Saturday, February 26, 2011

Six Video Game Concepts We Need

One thing that's been really interesting is watching the way certain video game concepts have become a part of our normal discourse. Among my friends and family, if I say that a particular exercise or a certain task "leveled me up," they know what that means: a sudden burst of personal growth brought about by experience. This one hasn't quite reached critical mass in the public at large, I think, but if you describe something as a "power-up" that has a similar meaning, right? Only in that case it would usually refer to a consumable or wearable item that improves your abilities in a temporary way.

This is all very cool, but I think there are a lot of useful video game concepts that haven't reached popular awareness, but should. Here are the beginnings of a list (I will likely think of more):

1. Hammer Bros. Suit

What is the hammer bros. suit? In Super Mario Bros. 3, there are a number of power-ups that take the form of little outfits. The tanuki suit (or raccoon suit, if you're not cool and Japanese) lets you prolong your jumps with your raccoon tail, fly with your raccoon tail, and also become a statue for some reason. The frog suit is good for swimming and terrible for everything else. The power flower gives you fire, in addition to changing the color of your outfit. However, once you get the hammer bros. suit, there's really no going back, for reasons best described by the video above.

What the term "hammer bros. suit" should refer to: Any possession or version of a thing that makes everything else look like shit by comparison. It's not just the best thing, it's the only one you'll ever want once you've tried it. Hammer bros. suit could improve our discourse by replacing "pure crack" in many cases, because -- like most of the things we use "pure crack" to describe -- the suit won't kill you.

Use it in a sentence: "The new John Deer riding mower is the hammer bros. suit of lawn-mowing solutions," or, "Kobe beef is the hammer bros. suit of edible cowflesh," or, "Once you go hammer bros. suit, you never go back." 

2. Sewer Level

What is a sewer level? Sewer levels are constantly included in RPGs, and it's not clear why. On the one hand, sewers are just about the only thing in modern life that looks much like an actual dungeon, but on the other hand, no sewer level has ever been fun. They're sometimes used as training grounds (i.e., Final Fantasy XII) and sometimes as the backdrop for a wildly implausible and tedious murder mystery (Xenogears [which, by the way, has several sewer levels]) but they are never, ever less than tedious. 

What the term "sewer level" should refer to: A genre convention or tradition that brings no pleasure, being included simply because it's the way things are done.

Use it in a sentence: "Men in Black II was pure sewer level, dude." Or, "That presentation was totally joyless: one awful sewer level after another.

3. Water Temple

What is a water temple? A water temple is a specific case of the sewer level: a genre convention that not only isn't fun, but has become actively painful. This is named for the water temple in Legend of Zelda:  The Ocarina of Time, a stupidly elaborate puzzle level that made no sense, hated you, and -- if you made a mistake -- often had to be completely restarted.

What the term "water temple" should refer to: A genre convention or tradition so rancid, it actually degrades the quality of human life by its very existence.

Use it in a sentence: "The water temple of female circumcision must end -- cultural relativism need not blind us to the occasional flagrant stupidity of other people."

4. Grinding

What is grinding? If you understand the concept of "leveling up," grinding should come pretty easy: in many a poorly-designed RPG, there comes a point where you have to walk your guy around in circles, fighting the same three monsters again and again, in order to grind for experience, which is, in turn, how you grind for levels. You have to do this because the game was poorly balanced. You can also grind for money, grind potions, grind whatever: the point is that you do a boring, repetitive task for an unreasonable amount of time, often to get something you don't really need.

What the term "grinding" should refer to: Life is also poorly balanced, which means that we frequently find ourselves grinding. The term probably comes, in fact, from the concept of "the daily grind" -- most jobs being, after all, a boring, repetitive task performed for hours at a time in hopes of winning money and health insurance. It should be easy, then, to popularize the more general use of the term: one can grind for knowledge, for money, for fruit, for whatever.

Use it in a sentence: "Man, I been grinding math all night," or, "Hook-up artists believe in grinding women. And I don't mean that in the obvious sense, though also, I do."

5. Warp Zone

What is a warp zone? A warp zone is, in Mario games, a secret room full of shortcuts: arguably the first warp zone is in world 1, level 2 of the original Super Mario Bros., where you can run on top of the level's ostensible ceiling at the level's end to find three pipes, each of which will allow you entry to the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th worlds respectively. Warp zones are more about who you know than what you can do, because they historically rely more on gossip (first on the playground, now online) than skill. 

What the term "warp zone" should refer to: In other words, the warp zone is a perfect metaphor for the vortexes of nepotism and naked social climbing that exist just behind the scenes in nearly every human organization: once you find a way in, you can bypass years of effort and training. However, without this preparation, you are often under-prepared and overwhelmed, as when Mario goes to World 4 too soon.

Use it in a sentence: "The young man's private dinners with his employer became a warp zone to success: however, his new opportunities would soon prove overwhelming."

6. Konami Code

What is the Konami code? Simply put, the Konami code is what makes it possible to beat Konami games, especially the notoriously difficult Contra series. Using this code in Konami games generally unlocks gigantic numbers of lives and other perks. If the (totally awesome) abdominal tattoo above isn't clear enough for you, the code is: up up down down left right left right b a start. This code also works in a number of other places where geeks have power, such as Facebook -- because, as this article makes clear, nerds like to pretend we are always playing a video game.

What the term "Konami code" should refer to: Any brief, easily-expressed bit of knowledge that could make the seemingly impossible entirely possible. For instance, bear survival tips! (If you see a polar bear, give him a Coke!)

Use it in a sentence: "Never use Comic Sans MS in a professional context: this is a Konami code for life."

Friday, February 25, 2011

Women Who Write: Elizabeth Alexander

There are two talented women who write named Elizabeth Alexander. There is the one who delivered a poem at Obama's inauguration, and there is another, also a poet, also a fiction writer, and writer of many odd things that bend their genre. Here is an excerpt from her piece "Second Comings" in Prick of the Spindle

I had been warned by Mrs. Shirley, who taught me everything. She showed me how to bait a fishing hook, feign attention in Sunday School, and transfer a rabbit decal onto a dyed blue egg. In high school, when I pounded on her kitchen door flushed and hysterical, she drew me a bubble bath, wrapped me in a soft white towel that smelled of cloves, and took me to be fitted for a diaphragm. She persuaded Anne to keep it quiet. In 1996, after what we feared would be the last free election, Mrs. Shirley and I took a walk in Lemon Park. 
“Have some.” Mrs. Shirley tapped my arm with a silver flask. “When they come again—” she warned. 
They who?” I interrupted. 
“A tyrant’s minions. 
“They won’t be wearing tall black boots. They won’t be carrying shiny black batons. They won’t have swastikas on their sleeves.” 
“Then how—?” I asked. 
“Not by appearance, my darling. They’ll look like you.”

Prick of the Spindle Vol. 2.3 / 2008

Curio's conclusion.

Guys, today's story -- "Stickers" -- is the last part of Curio. It's a good one.

It's been tremendous fun posting these stories over the last several weeks, and I'm proud Curio is the first thing we got to publish. Its broad range, its frothy mixture of styles and tones, makes for an always-surprising reading experience. Laura also has a novel coming out fairly soon, so keep your eye on this space for more info on that -- it sounds like a lot of fun.

Next up real soon will be Sutherland Douglass, and then after that Gabriel Blackwell. Hope you'll stick around. But in the mean time, do read Curio, and do tell your friends.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Dumbest. Game. Ever.


Stuff like this makes you question, on a fundamental level, if anyone else is actually having sex. I mean honestly, if you have to resort to this sort of nonsense -- with three other sexy young singles! -- to make it happen, it's probably just not going to happen.

I wish I could be in the room the first time some dude actually surprises his girlfriend with this. "I've got something I think you're going to like," he says, wiggling his eyebrows. He pulls out the game. "Now," he says, "let's put this Wiimote down your pants." PROBABLY THAT WILL END WELL, AM I RGHT LADIES.

As this old Seanbaby article reminds us, sexy video games have always been, well, completely terrible. Likely the only game anyone actually found sexy was Rez, for which you could get a little vibrating doohickey. As you played the game, it vibrated. There weren't any retarded apple-eating contests where you had to pretend to get off on rubbing your face against a sweaty controller, and the game itself didn't even acknowledge what you were up to. Have to imagine it felt like you were getting away with something -- which is all for the best, because there is probably nothing less exciting than Nintendo-endorsed sex.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Women Who Write: Corinna Vallianatos

It turns out that bloggers and journalists have come up with a very striking answer to the problem of the publishing gender gap: Lady Journos! is a blog maintained by Ann Friedman that highlights the work of women journalists so that editors can find them, hire them, spread their work, et cetera. I've decided I'm going to embark on a similar crusade, first here at Uncanny Valley, then perhaps on a separate blog, to enable easier searching and browsing. 

This project has a secondary effect of getting me to read more magazines, which is a personal project I am desperately behind on. Today I'm starting with Issue #19 of The Collagist, which I've been meaning to read anyway to find out what sort of company Mike's essay is in. This first excerpt is from Corinna Vallianatos's story "Posthumous Fragments of Veronica Penn":
1999. Laundry in the washing machine. Dishes in the sink. Everything had a place where it was, and a place it should be. Dirt on the sills, dun-colored gluey mucus ringing Sylvie’s eyes. The dog looked at her, Veronica thought, reproachfully. The fur on her muzzle had gone all white. Easy to read her aging as acquiescence, each day undoing the day before. Franklin was on prostate medication that made him dizzy if he stood up quickly. Veronica’s lower abdomen had become a roadmap of veins which bulged softly from beneath her skin. The grass was ragged at the borders of the lawn. The sky threatened complete closure. Dinner was Franklin’s fried salmon and sweet potatoes to the staccato roar of the television. There was pleasure in this because it was simple, because she risked no exposure or embarrassment. Franklin cursed at the people on the screen, female newscasters in particular, and no one but Veronica could hear. Auditory head-banging. Vitriol. It offended her, but she was so thankful that she was the only one offended it was nearly okay. After tidying up the kitchen, a special on PBS. A comfortable chair. She wasn’t too proud to admit it. There was pleasure in this.

The Collagist, Issue 19 / February 2011

"The state owns everything right up to the line."

Story 20 in Curio, the second to last, is "Crimson," a quick one, a sharp one.

Just one more. Look out Friday.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

What Publishers Can Do.

A lot of people are finding their way here now as a result of my post on self-publishing, which is gratifying. Something I touched on a little, and which I think is central to this issue, is the question of how publishers can retain relevance as self-publishing becomes a more attractive option. As I argued previously, you don't see a lot of really great writers going for self-publishing because if you're all that great, someone likely wants to publish you, which is stil pretty advantageous.

However, as authors build audiences on the investments of those publishers (or, sometimes, the lack thereof) it's likely to happen more and more often that they realize they can go it alone and, by taking on a little additional risk, gain significant control of their work. Especially as computerization simplifies the logistics of making and selling books (print and electronic), a process that is only gaining momentum and still has a long way to go, this option will inevitably become more appealing for many mid-tier writers (in terms of fame) who have strong followings, but whose publishers are not, presently, making them rich. I think we're going to see more and more authors building credibility by publishing with mainstream houses in the short term and then striking out on their own after several publications.

If you're a publisher, how do you stay relevant? Well, of course the most important job in front of you is the same as it's always been: curating quality content. People call this "gatekeeping" but let's think of it not as a subtractive proposition, but as adding value. Publishers provide the service of helping pair writers with readers. However, many publishers currently curate in a very silly way: they pick up a menu of books from a variety of categories currently deemed marketable, then spray those books at the market like sperm, praying that one or two will impregnate the blockbuster ovum. This is, in many ways, a Hollywood model, but it doesn't work for Hollywood and it especially doesn't work for books. Shareholders demand growth, and growth is possible, but mostly the sort of slow, steady, sustainable growth that reflects readers' growing interest. (Yes, readers are more engaged than they were previously. We'll talk more about that some other time, but it does seem to be true.)

Some will frame this issue as a question of publishers refusing to take the best books. I'm not sure this is a smart way to look at it -- I think that generally, the best books are being published. The second-best books may sometimes fall through the cracks if they happen to be second-best in a challenging category, and this is an important issue, but it's not likely that your book is so great nobody will buy it. In fact, I would describe the issue more as paying insufficient attention to the marketplace. As I've written here before, most content providers are concerned with pleasing the majority of potential readers. This is, however, a very bad way to make money, especially as social networks and online word of mouth become your most important gateway to readers. If your book is designed to engage the average person, it's not going to passionately engage that many actual people. And actual people are now who sell  your book -- they are your Amazon reviewers, your Facebook status updaters, and so on. They are, as they have always been, human beings who lend your book to other human beings. Again, I've written about this before, but if you could sell a book to 1% of the population, that would be a huge deal. The strategy as it stands is too often to throw your book at enough people that 1% of the population might just maybe pick it up. We should be targeting specific, passionate readers who will love the specific writers we're publishing and the books they're writing.

Our friend and occasional contributor Gabriel Blackwell is a perfect example of this (hopefully he won't mind me using him this way). He's got a book manuscript about, in a general sense, the detective fiction of writers like Ross Macdonald, Dashiel Hammet, and Raymond Chandler. The book is really interesting and smart and entertaining, and it's enriched considerably by knowledge of these other works, which can also at times make it a little difficult. A smart publisher should pick this book up. A stupid publisher would look at that synopsis and think, "Shit, how are we supposed to sell a smart, challenging book that trades on knowledge of 1940s detective fiction?" A smart publisher will, at some point, think of it this way: "Awesome, we can sell this to the smart, fun-loving fans of Ross Macdonald, Dashiel Hammet, and Raymond Chandler who enjoy somewhat challenging fiction!" That is not the book's only audience, but it is a clearly defined audience, and one that could be found and communicated with, both in print and online. Seriously, "niche titles" will market themselves in competent hands.

So part of what publishers need to be able to do is to provide smart marketing to their authors. It may be that publishers end up increasingly in the business of launching bright new talents. This would be a good business! It ought to be a core competency of publishers, but generally it isn't: they want writers to bring a reputation with them. But if they can do that, it's increasingly going to become natural for them to just publish themselves, depriving publishers of prime opportunities.

Publishers also need to learn to make attractive books. This is especially an issue for indie presses. I often see indie publishing folk talking as if the mainstream presses have a problem with this, but by and large (outside the mass paperback market) that's simply not the case: typographically, texturally, the books of mainstream presses look better. They have better designs (though not always equally interesting designs), and they use better materials. To some extent this is inevitable! But I get really frustrated with paying full price for tiny, chintsy books with covers that might as well be laminated card stock. I can deal with it in a magazine, but when I see a novel that isn't gorgeous I feel just terrible for its author. One of the reasons mainstream presses are so attractive to me for my current novel, when it's totally polished and ready to submit, is that it's a long book and I want to be sure it's bound properly. I want to be sure it has nice paper and a fairly protective cover.

When print-on-demand services start offering "quality paperback" services, this will of course improve the situation.

I think that generally speaking people know they need to learn InDesign, they know they need to make a readable book. I do not think that people are as successful in this as they could be.

And but the largest thing, the most important thing that I was trying to get at before, is they need to make writers feel less alone (to the extent their writers want that). If you've got four writers working with your press, they need to be encouraged to talk with each other. They need to be encouraged to share ideas, to read each other's work, to grow together. To help each other revise and invent. We've tried, mainly through the blog but also in other ways, to foster this sort of community with Uncanny Valley. I think partly because we don't have a print issue out yet, this hasn't gone as far as I might like it to. But certainly I feel more community among our contributors than I ever have as a contributor to most other magazines. Great art is generally produced by members of communities, I think -- communities that grow and challenge themselves and collaborate and love one another, communities that provide moral support. This is the number one thing I think editors often neglect to foster, and it would not be that hard to change.

As I said before, I want to feel less alone. Often the work that I publish is read by exactly three people before it goes out: Me, my wife, and an editor. Maybe a team of editors, who rarely speak with me in much detail about the work. Once it's published, I sometimes hear from a few of those who read it. I sometimes don't. I don't want perpetual workshop, but I do want productive friendships. If you are reading this now, I would probably like e-mail from you. About writing, reading, editing, whatever. I want to be close to you, or at least to have the chance. I want writers and readers who will help me grow as I transition from the MFA, and into my professional career.

Finally, and this is also about loneliness, publishers need to edit their manuscripts collaboratively and dilligently. My impression is that mainstream and indie presses alike are terrible at this. Certainly I've found no strong connection between the "fame" of a literary magazine and their willingness to edit my work. Some of them do it, some of them don't. When I publish without real editorial help, I get extremely nervous. It makes me worry that my work is weaker than it could be with help, that the editor has published me because it was easy, not because he or she really wanted to. Yes, editing is time-consuming and it might mean you have to publish fewer authors. But a lot of publishers -- periodicals especially -- likely need to do that.

These are some thoughts from someone who often talks big from a position of relative ignorance. They are guessed, not edicts. I would like to hear other guesses, as well.

Some Dates Worth Remembering

October 16, 1916: George F. Johnson announces the policy of a 40-hour workweek in his factories.

August 18, 1920: Tennessee narrowly ratifies the Nineteenth Amendment, granting women the vote.

July 21, 1925: John T. Scopes found guilty of unlawfully teaching evolution in the so-called Scopes Monkey Trial, though the verdict would be overturned on a technicality.

July 5, 1935: The NLRB is established.

July 16, 1945: The first test detonation of a nuclear bomb, called "the Gadget."

August 6, 1945: Birth of MLB pitcher John Alexander "Andy" Messersmith.

1952: The year the Hershey-Chase experiments were conducted, demonstrating DNA was the genetic material.

May 17, 1954: The Warren Court finds segregated public schools unconstitutional.

February 19, 1963: Publication of Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique.

July 2, 1964: The Civil Rights Act of 1964 is signed into law by President Johnson.

1969: Alfred Hershey and Martha Chase win the Nobel for their findings re: DNA.

1970: California Gov. Ronald Reagan signs the first law legalizing no-fault divorce in a US state.

1973: Publication of Kurt Vonnegut Jr.'s Breakfast of Champions.

September, 1983: Atari buries thousands of game cartridges in a New Mexico landfill, especially E.T. the Extraterrestrial.

May 22, 1985: Release of Rambo: First Blood Part II.

September 11, 2001: Release of Mariah Carey's Glitter.

October 15, 2010: No-fault divorce becomes legal in all 50 states and the District of Columbia.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Control II

People feel more comfortable talking about video games than they do playing them, perhaps because the identification between player and character in a good game is so complete: there are people who can't make Mario jump without jumping a little themselves, raising the controller rapidly or sitting up a little straighter. It hampers their play -- it's hard to jump as often as Mario requires when you have to do it yourself, too -- but they can't help it, indeed don't even seem to know it's happening. 

Recently I guess an instructor at my school told a student that video games didn't have narrative. I don't know that you could actually believe that if you'd ever played a game. I don't even mean RPGs or text adventures or whatever, which are in some ways the weakest arguments for games as stories, relying as they do on techniques cribbed from other genres, storytelling less than organic to the form of games. But when someone presses the jump button, and then they also jump -- if you don't look on that with total envy as a writer, I'm not sure why you're writing.

When you jump to make Mario jump, you are evincing a lack of control over your own body. The game has successfully connected you with Mario to the point that when his body leaps, so must yours. You can't help it. I'm not generally the sort of person who jumps to make Mario jump -- something about it always disturbed me, and of course its inefficiency can become a problem for high-level play. I am the sort of person who, deep-down, worries about "high-level play." And yet when I played the original Metroid -- easily the most involving game of my childhood -- I distinctly remember the panic of falling into the lava, and the way I would jerk my arms in their sockets, tilting right and sort of throttling the controller, as I urged Samus out of the burning river. I was so desperate to save her.

They call it a "controller." Video games are supposed to be, like super hero comics, about control. Power fantasies, we call them. And you can't deny that this is an element in many games, especially today's popular shooters. You don't play as Master Chief to feel powerless. And yet the most memorable moments in gaming, as in comics, are often about the loss of control. The only part of Chrono Cross I clearly remember is the moment wherein my character switched bodies with his enemy, Lynx, such that I became Lynx, and was forced to fight my own party, including my own -- the protagonist's own -- body. I don't remember how that situation was resolved, but I do remember the wonderful panic of that moment, feeling my identification slide from one body to the other, the chill as it snapped into place. I remember watching Aeris die in Final Fantasy VII. I had seen this happen in battle, and simply revived her with a phoenix down -- a common item, if a little costly. For some reason Cloud, my character, did not revive her with a phoenix down. Instead he dropped her in the water and watched her float away. In the absence of my control, a character could die. Most people played FF7 primarily for the moments where they lost control: the cut-scenes, the story sequences, wherein their input was substantially irrelevant or not required at all. Those were supposed to be the best parts, and the moments of failure have lived on in fandom's memory with far more clarity and power than the moments of control. No one seems to care that Cloud likely scored with Tifa. They pine after the dead girl -- the one who got away.

This is like the way every great superhero's total catharsis comes, or is meant to come, in the moment of his death (female superheroes rarely merit such an ending, apparently; they are more likely to be raped, or if murdered, murdered off-screen, so that their male counterpart's reaction to the death provides the drama). The only thing I remember about the character Solar, a thoroughly B-grade hero from the probably-defunct 1st Comics imprint, is the time his evil counterpart skewered him, disassembled his body, and ate it, ending with a hand. "I killed Solar!" he shouted. Presumably Solar came back within an issue or two -- I never found out. Superman's death was of course a more momentous occasion, as was the breaking of Batman's spine. By now the pattern has been undermined significantly -- when Batman actually died, we knew he would be back, and when Captain America was shot to death, we knew again that his return would not take long. Comics fans resent these false deaths even as they understand that were Superman to actually die and stay down, they would be furious. The tension between the desire for control and the desire to be conquered is too much; comics attempt both and so often achieve neither.

In a video game, most people do not see the game's ending. In older games, your last encounter with the adventure probably ended in death, in the spending of all your lives. In modern games, death is less common -- I died many times in Uncharted 2, but only a few times in Fallout, which is ostensibly a game about the apocalypse, and never died, that I can recall, in Assassin's Creed. Triple-A games are polished to the point, these days, where anyone can beat the game if they are willing to devote enough time. There is a narrative of triumph that requires only your devotion -- not skill, but time. We know even if we don't finish the game that the ending is happy -- that canonically, we stand triumphant, and when the sequel arrives, it will assume we beat the first, though we probably did not.

Still, the most authentic experience of even today's games is one replete with failure. Failure to jump the chasm, failure to shoot the enemy, failure to find sufficient cover, failure to understand a puzzle. We can only triumph once. Failure is available to us as many times as we need it.

Metroid was so absorbing because you were an astronaut going up against a planet. Everything there, including the planet itself, wanted you dead. The menace was incredible. The coldness, the isolation. Even at your strongest, the fight with Mother Brain was hopelessly awkward, seemingly impossible -- there is no way to play that fight and not look stupid, feel slow. There are times you are required to go into the lava or acid. The tension between your desire to master the game and its difficulty is what makes the game fun. 

We talk about power fantasies as if they were necessarily bad or boring things. And often they are both. And yet to call Metroid a simple power fantasy would be to miss the point: you spend the game terrified, if you are like me. Rather, Metroid is optimistic about human ingenuity, about the player's ability to learn and grow. It is a game that posits the possibility of mastery, of victory. As I grow older, I become more excited about more difficult games, wherein triumph can only follow weeks, months, or years of effort and study. What I want is to triumph over a system as complicated and frightening as the real world, I think. So I guess I want control. But more importantly, I want to earn it.

Saturday, February 19, 2011


So one reason the blog has been a little more quiet lately is Tracy and I are daily attending the rehearsals of two one-act plays we wrote. Hers is about a girl who wants to be a mime, and mine is about a cruel, sometimes violent interview process. We've been working on them off and on for about a year -- two semesters ago, we wrote the plays under the supervision of Mark Medoff in his playwriting class. At the end of that semester there were readings of all the one-act plays by genuine, actual actors in an actual theater, which process involved many rewrites. Later, Mark asked Tracy and I and two others if we would like to present our plays, fully produced, in a year's time. We said yes.

The resulting schedule is hectic -- one month from yesterday is the deadline for turning in our finalized theses, and in my case I would like to have it in a week early so that the committee has time to read my little monster -- but the process is exciting. I wanted to take some time out -- because it's early and I haven't got the energy to do anything else just yet -- to reflect on the process of collaborating with four human beings directly and some several dozen indirectly on the creation and staging of a play.

I've yearned desperately for a collaborator for years, of course -- I suspect many writers who are not hopelessly introverted often do. What I have always wanted first and foremost is to make a comic. I wanted an artist to work with on the comic because I am not a great artist and also because I'm a neurotic artist; I am given to destroying my own work. But I also wanted to cede some control over the creation of a story. The part of me that destroys my art is not that different from the part of me, the part which I've suppressed, which judges my prose. It is identical to the part that judges (and often destroys, or relegates to hidden folders) my poetry. It is partly a function of inexperience. As I gain facility in a kind of work, I learn to quiet the part of me that judges the work too harshly, because gradually my increasing mastery allows me to make something that is not merely a function of my personality and failings and so on. Something that exists outside myself.

However, even as mastery increases, this judgmental part of me continues to tear at the work, to abuse it -- it's still talking, I'm just listening less often. It makes me very anxious at times. And it makes me very lonely. It is isolating. It tells me that I am alone, that no one can understand this writing, that no one would like it if they understood. This is, after all, how I see myself. And so to the extent that my art is inevitably a function of me at some level, I am doomed to hate it. Collaboration is a way to get out of that place.

We wrote the plays, as I say, in Mark Medoff's class. The way Mark teaches his classes is very interesting, and we had already taken his screenwriting course, so we knew that it worked and that we should have faith in it. You begin the semester by bringing in two one-sentence pitches for a script. He tells you, after some discussion with you and with the class, which one you're going to do. This immediately takes the work out of your hands, to some extent, and objectifies it, makes it something outside you. For the rest of the class, you bring new pages in weekly -- say five, whatever you can do -- and revise your old pages according to the discussion from the last week. Sometimes Mark will out and out tell you what to do about a particular problem, up to and including providing new directions for the plot. So, occasionally, will the other writers in the class. The class also reads the new pages aloud so that the writer can hear it, which means that every time you hear dialog that seems false or long or slack you are revising it, even as the "cast" goes on reading.

This sounds potentially dictatorial but it isn't. For one thing, Mark will more or less tell you exactly what to do, but he knows that often you won't do it. He's a writer too, and probably more of a control-freak than the average member of our notoriously controlling tribe. He also isn't trying to push you toward a particular aesthetic, generally; what he wants is to make the script readable and the play watchable. What you do to fit those criteria will reflect who you are and what you love. And, really, Mark is a pro: I tried, whenever possible, to do what he said, because his expertise is real.

Having people intervene in something while you're writing it is probably many writers' idea of hell, and certainly I couldn't always work that way, but it was often wonderfully liberating. The question becomes less "what do I want?" and more "how can this work?" Which is, generally, a more productive question, and one that leads to less savage self-criticism. Because, again, it isn't about you. The play I wrote in that class has little in common with what I would have written on my own, but it's also much better. I think that ultimately the process is a little too collaborative to produce the sort of singular works of beauty I want to make, but internalizing that process, making it a part of your way of thinking, seems very valuable to me. And certainly I want to continue bringing others into my writing -- only, in general, I want to do it a little later, once I've figured out a little better what I'm doing.

Now that we're producing the play fully, I find myself revising. Not as much as I expected -- the first time we did a public reading, the prep led to many jokes being added, many new beats, many subtractions and alterations -- but still, plenty. I rewrote the second scene, the actors hated the rewrite, I combined it with the original second scene, they loved that version. We make periodic tweaks to the lines -- last night I probably made them crazy when I realized it should be "intra-office affairs" and not "inter-office affairs," and sometimes reorder them, reassign them, or sneak in additional jokes and plot details suggested by the actors, the director. I don't love all of the additions equally, but generally speaking if they ask to amend the text I agree to it, keeping a separate file for this version of the play, from which I will later pull my favorite revisions, which will be added to the original script. Am I planning to have the play performed elsewhere? Probably not, ultimately -- I see it as very much the confluence of this community, these personalities, and if I were to take it somewhere else I'm not sure it would survive the change of atmosphere. But I still go through this process of revision-by-performance, hoping to learn, to internalize, for my next play. The other night someone suggested an idea for a novel I've been carrying with me for years might work better as a play, and I think he was right. I'm looking forward to trying it out.

The most exciting changes come in the performances themselves, of course. The actors and director have added many physical bits, many particular readings, which alter the text not at all or very slightly, and so do not require my "permission." (Of course I would honestly prefer never to be asked permission: I like to watch them do what they will with the play.) There's a bit where I describe a character as doing hand-puppets -- all I meant was that he would make his hands talk to each other as if they were puppets. This part now involves his actually using puppets. He sinks back behind his desk and uses it as a stage as they talk to each other. He also spends a lot of time climbing up on the desk -- the one abuse of his environment I never considered in the writing of a script that derives much of its energy from the way its antagonist gradually destroys the stage.

There came a point early on where the actress playing the ostensible hero asked me about my intent for a part of one scene. I told her honestly that I didn't know what my intent was or could have been: the play was written such that the decisions weren't really made in that way. How wonderful, to escape the tyranny of one's own intent. 

Friday, February 18, 2011

I like the comic Three Word Phrase by Ryan Pequin.

I like this one about a Slip 'n' Slide.

I like this one about bleach.

I like this one about a pirate.

I like this one about President Bird.

I like this one about Self-Confident Skeleton.

I like this one about how no one likes you.

Also this one about pincecones.

Another sexy one.

I like a lot of them is I guess what I'm saying.

Old Sport

Okay, yes, everyone has seen this video game adaptation of The Great Gatsby, but I keep coming back to it. Tuesday night I went to the release party for Orlando startup publisher Burrow Press's first fiction project, Fragmentation, and discussed the game with local writers Tod Caviness and J. Bradley. Sarah called while I ate appetizers full of strange meats and tomatoes and told me she was playing the game, with trouble. "There's jumping," she said. She is not great at jumping in video games. Who is? Anyway that night I went home and played it myself. You leap around, dapper in your brown vest and more dapper in your powered-up gold suit, flinging your hat at butlers and flappers, and after you find Gatsby at the close of the first level's courtyard you transport to a boxcar train plowing through the Valley of Ashes, at the end of which you face off against an enormous pair of floating spectacles. Well, my patience ran out about there.

The game includes only a tiny bit of dialogue, in the style of old NES games, and the first we get is something like, "Good job, old sport!" The "promotional materials" offer a little more in the way of colorful writing ("You're not in the middle west anymore, son. Welcome to Wild West Egg.") and repetitions of the "old sport" phrase. What a strange, wonderful phrase. I began and (sort of, probably) abandoned an endeavor to deploy it in casual conversation and record the results. I even wrote a poem called "Old Sport," in which the speaker is the video game caricature of Nick Carroway, and would post it here except that maybe I'll actually send it out into the world.

Of course, in the context of Fitzgerald's novel the phrase immediately makes us think of Gatsby, and I wondered what other recognizable dialogue fingerprints are floating around in books. Do authors go into new projects with clearly allocated phrases for each character? Do they hear each voice clear and bright before it even touches pages, or do they go back through chapters of dead dry speech and punch it up with weird turns, awkward fumbles, new cadences? I would love to answer this question for myself but I've used every technique I can think of to angle my characters' speech, and keep developing new ones. I know in one recent project I got to the end and thought, This woman says "I mean" too much. But I mean, I know people who say that in almost every conversation. Is it better to keep the dialogue true, or artful, or balanced? I don't know. There is no answer, only endless voices, endlessly messed-with wording, syntax.

"His thinking was that she might ignore a generic call for help. He didn’t think to call her name."

"First Anniversary" is one of the longer stories in Curio. Only one week of stories left to go. I hope you've been enjoying these as much as we have.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Evan Lavender-Smith's AVATAR

So on the flight to AWP I got my hands on an advance copy of Evan Lavender-Smith's novel Avatar. I had known of the novel's existence for some time, and its impending publication, and was aware of its premises -- the story's premise, in terms of the idea of a protagonist-narrator who is floating between two points of light that may be stars, and the premise of the language: this is a novel without punctuation. Meaning no periods, meaning no commas, no quotation marks, no apostrophes, no anything. There are also no paragraph breaks. 

I consider Evan a friend and a mentor and I have tremendous respect for him as a writer, but I'll admit I always regarded the prospect of this conceit with some skepticism. While it's only half-accurate to describe the book as being one long sentence, certainly this is the intended impression -- and, well, I'll admit I've gotten a little bored of books that aim to exist as one sentence. A lot of the edgy experimental writer types (including me!) have played with the idea and I'm honestly not convinced that it's ultimately that interesting. There's a wonderful tension in the ending of one sentence and the beginning of another, in the space between these things, and I don't think what you gain by writing one big long sentence will generally make up for the loss of that tension. But this, I think, gets at what makes it work out so well in Avatar.

Because grammatically this is not designed to be read as one sentence. It doesn't tell you when to stop (or another way of looking at it is that it doesn't give you explicit permission to stop) but the syntax is such that the effect is like reading many interlocking, overlapping sentences. The novel opens with these words:
they were my friends for a great number of years they were my greatest friends they floated alongside me to keep me company they were the first great friends I made here I would awaken from sleep I would awaken after a night of sleep or after a day of sleep I would awaken to find my tears still floating at my side I would be overjoyed upon awakening having opened my eyes to find thousands of tears thousands of old friends still faithfully floating alongside 
And it continues in this fashion until the novel has finished. Notice that these clauses have not been designed such that you are meant to experience them as one sentence. In fact they come in uncommonly small, discrete syntactical units that very strongly suggest pauses and rhythm and breathing and voice and order in the way that punctuation is expected to do. "They were my friends for a great number of years" is a sentence. So is "They were my greatest friends." So is "They floated alongside me to keep me company." Or rather they have all the grammatical properties of sentences, of complete clauses and thoughts, such that on reading them you can register them and understand. And yet there is more -- so that you have to determine where to pause, where to breathe, what the tone is, the relationships between ideas and images and so on. The tension normally associated with the place between one sentence and the next is present in every word of the text. You have to read very actively merely to understand the thing at all. But if you want to understand it, you will. This is a lovely formal technique for forcing an audience to work for an empathetic connection with a narrative. On Monday I saw Evan read from the book, and it was striking how he rendered the language: not as a drone, not as a drumbeat, but as a series of thoughts in a variety of registers, tones, rhythms, voices. The narrator has to maintain his own sanity without the relief of any sort of interruption. This is what loneliness is about. The reader must do the same.

This is a novel that does wonderful things with breath -- that makes you take control of your breathing. It's a novel that requires your total attention. It is completely absorbing.

It has, I think, one of the stronger logics of plot I've seen in a novel in my recent reading. Evan begins by introducing a series of objects or words, and then these are returned to one by one until they have all been exhausted, at which point the book begins again. In a book with one character, delivered in a mode that seems antithetical to plot, we begin with a central tension and we end with that tension. In fact I knew at the book's outset more or less how it would end. This is, in other words, unlike so many in the avant-garde, a book that encourages your participation -- that is designed for use. It is physically designed for use (its small size and generous white space are ideal for its style) and its language is designed for use. Even when I wasn't sure about the language, I was sure about the premise -- a man floating alone through space, a great idea -- and the premise is carried through in the language, is genuinely the novel's commitment.

Which is, I think, what sets Evan's work apart from so many experimental writers. That he goes beyond the form of the thing. He spoke about this Monday, the way that so often formally interesting work becomes only formally interesting; the difficulty of connecting emotionally with some Calvino works, for instance. He talked about how badly he wanted to move past that and into something deeply affecting. Avatar succeeds in this. It is, in addition to being one of the smartest books I've read in a long time, one of the most engaging to me as a human being, as a body, as a lonely creature. It is, quite honestly, beautiful, and I hope it finds all the success it deserves. You should maybe go buy it.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

A. D. Jameson: Amazing Adult Fantasy

Been looking forward to this one, but right now I don't have time for any extracurricular reading, so somebody buy it and tell me how it is.

"A D Jameson, lost and innocent, narcissistic and corrupted, has been dreaming his way through the past thirty years, the dying breaths of the fictional 20th century. In his dreams he made many friends: the alien puppet ALF, cantankerous, theadbare, and living in a casket; Luke Skywalker, middle-aged, mustachioed, and hateful; and Bonnie Raitt, the ceramicist, shining spotlights onto sand and cancer."

Saturday, February 12, 2011

AWP wrap-up: Raúl Zurita Bolaño

The literary highlight of AWP was definitely Raúl Zurita's reading/panel.  It was the only onsite event I attended besides the book fair.  It was amazing.  I wish someone had a recording of it because it was so awesome.  His reading was beautiful and tragic.  The really amazing part to me was the Q&A session afterward where Zurita answered the questions with aphorisms.  Here are the quotes that I feel comfortable attributing to him (there were others that I was only able to write the gist of):
"In writing, my body is occupied by other bodies.  I'm neither male or female; I am whatever the writing dictates."
"When one writes, you suspend death.  You also suspend life.  When you write, everyone is writing."
"Absolute pain dissolves the difference between man and woman."
I made the ignorant mistake of asking him about Distant Star, which is apparently an inditement of Zurita by Bolaño...  I had no idea and was super embarrassed afterward... just wanted to stab myself.

Buy his book now from Action Books.

On Being Edited

One of the interesting things Matt Bell says in this interview I linked yesterday is that the advent of risk-free digital self-publishing for authors may mean that small presses, who are currently only slightly better on average than authors themselves at promoting work online (and often worse), may need to improve their editorial skill-sets to justify their cut of author royalties. If the most Press X can offer me is their name on the copyright page of my e-book, suddenly giving them more than a truly nominal percentage becomes difficult to entertain. He mentions editing itself as one of these skills that presses will maybe need to improve. Here I agree strongly.

One of the greatest disappointments of working with journals is how rarely you get a real edit from the people you work with. I understand why editors -- especially those with an online publication on a monthly schedule -- often choose to forgo them; editing is time-consuming, and writers are often not appreciative, with those who need your help the most being those least likely to gracefully accept it. Editing for Puerto del Sol has generally been a great pleasure, as most of the people we publish have been totally professional about the whole thing. However, there have been a couple of instances where we put in a lot of work and it only led to frustrating places, which can be enough to sour you on the whole process. I'm sure that other magazines have had worse experiences in this regard.

I've been thinking about this recently as I've had a couple stories coming out in good places that have edited my work pretty thoroughly. In one case many of the changes were mechanical -- in thirty pages of prose it can be difficult for a writer to spot all his own errors -- but there were also changes at the sentence level and a significant chunk of the ending was simply removed. In the case of the second story, on which I am putting some polish as I write this, the changes are more pervasive, an attempt to help me sort out a narrative voice that is, at times, pretty deeply confused about its approach. It was suggested again that much of the ending paragraph should be removed.

Sometimes this sort of thing can sting, especially when I feel as if I've failed my editor somehow -- as if I've fallen short of what the story could have been, or the standards of the magazine. But mostly I find it a massive relief. The trouble with workshop is that so often your fellow students, and in some cases even your professor, don't really buy in to the story; at the most basic level, the quality of your work is not their primary goal. They have other things on their minds, they have other needs and wants, they are there as much to demonstrate something about themselves as to help you. When someone has already accepted your work -- and I do think that people need to accept things before they attempt to edit them, rather than accepting conditionally on edits, for reasons of fairness and practicality (the fights that come from acceptances conditional on edits can be really nasty, the compromises unreasonable for both sides) -- they're making a very real gesture of good will. They are buying in about as much as someone possibly can. And so they have every incentive to make you and your work look as good as possible. Your writing is what will define their reputation, after all.

This makes it so much easier to trust in the collaboration of editing and being edited. If they make a tough decision, even one that I don't immediately like, I usually take this as a good sign: they're making a difficult call for the good of the work. It will make for better reading. When I can see the principles under which I'm being edited, I usually try to make a few more tweaks by those same rules, helping to smooth the story and follow through on the editor's vision. For some this loss of control is, I understand, maddening. For me it's a huge relief.

The story has been under my total control for quite a while, after all. It has lived solely in me, and through me, and it has only changed or grown in the ways I could imagine. But you don't write something because you want it to be restricted by your self as a writer -- you do it because you want readers to come in and enlarge it. Great editors are like great readers who have the power to intervene in the text of the story directly. That's an amazing service to me and to my writing, and it's truly flattering every time they provide it. I believe authorship means taking final responsibility for every word printed under your name. But I don't think that means you have to go it alone -- as I wrote yesterday, I do this to feel less alone. Good editors help me do that.

This is another one of those things I wish I saw more of from more publishers, and which I hope to emulate in my own life.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Going it Alone

I've been thinking about Tim's post on the subject, and on the bit he quoted from Keyhole's old submissions page, wherein they argued there's nothing they can do for you as a publisher that you can't do for yourself:
We are not accepting book submissions. Really, we can’t do much for you that you can’t already do for yourself. We encourage authors to release books independently.
This struck me as a sort of insane cop-out and bit of self deprecation when I first read it months ago and I still don't get it now. Leaving aside the fact that not every writer has the resources to print a book in the first place (as Tim points out, electronic publishing is becoming more and more of an option, but that's not the fantasy I've had since I was nine: I want a damn book) it seems that genuinely believing there's no substantial difference between what a third party can do for a book and what its own author can do for it requires some fanciful thinking. 

Take for instance the example of Matt Bell's How They Were Found, a Keyhole book sure to become the indie equivalent of a bestseller. This thing has gotten more coverage than just about any other book I can name in the past year; there are probably books from major publishers that got more press, but I didn't see them. I read about -- I read -- How They Were Found.

"The prosperous farmer was pressed to death after he refused to plead."

Story 15 in Curio is "A Closed Throat," one of the most wonderfully bleak stories in the collection. Only six of these left; I hope you're treasuring (and sharing) them all.

Beard Haiku

What I've learned about AWP 2011 is that everyone's face was thick with hair. It's probably for the best that I didn't go, as I'd just shaved away my enormous beard.

Over the past few days I've been posting beard haiku at my blog, both my own and the words of a bearded friend, and now, after thinking too much about facial hair, I'm fairly disgusted by it.

Beard Haiku Number Three

clippings in the sink
fanned dirt or cluster of ants
darkens porcelain

Beard Haiku Number Two

Shaved my beard Thursday.
Looked like a dead prospector.
Now more like a rat.

Beard Haiku Number Five (exclusive to the Uncanny Valley blog!)

ice crystallizes
in and heavies down our beards
cold weight on our jaws

Thursday, February 10, 2011

"It's people lending books."

Fear kills art:

Missed Communications

Though I'm not aware of there being terribly many Bowlings in the world, I get mail intended for them constantly. This one I received this morning. It's so perfectly written I think it's going in a book. 

Don't worry, I always send a note saying it's missed the intended recipient. No matter how awkward it may be to admit to a stranger that I've read their (usually) intimate letters.

Dear T---,

Another glowing review of the Contessa in Yachting Monthly and recent discussions in the Yacht Club on the "ideal boat" have made me think of Whisper and your good self. I do hope you are both in top form.

I am fine now after another episode of heart failure coupled with atrial fibrillation. I am getting ready to get another season in with Jet my squib - but only when the weather improves. She was laid up last October when I was in a poor state but a gang of friends did all the work. This was lovely but I do not know where anything is now so the fit-out is going to be a voyage of discovery. I have a fairly regular crew now so we compete most Saturdays - a beautifully balanced little boat. I have grown very fond of the Squib but still look back on Whisper with great nostalgia.

All the very best            


I'm taking the liberty of attaching a picture of a yacht named Whisper. I imagine the name is not uncommon, but hey, these guys are in Yachting Monthly. This may be the very one.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

What a strange meme.

Just don't know what to make of these:

Worst Laffy Taffy Jokes Ever

Okay, so I know that kids ostensibly write these, but they're effing terrible:

Q: How many vampires does it take to put in a light bulb?

A: None. They like the dark.

Q: What's the best way to keep water from running?

A: Don't pay the water bill.

Q: Why did the skunk cross the road?

A: To get to de odor side.

Q: Which monkey can fly?

A: A hot air baboon.

Q: What do you call a dinosaur that's sleeping?

A: A dinosnore.

Q: Why is it so hot in a stadium after a football game?

A: Because all the fans have left.

Come on kids. Step it up a notch!

Self-Publishing for E-Book Formats

Okay, Uncanny Valley blog, it's been some time, I know. Over the weekend I saw some horse cops and some people sleeping outside a church. The ground opened under a lot of people at my office, employment-wise, and I've been rushing around to grab their things before they tumble into oblivion. Everyone in the world was at AWP (I've seen some of the pictures) and it looks like it was a time of exuberant reading and greeting.

I've been thinking lately about self-publishing. I'm not so interested in publishing my own stuff as I am in checking out stuff other people have self-published, and in checking out stuff people have written about self-publishing. My interest here probably started when Adam Robinson posted Keyhole Press's sub guidelines on HTMLGiant:

We are not accepting book submissions. Really, we can’t do much for you that you can’t already do for yourself. We encourage authors to release books independently.

This was sort of disheartening news: a publisher basically saying, You may as well do that stigmatized thing, publish yourself, because your resources and ours are pretty similar. (In the comments, there's a probably accurate discussion about how a press like Keyhole, even with limited promo budgets and influence and whatever still brings editing, distribution, goodwill, etc. to a project.)

Then yesterday Tracy Lucas retweeted this blog post which, I think, has some pretty good advice for writers looking to self-publish, specifically in e-book formats. E-book formats are so easy to work with, and with Amazon offering 70% royalty rates, the electronic option seems pretty attractive. Phill English points out that the simplicity of release can be so seductive that writers may be tempted to put out work that is . . . not their best, and advises:

If you are going to self-publish, make it your best work . . . If you release a piece of writing that isn’t up to standard, don’t be surprised when no-one wants to buy it.

(English cites and links to a writer's complaints about poor sales of a self-published e-book that is, as stated in its description, composed of unfinished or otherwise unpolished work.)

There's danger here to readers--nobody wants to buy a shoddy product--but also to writers, who may alienate the few readers who give them a chance. Someone who buys a book for even 99 cents will probably not buy another by the same author if it is terribly constructed, torn with typos, missing sections, or just sloppily written.

I decided yesterday to sample the self-published world, and picked up a self-published e-book by a writer whose published writing I've enjoyed. By the second page I was stumbling over typos, and soon I was tripping over them. Verb endings and tense shifts are small concerns in literature, but with too many a story becomes ungainly. I know this writer can write, and well, but it seems here that the best stuff may be what's made it through the traditional channels, and what's been funneled directly into my phone are the scraps left behind. Even if this story is wonderful, its best parts will be obscured by construction errors.

How do you feel about self-publishing? Do you have any recommendations? I want to be excited about tech enabling us to put out our own stuff, in our own formats, with our own marketing, but I'm a little turned off by my own experimentation as a reader.

A brief note on the gender gap.

We've written about the gender gap in publishing fairly extensively before and I feel we more or less said what we had to say on the subject, but here is an anecdote that I think about when the conversation gets heated:

There was a period of a month or so where we only solicited women, and were very active in doing so. We made a point of it. We wanted to be part of the solution. We wrote them individually, praising their work and letting them know how we found them so that they could easily submit similar writing. Of those women we solicited, several said they would or might submit. None of them actually did so. While several women have responded to our general solicitations, none have responded favorably to individual solicitation.

You can blame that on the nonexistent reputation of our largely theoretical magazine, but I've heard similar things from many other editors with more established outlets. As such our publishing will not be as balanced as we would like, and we've had to make our peace with that. Editors are responsible for the doors they leave open and the methods by which they curate, but writers need also to take responsibility for their own careers. 

"It cannot be determined if she was buried deliberately."

"Last Seen Leaving" is one of my favorite stories in Curio, partly because of the form, partly because of some really brilliant sentences, and, in all honestly, partly because it has my favorite among the illustrations I did for the book. Check it out.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Fever Dreams

So yesterday, more or less immediately after making my last post, I started to feel sick. For a while it was okay and then it was terrible. I switched between burning up and shivering several times. At some point I went to bed. I couldn't really think or move. My head felt swollen inside itself. It took tremendous force of will to do anything. I slept and did not sleep.

As I was dreaming and not dreaming, I remembered how easy it was for a high fever to result in brain damage. I thought of how Bill Clinton's personality is said to have changed after his heart surgery, as sometimes happens, and wondered if this also happened sometimes because of a fever. I wondered if I would be a bad person and husband if my personality changed. I thought that maybe the change would be positive -- instead of becoming angry or short-tempered, I would become more generous and loving, a better person and husband.

I imagined my virus spreading. It would incapacitate Western civilization. People would trade not goods or services (which would no longer be produced by our exhausted bodies) but precious moments of health, which some would stockpile. I imagined Superman doing his best, but there was metal underneath his skin -- he could not empathize with our frailty.

Three luminous white lines rise sharply at a 45-degree angle. Two of them stop, intersected by a yellow line; the other goes gray.

I imagined that in the post-apocalyptic fiefdoms that would remain of our civilization, livestock would be both necessary (as it could feed itself) and nearly impossible to find. I (not me, but another me) searched a world overgrown with diseased wheat for a man who grew cows and dinosaurs. However I could never find him. My method of searching was that when I came to a door I would open it. There was no particular door I was looking for. I opened them all.

Then at about 2:30 I woke up absolutely certain that I needed to go downstairs and drink Cherry 7up and watch Futurama, so I did. Several hours later I woke up absolutely certain that I needed to go upstairs and sleep in my bed, so I did. That I could move my body came as a surprise. Today I taught my morning class but let them out early; I had almost misspelled "universal" as "universical" on the board, found it difficult to concentrate, lead discussion, or say words I knew perfectly well. Slept in the Puerto del Sol office on a couch half my length. Woke up with drool on my hands and panicked because I didn't know, for a moment, it was drool.

Am presently maybe sort of okay. Hoping to take another nap and feel better.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Artifice 3

I have Artifice #1 and I like it. I did not, for no particular reason, buy Artifice #2. I did buy, while I was at AWP, Artifice #3, and then I read it on the plane home from cover to cover. (I also read the second half of Matt Bell's book and parts of several other things: the trip back was pretty long.) I can't remember ever reading a magazine from beginning to end. It's not what I do.

I would be lying to say that I loved every piece equally, or that I even liked all of them: that's not what I do either. But Artifice now has the distinction of being one of maybe four magazines I know of in which every single piece engages my attention more or less absolutely. Since I want to make good books, as a reader, editor, and designer, the only reasonable course of action is to examine why. Some of these ingredients are unique to Artifice, some are not.

There are of course the editorial tastes and processes of the staff. No idea, beyond what the magazine makes apparent, what those are or how they work! There's a pretty good mix in the magazine of people whose work I know and people whose work I don't, which speaks well, and generally speaking I'd say they're achieving a good, solid "mix." (Quantifying what I mean by this would be awful and boring; check out the table of contents and speculate.) Anyway, they gots good taste.

There is also the cleanness of the presentation. The magazine is, for all its focus on formal experimentation, itself a very simple object: a pleasantly tactile monochrome cover, a manageable number of light-weight pages, white instead of the standard creme, with small dimensions. This seems intuitively like a strange decision, but I've come to like it a lot. The magazine serves as the constraints of its own production. Submitting to Artifice is a really interesting process, because it's forced me to think about my work in different ways: not simply how might this text fit into a magazine, but how might this text fit into this magazine? 

But first and foremost, and reflected in both of these other aspects, there is the magazine's name, concept, and mission statement, which are all one word. I wrote here before about my tendency to read On Earth as it Is whenever I am reminded to do so, and sometimes when I'm not: I think it comes down to the central idea of a publication focusing on prayer-narratives. The concept itself is sort of interesting to me, but the fact of a constraint and a focus on the  pieces they publish is extremely attractive. Whatever they publish, I have one clear criterion beyond my own personal tastes by which to consider it. I don't really love everything they put out either, but the focus helps me get past that and think about the work productively anyway. It gives me a reason to engage where I might otherwise step away.

Not everything in Artifice is formally wild, but it is all very interesting, partly because even if you don't engage immediately with the text, there are questions of design to consider. Why are these paragraphs separated by a full blank line, and why are these merely indented? Why does this story continue after white space on the same page when there is a "scene break" or other transitional point, and why does this one begin a new page each time, leaving so much of every page blank? What are the blank pages for? Are they time to breathe? And what do you make of the text that seems to scroll, ticker-like, across the bottom of the book? (The bio section explains its means of generation.) 

Not everyone can have a focus on artifice in writing, of course, but the underlying lesson here is something any magazine can apply: the more choices you make, the more it brings to life everything you publish. I find the majority of publications today, both serial and otherwise, utterly boring, but a more useful way of putting this is that I feel they make too few choices. Most publishers focus on magazines and books (but especially magazines) that are apparently interchangeable, and the especially daft among them mistake this for building a "brand." I don't want to pick on anybody but it's fairly easy to call to mind publications where everything looks more or less the same. The work dies as a result of its homogeneity: in a very real way, I fail to perceive it, often going whole pages without actually seeing a single word, even as I am ostensibly "reading." (This may sound like an extreme way of putting it, but I'm willing to bet you've experienced the same thing, perhaps often.

Which brings me to what every writer and editor can learn from Artifice: even if you're largely interested in what might be called, at various times, traditional, mainstream, realist, narrative, or literary writing, you owe it to those writers to publish interesting, challenging work that makes you and your readers reconsider what your publication is capable of. It's not just that I like that stuff better, it's that placing writing generated and presented by different means brings all of that writing to life: Davis Schneiderman's "The Vertebrate Mitochondrial Code" isn't exactly a thrill ride (it is, instead, exactly what it sounds like) but it does bring a thrill. This is a magazine where unexpected things can and will happen. The fact of this decision makes the inclusion of more conventional work of easily recognizable form a more interesting decision. It helps me to perceive more traditional work as existing as a result of a series of choices.

Which it does -- all writing is a result of choices. There are no defaults. We often forget that.

Particular highlights in the magazine include Dustin M. Hoffman's story "Seven-Eighths," the story of Darrell, who may either go to the punk rock show tonight, or watch his friend take too many pills and die, as well as Addam Jest's "The Beautiful Necessity," of which this is the opening paragraph:
Women are very rarely matters of cold scientific observation, but are colored both by their own sexual emotions and by their own moral attitude toward the sexual impulse. The ascetic who has subdued his own carnal impulses may see no elements of sex in women at all. No two trees put forth their branches in just the same manner, and no two leaves from the same tree exactly correspond; no two persons look alike, though they have similar members and features; even the markings on the skin of the thumb are different in every human hand. Every principle of natural beauty is but the presentment of some occult law, some theosophical truth; and the Law of Women is the presentment of the truth that identity does not exclude difference.
Also much more, and many others.