Saturday, April 30, 2011

In Defense of Things Like Similes

Recently I feel like I've heard some serious backlash against similes in fiction writing, coupled with (maybe this is a little more limited) some weirdly exclusivist notions of what makes writing prosaic, i.e., that it doesn't have a lot of similes, that similes are the poet's domain. I haven't been able to find anything in particular to point to as a source of this, though it does seem a little more prevalent among sci-fi and fantasy writers. And I can understand that--they're coaching each other to avoid a tic that leads a lot of genre people into trouble, drawing their characters with eyes like stars and voices loud as thunder. And obviously similes are to be wielded carefully insofar as they can lead to nondescript, hyperbolic, or cliched writing. But one would hope that prose writers would want to avoid these things regardless, which is why the incarnation of this advice that seems to think of similes as a poet's tool only weirds me out--to what extent does this mean that prose writers aren't supposed to be messing around with image, figurative language, and comparison? To what extent does this mean that prose writers and teachers are embracing a conception of their writing as a plain rendering, unimagined and unimaginative?

Personally I think similes can bring a lot of life to prose. Mike and I were talking today about the amplifying effect that a really good simile can create: first you have the image of the thing offered as comparison, then the characteristics that this comparison brings to the original thing being described, then the character that the usual distance between the two images brings to the prose. I think Mike and I are both, as writers and readers, pretty into the weird simile, the one that doesn't immediately seem like a fit comparison, but that brings, as it's read, some additional color, shape, or life to the original. Good similes are powerful not because they use comparison to suggest the real form of the thing (which was, correct me if I'm wrong, never really what metaphorical language was meant to do), but because they offer an interpretive problem of what specific parts of the real form to convey, and how, which gives the audience something to work out too, to get involved in. Assuming the audience trusts the writer to have put some thought and discretion into the two images he or she has joined, it seems like a simile would be a pretty important tool for any writer to have.

So I think what disturbs me is 1) that people are playing a numbers game with figurative language for prose writers, suggesting that there is a low limit to the number of metaphors a prose piece can competently hold, and that 2) this might mean that prose writers and teachers are a little bit afraid of leaving room for the problems of interpretation in their work, and leaving room for audiences to draw conclusions about the narrative condition itself--about where the narrator is coming from, about what the narrative voice is concerned with in the telling, about its struggle or ease to make meaning out of the thing it's telling. Choices of language, as much as choices of plot and character, open important questions of what is ventured and what is at stake. Comparisons can, if anything, make the decision-making process of the narrator painfully clear. It unsettles me that writers would consciously limit themselves to the telling of a thing--to a strict rendering--and cut themselves off from the more interesting question of how a thing is told--which tells us much more about how people work, as well as the things that happen to them.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Books and Burritos

When I pulled the Story Every Day project out of hiatus last month I decided I'd keep it going until Story #200 and then I'd be done with it. To hell with flash fiction! Or at least, to hell with writing it every day. I'm still enjoying the project--I took particular pleasure in writing today's, #187: Heppelwhite, and have enjoyed writing all the entries, in that they've each provided a low-stakes way to experiment with techniques and voices and structures I wouldn't want to inflict on a submissions reader--but am now thinking about other trajectories I can aim the blog along. I've considered going visual, or aural, but one idea that I particularly favor is Books and Burritos, which would pair books with burritos made just for them! The best part of this project, of course, would be the excuse to invent and eat some delicious damn burritos. The worst part would be that, so far, every burrito I start to invent involves unsavory or sketchy ingredients.

Here's an example. We'll call this Books and Burritos #1: Terese Svoboda's Pirate Talk or Mermalade / The Sea-Soaked Fever Dream

I actually read this book a few months ago, but the memory of its weirdness has stuck with me. The book is all dialogue, no extraneous narration, fast running and quick dodging, blood and false eyes, starvation, desperation, all of it bleak but in the bouncy way, the ha ha ha way, and dream-like, realist but in the way of just-waking, almost-sleeping. To prepare the appropriate burrito, the Sea-Soaked Fever Dream, you'll need to leave a bottle of strong spiced rum uncapped outside in the rain, so that it dilutes and turns bitter and gritty with incidental dirt. Soak shrimp in this rum for a while, then grill. Pack the prepared shrimp into a tortilla along with some kale, and spritz with lime to stave off scurvy.

See, that just sounds disgusting.

Books and Burritos #2: David Vann's Legend of a Suicide / The Starving Camper

Charter a propeller plane to Alaska, then set up camp with your weird and depressed father. While he bemoans his estrangement from women and makes a mess of the cabin you'll share for the next several months, go to the closest stream and find fish, then clean them and hide them from birds that might carry them away. Pack fish pieces into flour tortillas, then cover with reduced cream-of-mushroom soup and canned tomatoes, patted dry.

That one is like...slightly more appetizing.

Books and Burritos #3: Ricardo Nuila's "Dog Bites" from McSweeney's 36 / The Rambling Lecturer

Long-simmer some pork in a wide pan. Put in some butter, let it melt and sink in. While your wise but rambling father tells you about the world, dice a block of the kind of cheese you'd take on a long car ride, then layer it and fresh peppers into a grilled corn tortilla. Before you can go into one of your uncommunicative spells, spoon the pork into the tortillas and roll up.

There we go!

Friday Night Dance Party

Okay, so I am probably too busy today to write somethin' smart. Later I will be too drunk. Here, instead, are some YouTubes of songs we will dance to tonight, after I read. If you can't make it, try turning these on at say 9 Mountain Time and shaking your ass. It will be as if your ass is my ass: as if they are one.

Thursday, April 28, 2011


If you're a cool dude like me, you'll enjoy reading this article on the history of Final Fantasy developer Squaresoft's slooowly improving translations. Because that's the kind of thing cool dudes do these days.

Preparing to Read

One thing my theoretical MFA (or anti-MFA) would definitely emphasize is performance. Not everyone wants to perform and not everyone needs to, but a) readings are a major part of modern literary culture, for better and for worse, and b) they can eventually be a decent source of cash for a fortunate few. Plus, c) I actually like them a lot when they go well.

This is on my mind because tomorrow night I will be reading to my department and maybe some other folks as well. Every graduating MFA at NMSU gives one official reading in his or her final year, and this is mine. The truth is that few people will likely remember it no matter how I do -- they have their own problems, desires, fixations -- but I care about getting these things right. If you're going to ask people to sit still and listen to you for twenty minutes, it's only right that you make an effort to prepare something worth watching.

One thing I've tried to do is think about the best readers I've seen. Probably the single most exciting reader I've ever watched is Abraham Smith, whose rhythm and ear are impeccable -- whose voice is terribly compelling. His poetry is clearly written with performance very much in mind, which is an advantage -- I write for a kind of sound, but my focus is the ghost of sound that words evoke when read silently, the manipulation of air in the body and around it. My sentences sound fine aloud, but they aren't, I think, native to it. 

Another good reader, and a model I've been thinking about a lot, is Michael Martone, whose stories are often very funny, or at least structured like jokes. This is something I'd like to think we share -- most people don't find most of my writing very funny, but I do crib structures from jokes in order to keep myself sharp and concise. When I saw Martone read, he had a percussive cadence and a slightly penetrating pitch of voice, sort of surprisingly aggressive given what a nice and gentle guy he is, that did wonders for the audience's attention span. He knows he's supposed to be entertaining you, and he believes he has written something entertaining, and he delivers his stories with appropriate conviction. Many writers seem to think humility requires them to mumble, to deliver their work as if it wasn't anything special. This is the height of self-absorption: you're already taking up your audience's time, you need to respect them and let them know you've done your best.

Another good reader I've known is Susan Neville, one of my fiction instructors at Butler University. I never saw Susan read her own work, but I always loved it when she read someone else's -- she read with a sort of perpetual sense of surprise and delight, at once precise in her delivery and genuinely having a good time. When I've seen Blake Butler read on YouTube a couple times, I've been surprised to see that he reminded me of her; a similar cadence, a similar sense of surprise at words he himself wrote. (I'm often surprised by my writing, too, so I always find this tendency charming, as if we are discovering the words together.)

I've also enjoyed the readings of my friends and bosses Carmen Giménez Smith and Evan Lavender-Smith. Carmen reads with a clarity and confidence I hope to emulate, and when Evan reads you can hear him thinking through the words again as he performs them, rehearsing not only the language itself but the thought process that led to its creation. And while I have not heard Tracy read often in formal settings, the tenderness and care with which she speaks has always inspired me.

One of my worst habits as a reader is a pretty rare one: I tend to speak too slowly. My theory is that once upon a time I read at a normal rate, because I was pretty serious about acting as a kid and so grew comfortable with the needs of listeners. Then someone (several someones) told me that everyone reads too  quickly, that I would think I was reading at a reasonable pace and actually need to slow down. So I should just read slowly. I listened to them. And this is generally good advice -- most fiction writers tend to turn their own words to mush, they chew through them so quickly. But it was bad advice for me. Combined with my tendency to speak softly in the presence of microphones and my naturally deep voice, the effect can be sleepy and mushy.

I also enunciate a little too much, perhaps, give too much emphasis, pause for too long, as if I am afraid people won't understand. (The truth of fiction readings, as I have experienced them, is that no one ever really understands anyway, although this owes partly to how massively boring they tend to be.)

I've been working for two weeks on my performance, rehearsing it into my computer microphone several times over. I know the phrases that tend to trip me up, and I know where I should let loose a little. I know where to go loud.

The last time I rehearsed I stood up for the first time, and of course this made a massive difference to my breathing, delivery, and pace; of course I would be standing anyway for the final performance, but after that experience I'll never read on my ass again. I also started, to my surprise, doing a fair amount of gesturing as I read. I even -- and I never thought this was going to be possible for me -- started looking up from the page pretty frequently at my imagined audience as I read. I had a little trouble finding my place again once, but all in all it was pretty smooth.

So I guess I feel pretty good about tomorrow, all told, but you can see I'm definitely being maybe a little obsessive about it. Honestly, though, I wish more people were.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

My low, low high scores

Game nerds generally agree that the world is becoming more like a game, and will become much more like a game in the future as our social networks and various websites become more thoroughly integrated with our lives. This is often portrayed as a good thing, even as a potential source of some measure of utopia. Imagine it as a sort of benign social engineering: picking up litter in public places could get you experience points. Helping old ladies cross the street could level you up. If you brushed your teeth twice a day, you could get points for that too. And so on. This is an idea with a lot of potential, and I get excited sometimes when I think about it. Then I think about how the increasing gamification of my lifestyle has affected me so far, and I get a little nervous.

Take this blog. Did you know that this blog is like a game? There are a number of scores associated with my performance. Here's a segment of one screen I reload probably ten or fifteen times a day:

This is the site's back-end, the "Edit Posts" page to be specific, and it's the best way to check how many comments the blog has received without artificially inflating our traffic count. (Why do I care about that? You'll see in a second.) As you can see here if you squint or click the embedded image, the Uncanny Valley blog does not have an extremely committed set of commenters. We have a fair number of readers, but for us, four comments is an unusually high number. At other lit blogs -- say, HTMLGiant -- that would of course be a pretty disappointing outcome. So, because I am competitive and also because I want to hear your thoughts, I have an incentive to write posts that will draw attention and hopefully comments. When we do get a lot of comments on a post, it's often the blog's "staff" talking to itself, but this doesn't seem to bother me. I'm just happy to have some conversation going on here; it makes me feel less alone.

This is another set of numbers I spend a lot of time studying, often reloading five or six times in a given hour:

If you're familiar with Sitemeter, you're probably nodding in recognition and some measure of pain. To put what you're seeing in perspective, 89 is about the highest average per day I've had for a site I personally started, and in this amount of time -- given our relatively light posting schedule -- I'd say it's pretty good. For a while our average was higher (about 106 visits per day) but the last couple of days brought it down a little. I'm not really happy with our traffic, exactly -- I've read that HTMLGiant once got 40,000 hits in an hour, which is slightly more than we've achieved in nearly a year. But these things take time, and they also tend to snowball, so I try to stay optimistic.

I really do reload this page often, though. It's another kind of score. And it gives me an incentive to write better posts, more interesting posts, and, yes, occasionally, more inflammatory posts. When I am tired from a relentless week of school work, teaching, writing, job applications, and etc., it is my need to keep these numbers high that brings me here to write about fruit candy or whatever. 

This is another image from Sitemeter:

This is a list of websites from which people have recently come to the blog. There are two things I really like to see here -- links like number 4, from Puerto del Sol's site, which tell me that like-minded people are finding us. Seeing a new name here is like getting a new character or special item in an RPG; it makes me feel more powerful, as if I have added the person who provided the link to my inventory, as if they are mine. Where it says "unknown," this usually means that the visitor simply came by entering the URL into their browser -- in other words, they came here on purpose. This is extremely exciting. (Though sometimes less exciting if I go to the page that lets me see where geographically viewers came from: New Mexico hits are generally from me or Tracy or Robbie or one of our friends, which makes the visit seem to count less, and there's a city in Florida that tells me it was probably Tim Dicks, who also makes the visit seem to count less, though of course I love all these people.) The more people coming from more different sources in different locations around the world, the happier I am, though I am never really happy: the blog has not done all that it can, and probably won't until we've gathered the funding for a print magazine (which, honestly, I promise we are working on: we need jobs first, is all).

There is a sense in which I can live on good traffic. When the blog does well, I feel good, I feel optimistic, I feel like I am achieving things. This definitely leads to uncomfortable obsessiveness -- I really do reload the sitemeter pages way too often -- but at least it also leads to good behaviors. Writing better blog posts is a good thing to do. Writing more blog posts is a good or at least neutral thing to do. Trying to engage the community in an attempt to get more comments is a totally reasonable goal.

But then there is my iTunes, where I have had to actually deactivate certain features in order to ensure my sanity. Here is a full screenshot of my iTunes (click to grow):

You may immediately notice one feature I no longer use: I don't let myself see album covers. Why? Because I didn't have all of the album covers on my computer; it might have been easy to find them, but I didn't want to do it, and I hated having an empty box where I should have an album cover. Not having an album cover where there could be one was like not having one of my shoes, or, in the context of an MMORPG, not having the best helmet. It made me feel crazy.

You may also notice that my current "score" where music is concerned is that I have 8.2 days of it. This would be enough for some people, but not for me; before an unfortunate hard drive crash, I had something closer to a month. I could begin at the top of my playlist and play through to the bottom and if I left it on at all times, whether I was listening or not, it would take something like forty days to get through all that music. This was an especially proud achievement for me because I legitimately own almost all of my music. I paid for it myself, or received it in review copy form. My playlist seems very small now.

The key feature I've turned off, however, is the simplest and the most insidious iTunes offers: a count of the times I've listened to a song. This feature very nearly drove me insane before I turned it off, and I know at least one other person who felt the same way.

What is the problem with this feature? Well, consider this: I love Modest Mouse's albums so much. If I were to turn this feature back on, however, it would say that I had listened to many of their tracks only one time, and many others only zero times. Of course this isn't true. I've listened to The Moon and Antarctica like a hundred times, probably. But that was years ago. I haven't listened to it very much on this computer, which is the relevant issue where my current iTunes is concerned. So sometimes, if I could see how many times I had listened to a song, I would see that I had listened to say "3rd Planet" zero times, and this would strike me as a travesty. So in spite of the fact that I wasn't in the mood for the song, and in spite of the fact that I wanted and needed to do other things with my time, I would try to sit through it. Then maybe I would listen to it again to get the count higher. This is actually something I have done. And the most frustrating part is that I could never listen to the song enough times to get my score to the point where it reflected my love of the song; I didn't have the time.

And besides, I needed to listen to my other songs. When I had a new album and I hadn't listened to all of the songs yet, and this was reflected by the blankness of the "times played" column, it would make me feel like I had wasted my money, like I was being frivolous. I needed to get those numbers up to prove I was not wasteful. My ideal was that every song would be completed three times.

But, and this was the biggest problem of all, iTunes doesn't count a song as played unless you listen to it from beginning to end. This sounds intuitive, but often there will be dead space after a song has finished but before the track is really done, or it will have a too-long outro, or a boring intro section, or it will have a "secret" track appended to it after several minutes of silence, and so you have to choose whether to A) put up with this or B) let your score go unrecorded. And if you want to switch to another album when the track is over, you have to wait for the next track to start playing, even if there is all this silence, if you want iTunes to count it toward your score.

This is not the sort of thing I need to be worrying about. I have actual problems and ambitions. I used to spend serious minutes of every day frozen in place, totally immobilized, trying to figure out how to maximize my score without coming to completely resent my music, without it becoming a grind, without it becoming too much or too obviously like leveling up Pokemon, which was sometimes exactly what it was too much like.

So I shut down the feature. I don't let myself see how many times I've listened to a song.

I do let myself see when I last completed a song, however -- this column serves as a sort of checklist, to make sure I am actually hearing my music. It doesn't tell me how often I've heard something, only that I've ever heard it at all. It turns out I couldn't let go of the score completely.

What all this means is that when the world becomes more like a game, I may not be able to handle it. I take some comfort in the fact that I have never completed 100% of any RPG, found all the hidden items and leveled my characters completely. But on the other hand, I have certainly tried.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Commonly Used Words In MFA Workshops


PROBLEMATIC-  often used as a code word for "I don't want to call you a racist/plagiarist/misogynist/capitalist, but..."  

EX:  "I like the story, but your representation of the character Sara's bulimia is kind of problematic."

A String of Terrible Ideas

A few weeks ago I finished most of the edits for a novel, and have spent most of the time since freaking out about the project. I really love it, I love it love it, but should I have included so many robotic dinosaurs? So many ultrapowerful dragonflies that descend and carry humans away up into the dragonskies? Should I have given so much dialogue to the seer who can only gaze into your hazy future by staring into a freshly opened wound in your flesh? So many pages to the nanobots who come together to bandage the cracked Earth before it shatters into several pieces?

Well, of course I didn't actually write about any of that mad gibberish, but now that I type it up it doesn't seem so bad. I think the dragonflies, at least, have potential. But this is the problem with the book I really did write, and the one before, and really with every project for me (and, yes, I'm sure, for everyone, at least some of the time): I can't tell a good idea from a bad one. So much depends on the technique, the way the idea is embodied, and it's hard to see that from the outset.

1) A couple months ago I considered assembling a collection of outdated fast food training videos. I developed this idea after watching one old training video posted to a blog, and then clicking through to another, and another, and another, and another. Despite my long history working in chain pizza delivery, I somehow avoided watching any training videos, and now was fascinated by their terrible narrative qualities. It seems both awful and unavoidable that a training video shot in the late 80s, for example, would feature garish neon colors and a pop-rap song meant to help us remember burger flipping techniques. Imagine being the feather-haired young man slumped in a close-walled back room of the McDonald's you used to sit in with your friends after school, squirting ketchup and flinging pickles at each other, now having to watch a patronizing corporate tool tell another patronizing corporate tool how to most enthusiastically buff a window. Well, the idea of posting a collection of these videos ultimately seemed too sad, but then Saturday, while Sarah and I cleaned the apartment in preparation for our engagement party, I found myself in the kitchen, scrubbing dirt from tile, telling myself not to stop until the floor was so clean that I could see McC.

2) Recently a friend asked if I would like to write the script for a short film to be shot this summer. Yes! Of course! But then as I prepared an email of ideas I began to wonder if our tastes would meet and hug and hang out together. As consumers we enjoy the same sorts of narratives, but as producers I'm not so sure. Because I knew the budget was almost nonexistent, I opened with the most fantastical pitch I could think of: we're on a zero-gravity space station and there's been a mysterious murder! The lead suspects are three shape-shifting holograms. Then I wrote up four actually plausible and thematically unique idea summaries and sent them off but I will be surprised if we're able to get simultaneously passionate about one. This is the hardest part of collaboration for me: forging an initial agreement on the project to undertake. How do you handle this? Do you just toss ideas at each other until one sets you both on fire?

3) My artist friend Dave and I designed a fuel-efficient spring car as an alternative to the standard automobile. The prototype model is a regular vehicle, preferably small, outfitted with large industrial-grade springs. The vehicle is lofted either by an airplane or by elastic propulsion, and then lofted again, once it collides with the ground, by its springs. The passengers, snug inside, enjoy a fuel-free ride across vast distances, as well as a phenomenal and ever-changing view of the countryside, and maybe some motion sickness. We created this car as a way to vex a mechanic friend, but now that I think about it again, I kind of like the idea. All travel should be performed by hurling oneself over the world.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Some context for "Peeping Tom 'Rockefeller'"

I have been meaning to write this post for more than a week now but I have been stupid from stress and exhaustion and so I have written about less important things, like candy. (I am sorry candy, you are still very important to me, I had some of you today and it was fabulous.) The subject of this post, and several posts to come, will be Sutherland Douglass, brilliant writer and excellent guy.

So Sutherland Douglass was kind enough to let us publish a piece of his project on the conman 'Clark Rockefeller' -- a project he describes in further detail here. The book is a fictional third-person memoir, concerned partly with Rockefeller's sexual psychology (or psychosis). As Sutherland writes:
he was—allegedly allegedly—a frustrated sex freak. With a peculiarly Christian grand-ma-ma who helped impact any number of sexual hang-ups in his head (not to mention lap). One quickly finds, in the memoir, a biographical catalog of one scene after another from video film TV, a body and list populated by other impressive memes—celebrity culture knockouts and queens: Obviously the aforementioned Ms. Allen, but also Vera Miles, and Romy Schneider, and Tina Aumont, and Annette O’Toole Nic Kidman Anna Chapman (even Campbell Brown, ex-CNN)…His lived life only lived in its proximity to them. An effeminate, alligator-shirted, geek-glassed man—the length and breadth of his understood life as run through and compiled by (ah) sex. The end.
You can read another excerpt here, at H_ngm_n. This concerns the screen more pointedly than does our excerpt. It is also more concerned with dreams, though I would perhaps say less dreamlike. Douglass' use of bracketed, gray text is a whisper, but it is also emphatic, in the way that anyone must be when he whispers with sufficient volume to make himself heard.

In this excerpt, published at PANK, 'Rockefeller' has been locked away. This bit strikes me as an especially strong example of Douglass' style:
After his beloved toddler-daughter’s birth, though {which brought with it, like a current gushing straight out at him from between his ex-wife’s legs, the simple imperative: “GO STRAIGHT!”}, he’d re-gifted the name to her. Her for whom he did now languish 23 hours a day in a cell on account of “kidnapping,’ for going on the run-slash-lam while refusing to relinquish, no, not his baby girl.
The way it twists and shifts rhythms, the unexpected movement in "no, not his baby girl," the constant negotiation of narrative distance (sometimes very close, sometimes very far, and often changing mid-sentence, even mid-phrase). These are the reasons I love his writing.

Another thing I like about it, although I'm not sure how Sutherland might feel about this, is the way that each publication represents his texts a little differently. The manuscript we accepted had a number of typographical quirks, some of which we replicated in our published version, some of which we did not, for various reasons mostly having to do with our interpretation of what looks "readable" and "professional" on the web. You can see some of those perhaps more faithfully replicated in the H_ngm_n piece, and you can see by comparing our approach to PANK's more similarities, perhaps. We paragraphed the text similarly. Our more narrow column alters the effect of the prose, somewhat, I think. (Generally speaking I find a narrow column less stressful. But stress is a part of the piece's effect -- an important part, I think.) Sutherland challenges us to reconsider form as we edit, as we publish, as we read. This makes his writing richer and more engaging than it would otherwise be.

I'll post more soon on Sutherland Douglass' other published works. For now, you can read "Peeping Tom 'Rockefeller'" here.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Finding Nemo vs. The Dolphin

This post attempts to map The Dolphin (available on Netflix!) onto its painfully obvious analog, Finding Nemo. The similarities are at once more deep and more baffling than I could have imagined. But if Daniel Alexander Dolphin can find it in him to imagine a really big wave, then I guess I can believe that this movie was animated, voiced, and paid for and that I watched the whole damn thing.

In all cases, interpret the arrow to mean "translates to."
  • Marlin-->Daniel Alexander Dolphin
  • Nemo-->the villain of the film and scavenger of dreams
  • Coral-->a giant sting ray imbued with the powers of flight, precognition, and underwater hugging
  • The barracuda that kills Coral-->lack of faith(?)
  • Touching the boat-->jumping over a small rock wall twice with no repercussions
  • Dory-->a child dolphin who farts into his own mouth for oxygen
  • Short-term memory loss-->unsettling narcolepsy
  • Bruce the shark-->the exact same shark with the exact same conundrum regarding his carnivorism; he later ingests a tiny fish in front of its mother and chews madly, remarking on the tenderness of the meat, before revealing his rapacious bone-crunching as a total ruse--no one faults him; everyone laughs
  • Jacques the tank cleaner-->THE SUPPORTING STAR OF THE FILM, only stereotypically Jewish (HE EATS MONEY)
  • Deep sea angler fish-->an angry dolphin transformed by his hatred into a barracuda (actually much scarier)
  • "Just keep swimming"-->"Fly, Daniel Dolphin, fly"
  • The dentist's office-->an octopus running an underwater slavery ring
  • Wall of jellyfish-->a steaming pool alleged to be jellyfish poop
  • jamming the filter-->rushing headlong into a surfing-related death
  • a father's fear-->surfing
  • a gimpy fin-->surfing
  • surfing the EAC-->the (thrice-gratified) drive to find a really big wave
  • any sense of resolution or accomplishment-->a random encounter with a girl dolphin
  • heart-->surfing
  • plot-->Daniel Dolphin's slick, erect dorsal fin
  • stakes-->various characters making terrifyingly violent threats and then saying "Just joking!"
  • message-->if I can't surf I'll just swim out with the current and die alone

Friday, April 22, 2011


Several times during the MFA, it's come up in classes and in conversation that learning writing outside of the university tends to focus more on the writer's independent process and development than individual submissions of work, and that the utility of the workshop model seems to be more in the way that a group setting can encourage productivity and audience awareness than in its actual feedback and advice. This is a strength I see in community models as well, which is why I floated it as a potential answer to Mike's question a while back about what studying writing without the MFA might look like. 

My main curiosity and hesitation with fully embracing the studio, or perhaps "round table" model has been the question of how this would work exactly in the context of a university program or curriculum. The demand for creative writing tracks and minors and BFAs and MFAs is high, and my feeling is that universities are going to want sufficient assurance that a studio or round table model is going to provide some kind of evaluation of its students to justify its place as a degree program. But does imposing evaluation kill the model? Part of the payoff that comes from these kinds of writing groups is their informality; the lack of evaluation (other than, say, the gentle pressure the model exerts to learn from and keep up with your peers) seems, somewhat paradoxically, key to the ultimate gains in conscientiousness and work ethic that writers often get from participating in such groups.

In most people, learning creative writing looks
a lot like two Eustachian tubes trying to
weave a basket from one another. 

Of course, creative writing programs struggle with the role of evaluation in general. Leaving the question of whether or not creative writing can or should be evaluated on its merits aside, by what rubric can the vast variety of creative writing work be judged? Even grading based on effort tends to strike people as hollow or incompatible with the potential differences in writers' processes. Is it for an instructor to say that it is always better to spend weeks and weeks carefully composing and re-composing a draft rather than shooting through a draft in the heat of inspiration? Is time spent a good enough measure? What about number of pages? Number of works? Evaluation quickly becomes tricky because it is dependent on what variables one decides to define as measurable. And in that decision, often, are value judgments, based on the writer's own processes, preferences, and notions of what makes writing work.

I would give this submission an A for apprehending the
human condition and a C+ for effort.

We've highlighted it here before, because we appreciate the work she's doing to redefine the workshop, but it bears mentioning again that Cathy Day has a full plan for a studio-esque course posted on her blog. Here's the course description:
In this class, all students will be required to produce at least 50,000 original words, the first draft of a new work. This will not be done only during November’s “National Novel Writing Month,” but rather over the course of the entire semester. The course will be characterized by: intense focus on the writing process and on developing a writing regimen; weekly word count check ins; “studio” in-class writing time; practice in creating an outline or storyboard of a book; small peer groups for feedback; and analysis of a few contemporary novels that will serve as models.
So right away you can tell that this course plan brings in the studio elements of small group "check-ins" and in-class composition while choosing a few familiar measurables: word count, attendance, participation in and preparation for discussion, a tangible project. It seems very smart to me, and well worthy of being a class counted toward the awarding of a minor or a degree. But I do wonder how this model would look if it were not a novels course but a poetry course--would word count still be a good measure of progress? Or the number of poems?--or, more to the point, the model for an entire program's worth of courses. Can the studio model be so convincingly applied over top of the workshop course across the board?
Does this mean it's working?

I often think creative writing courses would be stronger, more effective, and more accurate representations of student progress if they dropped the sort of wishy-washy measure of simply "turning in" (a verb phrase, fellow MFAs, we will not use for the rest of our writerly careers!) for something more akin to what writers really do: establish habits, or fail to establish habits. But how to measure the establishment of habits, and whether or not that is actually a reasonable requirement even at the MFA level, remains a difficult question for me. I would really love to talk to some art MFAs and instructors someday about how studio classes generally work in their program, and how they either determine methods of evaluation or, alternately, manage to convince the university that evaluation based on anything other than attendance and visible progress is unnecessary. I would talk to the art people I know, but in the only place I see them gather they have a bad habit of jabbing passersby with their pool cues and stocking the juke box with hours worth of Foo Fighters. 

Anyone want to lobby for abandoning the MFA altogether? Would anything really change if we didn't have degrees and the potential for teaching positions? I am open to being told this is a stupid question. I am also open to the possibility that the degree I'm about to get means very little about me as a writer.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

What's in this character's pocket?

One of the most frequently used exercises in creative writing is the one where you "get to know" your characters. You fill a notebook or fifteen pages or some other hideous number with important and more often unimportant information about the human being you're creating: you write about when the character's birthday is, what kind of parties he likes to have, what's in his pockets, what he wears to bed, what's on his bedroom floor, who's in his family, who he doesn't talk to anymore, what sort of relationships he's had in the past, what sort of lover he is, his favorite movies, his favorite music, his favorite books, his shoe size, what socks he's wearing (do they match?), what he does for a living, his hobbies, his obsessions, his fears, what he dreamed about on Tuesday, his relationship with his father, his favorite food, his least favorite food, his allergies, how he did in school, did he go to college, does he have a good job, and so on, and so on, until finally you know this person completely

This is one of those things that makes intuitive sense but doesn't, I think, hold up to practice. There are two reasons for this: one simple, one more complex.

The simple one first: What kind of socks your character is wearing becomes irrelevant the second a good story begins. Why? Because you're telling us about the most interesting moment in that character's life. Something that changed him or her. And if he's still thinking about his damn socks, you've failed; you have not found a sufficiently interesting event for this story. There are probably two or three things about your character that matter after The Event, and you very likely knew all of them before this exercise, because they were important. Even if it was socks, they were important socks -- or at least, the socks were very important to him. So important that their absence could shake his world to the core. That would be interesting -- if The Event began with socks. But if you're not shaking your character's world to the core, you're very likely doing it wrong. Which means that whole notebook you just filled will immediately become irrelevant.

Secondly, your character isn't wearing socks. Not until you say he is. The character as an object of knowledge, in fact any fictional entity as an object of knowledge, is a really interesting creature, because it exists in reference to your fiction's needs, and in reference to what's pertinent. Many writers believe that their characters existed before they found them and will continue to exist thereafter. I find this unlikely. Even if it's your experience as a writer, it's not the fact of the text: the fact of the text is that he isn't wearing socks until they become relevant, or if he is, we have no idea what kind until you tell us. Imagining that your character extends very far beyond the text seems a source of much trouble in fiction. You want the reader to infer, of course, and we will generally infer socks if the character is shod -- but if you don't stay very clear on what is about the character and what merely might be inferred, you are likely to write very dull fiction. I have seen instructors say that a draft is incomplete because the writer doesn't know the character well enough, and I always feel that this is severely unlikely -- that because the character will always and only emerge from the action and event of the story, the real trouble is that the action is insufficiently clear or interesting.

Think about the difference in reality between a character described through knowledge that existed before the character was written in this scene and described through knowledge of action in the scene. The latter always feels more persuasive, more real: it feels as if it is actually happening, or happened, even if it's impossible. I never believe any "background info" for any character. It seems false, because it seems to preexist the text -- to be something forced on the text by the writer. I think a lot of people feel this way. Maybe most of us, now.

The exercise is most often used with beginning writers, which is ironic because I always feel as if beginners tend to know too much about their characters. They know how they look, how they feel about each other, what they did yesterday and the day before, what they will do tomorrow. They fail to discover the character through writing, where we can see it. Their knowledge allows them to forget to use the text and the page -- so often, the action has already happened, while I wasn't looking. The characters have been defined elsewhere, outside the text. And so I can't know them here, and now, within it.

To tell you the truth, I often know next to nothing about my characters. I don't know much about how most of them look -- rather, I imagine their appearances as the intersections of many probabilities and possibilities. I know parts of their bodies much better than others. I know parts of their backgrounds very clearly but mostly not at all. Frequently I forget their names mid-draft. This is partly because I am forgetful. I am an extreme case. But it is partly because I believe that plot and action and story are what happen when I engage, now, with a text. When I am writing I discover my characters, my false people. This sometimes lends them a sort of flatness, I'm sure. But our knowledge of each other is also flat. Our knowledge of ourselves is flat. Our knowledge of every character is flat. Complexity in fiction is usually one of two things: legitimate mystery, or shallow artifice. When it comes to character especially, it is shallow artifice. I find it irritating, honestly. I do not believe in complexity. I do not believe in fiction as a site for knowledge. It is a place where we do not, should not, know.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Reviews of Fruit Candies

I have a problem: I love fruit candies. Ever since I was a kid, I've had a thing for them, I think for several reasons: 1) They're the most artificial food possible. There is literally nothing real about them. They look like plastic, they feel more or less like plastic, they're perfectly consistent -- no variation at all, which is a real issue for me in food -- and they look nothing like fruit, taste nothing like fruit, and yet claim to be fruit-flavored. 2) They come in variety packs. You get a bag of chocolates, they are very likely to be a bunch of the same exact chocolate. That sucks. I want like four flavors at least. 3) I briefly served as the leader of a religion based on the worship of Starbursts. That's... maybe another post. Here are my thoughts on some fruit candies:

Sour Punch Straws

Oh man. Listen. These things. They are delicious and sour. You have to make sure to get them soft -- genuinely squeeze them in the store to check if they're stale -- but if you're lucky these are just transcendent. The strawberry is probably going to be your favorite unless you're genuinely into sour candy, which I am. In which case, go green apple: I literally ate like a case of these in three weeks the summer before I met Tracy. (I was ludicrously depressed and they were cheap that way at Sam's. But let's be honest, I'd do the same thing now if I thought she would let me.)

Twizzlers Cherry

Pure garbage. I hate these things. They're stiff, they're too chewy, and the flavor is about two rungs above cough syrup. Bleck. Pull and Peel Twizzlers were better, at least when you could get them in other flavors -- I was fond of the mixed berry -- but they killed that shit and now it's just cherry Pull and Peel, too. Which, again, sucks viciously. ... Okay so I just Googled these and it turns out I'm thinking of strawberry Twizzlers. This is one of those surprisingly common situations where being totally wrong only makes me more right: Jesus Christ, that is a terrible strawberry candy.

Twizzlers Rainbow

Okay, much, much better: these are soft (again, squeeze them to be sure), they have a wide variety of flavors (strawberry, orange, lemonade, watermelon, blue raspberry, grape -- watermelon, orange, and grape are by far the best), and the flavors have a sort of low-key subtlety I really appreciate. They're not too sweet, not too anything -- just pleasant. Well-crafted. Like an early Michael Chabon story. I'm eating these now. They're a real standby.

Twizzlers with the Stuff Inside

I don't remember what these are called but they're pretty exciting. You only get two flavors -- cherry and lemon, which you would think wouldn't work out that well because as we've established cherry is not Twizzlers' strength and lemon is always the weakest flavor (which bank is lobbying them to put it in everything?) but think cherry lemonade. These are a slightly more waxy style of Twizzler, but still soft (CHECK THAT THEY ARE SOFT) and, surprise!, filled with a delicious tart gummy filling. These candies are, when I'm drunk, usually the best thing that happens to my mouth.


These are the "intense" fruit chew. They're all sort of sour, there are a bunch of delicious flavors, it's hard to describe exactly how they differ from Starbursts except that they're a completely different thing. They can be especially good if you let them warm up a little and get kind of gooey in the car. I remember Tracy and I bought a bag of these and ate a bunch of them together in the Butler parking lot once when I was in a bad way. Sick? Sad? I don't remember.

Beer Bread Gummies

This is in non-fruit, imaginary gummy that I invented. It's like a tiny piece of toast, except instead it's a gummy, but it tastes like bread. And it's filled with sweetened wheat beer that busts out like a gusher when you bite it, and it's delicious.

Why I Don't Read (Short) Fiction: Tin House


The Ambush


Donna Tartt

First Line:

"Before I met Tim- who, in spite of everything I'm about to tell you, would be my best friend for the next four or five years- my mother warned me on the way over to his grandmother's house that I had to be nice to him."

Las Line:

"And I was only eight, and Mrs. Cameron would be home from the hospital in a couple of days with seventeen stitches in her arm, but still- I knew it even then- I was as close at that moment to the real war as I was ever going to get."

I skimmed this story and it's about kids playing war.  I don't know for sure, but I'm willing to bet something happens that's an "ambush" to the speaker and the reader.

Subscribe to Tin House (for the poetry [seriously, this issue contains such awesome lines as, "limbo was my body and mud.  and long and shiny/ and briny what i polished with my tongue marmo hard and pallina" by Olena Kalytiak Davis, as well as words by Dean Young])

Monday, April 18, 2011

Irony vs. Understanding

Right now on the Kindle I am reading Ted Chiang's Stories of Your Life and Others, a book of sci-fi short stories put on the Kindle by the excellent Small Beer Press and originally published (naturally) by Tor, home to much decent science fiction, and often terrible cover art.

I unambiguously like certain old-school sci-fi: Asimov, Bradbury, Heinlein. I decided to give Ted Chiang a try based not only on the recommendation of someone whose opinions I care about (uh...Owen Pallett), but because it was lauded as pretty story-heavy sci-fi--the kind of sci-fi that foregrounds a character's experience with the unknown and the unnatural, and not just their witnessing of it. It is so far full of imaginary cities and impossible drugs and crazy mathematics and aliens, and, as promised, it does concentrate on the characters' encounter with and ability to deal with these unpredictable situations. These characters aren't Asimov's Powell and Donovan, chucking theories and insults at each other until they get the crazy robot fixed. Chiang's characters will, often, chuck theories--a great many of them, so far, have been some variety of genius--but the stories ultimately come down (often because they're peopled by geniuses) to questions of where one finds a place in his or her mind for the unknown and the impossible, and how much deviation from the normal world a brain or psyche can take before destroying itself and damaging a person's ability to relate to others.

This is not to say that Chiang's stories invest much at all in the sort of psychological realism we expect from Alice Munro, or even a more "literary" sci-fi writer like Philip K. Dick. His stories are unabashed about their genre, and they are extremely straightforward about how these paranormal phenomena affect the characters. When Ted Chiang tells you that a man has fallen out of love with his wife because her thought patterns have changed utterly and he can't access the way she works in order to empathize with her anymore, that is exactly what is happening and exactly the proper explanation for it. People in these stories (again--so far) do not waver in their conclusions, and the world of the stories does not punish them for their confidence. No one, so far, has been exactly wrong--they have made guesses until they arrived at the right conclusion (very scientific method of them). And because no one ends up being wrong, there is no real sense of irony in the stories--no sense that the characters' expectations will eventually be thwarted. I kept waiting for characters to experience reversals in their understandings, to have their worldviews upset, and I had to learn that this was simply not to come.

It was the second story in the collection that broke me of this: "Understand." In it, a previously normal guy with a lot of brain damage following an accident receives an injection of a super-drug that massively increases his intelligence. When he grows smart enough to perceive that the military and other government agencies are going to want to use him for their own ends, he mounts a complicated escape plot derived from his sharp intuitions of those who are after him, meanwhile obtaining more of the drug so he can become even more intelligent. After the final injection, he essentially becomes a human computer, an infinitely powerful network of thought and invention. He creates his own language; he works on a design to link human brains to computers. Soon enough, though, he discovers that there is another like him, and that that man is trying to contact him, and will have to be reckoned with if he's going to keep up his genius work. The two meet, and try to destroy one another via telepathic interference. It's revealed that any human has a destruct command, and that another person can invoke it if they only understand the other mind well enough. The main character is fairly secure in the inviolability of his mind, but second superman finds a loophole, and is able to destroy the main character after all.

There's about a million places for irony to take the reins in this story, and I kept waiting for them to take shape. I thought that the main character could be wrong about his level of intelligence. I thought he could be wrong that the government was after him. I thought he could turn out to be designing something very different than new languages and supercomputers. I thought he could be wrong about the existence of this second superman. He wasn't. He was only wrong about the inviolability of his mind, and even this he was pretty equivocal about--he was smart, and he realized it could go either way.

I have been in an MFA, and I have been given largely literary realism to read. If the main character's expectations don't stand to be disappointed or reversed, especially in a first-person story, I become unsure of what to read for. Even in sci-fi, aren't I ultimately reading about minds, about people and systems of understanding, and how the human psychology is revealed by (or asserted in spite of) encounters with the paranormal? I've been struggling with it, and more than once I've thought of putting the book down, and letting it go.

But I kept reading. And I really enjoy reading it. What reading this book, and the above story in particular, has made me realize is that my reading list over the past several years and its emphasis on the necessity of irony has bred in me the habit of fundamentally distrusting a narrator--even of thinking they're somehow dumb, that they have major blind spots that I can see but they can't. Reading Ted Chiang, I've been learning to read for greater immediacy of experience--the ways that the unexpected can affect us now, can change us immediately, not how they can set us up for a fall down the road. In some ways it's a really refreshing take on the universe; it's not nearly so centralized as it is in much mainstream literary fiction. This book does not prioritize the mystery of personality, as Flannery O'Connor would ask--it rarely raises the question of how people get themselves into the scrapes that come to define their lives: work, travels, affairs, divorces, deaths, births. It focuses itself on those experiences which simply visit a person, independent of their influence or input; it presents characters whose personalities have little to do with their predicaments, and can't be harnessed to resolve them. It deals with experiences that are, despite the best efforts of the protagonist, somehow inescapable. Many of the stories so far seem to end with a cry of "Oh"--an I see, whether that new understanding leads to joy or to loss.

I remembered, reading this, the pleasure of coming to an understanding, as opposed to having one's existing understanding undermined. And there is a sense of crisis to coming to an understanding--this style of storytelling is not without stakes. It's just that the stakes come from outside the person, and the responsibility for human feeling, for earnest reaction and response, comes from within. Reading this book has been a good experience for me. It's been good for me to remember that sci-fi generally exists in part to expand our understanding of the universe, and not just of ourselves. How nice that is for a change, to think of how the world works, rather than just how we do.

A question, which I might later try to answer.

If you were to start over, without the MFA, what would teaching and learning about creative writing after the undergraduate degree (or in its absence) look like?

How would you do it? How would you like to see it done?

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Actual Synopses from Netflix

Putting this entire post behind a cut because it's kind of retarded.

Why I'm not reading The Pale King just yet

You may remember the period wherein I blogged regularly on the experience of reading Infinite Jest. While I can't honestly say it was the revelation for me that it was for many other readers -- Wallace had some habits that I think kept his fiction from being all that it could have been, particularly in terms of his moral and intellectual anxieties re: fiction as a form -- it was one of the most rich and engaging experiences I've had with a book in some time. It was consistently alive, always making decisions, taking risks, and surprising me. Its wild swerves from paragraph to paragraph became a minor obsession. Like probably a lot of people, I decided to write a book that would incorporate some of its style and form for my next novel; when I have any free time at all again, I'll put some more time in (I have, I think, about 8,000 words -- a drop in the projected bucket).

I am not however reading The Pale King, and I don't plan to do so any time soon. It's not that I have any moral compunctions. I don't care if Wallace would have rather had us read it or not, honestly: I would strip a dead man of his riches, and a dead novelist is no different. He can't use it anymore, so I feel that it's rightfully mine. I don't mind either that it isn't finished. Most writers' unfinished drafts would not be worth reading. Wallace is not most writers. Nor am I worried about the process by which the book was stitched together. All novels should be collaborations. The author is a part of a process. I don't care for purity.

The trouble is that everywhere I go right now I see commentary about The Pale King or Wallace himself, as a person. I will admit that knowledge of him as a person has never been good for me in my reading -- his ideas, about which he was perhaps too forthcoming at times, are often irritating to me personally. So I am mostly avoiding the biography, insofar as I can do that. But then the literary commentary is often quite interesting. And so I get sucked in. I have ideas and opinions about the book in spite of never having read it. I may have already assessed it, may have determined how I feel about the whole project, from a position of total ignorance about its actual text. This is not a comfortable position for me. The object of the book is becoming something for me to use. Something for me to position myself with, adjacent to, against, beneath, above, etc. It is becoming a way for me to talk about myself, as I am doing here in this post. And you see this in others, also: people tweet about having The Pale King, about their excitement for The Pale King, about how they are tired of reading about The Pale King, about how they will never read The Pale King, about how they are suspicious of the text of The Pale King. It's exhausting.

Reading is inherently social, and it derives a great deal of its richness from one's awareness of the larger community's engagement with a book. But there comes a point where I can barely even see the words on the page for all the conversations and arguments I am having with the secondary materials I've read. This is why I've mostly stopped reading reviews of films I plan to see: more and more often, I spend too much time fighting with the critics on one point while conceding another to actually perceive the film itself. I'm at this point with The Pale King, and I haven't even read a significant portion of the commentary it's already spawned. I have a feeling it's going to be years before I can read the book. But I don't mind waiting.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Fan Mail

I think sometimes about writing letters to people whose writing or music or comic I love. I think of writing them e-mails that tell them how I think their work is important. How they give me faith that there are things worth doing in the world. How their art is an important part of the steady stream of art that makes me want to live more than I want to die. (You are not supposed to say that; I save it for very specific people whose work evinces suicidal ideation, on the rare occasion that I write these letters.) I very rarely write fan letters. There are several reasons.

One is awkwardness. I never ask questions at author Q&As because I know they would detect the shortness of my breathing and know how badly I wanted. They might not know what I wanted, or they might know exactly, but they would know about the wanting. And wanting in public is very difficult, is generally considered rude. I am sure that experienced readers would feel that same breathing in my letters, prose being after all mainly a way of giving structure to air. And if they feel me breathing it will be like I am there. And this will make them uncomfortable.

There is also the idea of "awkwardness" between classes. You know the way that when someone else has a lot of money and you are talking to them, no matter what you say it feels as if you're talking about money? As if you're asking them for some, or preparing them for the asking, or not asking really but trying to look or to be a certain way so that they will naturally and of their own accord decide that they would like you to have some money? Or if you have a lot of money, you know how you can feel the way that other people feel this way when they talk to you? I feel as if people with talent and artistic success and/or recognition thereof must experience the same thing when they speak to those of us with less.

As in, when I write an e-mail to a great writer, I am convinced they can tell that what I really want is for them to find my letter wonderful, for them to write me back and get to know me, that they will take me under their wings. I am not consciously wanting this but in the same way some part of me is always trying to get money from people with a lot of money I think I am trying to get talent, trying to get skill and knowledge and so on, from those that have those. And I want them to help me. And I want to help them also, in some way. Not because I am a good person but because then they would think well of me and so might others.

I have confessed before and will confess again to intense cynicism re: my own motives. I treat myself like I am scum, a scam artist, when I have never scammed anyone that I know of.

I guess what I am wondering is how to write an e-mail to someone I like without getting trapped in a loop of narcissistic self-scrutiny that never ends. I want to just write a letter. I have gotten fan mail, small nice letters, and it was lovely. Would like to spread the good feelings on everybody's tummies like peanut butter.

And then at the same time, on the other hand, sometimes I want to ask someone a favor. I want to actually do that. I want to ask them for help. But I don't know how to do that either.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Words Of Wisdom

I sat at the bar last night talking to this lady that lives in my neighborhood for like an hour.  She's middle aged, writes about the telecom industry for the telecom industry, has a 19 yo son and she finished her novel last September.  She tells me this everytime I talk to her.  It's not bad, she assures me, cause she reads a lot of books and she knows, but she's frustrated with the system for publication.  I generally hate fiction aside from Denis Johnson, Roberto Bolaño, or Cormac McCarthy, so I usually just blank the fuck out when I see/talk to her.  She talks about her novel everytime I see her.  She finished it in September.  Until today I had no desire to ever even peak a look at her book on amazon, which she self-published for kindle.  Next time I see her, I will get her writer name and find her book.  I will read her book that she finished in September.  It will not be written by David Foster Wallace's selfish money-hungry publisher.  It will not (I hope) be titled The Pale King.  I'm going to read her book.

Why today?  What changed my mind?  A post on Blake Butler's blog was re-blogged a million billion times and I saw it aggregated as I was looking at this blog/journal about asemic writing, because I was in this journal with the person who does the asemic writing.  Blake's post was written about 2.2 weeks before I started my MFA here at NMSU.  I wish I would have read it as a prerequisite to starting classes here.  Not because I was all "I'm going to publish like a fucking madmanpimp and fuck you all!" but because I am just now figuring out that what Blake said then is truth.  Here I was staring at the most weird/fucked up/awesome example of what I could ever call 'writing'.  I wanted to tell this guy Michael Jacobson that these were awesome things, that I wouldn't know how to make unless I took a class at the community college for a couple of semesters.  So, Michael Jacobson, those are awesome things.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Sutherland Douglass -- "Peeping Tom 'Rockefeller'"

We're thrilled to announce the publication of our second online story, Sutherland Douglass' "Peeping Tom 'Rockefeller.'"

What is the story about? It is about watching. It is about being watched. It is strange, beautiful, delicate, fragile, and surprisingly tender. It is one of the most unnerving things I've read in some time. The first time I read it, in the slush, I went straight through on the first go -- tasting it, and feeling very strange. In laying it out, I got to experience that thrill again, and it was really something.

Sutherland Douglass has been publishing really interesting, exciting material here and there for some time. We'll be featuring those works throughout the next week in order to give you some context from which to appreciate this latest contribution. For now, please consider sharing this story with friends over Twitter, Facebook, and elsewhere.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

I'm loyal to books, not book stores.

The literati of the Internet are constantly looking for something to mourn. They also like to pose as people who hate commerce. Jonathan Franzen, today's official Important Author and a man featured on the cover of time, takes every opportunity to whine about how no one reads anymore, though his book has achieved such a tremendous reading public. He is, in other words, an ingrate, and so are most writers: we fetishize our supposed obsolescence as proof that we are doing something important, that we are special, that we "get it" where others don't. And yet the numbers show that this is an excellent time to be a reader and a writer -- probably the best in history. If we are honest with ourselves we can feel this; the books we think should find success do not always find success, but sometimes they do. Amazon sold out of Blake Butler's There Is No Year in a couple days. The market is healthy. There are exciting publishers putting out brilliant work at an unprecedented rate. And more people than ever before are making money on their writing. Most of us don't get to do that, but it has been ever thus -- if it seems the market is harsher, this is only because opportunity has so greatly expanded.

There is only one sector of publishing where significant losses are taking place: the distribution of books. Book stores are closing often and they are legitimately difficult to keep open. Book stores can't match Amazon on prices, selection or convenience, and they have more overhead. While those who say the book store is dying are probably exaggerating the case -- there will be sufficient demand for physical bookstores well into the future, I think -- it's clear that the herd is thinning. And I guess I'm supposed to be sad about this. To mourn their passing. Writers taken to the pleasures of self-righteousness are never so full of themselves as when they lecture you about the necessity of book stores, about the wonders of book sellers, without whom we would not be able to sell our books. 

But this is an absurdity. If they were selling our books, they wouldn't be going out of business. The book store is dying because it can't compete. And while writers have justifiable skepticism of buzz words like "free market," the market's basic mechanism -- that people exchange money for things they want to own, thus perpetuating systems that give them what they want while failing to perpetuate those that do not -- is pretty goddamn important. Right now, the market is saying, "Book stores need to find another model or they will die." There are times where the market fails us, where we need to intervene and change the course of money. But I see little reason to believe in the moral superiority of a system wherein books are printed at location A, shipped to warehouse B, shipped from there to bookstores C through P, wherein these books then fail to sell, and are mostly shipped to location Q, to be stripped of their jackets and destroyed.

I suspect it is their very irrelevance which makes them so important to authors. I remember when writers absolutely loathed the big box stores. Now that these too are struggling, they've transferred much of their hatred to Amazon, which had the gall to succeed, to sell our books (or, to speak more honestly, the books of others); some are still too pure for big box stores, perhaps, but the sudden cloying wave of nostalgia is smothering me.

Yes, book sellers are people, and yes, I would like them to have jobs, and yes, their work is often thankless and compensates them too little. Some of these are really only reasons for them to find other, better work. None of them are more important than the survival of reading and writing. Writers are asked to support many through their work: the barnacles of over-sized promotions departments, agents, corporate boards, editors who too rarely take the trouble to edit, and then on top of all that an increasingly outmoded network of distributors and sellers. Writers are asked to support presses whose work they may not necessarily like, they are asked to finance the publication of their own work, and a thousand other little bits of welfare for writing, publishers and salespeople unwilling to do the hard work of finding readers and bringing them pleasure. And then, on top of all this, people demand that we finance the sellers, when their only contribution is the sale.


If they can't sell the books themselves, if they can't entice people to shop there without appealing to guilt and shame and fear, without leaning on the myths of looming extinction that seem to bring writers such pleasure, then they cannot do their jobs, and we would be better off without them.