Saturday, October 24, 2020

Should a writer critique other writers harshly?

Seven years ago, I was a decade removed from leaving grad school after my M.A. in English with a concentration in creative writing, the degree the straight English majors called “English Light” and M.F.A. students called the “M.F.A. Light.” I had thought, when I started the program at University of Illinois at Chicago back in fall of 2002, that I wanted to be both a critic and a writer. I left without becoming either.

Looking back, it’s not hard to see why. As a hybrid literature/writing student, I was too busy writing to do the research necessary to become much good at theory, and too busy reading 19th century texts or French theory to develop much at writing my own stories. At the time I finished my M.A., I’d hardly read anything written after 1980. I’d gotten nowhere as a writer of my own stories, and I felt dejected and wanted nothing to do with literature, either writing it or reading it. That feeling didn’t change for years after leaving graduate school to go get what I thought of as a “normal” job, something as far from literature as I could get.
Around the time I turned forty, I wondered if it might be worth trying to write stories again. Forty’s a good age to make sure you haven’t talked yourself out of something you really wanted to do with your life and see if you can still amend having done so. I didn’t try to go back for a Ph.D., because it was falling in love with stories that had originally made me go to grad school, not falling in love with theory. Instead, I simply started to read stories that had been written in my lifetime.
It didn’t change much for me right away. I was writing again, but those first stories I sent out at forty all got rejected, the same as they had at twenty-five. Still, something felt different. Even in failure, I could feel something changing in my work. Melville is wonderful, and Moby Dick will remain my favorite book until I die, but there’s something about reading people who speak in your own idiom that really works on the literary imagination. 

Encouraged by the change, certain I would soon find the secret sauce and become famous, and unaware that even back in 2013 nobody really blogged anymore, I started this blog about my attempt to figure it all out in my forties. I thought of it as a service to future generations, who would be able to follow my aesthetic development journey just before I started winning awards. 

I started to get some stories published here and there, but I wasn’t famous. I was better, but not great. This blog, which almost nobody read, occasionally went from sprightly to morose; my life seemed a waste. 

On the way to becoming I writer, I accidentally become a critic

At some point, I decided to start blogging serious analysis, or at least my best attempts at serious analysis, of the best contemporary short stories. I focused on the big anthologies: Best American Short Stories, O.Henry, and Pushcart. I didn’t write about every story in the anthologies, but I wrote about a lot of them. My purpose wasn’t to revive the lost hope of being a serious critic. Although the work I did was influenced by all the theory I’d been exposed to, my primary purpose wasn’t academic. Mostly, I just wanted an exercise that would force me to focus closely on the best fiction being written today so it would influence my own work for the better. I’ve described my approach as close to a sermon, with short stories as my secular text. It’s a little bit of theory, a little bit of the eye of a developing writer noticing techniques, but by and large, it’s just me trying to become a better person through reading. What I’ve enjoyed most about this is how it’s reminded me that becoming a fuller, better human being is why I enjoy literature, why I want to write stories of my own.
I never expected people would read these literary sermons. My blog was always an obscure backwater town of the internet, with at most a few hundred hits a month, probably half of which came from bots. Yet within a few months of starting to blog about short stories, the numbers started going up. Today, about two years after I started critiquing other work regularly, I get over 5,000 hits a month. That’s not much, of course, certainly not enough to say I’ve emerged from obscurity. There are YouTubers who get 5 million views without breaking a sweat. It was a big change for me, though. It meant there were some people out there reading me of their own free will. 

The reason people are finding my blog is a troubling sign for literature

The posts I write analyzing short stories get about twenty times as many hits as the posts about writing, or other subjects. Those finding my blog seem to mostly be students who are studying short stories in school, especially Best American Short Stories, based on the spikes in readers that coincide with school years. College students (or, in some cases, senior groups, as I’ve discovered because they’ve reached out to me) read a story, feel they don’t quite grasp it or just want to see what others think about it, so they Google it, and my blog pops up. 

But why on Earth should my blog pop up? These are the best short stories being written, or at least the ones that got the most attention, so surely, there are highly regarded, perspicacious critics out there writing far more insightful things about them than I am, right? 

Turns out, no. A few stories, the ones that were originally published in The New Yorker, say, have a professional reading students can turn to, but for the most part, students are going to find either my blog or that of Karen Carlson, who has become my friend over the last few years as we’ve conferred with one another while writing about the same stories. 
For the most part, the two of us are what’s out there when students are looking for help with reading challenging stories. How is it possible there are so few critics of short stories out there? If you watch a movie that captivates you, or hear a song with lyrics you keep chewing on but aren’t quite sure you understand, you can find hundreds of places on the internet to help you. There are thriving communities that discuss these things. There are YouTubers—some of them really excellent—who make a living through an informal intellectual approach they cultivated to art. It’s very helpful stuff for people who want to go a little deeper with art they've enjoyed, and I’m glad it’s there, but nobody is really talking about literature in this way, especially short stories. That’s why people find me. That can’t be good for the future of the short story as a living art form. 

I think fear of revenge keeps a lot of would-be critics from speaking up, for fear of what it would do to their own place within the writing community. 

The readers are the reason for the lack of critics

It’s an open secret that the main readers of short stories are other writers. Many journals stay in business now more from fees they charge writers to submit work than they do from subscriptions. David Olimpo, editor-in-chief of The Atticus Review, said as much in one of his recent newsletters:

“I've written before that I think the value proposition for literary magazines is not what most editors and writers might like it to be. Ideally, we'd love the general public to be chomping at the bit to subscribe to our literary magazines, and to pay for the great content we're providing! But that's not the reality of our culture, or the oversaturated media landscape we are a part of. In my opinion, the value proposition today for literary magazines is in...not being a literary magazine. It's in developing relationships with writers, who are also readers. This is why platforms such as Medium have been so successful: they realize the writer is both client and audience.”

He went on to announce that Atticus would be raising fees for submissions to $5, and not apologizing for it. He felt writers should be “glad to pay it.” Whether you agree with him or not isn’t the point; the point is that editors clearly realize their audience is writers, not bankers and stock clerks and actuaries and lawyers and nurses and morticians looking for an enjoyable way to expand their minds and souls during their free time. 

Writers nowadays are coached to be good “literary citizens.” We need to be encouraging one another, say nice things about each other on social media, help one another to promote our work, write pithy blurbs for the backs of one another’s books. Part of being a writer now includes writing puff-piece reviews that look like real critique but aren’t. 

That’s all fine. I am not advocating we return to some golden age of writing when the giants feuded with one another and wrote scathing reviews of the work of their enemies. I’ve done a few soft reviews for friends, too. Without at least some critique with teeth, though, critique where the reviews might be bad, there’s not much of a thriving community. The problem for short stories, though, is that they’re mostly supported by people whose culture forbids them from providing critique with an element of danger in it. The main readers of short stories are other writers, making other writers the ones primarily in the position to provide the necessary critique to rebuild a real public appetite for short stories, but other writers are exactly the people who cannot write them, because it could be social and commercial suicide. Which means there are few readers of short stories in a social position to provide serious critique. This ensures that short stories remain an insular art form, one that discourages outsiders from delving into it, because there is no critical framework to help outsiders overcome initial hurdles to understanding.

While my obscure little blog has been picking up a small audience, I’ve also slowly been becoming a “real writer.” I had a book of short stories published by the Washington Writers’ Publishing House in 2017. (See the link to the right! Buy to support the publisher and me! Hit like and subscribe! Donate to my Patreon!) Last month, I won the Robert Day Award for Fiction from New Letters. I’m not Best-American-Short-Stories famous, but I am a member of the community of writers. It made me pause last month when I won the award to ask myself, “Am I enough of a real writer now I should quit writing critiques of other writers’ work?” What if my blog went from 5,000 readers a month to 50,000? What if  lightning struck and I got published in The New Yorker, and suddenly everyone cared about all the criticism I’ve written about the work of other writers?
I probably should stop. A writing mentor, if I looked for such things, would tell me I not only should stop writing critique of other writers, I should also delete everything I’ve done so far. Sometimes, I write things that would wreck my writer social credit score. Two years ago, I didn’t like Weike Wang’s “Omakase,” although others apparently loved it so much they put it in both the Best American and O.Henry anthologies, and two of the three O.Henry editors said it was their favorite. (If you Google the story at this minute, my blog is the third result you’ll get for it, meaning the few people who looked for an analysis of it likely landed on my negative one. I’m being serious when I say nobody is seriously looking at short fiction, at least not in a place an ordinary person could easily find it.)
Knowing what I know now of the dearth of criticism, I can’t stop. The people who find my blog are those mythical real readers we all wish we could find as writers, the ones headed into careers in things other than literature. They’re people who might be reading the only modern short stories they will ever read as adults, and they are stumbling onto my blog or Karen's, because they're almost all that exists. That is just an incredible shame, but it’s also a call to responsibility for me.

I have an ethics about it. I don’t tag writers when I Tweet out my latest analysis if I didn’t like their story. (In fact, I don’t Tweet these at all. I just post them sadly and move on with my day.) I don’t take any joy in disliking a story. I know I’m talking bad about somebody’s baby. But without somebody writing criticism, even informal criticism like my own not primarily aimed at a scholarly audience, where there is a chance of saying something negative, the positive analysis means nothing. It’s all just blurbs and striving for new ways to say things like “spell-binding” and “captivating.” I like to think that when I tag a writer to say I loved their work, and I hear back from them that they really appreciated someone taking their story seriously enough to write about it the way I have, part of the reason they appreciate it is because they know I mean it. This is especially true when I analyze stories from Pushcart, which tends to have fewer big names and more people like me, people just writing what they love because they can’t help themselves. I’m often the only person who responded to their story with written thoughts of my own. 
That’s why in early November, when Best American Short Stories drops (on Election Day, no less), I’ll be putting other things to the side for a few weeks to read, to think, to meditate, and to respond to the stories. My critical work is imperfect, and the people who are looking for answers deserve better than me, but until that exists, I’m going to try to keep giving it to them. Turning my back on that responsibility because I fear the momentary harm it might cause to my place in the literary world is the surest way to damn that world to an increasingly shrinking role. 

Sunday, October 18, 2020

Pre-linguistic cognition: "Silverfish" by Rone Shavers

Disclaimer: I went to graduate school with Rone, so this isn't a completely unbiased analysis of the novella in question. Still, my policy with authors who are friends is to read the work and then only review/analyze the work if I liked it. If I don't, I just shut up about it and never tell the author I read it. I've actually done this before. Only once have I given a positive review of something when I didn't mean it because I knew the author, and that was for a very old person who had asked me to review the book and I just didn't see the harm and couldn't say no. 

A college professor began a class once by asking a question: Can you think without language? I mulled it over for a bit. There are certainly times I think using a very abbreviated linguistic system. Often, I'll be chewing on some problem, and it leads me to an argument I've had in my head before. My brain will then simply quickly register the results of the previous conversation I had in my brain about that subject without recalling the entire process that led me to that conclusion. This is one of the reasons people have such a hard time arguing for conclusions they reached a long time ago. They've been using an interior shorthand for a long time, one that simply remembers having come to a conclusion about something without all the steps that got them there. Often, I register this simply by remembering where I was when I came to the conclusion. There's no language in it, or at least there doesn't seem to be. 

You can see this, too, in a more dramatic fashion, when you have to make a series of quick decisions about something, like when you are driving a car or playing a sport. I don't just mean that there are instinctive functions we do that don't require language to accomplish, because after the split-second in which you make your decision and carry it out, sometimes, you find you are able to give a long explanation of why you did it, one that is so long, it's actually impossible you could have thought all of it while carrying out the action, but it actually does seem like all the things you are saying were really involved in the decision: "I wasn't sure if he saw me, and the guy behind me was coming kind of fast, but I thought that if I blew my horn, the guy merging might get scared and whip his car too fast back in the other direction and cause an accident, so instead of either braking or blowing the horn, I just changed lanes fast, because I'd seen in my mirror the other lane was empty." That's too many words to have thought in half a second, but it seems, somehow, as if that is really the rationale behind your decision. 

The answer I gave at the time in that class was that animals seem to think without using words, as far as we can tell, so yes, it must be possible to think without language.

Language and Langaj

Of course, my answer was only right if "language" means words. If language refers instead, though, to any system of conveying information, then it's quite possible no living thing thinks without using it. Internally, organs communicate with one another, and even cells can pass information of sorts within themselves. What's true at microscopic levels is also true at macroscopic ones. There are massive, eco-system-wide communications systems, such as when the roots of trees "talk" to one another across an entire forest. 

My bias toward thinking of language as equivalent to words is easy to understand. I'm a translator, so when I think of translating from one language to another, I mean take some words and replace them with other words that mean something similar to people in another linguistic system. Even the word "language" comes from the word for "tongue," meaning people have long had a bias toward thinking of language as the words one makes. 

Rone Shavers' Silverfish, though, tries to first break us down from our assumptions about "language" meaning words and then to build us up again. He begins with a prologue from the Yoruba trickster goddess Eshu, who invites the reader to "play language" with her. Her hope is to "break the brain" of the reader, as an epigraph by Vera Henross has it. "Confusion is good: It's the first step to understanding what's beyond what you already know." The novel equates "language" to "langaj," the esoteric, incantory utterances used in Hoodoo rituals, where language itself actually makes things happen. Unlocking language will also "make things happen" in the novel.

Once past the epigraph, though, we find Eshu to be a somewhat merciful goddess, because while the story bends the reader's brain, it doesn't quite break it. It's possible to rebuild a fairly coherent narrative from the broken pieces of the story.

A one-paragraph synopsis

Stories where the author really doesn't give a damn about being kind to the reader are almost impossible to summarize easily, but Silverfish isn't like this. The novel is set in a future "corporatocracy," one in which those with means use those without them as part of a mercenary army-for-hire to keep the stock market high and natural resources flowing. This world was brought about in part by the invention of "angels," a new and improved form of cyborg (although that term is considered passé in the future) with a mission to root out insurrection from "primitves" who aren't on board with the brave new world. Angels were invented by someone named Beagel. Beagel went rogue on his corporate sponsors, though, and created a way to stop the angels, that way being the voracious tech-eating silverfish of the title. The poor are eternally trapped by their corporate overlords, promised an opportunity to climb up by their bootstraps, but in reality having almost no way out of the poverty that dooms them to do the bidding of the masters. The main action in the novel consists of Beagel hijacking an angel and reprogramming it to undo the corporate-run world. 

Beyond the synopsis: how language is a shield from harm

Beagel notes, while re-programming the angel, that the apocalypse has already happened. It happened when people lost the ability to use metaphor and had to resort instead to hyperbole. This is something of an Orwellian understanding of the future, the idea that the powers that be, whether they are Big Brother or the Corporate Code of Civilized Nations, mostly control us through weakening the power of language. Because language is a sea we swim in without being aware we're surrounded by it, it's difficult for us to realize when we're being manipulated through it. We assume language is neutral, just there to communicate ideas which are themselves good or bad, but in fact, we are being manipulated all the time through the language we take for granted. The medium is the message. The contemporary fight over what facts even are is a good example of this. Maybe our current age is actually a good step in civilization's advance, because our brains are all being broken, hopefully to be remade better.  

The angel's brain, at least, is broken and remade. She is able to join in a giant meta-language, a system of systems or language of languages, which allows her, in turn, to then begin to reprogram humans. She convinces Clayton, the only human other than Beagel we get to know to any extent, to invest all his social credits into learning language. It will bankrupt him, but because of a convoluted series of rules I don't think we're meant to look that deeply into, Clayton will be able to go live with the "primitives." Society will send angels to kill him, but, because he has unlocked the angel's meta-language (and, if he's a really good student, the language of the silverfish as well), he will be able to survive. 

The brain-breaking only took 93 pages! 

One of the remarkable things about the novella is how much ground it covers in such a short space. The overall feeling I got from living in Shavers' dystopia was much like the one I had after reading Nick Harkaway's Gnomon, but Gnomon took well over 700 pages to do it. Shavers partly accomplishes a lot in a short time by letting form indicate function. ("The teleology of a work is expressed by its form" is the first thought we hear the angel have.) Shavers eschews quotation marks for dialogue, a long-time characteristic of his work. The novel doesn't feel bound to carry forward the customs of the past, which frees it to find its own manner of signifying. 

There is a good deal of what might be thought of as stream-of-consciousness as the angel "spools" through infinite thoughts, but that stream-of-consciousness isn't, as is often the case, terribly jarring. The trickster goddess was merciful enough to provide textual clues, such as brackets, braces, parentheses, and italics. 

There were a few places where I wished the characters, Beagel in particular, would do more interpreting of thinkers or concepts they mentioned rather than just referring to them and letting the reference do the work for him. And I honestly didn't realize some things the description of the book on Amazon told me about the book until I read the description after reading the novella. For example, I didn't know there was an "Incorporated States of America" in the story. If it's mentioned, it's a very fleeting reference, and one that's not returned to. I also didn't grasp the extent to which language itself was the means of control until the end. Although Beagel said as much, it was only a part of a larger philosophical discourse he had with the angel, and it didn't strike me at the time as the central issue of the novella. Beagel claimed that nobody could use metaphor anymore, but Clayton's ability to use phrases like "above my paygrade" indicates he could, in fact, use metaphorical language. (What is "above my paygrade" but an allusion to an imaginary ladder of responsibility? Decisions aren't literally "above" or "below" anyone. That's abstract language, which means the realm of metaphor.) 

But as I've said many times, I prefer something flawed that had high ambitions to a technically perfect attempt to do nothing. I like what Shavers called in his dedication a "beautiful mess." Shavers was swinging for the fences in this novella, and a missed swing here or there is just the price you pay for seeing him connect beautifully on occasion.

Monday, October 12, 2020

The story that was rejected fifty-two times, accepted four times and what I've learned about being a writer

We're often told as writers that getting published can be a question of luck as well as ability. You could write "The Cask of Amontillado," something centuries of readers and critics alike will treasure, but if you get a reader at a journal who isn't really up to snuff, or who has a thing about stories with violence or revenge in them, or who isn't having a great day, you'll strike out. I'm fully aware of how human readers for journals are, having done a year or it myself. You will, of course, make your odds better by writing something good, but that just gets you in the door with hundreds of others. Getting published sometimes comes down to giving one particular editor the story she was looking for on one particular day.

That said, as my 9th grade science teacher always said, "The harder I work, the luckier I get." When I first started submitting stories to journals a little over seven years ago, most ignored me. All of the higher-tier journals completely ignored me. (What do I mean by "higher-tier"? I don't want to get to much into it, but I guess the journals from tier five and above on this list, although the list is a bit dated now.) After nearly a year, I got an acceptance from a good, but not elite, journal. Another year went by, and then I got a second, then a third a month later. I've kept getting an acceptance or two a year from the non-elites since then. 

I'm happy when anyone likes what I've written. I really am. It's gratifying for even the humblest of journals to publish a story I wrote, because there's no journal so small my story didn't have to get picked over a lot of others, stories whose authors loved them as much as I love mine. 

Still, I've had a longing to see if I could make it into one of the higher tiers. There are two reasons. One is I'd just like to have a somewhat broader audience. Secondly, a friend of mine told me when she got a story in the high-tier New England Review, she got publishers asking her if she had a novel ready. Since I've had a hard time getting people to look at either novel I've written, I'd love a short cut.

A few years ago, I started getting more than just form rejections from some of the higher-tiered journals. There's actually a rejectionwiki someone keeps that helps you to know if your apparent "encouraging rejection" was actually meant to be encouraging. Most of mine were.

One of the most incredible string of encouraging rejections I got was from the now-defunct Glimmer Train. I somehow managed to make the finals of contests they ran three times in a row, without winning any of them. At the time, I was somewhere between excited and completely demoralized. I didn't feel like I could possibly write a better story than those, and even though I'd gotten closer, it seemed at the time like that was as close as I was ever going to get.

There's a reason I've written more about rejection on this blog than any other subject.

I decided I'd try to at least get over it enough to try to find a home for those three stories. Once I did that, I'd think about hanging it up for good. 

One of the stories, "Collision," I think I might never get published anywhere. A number of journals other than Glimmer Train have said they liked it, but I think they're all a little nervous about publishing it. One writer friend of mine who read it said immediately that it would never get published anywhere. Essentially, it's within the "#metoo" sphere of influence, and I think it's too hard for editors to tell where the story's allegiances lie. One editor said as much. I've tried rewrites to make it a little clearer, but I think it's too ambiguous a treatment of the subject for nearly any journal.

The second of that triumvirate of stories, called "Jajangmyeon," will be published this winter by The Chattahoochee Review. I'm really excited about this. The editors suggested a few changes that I think made it a lot better. I thought highly of the editors at this journal during my interaction with them. They were prompt to reply and insightful, and I couldn't like the journal any more if it had the clout of The New Yorker

Finally, my story "Love Hotel," I can now announce since the journal has, recently won the Robert Day Award for fiction at New Letters. If you believe in tiers, New Letters is the highest-rated journal that's accepted me yet. It may not get me Nate Silver asking me about novels in my desk drawer, but it's a big breakthrough for me. Mostly, I'm just happy someone saw in this story what I've seen all along. Some writers say they can't pick a favorite story they've written, that it's like asking them to pick a favorite child. I don't feel that way. "Love Hotel" is my favorite.

Even a strong story can have a twisted path to publication

Actually, New Letters wasn't the first to see something in it. It's the first story that ever earned me more than a form rejection from The New YorkerThe Georgia Review, and Hopkins Review each told me I'd made it to the final round of cuts before falling out. A number of other elite journals gave me my first non-form rejection: Gettysburg Review, The Iowa Review, Granta, The Missouri Review, The Common, and and a few others. Each time I got one of these, again, I'd be stuck between elation and the most abject feelings of dejection.  

I decided to just start sending it out to whatever journal and resolved that anyone who wanted it could have it. About a week after I did that, I got an acceptance. It was from a brand-new journal. Part of me wanted to just let them have it, just so the story landed somewhere, but at the last second, something stopped me, told me that I'd already placed stories in okay places, but this story was worth believing in enough to keep trying for something bigger. 

So I told that journal it had just been snatched up right before they got to it, which, strictly speaking, isn't good writer behavior. A few weeks later, New Letters told me it was a finalist in their contest. While I was waiting for them to pick the winner, another journal said they'd publish it. I hadn't pulled it yet, because I wasn't sure it would be published in New Letters. This third journal agreed to wait to see if it won the contest. I pulled it from everywhere else then.

Or at least I thought I did. I forgot about one journal, because I'd submitted it so many places, I missed when I had to withdraw it. Also, because I was on the road and not working from my home computer when this all happened, it was hard for me to see where exactly I'd pulled the story from. This last journal happened to also accept the story, meaning I had to explain to them what had happened. All the editors I had to turn down were gracious about it, which was probably more kindness than I deserved.

What I learned from all this

There are two lessons to this. One is that there are just some editors who are never going to like my work. I'm looking at you, Colorado Review. I'll never get so much as a "we liked your work and would like to see more" from some places, so matter how strong the story is. "Love Hotel," which moved the likes of The New Yorker and The Georgia Review, got form rejections from some journals that don't appear on the list of 500 I linked above at all. Finding the right audience is a little like finding a romantic partner. The fact that everyone isn't into you doesn't mean there's something wrong with you. 

The second lesson is a little harder for me to absorb. Of course, I edited "Love Hotel" a lot before I first sent it out to journals. But after a year of near rejections, I looked at it closely for the first time in a few months. I made one major change to it, one which shortened it by a thousand words and made the main character's motivation clearer. (In fact, I had edited it so many times, I had to name one version of it something different just to keep it separate from all the other versions. This one I called "Lobu Hoteru," after the Korean pronunciation of the loan words "love hotel." That's the one that won, so now I'm stuck with "Lobu Hoteru" for all time.)

I hate waiting. I like to write stories, edit them, and send them out. It takes long enough waiting for a response, I don't want to wait forever to put something out. But even though I've written a few stories in a short amount of time that worked and were published, I think the main thing I've learned as a writer is that there's no substitute for time on your work. Writing a story, re-writing it, putting it away, re-writing again, and then putting it away even longer before re-working it yet again, is the surest way to make sure your story's putting its best foot forward.

In my day job, I'm always pushing people to not let making a perfect product be a reason to never produce anything. And at work, that's the right attitude. I have to learn to separate my work from my writing, though, or I'm going to continue to get close-but-not-quites. 

I just re-learned this lesson last week, when The Missouri Review gave me such an encouraging rejection on a story I wrote post-"Love Hotel," I thought they were actually accepting the story for a paragraph. Ultimately, though, they let it go, because they felt it got a little too windy. I looked at it again, and sure enough, after being away from it a while, I found 500 words to cut pretty easily, words that the story was better without. The editor also suggested I give the reader a little more of the main character's internal struggle, which I think I did with two sentences.

So while I'm elated by the success of "Lobu Hoteru," I'm also kicking myself for not waiting to send out my latest story, which might challenge "Lobu Hoteru" for favorite child status, a little longer. I'm wishing I'd made it just a little harder for The Missouri Review to turn it down. I won't get that chance again. 

What I've learned about writing is that it's extremely unfair. You can write a story that's 98% gold, and that two percent you didn't quite iron out is somehow making the whole thing not come together. There are so many elements to keep track of and pay attention to and be sensitive to, it feels impossible. But it won't do any good to either be in denial about that two percent, or to complain about it. The only way to cope with crippling depression post-rejection is to act like you're not depressed and work harder.   

Friday, October 2, 2020

In defense of petulance (sort of)

Following a lot of literary journals online as I do, I sometimes see their editors post about the bad behavior of writers. Often, it's writers angry about being rejected lashing out at the journal. Past posts by Roxane Gay and a local journal called Barrelhouse stand out in memory for the way they called out (anonymously, I think) writers who had responded with pique when they'd been rejected. In Gay's case, I think she posted the words of a man who'd responded somewhat condescendingly when he'd been rejected, words to the effect of how nobody would ever pay attention to whatever journal she'd responded on behalf of if they didn't publish work like his. In the case of Barrelhouse, they'd had a writer approach them at a conference to tell them that a story they'd rejected had later been accepted by a better journal.

In both cases, those posting about the responses were holding up this behavior as a cautionary tale of how not to behave. And it is, it is. The correct response when you get a rejection, any rejection, is to not think about it and move on to the next journal. If I get positive words to go with the rejection, I will keep those in my inbox, but anything else, I immediately delete and don't give a second thought to.

At the same time, I understand those writers' reactions. There are three options here:

  1. The stories did not merit publication.
  2. The stories did merit publication, but the editors erred and picked other, less deserving stories.
  3. The stories rejected were roughly the same level of quality as those selected for publication, but the editors chose the other ones for difficult reasons to explain, but which include personal preference and what kinds of other stories had already been picked for publication. 
If it's numbers two or three, the writer's disappointment is at least understandable. This disappointment shouldn't bubble up into a treatise on how wronged the author is lobbed at the editors, but every hundred or so such disappointments, maybe a writer is entitled to such a reaction. If you happen to be the editor who suffered, maybe you could act like writers are supposed to act and just ignore it and move on. It's quite possible the writer, having vented his spleen, later feels sheepish about having done so. There's no real reason to remind the writer later of what he did, or to flog the writer in public, unless the moment of frustration was so over-the-top as to be openly violent, sexist, or racist. 

Let's say, though, that the editors got it right. The work wasn't as good as the writer believed it was, and it didn't deserve publication as much as the stories selected. I still think editors ought to give writers a little slack when they blow off steam. Believing your garbage is good is part of the natural evolution of a writer.  As Octavia Butler said, "You don't start off writing good stuff. You start off writing crap and thinking it's good stuff, and then gradually you get better at it."

I've never fired off an angry letter to an editor. But I did once blog about something a reviewer I paid to look at my stuff wrote, and I later regretted it. Moreover, every time I get a rejection, my instinctive reaction is, "Fuck you, you ingrates, that's a brilliant story." I just had that reaction twice this week, even though I'm only a week removed from the best news I've ever received as a writer (more on that soon).

Over the last seven years, I've eventually gotten over my anger enough to "gradually get better at it," but the anger is part of that process. To write anything is an act of enormous chutzpah. It's saying that with all the thousands and thousands of stories being published every year, the world really needs your story, because it's different and it's important and needs to be read. We all write because the story we want to read hasn't been written yet, so we must write it ourselves. That means we're all going to be partial to our own stories, because they're the thing we wanted to see nobody else made. If you don't think your story is better than the ones that do get published, what on Earth are you sending it in for? And if you really think it's better, which you should, then you ought to be angry every time it gets rejected. The world is wronging you. 

That may not be the truth, but if part of you doesn't feel like it's the truth, what are you writing for?

Writing as a business in America is now so much about authors building a brand, we no longer tolerate misanthropic, mean drunks who lob insults at their editors, readers, or the public (unless it's at the politically inclined the writing world has deemed worthy of our disdain). We like our writers humble, Tweeting about the normal people things they do that make them seem approachable and not at all aloof or weird or egotistical. I think we're missing out on something with this as the new cultural norm for writers. We shouldn't always be trying to break writers of their habit of reacting with anger when they're rejected. We should be encouraging them to write something even better so that the world literally cannot miss how good it is. We should tell writers to use their anger to get better, even if what they sent in wasn't good enough to get angry about rejection in the first place. 

It seems to me that if you take a writer who naturally wants to tell a story and then put that writer under pressure over time from the frustration of not getting to tell it, you're more likely to get a diamond than if you encourage writers to smile and enroll in the next class by the journal that rejected them. Getting an angry letter from a spurned writer should be to editors what getting a canned rejection letter is to writers. 

But still, writers, seriously: for you own sake, turn the anger toward the next story, not toward your missive on why you were wronged. If you can.  

Sunday, September 27, 2020

MCAM seems more in line with human nature than ACAB

I've loved Lebron James since I first saw him put on a Cleveland Cavaliers uniform, and it confounds me how many people seem to hate the guy. More than just the fact that he has haters, what gets me is who the haters are. I get it if you're a fan of a team he's taking apart and you're sick of seeing him score against you. I hated Michael Jordan in a limited sense back when he used to tear up the Cavs. But fans who rip on him for everything from his hairline to how square he is to how he's 3-6 lifetime in the finals--never mind how without him, none of those teams would have even been in a finals--make no sense to me. Lebron James should never be getting real hate from his own community, whether than community is Black people, people from Ohio, or basketball fans. 

Lately, he's also been getting some hate from outside his community, namely whatever politically conservative pseudo-celebrity Fox News can get to say something negative about James in front of a microphone. James, if you don't know, has been mildly critical of police and American systemic racism in general. He isn't really that radical in what he's said. For example, he doesn't condone violence toward police at a time when some really are claiming it's time for violent struggle against the enforcers of state control. Still, because James is the best player of his generation, when he takes a stand like criticizing the police who shot Breonna Taylor, people pay attention to him more than they do to other players. Which means when some UFC fighter wants to play to his base, he goes after James, calling James a spineless coward for being woke. (I'm not linking to a story about this idiot. James has dealt with it with the same dogged perseverance and ability to ignore haters that have made him the best.) 

I don't understand why any politically conservative person would attack James. If you're conservative, you have no beef with James. He's the opposite of everything you worry about. He's a family man. He respects women. He doesn't wear his pants low. (These are, by the way, all reasons he sometimes gets grief from his own community.) He might disagree with you politically, but if you are on the side of maintaining order, you want people who disagree the way James disagrees. You ought to promote James, ask why more people objecting to police can't do it in the civil way he does. 

Why some white people are so incensed with James

I was just talking to a relative from Ohio who said she was more concerned about racial tension in America than coronavirus. She told me she "hates Lebron James" and hates all athletes, because she's tired of athletics being a platform for athletes to make political statements. I think the hatred comes from two places. First is the maybe understandable and instinctive dislike for what sounds like complaint from people who are better-off, financially, than the fans watching the sport. But that's always been true, and it's only now some people are suddenly waking up to it. The second reason, though, is deeper, more convoluted, and based on assumptions that are harder to confront head-on.

Okay, Lebron maybe works the refs a lot, although maybe his feelings of being picked on on the court are an overflow of how picked on he is off the court. 

Traditionally, we have rightfully respected those who do dangerous jobs on our behalf. That healthy respect, though, has occasionally broken containment and gone right into hero worship. First responders are heroes, and the thing about a hero is that if you say anything bad about heroes, they can't be heroes anymore, which means to make any kind of criticism doesn't just mean you're saying they're human, you're saying there is nothing about them to admire at all. 

The prevalence of slogans these days like ACAB ("all cops are bastards") is itself an unintended consequence of our culture's long worship of first responders. When people learn, through ubiquitous video footage previously unavailable, that police aren't perfect, the way we expect heroes to be, they sometimes assume that only the opposite pole is possible: if cops aren't heroes, they must be evil. 

That flies in the fact of human nature

But any kind of assumption that follows the formula "all _____ are ___" is likely to be untrue. I don't have to be either naïve or an apologist for police to think this. It's not an ideologically extreme position; it's a position that comes from even the most casual observance of human nature and the most basic understanding of statistics. 

What is true about human nature is that most people are somewhere in the statistical middle of ability and effort that combine together to give output. They exhibit average amounts of moral courage and ethical integrity. That's just mathematical reality. It's tautological, even. An average human is average at most things. All cops aren't bastards. All cops aren't anything. But most cops are mediocre, just like most people are. 

You can sometimes cheat statistics by providing an environment where you only attract those who are good at certain functions. The New York Philharmonic doesn't have 100 members of average ability such that only one of them can play anywhere near well enough to perform at the level needed. They have screened for the best of the best of the best, music-wise, and even a bad player in the Philharmonic is better than almost anyone else in the world. It's like that in the NBA, too. The guys Lebron makes fools of every night are people who would destroy an average division-one college player. They'd score on me without even knowing I was there trying to stop them. "Average" in the NBA isn't "average" in absolute terms. 

Ideally, we'd like it to be that way in all professions, but I'm guessing it isn't like that in the profession you, gentle reader, work in. It's certainly not true in mine, although I work for a company that does a lot more screening than most. Most of us have at least a few truly average people at our work, people who aren't any more suited for what we do than a person randomly picked up off the street might be. 

What kind of "average" are the police? 

If the police don't do a good job of screening, then an average police officer is more or less an average person, which is to say, pretty mediocre. That's not the case, though, because the police screen candidates. The question, then, is how tough the supply of officers relative to the demand allows police departments to make the screening. Are the police like the NBA, where even their worst are so much better than normal people at the skills that go into police work we regular folks couldn't even begin to question their ability to do the work?

I doubt it. There are a few hundred NBA players. There are a few thousand professional musicians in city orchestras in the country. But there are about 800,000 sworn police officers. It's hard to image that many people spent their whole childhoods trying to perfect the skills that go into police work the way pro basketball players or musicians did. With greater repercussions for screwing up than most of us face and pay that is a living wage but not enough to get past mid-middle-class, the police just aren't going to be able to make "average" for a cop mean what "average" for an NBA player means.

I've heard a lot of folks these days who are critical of police compare police to airline pilots. They say that the repercussions of a police office making a critical mistake are so dire--involving human lives as they do--that we have to get to a place where no critical mistakes are made. 

I understand where this thinking is coming from, but it also runs against facts, facts having to do with sticky things like averages. An average airline pilot can go her whole life without a fatal accident. An average police officer, however, is less able to avoid mistakes. This isn't a judgment of police, it's just a very obvious statement of facts. There are many more accidental shootings of people who weren't a threat than there are airplane crashes. 

When I explain what systemic racism means to me, I say that for me to go to college and end up in the middle class means I just did what nearly everyone I went to high school did, but for the students Mrs. Heretic taught to do that means they'd have to do what almost nobody they knew did. You can't use a few high performers who beat the odds as examples and say that proves there isn't a problem with the system. Your system is only working if it works for most people, if an "average" person can succeed in it. 

The same is true of police work. If an average cop has to do work that requires more than he can deliver, is the fault really with the officer? Or is the fault with a society that sets up an average police officer to fail? Have we tried to fix issues in our society with the cheap band-aid of police work, then ended up wringing our hands when our cheap fix doesn't work? 

We can criticize cops like this, but don't we all have days at our work like this? And don't most of us still succeed? Police work has to be such that an average officer can succeed at it, just like our work is. 

The effect of average cops on good ones

The police try to set themselves up so that an "average" officer can succeed through regulations and rules. There is a standard procedure for everything. But the procedures are meant for the mediocre police, and even more for the bad ones. For good police--and there are good ones, just like there are high performers in everything--the rules are just another impediment to doing work well. They're there because some dumb guy ruined it for everyone. We all face this in whatever work we do. Of the many things a good police officer likely has to deal with, bad co-workers are probably at the top of the list. 

I've heard a lot of people claiming that good police are just as complicit as bad ones if they don't spend their whole lives trying to stop the bad ones, but I don't find this realistic. It's one thing to report clear bad behavior when you see it, but trying to change an entire culture that's not really working (and does anyone work in a job where the culture doesn't seem set up to keep everyone from accomplishing the main objective?) is a lot to ask of someone. To be able to both perform well at one's core function in a system that makes it difficult, then also to pay attention to all the other bad performers who are a big reason why your job is so hard, well, that's something only the very best of humanity can accomplish. And we've already established that people like that are going to be rare in a police force. They're rare anywhere. We can't criticize cops for not being the superheroes our society has always claimed they are. The idea isn't to have a job only heroes can do. It's to set up the work so an average worker in that field can do it. Ideally, you'd like to have the average ones succeed while not messing everything up so the good ones can't do it better. 

That's the society people are really calling for when they're advocating for police reform. Not one in which police are unrealistically forced to be heroic everyday, but one where they can do the work needed at a sustainable level for the average person the police are capable of recruiting. This probably would mean fundamental change all over society. It could mean reimagining whole facets of civil society. It will almost certainly mean higher taxes. 

Simply calling for greater accountability won't cut it. That's like demanding your city's basketball team play better when I'm the point guard.  

Saturday, September 19, 2020

Pulled in too many directions

I've probably posted the "I'm done with writing" thing a half dozen times in the last few years, and so far, it's never stuck. This isn't that post, because I don't think it's going to stick now, either. This is just to let folks know why I'm not posting much nor will be posting much. 

About six years ago, when I wrote the first of a few "I quit" posts, I referred to a monumental decision I thought I'd made in my twenties, one I later repented of. I vowed then that I'd care more about making great art than about having a family, because anyone can have a family but only a rare few can make great art. Or something like that. I don't really know what I said, because the text in question no longer exists, which is probably for the good. I wrote a lot of strange things in the years after I got out of the Marine Corps. The Marines scrambled my brain a bit, and it took me a few years to get it scrambled back. 

Anyhow, what I'd decided by my thirties was that the "art first, family second" philosophy was morally bankrupt. I'm not totally sure what changed my mind. Maybe it was several things. For one, yes, the people who produce art are rarer than the people who produce human beings, but there's still plenty of art to go around. There's not a shortage of supply relative to demand. Or maybe it's just that I didn't want to be like William Faulkner, drinking on my daughter's birthday when she'd asked me not to because, "Nobody remembers Shakespeare's daughter." Or maybe I just thought that I have a limited time on Earth, and being good to the people around me is a more guaranteed way to use that time well than writing a novel is. Whatever the reason, while I have occasionally had to fudge family responsibilities in order to write, I've never forgotten that family is more important. If I write a novel people are still talking about in a thousand years but fail as a father, then I've wasted my time.

Given that those are the rules I've set up for myself, it's been really hard to find time to write. Not just write, really. Anyone can probably carve out a few hours a week to slap down some kind of prose. Finding time to write seriously is what's hard, meaning to not just write but read good writing, think about good writing, write about good writing, make drafts of my own writing that I strive to make as good as the best of what I'm reading. Maybe even participate in the literary community a bit and also pay attention to some advice on the best way to find places to publish what I've written. It's a lot. Professors are always grousing about not having time to write, which I understand, but it's family, not work, that is the real strain on a writer. 

I've avoided putting this out there for the public to see, but now that COVID-19 has all children in America home-schooling, I don't worry so much about it now. We pulled our son from school at the end of the 2018-2019 school year, and we've been home schooling him since. He was massively under-performing relative to what standardized tests said he should be able to do. A lot of it had to do with him being bored, and therefore not paying attention to what he was supposed to do, then when I emailed teachers to find out what he was supposed to be doing, not getting answers so I didn't know how to make sure he stayed on task. I figured however hard it would be to do it myself, at least I'd know what he his work was.

So for a year and half, when I get home from work, I spend a few hours working with him. He still doesn't do the greatest work for me, but occasionally, he does something that lets me know the lights are still on up there for him. I'm relatively certain he'll be able to pass a GED in a few months when he turns sixteen, and then he can be free to find his own path a little bit. At least, that's the dream. 

Until then, I'm still really straining to keep up. We can't work a full 5-6 hour day every day, so I have to settle for 2-3 hours days that we also do on weekends and holidays (and the summer). We just do a little bit every day, and in that manner, we've kept up with more or less a high school workload. 

Add to my family responsibilities that I have begun to feel lately that I haven't focused enough on my skill as a translator, meaning I've been reading Korean texts instead of fiction in English, and you can see why I don't feel like I'm really working as hard as I need to with writing to get anywhere. Yes, reading Korean literature is probably helpful to me as a writer, because it makes me think outside my own linguistic box, but it takes me a long time to get through Korean literature. My reading time is more than double in Korean what it is in English, and I'm not a fast reader in English. 

Which is why this is just to say I'm not really quitting, but since half-assing it isn't any better than quitting, I don't know what I'm doing with writing, either. I've had to stop my analyses of Pushcart stories. When Best American Short Stories come out in a few months, I don't know if I'll do those, either. 

That's a shame, because I really like doing it. I think it's an important contribution to the literary world, because there's a paucity of online resources for people to go to for help when they feel a little lost by the stories they read in the top anthologies. More than that, I know it's been good for my own fiction writing to focus so deeply on some of the best writing that's out there. Even when I don't like a story, that helps me refine my own ideas of what it is I do like and what I want to do as a writer. 

That's all just a long way of explaining why I haven't been around much and might not be for a while. Maybe it'll get better when the boy passes his GED. Or maybe I'm so into Korean things now, I never get back into writing. I don't know. I'll at least help the world to a gratuitous political rant now and again in the next few months, no doubt. 

It's been great how many people have tuned in for stuff I've written about short stories, especially BASS. Even if those folks just help themselves to an explanation or two and then run off without saying high, it's always great to me to see that a hundred or so folks stop by every day, mostly for short story explanations. Something I wrote became a part of the day of people I don't know. That makes me happy, and probably will never stop making me happy.  

Saturday, September 12, 2020

Cancel culture isn't new, but it does feel different

I lurk on a lot of writers on Twitter, usually to my own great sadness. Writing-community-Twitter isn't any less stupid than the rest of Twitter, and it's maybe even sadder to see certain social pathologies you'd expect of dumber people being repeated by those I'd hope would know better. There are exceptions. I'm happy to say Danielle Evans, who has written two of my top five favorite short stories I've looked at on this blog, has never written a dumb tweet. But a lot of people whose writing I admire or who are icons post ignorant stuff all the time. 

The subject of cancel culture comes up a lot on Twitter. The consensus of the writing community is that it's neither new nor a violation of anyone's rights. It's just, as a friend of mine put it the other day, "voting with your wallet with better alliteration." And in a sense, she's right. There have been books banned and records burned and tea dumped for a very long time. 

Something does feel different, though, about some cycles of cancellation that go on, and I think it's related to a more fundamental change in our culture. We have less tolerance now, I believe, for what my law school (that I attended for three weeks before dropping out) referred to as "things reasonable people might disagree on." 

There are a lot of terms in law where the definition seems a bit circular, but with no word is this more prevalent than "reasonable." Essentially, the definition of "reasonable" in law comes down to "thoughts or actions that reasonable people might hold or do." Well, how do you know if someone is reasonable, then? Because other reasonable people hold them to be so. It's one of the most frustratingly tautological merry-go-rounds I've ever experienced. 

The difficulty of defining the word doesn't mean we don't have some practical sense of what we mean by it, though. A belief is reasonable if one can explain why one believes it with inferences from facts. I take a pretty broad interpretation of reasonableness, at least for issues that concern shared life with others in a democracy. Beliefs I'd call "reasonable" include a lot of beliefs I think are pretty obviously false, but for which one can at least construct some kind of string of logic. For example, a Christian who thinks Christ literally rose from the dead, and who uses some form of apologetics to defend that belief. A more fundamentalist Christian who thinks the universe is 7,000 years old strains reasonableness a good deal further, but even then, I'm not sure I'm willing to say the person who believes such a thing could never be reasonable. There are probably Young Earthers out there who could score higher than I have on cognitive tests. I'm sure there are Young Earthers who make good doctors or engineers or mechanics, things that take a good deal of logical deduction. 

What I'm getting at is that there is a difference between an unreasonable belief and a belief I happen to think is wrong, even if I think it's really obvious it's wrong. In a civil society, we probably need to maintain a fairly broad view of what is reasonable to believe. 

Alas, I think we're headed in the opposite direction. People are tired of arguing for their views and having others reject them, so we're now much less tolerant of even countenancing the existence of those who think differently from us. Their very existence is an affront to us: We've given our best argument, and still they aren't convinced! Clearly, something is wrong with them!  

The latest "cancel Netflix" flare-up is a good example. Some people thought the movie sexualized young girls, while some critics loved it. Clearly, if people who make a living evaluating the quality of movies, people who have earned financial support from the community for their ability to evaluate those movies, think something had merit, then it is at least a reasonable thing to think it has merit. That doesn't mean they're right, only that they are not insane to think so. For someone who disagrees, the proper action is to raise your own argument that the movie sexualizes girls, not to demand that others take action. Calls to action should be reserved for clear wrongs, when something is going on that defies reason. A movie that reasonable people disagree about is not a place for such a call to action. 

A lot of people were especially upset about this ad for the movie. I can understand that, although there are girls this age sexualizing themselves much more flagrantly on Instagram. 

I suppose one could say that by such a standard, nobody would ever act on anything. One problem in the Internet age is that every belief, no matter how cockamamie, has its defenders. You can find YouTube channels full of people arguing for a flat Earth. Does that mean those people are reasonable, since they are at least arguing from logic, albeit badly, for their position? Should we not work to enact environmental legislation because some people out there produce "evidence" for why climate change is a hoax? 

That's essentially just saying, though, that defining reasonableness is hard. The existence of an argument doesn't guarantee reasonableness. But just because something is hard to identify doesn't mean it doesn't exist. That's why serious analysis of art is so useful, because it's all about terms--beauty, insight, excellence, hell, even whether a movie or book is "good"--that are difficult to define but that we understand in some way. Analysis of art teaches us how to think about these kinds of concepts, but in a sandbox environment where nobody gets hurt. We can then use what we learn from analyzing art to deal with real-world problems. 

The way to deal with the difficulty of establishing reasonableness is to patiently keep explaining one's view. That's what the best arguers do. A sign of someone who really knows something is that they are confident enough in what they believe that the existence of doubters does not trouble them. They don't need to call to get rid of doubters. 

All of American society seems to me to be acting a lot like the church youth group I was in as a teenager. We see those who think differently from us primarily as opportunities to evangelize, but once they reject our evangelism, our attitude is that we shouldn't cast our pearls before swine, that we should come out and be separate from them. What we have, then, is a nation intellectually balkanized into camps that not only don't talk to each other, that just don't like each other. 

The stupidest comment I've seen on writing Twitter lately was this: "Do Republicans even write poetry?" As if a moderate Republican who generally thinks market-based solutions are preferable to government-directed ones is incapable of being dumbstruck by the sublime. If it's true that conservatives don't appear much in the poetry world now, that says more to me about problems with the poetry world than it does about Republicans. 

If we think those who disagree with us are so fundamentally broken they can't even understand and love poetry, how can we ever respect one another enough to run something as complicated as a democracy?