigners and immigrants, and are going after machines."

Sounds interesting enough, and probably timely, although the first thing it made me think of was how much it sounds like Kurt Vonnegut's novel Player Piano, which already was looking at themes like this sixty years ago. (I can't believe this novel of Vonnegut's isn't studied more. Unlike most of his work, the specific apocalyptic element in this one--much of humanity left without meaningful work to do--seems like a real threat in my children's lifetime.) But I'd have maybe been interested enough in the novel's premise to buy it, assuming reviews came in somewhat favorably.

What caused the fuss

What caused the fuss wasn't the novel, it was Binder's discussion of what it took to get the novel published. While working the literary circuit in New York, trying to find a sympathetic agent or publisher, Binder found two things: a homogeneously extreme liberal political mindset within publishing, and a prejudice against new, white, male authors.

As proof of the first characteristic of literary culture in New York, Binder offers the events of parties he went to, parties where Trump's America was routinely described as "fascist." Binder claims this view of politicians as fascist extended even to New York's centrist Democratic governor Andrew Cuomo.

Binder's proof of a bias against white male authors--or at least new, white, male authors--by the publishing powers-that-be comes from specific setbacks he faced in trying to publish his book. Assuming the things he claims happened really happened to him--and I have no reason to think they didn't--then his case is mildly compelling. He claims one acquisitions editor from an independent press showed interest, but this interest was blunted by the editor's boss, who sent an email (which the editor showed Binder) saying "We're not taking on unknown white guys this year."

Binder also says an agent scolded him for "bigotry" because his novel includes a successful Muslim revolt in Paris in the future. Another said the novel was "misogynist" because the main character--whom, Binder stresses, is an intentionally highly flawed anti-hero--was no longer attracted to his wife. A third basically said most readers are female, and the distinctly male voice of the novel would not resonate with them.

The reaction

I was especially struck with the reaction of Julie Barer on Twitter. Barer is an extremely successful New York literary agent. Her list of clients includes some powerhouses. She was the first agent I tried to pitch my novel to, partly because I studied under Luis Urrea, one of her clients, and I hoped (even though Urrea never answered my email to him) that this might give me some kind of in. Not surprisingly, I got a no.

Here's what Barer wrote on Twitter about this article:

Flaws in this reasoning

She's a major agent and probably has a much better sense of the industry than Binder does from his two years of struggling to publish a novel. I do think, though, that there might be some logical flaws in what she posted here.

First, her proofs she cites that men are doing fine are somewhat arbitrarily picked. It's like when you see those lists of "spooky coincidences" between Kennedy and Lincoln's deaths. Granted some of these things are true, do they really mean that much? For example, so only two of the top ten writers on the NYT Fiction list were women (actually, when I checked, it was three of ten). But six of the top thirteen were women. Next month, it might be six women out of ten. What does one week's list tell you? And how many of the top 100 are women?

Similarly, are last year's Pulitzer and Nobel that meaningful? In 2016, the Nobel for Literature went to Bob Dylan, so how much does the award really even matter to anyone anymore? I don't know how "top paid authors" is measured. When I think of really rich authors, I think of J.K. Rowling, E.L. James, and Stephenie Meyer, all women. I believe Barer's statistic about the top five, but I think there are probably enough high-paid female authors that the profession isn't really a patriarchy, at least not when it comes to money.

Much more importantly, though, Binder's opinion piece wasn't really about the literary world being anti-male or anti-white. It was about it being homogeneous, both politically and aesthetically, and it being difficult for an outside voice to break in. Binder claimed that the publishing industry eschewed profit for ideology. The things Barer said about the industry could be true and still completely vindicate what Binder wrote; if men are popular and sell well, surely, Binder would argue, that's a reason for getting more of them published?

Not really an endorsement, just a reminder that not being all right doesn't mean he's all wrong

It's tempting to give in to all-or-nothing thinking here. Either Binder's all right and the literary community is full of hypocritical ideologues, or he's all wrong and just whining about the world not immediately falling at his feet for a book that doesn't really sound all that original. We ought to avoid this kind of either-or thinking.

Binder's anecdotal evidence doesn't cement the case that publishers rabidly enforce a political orthodoxy, but I've certainly felt there is some evidence for this same thing. I'm center-left with a smattering of center-right or libertarian-leaning ideology, and I've often felt that's not nearly left enough when I hang out at literary gatherings. Being pretty far left is the assumed political ideology in literary fiction. Like Binder, I've also felt that I needed to keep quiet in certain literary circles and not say things like, "Are you sure Trump's America is actually fascist and not just potentially so?" This, even though I genuinely cannot stand to hear Donald Trump speak. It's not enough to dislike him; I have to believe he's actually Satan incarnate. 

Binder's work might not be that great. Many people commenting on Barer's tweet opined that the sample passage from his book sounded somewhat south of virtuosic. I'd agree with them. If I were judging on it, I probably would have passed. It's not bad, but it's also not scintillating. It's mid-range sci-fi writing, suffering from the typical sci-fi flaw of trying to explain everything about the universe in frequent asides. 

But it's too much to say Binder is just being petulant. For one thing, petulance is a pretty common reaction to being a new writer. My early blog posts are a testament to that. That just comes with the territory. You can write well and still get nowhere, and it's very hard to accept that. Assumptions that the game is rigged come kind of naturally. 

Furthermore, NOT accepting rejection can be a healthy trait. Binder continues to believe in himself even after extensive failure. That might have something to do with why he's got a novel coming out and my novel is still looking for a home. Stubborn belief in oneself might be annoying, but it's also effective more often than it's not. 

I've learned to accept that when I get rejection, it sometimes really is about me. That's been a hard lesson. I still have a tough time believing that someone like me, with a growing list of publication credits and a deep background in an important subject that no literary fiction writer has ever had, can forever keep failing to get my novel published, but I also don't think it's a conspiracy. It just hasn't happened yet. Partly, that's my lack of persistence. Binder is persistent, and his persistence extends to stubborn faith in his work even after frequent rejection. Maybe he could use a little more of the humility I've learned, but that's not a reason to hate him. If it weren't for his brashness, we wouldn't have read anything from him to begin with. 

Just take the evidence he offers for what it is

Binder offered anecdotal evidence of his experience and drew some conclusions from it. We can reject his conclusions, but the anecdotes themselves must mean something. You don't have to end up thinking that every publisher and agent in New York is a hypocritical fool. I certainly don't. I assume they work in a business, they know the business, and they generally have sound business-based reasons for the decisions they make. If it's hard to break in as a new white male writer, there are societal and market-driven reasons for this that have nothing to do with ideology. But if the things Binder said happened to him--and I think they probably did--then that means SOMETHING. 

Ultimately, my concern is twofold. First, America is becoming more polarized. I mean this in a literal sense: not just that we are disagreeing more, but that opposing sides are actually becoming more ideologically distinct. Republicans are getting more conservative and Democrats more liberal. That's not something in Binder's imagination. The Pew Research Center found in 2014 that "median Republicans polled as more conservative that 94 percent of Democrats (up from 70 percent twenty years earlier), whereas Democrats were more liberal than 92 percent of Republicans (up from 64 percent in 1994)." (Quote taken from the Times Literary Supplement, 10-26-2018, in a review by Eric Ianelli on two books looking at modern horror stories.)

This means you can no longer be a Democrat without being a complete Democrat, without accepting your party's full platform, preferably of the more extreme varieties, just to be safe. This doesn't seem healthy for America. There is no consensus to build. There is only winner-take-all war. 

Secondly, I'm concerned about the influence of literature. Agents and publicists are making, I'm sure, what they think are the best choices in order to stay alive, but literature is so small a part of American public discourse now, if it becomes any less a part of public discourse it won't be part of it at all. This isn't mostly publishers' fault, of course. There are macro-forces at work in society to make literature less influential. But I don't think Binder is off to think that publishers are hurting themselves by giving America what those publishers want to read themselves rather than what America wants to read. The choices now are thoughtless and mainstream or thoughtful but somewhat fringe and alienating. This while the Golden Age of Television is giving us countless choices that are politically mainstream but still intellectually challenging. 

Binder might irritate some in publishing with his observations, but they will ignore him at their own peril. They don't have to like him, but they ought to pay some attention to what he said, or they'll end up like characters in his story, looking for any kind of meaningful work to be had. 

Sunday, November 18, 2018

The highest accomplishment of my writing career

I'm a dummy sometimes with Submittable, the tool most literary journals use to accept and manage submissions. By and large, it's idiot-proof, because you can keep reusing your personal information and your bio statement over and over. So if you get it right once, you'll get it right forever. But occasionally, Submittable decides on its own to do something different or it plays a trick on you.

I was entering Glimmer Train's "Family Matters" contest the other day. When I started to fill out the block for the title of my story, Submittable decided, for reasons I'm not sure about, to pop up my own name in the auto-fill spot instead of the title of the story. I didn't notice it had done that, because it had, to my knowledge, never done it before. I got through the whole process of submitting the story without realizing what I'd done. It wasn't until I was looking at all of my submissions together that I realized one of the stories I'd submitted said it was named "Jacob R Weber" instead of "Jajangmyeon."

I had two options: pretend I'd done it on purpose, which might look stupid but would at least keep me from having to go in and ask the editors of Glimmer Train to let me fix something (thereby letting them know what an unprofessional moron I am) or ask to fix it. I couldn't stand looking at it over and over, so I asked them to release the story to me to edit it.

It took a few days, but I heard back from the editors.

If you don't know, one of the interesting things about Glimmer Train is that it's run by two sisters. I have no idea how they do it, but they seem to do a LOT of the work themselves, including editing off the slush pile. Based on my year of editing at a literary journal, I have to believe they do an insane amount of work. I'm guessing they get way more submissions than we did, because everybody wants to be published by them. Still, they seem to do a lot of it on their own. I can't imagine how they ever do it.

So I guess I shouldn't have been surprised--although I was--that one of the two sisters personally took care of my request to change the title of my story from my name to the correct one. But this little anecdote about Submittable--which I fully acknowledge is a pretty shitty and dull story so far--gets much better. Look at what one of the Glimmer Train sisters wrote at the bottom of the instructions for how to fix the file:

"Looks good." One of the Glimmer Train sisters said my story "looks good." That's quite likely to be the most impressive line on my writing bio I'll ever get. Now I need to revise my whole bio statement I use. Usually, I use this one:

Jake Weber is a translator living in Maryland. He has published fiction in The Baltimore Review, Bartleby Snopes, The Potomac Review, and The Green Hills Literary Lantern. He won the 2016 Washington Writers' Publishing House Fiction Contest, and the winning book 'Don't Wait to be Called' was published in fall 2017.

Now, I'm going to have to change it to say "Jake Weber has published at some places and also won a contest and put out a book but also one of the damn Glimmer Train sisters once said his story 'looks good.'"

Behold and tremble at the meteoric rise of my writing career!

Glimmer Train is amazing

Actually, what this little vignette tells me has a lot more to do with the magazine itself than about me. The sisters who run the magazine have always claimed they read every story themselves. I always found that hard to believe. But here is one of the sisters herself, going into Submittable on her own to handle some administrative thing caused by a writer being stupid. Not some intern. Susan herself.

They've been running this magazine for thirty years. They announced not too long ago that next year is the last year for them. After thirty years, they're still reading every story from every schmo who submits to them on their own, and still taking care of all the annoying extra work dumb writers cause them on their own. And they even find the time to add an extra note of encouragement to the same idiot who caused them ten seconds of extra work when they've got enough to do.

I really have to marvel at a life well spent like that.

Saturday, November 17, 2018

Best of luck placing your work elsewhere

As I posted a few days ago, I finally got a story published again, after about a 15-month slump. It's never fun getting rejections, as I've written about in painstaking detail from time to time on this blog. Someone recently posted a photo of a t-shirt he got from Barrelhouse Magaizine. It says, "Best of luck placing your work elsewhere."

It's a bit of hapless writer gallows humor.  A typical form rejection letter from a literary magazine goes something like this:

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Because when you think of me, you think rock ' roll rebel

It's been a while since I've posted about my own writing. After the book came out last year, I hit a dry spell of getting things published. But this Thursday, Jenny Magazine, the literary journal associated with Youngstown State University, is publishing one of my stories.

Jenny isn't the New Yorker, but I'm really happy about this publication. Youngstown's not far from where I grew up. The college and the magazine both have a focus on working class issues. I read a few of their past editions, and they put out some good stuff. I'm proud to be part of it.

I'm also pleased this particular story found a home. It's about a teacher and her husband who take one of the teacher's students into their home when her foster care situation goes sour. The father has a hard time figuring out how to connect with the girl and be the father he needs to become. Some of that is from my real life, the part of my real life I unironically love and treasure. This is one of those stories I felt I had to find a way to tell somehow, and now others will read it. That's pretty much the best you can hope for when writing fiction.

Most of the plot is pure fiction, even if the overall concept was real to me. The father and daughter form a musical act together, which is something I've never done. It's this musical act that made the story qualify for Jenny's 15th edition, which was a themed edition: "Rock 'n Roll and Rebellion." I hardly qualify as a rebel. When I watch Les Miserables, I identify a lot more with Jean Valjean than the young revolutionaries. Since most revolutions fail, I think the best course of action for most people if they want to make the world a better place is to try to prosper in the system that's there, then show kindness to those who need it. Valjean didn't overthrow the French government, but he did make life better for Cozette and Marius, and maybe, at least until Javert messed everything up, for the people who worked in his factory.

I'm probably going to go read at the launch for this edition, where, presumably, I'll be surrounded by young people who still dream of revolution. The musical gives the revolutionaries the last word, with the final song of the score being the dream of a world when we walk in the Garden of the Lord, when "the chain will be broken and all men will have their reward."

I wish the next batch of revolutionaries well. I hope they're the ones who give us the world as it should be. For me, I've had enough trouble just figuring my way out in the world that is. This story that will come out is really only important to me because it reminds me of the person who inspired it, who is the best work I've had a hand in making and one of the few things in the world that makes sense to me.

Thursday, November 8, 2018

Wrapping up BASS 2018: The elephant in the anthology

The Best American series of anthologies--which include poetry, short stories, essays, comics, and probably others I don't know about--are openly acknowledged, even by their creators, to be less-than-precisely named. Nobody is claiming that the 20 stories or 75 poems in each anthology each year really comprise the "best" that America has to offer. Even if it were possible to rate a poem or story with a score like you'd get in a video game and then pick the ones with the best scores, the anthologies wouldn't work like that. Rather, the series gives, in the words of Robert Pinsky, speaking about the poetry series, a "vivid snapshot of a what a distinguished poet finds exciting, fresh, and memorable."

That phrase "a distinguished poet," or, for Best American Short Stories, "a distinguished fiction writer," is critical. The choice of what to put in the volume is left up to the guest editor of the year. Although the guest editor gets help whittling it down, the final product is a product of what the guest editor values. So it's as much about what the guest editor liked at the time as it is about what was good in American literature at the time.

Nobody wants twenty stories about college kids in New England, or twenty stories about poor kids trying to make it in a third-world slum, so every editor tries to balance it out a bit as far as subject matter. The idea is to have the twenty stories that together make the best collection, not the twenty that are individually the best.

Some editors try to balance the series out by giving it as objective a sense of diversity as they can. They try for ten men and ten women, with a sprinkling of ethnicities and sexual orientations that mirror, as much as possible, the American population. Others figure that the diversity comes from changing guest editors every year, and so when it's their year, they should just pick what interests them the most. In 2015, Sherman Alexie raised a few eyebrows when he picked an extremely high number of minority poets for BAP. Alexie is many things, some of them frustrating and full of crap things, but the man is not a liar. He was honest about what he was doing. That volume is probably best remembered for the row over a white poet using a Chinese pseudonym to publish a poem and having it picked by Prairie Schooner and then by Alexie for Best American Poetry...after having first been rejected more than 40 times under the poet's real name.

Alexie didn't duck what he did. He called it "a form of nepotism," and justified it by saying he'd seen plenty of similar nepotism from white editors. He also kept the controversial poem in the anthology even after learning what had happened (and, he says, being furious about it). If that's true, I respect Alexie more than I can say for keeping a record of what really happened. However you interpret it, it's a fascinating anecdote of American literature in 2015.

The Gay BASS anthology of 2018

Roxane Gay followed the "I pick what I like" theory of filling out an anthology. Therefore, the collection doesn't have ethnic or gender "balance" like a lot of volumes do. Of the twenty stories, only four are by male writers. Two of those men are white. (If my numbers are off, I apologize. This was all my own Internet research, and I'm going off pictures, names, and assumptions in some cases. It's not like writers list race on their Twitter pages. Also, Rivers Solomon is, I believe, non-binary, so it's four cis-males, fifteen cis-females, and one Rivers Solomon.)

(As a total aside, I have to note Gay's omission of "Cat Person," on of the most talked-about short stories in years. It was published at the right time to make this year's BASS, but Gay has said before she disliked the story, partly because of its too-frequent fat shaming. She was really following what moved her personally.)

Harold Bloom's unforgettable introduction to the Best American Poetry 1988-1997 edition

Gay's gender and ethnic anthology choices immediately took me back to the introduction Harold Bloom wrote to the Best American Poetry series' "best of the best" book from 1997, after it had been putting out yearly best-of anthologies for ten years. (BASS is a lot older than BAP.) It's Bloom in a nutshell: exasperating, lucid, erudite, anachronistic, codgerly, and wrong in all the right ways. When I read it, I couldn't believe the incredible "fuck you" he was giving to the people who gave him the job; he essentially said, "I picked the best I could find out of what they gave me to pick from, but American poetry will probably die before long, and only a few of these are even close to the best poetry I've ever read."

He started his introduction with a quote from Thucydides: "They have the numbers, we, the heights." By "we," he meant the scholars who still thought art was about aesthetics, meaning what was good, beautiful, and perceptive. By "they," he meant those whose thought art was about politics and the dull sub-categories of politics like gender, sexual orientation, etc. His immediate venom in that introduction was aimed at the 1996 Best American Poetry volume, from which he did not pick one poem for his ten-year wrap-up. He thought nearly all the poems in it were terrible. He claimed guest editor Adrienne Rich had followed "the criteria now operative: what matters most are the race, gender, sexual orientation, ethnic origin, and political purpose of the would-be poet."

Bloom had a more enduring irritant than the 1996 BAP in mind, though, and he swept up his vitriol against it along with ranting at Rich's choices. He was taking shots at cultural shifts in American universities, their obsession with the various programs of cultural "studies": gender, race, orientation, etc. He saw the origin of this shift at the university as "cultural guilt," a phrase that isn't too far away in terminology or sentiment from the more popularly used "white guilt."

The focus on "cultural criticism" had weakened the ability to carry out literary criticism. Good readers were dying, and, Bloom suspected, good poetry would soon follow.

I don't know if good poetry has died, but Bloom was certainly prophetic about some things. Mainly, he was correct that the political focus on college campuses had (and still has) done little to change the political culture outside those campuses. Republicans and Democrats continue on with their political charade, capitalism continues apace, the counsels of the powerful are not troubled--then in 1997 and now.

Bloom and those who followed him have been criticized along the usual lines: there is no such thing as apolitical art, even to be apolitical is itself a political position, etc. But I think there is a more direct critique of Bloom one could make, one that is more applicable to a discussion of the 2018 BASS put together by Roxane Gay.

Would BASS 2018 have made Bloom happy, or would it have made him look like this? 

Good art and genius art

Bloom's contention was that Rich, in her choice to put identity issues first, had picked bad poems. I have no opinion on the 1996 BAP Rich put together, but I have an opinion on the 2018 BASS. Clearly, Gay was motivated even more than most editors by concerns centering on the gender, sexual orientation, race, and gender identity (a thing that had barely entered Bloom's consciousness in 1997) of the writers. One could allow that Gay was mostly just picking what interested her, and as a black, feminist, bisexual woman, what she liked reflected those interests, not a conscious decision to have any particular array of writers. But even accounting for that, there was probably some "balancing" that went on. There was still a story from a Korean-American perspective and one from a Chinese-American perspective. There were a couple of stories about Latinos. There was a story about a gay man. It had some of what is typically referred to as "balance," an attempt to have appropriate numerical diversity based on categories of identity. But it was balance on Gay's terms.

Here's the thing about that balance, though. Bloom thought Rich's choices were identity-based and bad. Gay's were identity-based and excellent. What does this do to Bloom's idea that "the school of resentment" would destroy perceptive works of art when the most identity-based collection I've ever seen was also the best BASS I've read in six years?

It wasn't uniformly excellent, but its heights were higher and there were far fewer lows than in past collections. The lowest points, interestingly, were the two white men included in the collection. There's something perfidious going on with the way men are writing these days. Men seem to be encouraged to produce works about men behaving badly, what's called "toxic masculinity" nowadays. These works tend to be gritty and violent and have characters who are not really like most men I know.

I've written my share of stories with men and violence in them. "Brokedick" was about young men who join the Marine Corps to prove their manhood, and how a man's sense of his own fitness as a man can depend on physical factors, some of which he can't even control. I wrote "What Every Parent Should Know About Head Injuries in High School Sports" (maybe the bleakest story I ever wrote) full of violent, racist football fans. But I tried to tell the whole story about toxic masculinity. I was aiming for what Bloom said about Shakespeare: "his men and women never invite us to believe that when we know the worst about them, then we know exactly who they are."

The fact is that when you're threatened by a violent man, you want another man capable of being violent more effectively to stop him. Being ready to deal that violence--which, like it or not, men are still rewarded for being able to do and disrespected for not being able to do--requires a difficult balancing act, if you intend to also live as a functioning member of an enlightened society. You have to keep a wild animal alive inside you, but keep it caged until needed. It's not easy to do, and men fail at it. But the picture we're getting isn't really the balanced and nuanced picture of maleness I'd expect from perceptive writers. In fact, it's women who are writing more memorable male characters than men, because men are expected to write their men as so appallingly bad.

Aside from that, though, the 2018 BASS is excellent. I've already cited the best works from it in my last twenty-two posts. Clearly, there is a problem in Bloom's contention that merely focusing on cultural criticism instead of literary criticism will weaken the aesthetic excellence, or "perceptiveness," of a work.

But there may be a critique of Bloom's that is worth considering here in 2018. His real concern was that genius--inexplicable, mind-bending genius--would disappear when poets had to bend to a particular political ideology. Poets were meant to be "liberating gods," those who "are free throughout the world." The 2018 BASS is full of very good stories, but all but one of them--Emma Cline's "Los Angeles"--are somewhat safe in their political convictions. They are the sorts of stories, with the sorts of sensitivities and underlying political convictions, for which literary fiction writers are rewarded nowadays. With literary fiction being closely tied to universities and their writing programs, the politics of those universities have spilled over into serious writing in America. It's hard to imagine someone with openly conservative political ideology in his work being printed in a BASS anthology. I often think Cormac McCarthy only gets away with the conservative nature of some of his work because it's mistaken for being a commentary on toxic masculinity rather than being a commentary on an effete culture that scolds masculinity on the one hand and refuses to stand up to its worst forms on the other.

The two most truly mind-blowing short stories in BASS since 2013--as long as I have been reading it--were Joshua Ferris's "The Breeze" and Elizabeth McCracken's "Thunderstruck." Neither was political. Writers should, of course, never run from writing about politics. But it can't be the only thing we have to talk about, either.

Racism, sexism, bigotry--these are all terrible evils. But none is the main evil. These are all just tools of the main evil, which is something unspeakable and more terrible than political works could ever hint at. The job of art is to uncover this unspeakable thing, to speak to it in the heart of people and somehow, implausibly, to charm it out of them. Until it's been driven from all of us, politics is just a delaying action, a game of inches gained and inches lost.

Anis Shivani wrote that competence has killed the American short story. It has led, as he put it, to stories "so very good, they're intolerably bad." The short stories of BASS 2018 are very good. But in some ways, they might be like what Bloom saw in cultural studies: a seemingly rational response to the political realities of the moment that somehow doesn't correct those political realities at all.

If Jamel Brinkley and Danielle Evans and Jacob Guajardo and Tea Obreht never move beyond writing the kinds of stories that are in BASS 2018, I'll still read them. They're that good. I hope these writers turn their energies, eventually, to more enduring themes, themes that will be recognized in fifty years or five hundred. There were already hopes in BASS 2018 of breaking out: Emma Cline wrote a political story, but a daring one that flirted with heresy within the liberal enclave of literary fiction; Kristen Iskandrian and Amy Silverberg wrote classic coming-of-age stories. Dina Nayeri managed to write a story about bigger themes than America of the moment, in spite of writing a novel very much about America at the moment.

Bloom's worries for the future were foolish and unfounded in some ways, but also troublingly prescient. America's best literary minds are sometimes too focused on fighting rear-guard actions against the political issues of the day, but because literature is a slow process in a world where we all talk about the Tweet of the day, it is not a very effective tool right now in leading the struggle. It is producing good, but not always genius, work. If I have hope, though, it's that the work is so good, I believe the best minds in American literature today will find a way to transcend the issues of the moment and produce enduring works the world will read centuries from now with profit.

Sunday, November 4, 2018

The Best American Short Stories 2018 is a lot like the fifth season of BoJack Horseman

Find any two talking heads for hire on any news network in America, and put them in an argument with each other where one argues a liberal position and the other argues for a conservative point-of-view. It's a good bet that at some point, the conservative will start arguing from a belief in an objective moral code and a concomitant personal responsibility to adhere to that code. The liberal, meanwhile, will come from a place where values are more fluid, more of a subjective value at the heart of a complicated matrix of socially determined forces.

Liberals have a good time poking holes in conservative arguments by showing how antiquated the foundations of their supposedly enduring values are, how the things they claim to be objective are really subjective. They will deconstruct with glee. But slowly, over the last six decades, liberals have been slow to realize the extent to which we've been undermining our own arguments thereby. By arguing that there are no values, we make it difficult to argue against selfishness or greed or outright hijacking of the country's political processes. By saying nothing is absolutely wrong, we make it hard to explain why we object to mass cultural sexual violence against women. By arguing against the notion of objective truths, be it through French schools of philosophy or their dumbed-down pop-culture echoes, we make it hard to criticize a president who shows a disregard for the truth.
Hoisted by my own petard, the one petard I thought would never hoist me! 

It seems liberals--and beyond liberals, anyone who has joined in what is called the "liberal consensus" that has reigned since the end of the Second World War--have begun to see the quicksand they stand in and started trying to pour in mortar to firm up their own foundations. The Best American Short Stories anthology of 2018 reflects this move to answer questions on behalf of the liberal consensus, questions like what is right, what is wrong, and why? 

This isn't an easy project for anyone who is looking to take part in this latest dialectical evolution of the liberal consensus. We're not going to be able to go back to the old systems. Nothing is more flaccid than liberals invoking the old sacred texts, reinterpreting them to show God really wanted a modern liberal democracy all along. By far, the weakest entry in the 2018 BASS collection was Ron Rash's "The Baptism," in which the woman-abusing villain is foiled by his own stupidity in such a contrived way, the reader if left thinking it really is a deus ex machina, that God has actually shown the timid minister how much he hates abusers by killing one Himself. One wonders why the almighty Himself never thought of such a stratagem for dealing with the millions of wife-abusers in the real world outside of the story when the solution seemed to come to Rash so easily.

Trying to turn religion on its head to serve the same liberal consensus that has always been inimical to it is cheating. I do not mean by this to deny that there is a real and beautiful social justice thread in the Old Testament, or to deny the very tangible good done in the world by millions of liberal religious people. I heartily encourage Unitarians to ring their bells and light their candles and then go register voters. But liberal religion will not be able to treat religious texts like they are foundational in the same way conservatives do. For those who support the liberal consensus, religious texts can never be more than one narrative among many, at least in a political sense. They can personally inspire, but they cannot universally prescribe.

The job is much more difficult. Without reference to any kind of ultimate authority outside humanity, the liberal consensus needs to rephrase itself to where it can say with some authority not just that we believe it is wrong to use power to sexually harass, but why. It will never be easy. It is as much an act of persuasion as it is of strict logical argumentation. It is like aesthetics: nobody will ever fully agree on what beauty is, but that does not mean there is so little agreement on terms that the whole discourse is rendered meaningless. The job of the fiction writer is to make a particular moral judgment appear beautiful enough that it gets assent from readers.

BASS 2018 has some great stories living in this difficult reality

Any analysis of 20 stories that were put together by one guest editor (Roxane Gay this year) is going to say a lot more about that one editor than it will about American literature as a whole. That's particularly true this year, as Gay's choices show her particular interests much more than most volumes show the interests of the guest editors. Also, any attempt to sum up the volume will lead to producing themes that some works support better than others. Nonetheless, I think that there are some themes I can assert exist in the 2018 BASS that are supported by many of the stories that comprise it. Moreover, those themes are supported by the best work in the volume. More than any other theme, the one I see emerging is the attempt to assert that right and wrong still exist, although determining what they mean and the bases for determining that are a never-ending struggle to uncover.

These themes are mostly examined using a very close up lens, by looking at the political and public ethical issues of the moment, rather than by examining the ethical issues abstractly. The approach is basically inductive: look closely at the life of a character, and let the story draw its own inferences about the larger, philosophical issues. This is, of course, not new in literature. But it is unusual these days to make the inferences so manifest. So if it's not new, at least it's new again.

Bojack Horseman and taking a stance on the art you make

Many fiction stories published in the best journals of the past 40 years take this approach: they present the reader with "real" characters who feel alive. Those characters make choices like a "real" person in those circumstances would. There's a sort of naturalist philosophy behind the creation of these stories. The author isn't supposed to make things work out how the author thinks things should work out. The author is supposed to let things work out the way the characters make them work out. The author, along with the audience, is left to simply wonder what it all means.

This has the advantage of providing a sense of scientific objectivity to fiction. The job isn't to force the character into actions that fit the author's pre-conceived notions of things, nor is it the job of fiction to tell the reader how to feel about the "experiment" that went on inside the story. It's just to carry out the experiment and record the results in all their grisly detail.

"Tell the truth, warts and all" is such a given aesthetic nowadays that it hardly needs a defense. And I'm not here to attack it. We live in a world with access to too many facts for an artist to try to window-dress a story anymore. The warts are out there, and you have to address them. But when a culture manufactures endless art that shows realistic characters, warts and all, without ever opining on the warts themselves, the culture begins to think the warts are the same as the healthy skin. In fact, the culture sees it as elitism or ableism or even fascism to describe one type of skin as healthy and another as warts.

That's the theme of the fifth season of Bojack Horseman, the animated series on Netflix about a talking horse-man who once had a hit sitcom and has been in a horrible, self-destructive, depressed funk ever since. Bojack's collaborator on his biography and best friend Diane Nguyen decided back in season one not to write the biography of Bojack the way he wanted it. He wouldn't be an icon the public could look up to. She wrote him exactly as he was. And the public loved it, because they saw Bojack as relatable.

Season five examines the problems with this "relatable" approach. Bojack has gotten a new job on an edgy TV series. The series, though, is eerily similar to Bojack's own life. This device gives the writers of Bojack Horseman a tool with which to deconstruct their own, real-life Netflix series (all the while winking at the audience that this isn't what they're doing; at one point Bojack breaks the fourth wall by insisting that his in-show series is not about his real life). Diane, who has been hired to help write the show, is suddenly horrified when she realizes how much gratuitous violence and misogyny is written into the show. Bojack tries to tell her that this is what makes the show great--it doesn't try to hide the flaws of its characters, and by showing its characters' weaknesses, it makes others feel better about their own weaknesses.

Diane decides that if this is what the show is doing, then it would be better if it didn't exist. Because people shouldn't be made to feel more comfortable about their warts if they actually have the ability to get rid of them. Showing "life as it really is" can't be an aesthetic used to justify bad behavior. (Todd VanDerWerff at Vox did a good job of describing how BoJack's season arc is all about taking responsibility for our own actions.)

BoJack calling out sexual misconduct in Hollywood stars is, of course, not going to go well for him.

The neo-liberal consensus and the delicate balance of personal and social responsibility in BASS 2018

The following are the stories in BASS 2018 that most clearly demonstrate this striving toward a new statement of the liberal consensus, one which, while showing a new respect for notions of personal responsibility and individual duties to society, still resists easy answers and places all of those responsibilities within their troubled socio-political context.

  • Maria Anderson's "Cougar" examines the balance between self-fulfillment, represented by the smiling, waving cat, and the responsibility to respect the land, represented by the cougar. 
  • Tea Obreht's "Items Awaiting Protective Enclosure" pits a Han Solo-type smuggling rebel of the plays-by-his-own-rules American type against what happens when that insistence on personal freedom plays out on a society-wide level. 
  • Jocelyn Nicole Johnson's "Control Negro" balances the need for black intellectuals to call out racism in society against the need to let the younger generation enjoy the gains the older generation has given it. It acknowledges society's need for DuBoisian confrontation of systemic racism, but also acknowledges that this kind of confrontation can harm the individuals it is meant to help.
  • Jacob Guajardo's "What Got into Us" is a coming-of-age story of a young gay man with a title that works in cross-directions. On the one hand, it reflects society's disapproval of a young man coming to grips with his own sexual identity, while on the other hand if acknowledges that there was, in fact, some real kind of sickness that "got into them," even if it wasn't the one society saw. In this sense, the story both excuses the boys' behavior because it is evident society gave them no clues how to behave better, but it also suggests that the damage the boys did to each other out of jealousy is something they owe each other an apology for. 

And now, the big three:

Emma Cline's "Los Angeles" is the riskiest story in this anthology. By questioning the wisdom of the "you're supposed to do dumb things when you're young" school of philosophy, Cline risks being accused of "blaming the victim." But the attitude of the narrator toward Alice is more like that of Alice's absent Mid-western mother than a slut-shaming prude. On the one hand, clearly, it would be nice if the young girls in this story lived in a world where they could figure out their identities, including their sexual identities, without risk of violence. If one of the men Alice sold her panties to actually attacked her, the motherly narrator would have defended her in court and decried any attempt to suggest Alice "deserved it" because she put herself in a risky position. At the same time, behind closed doors, this motherly voice would like to yell at Alice for acting stupid, for justifying decisions she knows are bad because "you're supposed to do that when you're young." It threads a very tricky needle of personal responsibility for one's own happiness against a society that makes happiness for young women very difficult. It does this with incredible success. 

Danielle Evans's "Boys Go to Jupiter" has an interesting parallel with Cline's "Los Angeles." At the climax of "Los Angeles," as Alice is scrambling to leave the car of a pervert, she keeps jamming the car handle by trying to pull on it before it is unlocked. The pervert, who is actually trying to let her out of the car, tells her she is "making it worse," a double-meaning bit of dialogue if ever there was one. Similarly, at one point in Evans's BGTJ, the unjustly killed young black boy in the story tells Claire that she's got to "stop making it worse." 

This "stop making it worse" formula might be a key to understanding the new statement of the liberal consensus. As liberals having been saying for a long time, there are deep, socio-political reasons behind the apparent destructiveness of individual actions. Cline and Evans both accept this. They do not deny that there are reasons as big as the trans-Atlantic slave trade and as small as cancer in a loved one that make certain actions beyond our ability. We are not responsible for the world we are born into being a messed-up place. But we all have a responsibility, both on personal level like Alice and on a social level like Claire, to not make it worse. 

This is the second year in a row Evans has produced one of the best works in the BASS anthology. Last year, it was "Richard of York Gave Battle in Vain." This year's story follows the flip side to the "warts and all" theory of story-writing. In this version, we have an unsypmathetic protagonist, but we need to see everything that might justify this character's bad behavior. It's not "warts and all," it "all and warts." Evans gives us this is great detail. The girl who started a ruckus at her school with a post of herself in a Confederate flag bikini once had a best friend who was black. Her life went off the rails when her mother died of cancer. We don't have to think she's evil. We don't have to think she's capital R Racist. We just have to want her to get her life back on the rails ASAP, to "quit making it worse." We also have to make her see her own responsibility in making this happen. 

Finally, there is the most interesting story where this individual responsibility-social context balance plays, out, which is Jamal Brinkley's "A Family." This story is, in many ways, a classic liberal consensus story. It not only gives us the warts, it celebrates the warts. It's called "A Family," because Brinkley wants us to think this family--as dysfunctional as it is-- is as legitimate a family structure as any nuclear-family-dad-works-but-also-respects-mom-as-a-woman-and-does-an-appropriate-amount-of-housework-and-also-supports-his-wife's-dreams-and-then-the-wife-also-works-but-also-is-involved-in-the-kids'-lives-and-also-finds-time-to-give-her-husband-oral-sex structure is. 

Brinkley doesn't shrink from showing us the dysfunction of a family where the woman carries nearly every adult responsibility. He doesn't shrink from showing us society's role in creating this kind of family, mostly owing to the criminalization of black maleness. He also shows great tenderness toward this family in all its dysfunction. 

If "Los Angeles" is saying, "Yes, society makes it tough to be a young woman, but you have to quit making bad choices," and if "Boys Go to Jupiter" is saying, "Yes, life can give you some terrible shit and it can make you not care about how others perceive your actions, but you still have to think about others," then "A Family" is saying, "Society makes some messed-up families, but we also need to see those families as more than just their dysfunction." It's the converse of "It's fine to have warts, but you also have to take responsibility for not making it worse." This is "recognizing the responsibility one has for one's own warts, we also need to accept that we all have them and we can be beautiful in spite of them."

Whatever the liberal consensus ends up being whenever the current global right turn ends, it can't be just an alternate version of conservative moral absolutism. We can't just be saying it is an absolute evil to do use power to sexually molest women instead of saying it is an absolute evil to get an abortion. Morality has to begin and end with humanism. If something is wrong, it is because it makes human beings less happy. If something is good, it is because it makes humans happier. There is both a social and an individual aspect to that happiness, and every decision has to negotiate the two. You are responsible for your own happiness. You're also responsible for how you help or hinder the happiness of another person. 

Good fiction will keep these tensions alive, rather than attempt to efface them in the name of whatever we believe the moral imperative of the moment to be. Good choices are never easy, but they're always imperative to make them. Individual responsibility is never independent of socio-political realities, but our happiness depends on trying to make choices like it can be. 

This was the best BASS of the six I've read because it didn't take either easy way out of the difficult tight rope act all moral decisions are. It was the first inclination I've had in a long time that literary fiction might be relevant to our era's troubled public discourse. 
To celebrate this newfound faith in the relevance of good literature, here's Todd Chavez saying "hooray!"a lot.