Monday, June 28, 2010

Some fiction writers I love, some tropes I don't.

The difficult part of submitting to a new magazine, and of reading for one, is that nobody quite knows what's being looked for. You all don't know what we like to read yet (you haven't seen us put together an issue) and in some ways we're not entirely sure what we want yet (it's hard to say what a magazine's aesthetic will be until you've had to actually build an issue or two). And then there's the fact that we genuinely do want to be open to the material we've got no idea we want. But I think it'll be helpful for everyone if we offer some material we especially love so you can get an idea of the range of our interests, as well as noting a few things that do tend to turn us off.

My approach to poetry is perhaps idiosyncratic so I will leave that for another post, with the understanding that poets will likely be able to work out something about our tastes by reading the below post anyway.

Stuff I Love

China Miéville: Miéville is best at world creation, fantastic imagery, and weaving a political argument into his work in a genuinely interesting, engaging way. His language doesn't consistently amaze me in terms of sound and rhythm, but the thickness of it, and the way he uses a mixture of SF, fantasy and horror tropes and terminology can be really thrilling. He doesn't shy away from a fun adventure, a fantastic creature, or a rousing battle. Sheer creativity, imagination, power. Especially love The Scar, Iron Council, and The City & The City. Really looking forward to Kraken, which should be here very soon (thanks Ben!).

Kurt Vonnegut: This goes without saying, I think (though perhaps not so much for people my age, especially given the failure of many in the academy to push Vonnegut as they should) but Vonnegut has long been my favorite writer. My biggest regret with him in some ways is that I've already read most of his material and by all accounts his best; I'm saving what I can, and in some ways I hope to forget what I've read so I can do it all again. His sense of humor, his simple but beautiful language, and his ability to mix human empathy and feeling with brutal honesty are incredible. My favorites among his works are Breakfast of Champions, Bluebeard, and Mother Night. He, like Miéville, had a skill for addressing politics without being didactic or boring. His skill in character creation is severely under-estimated. He was supposed to speak at my school. He died that week instead. His family came and his son spoke. I nearly wept.

Samuel Beckett: This is another that should go without saying but perhaps does not. Of course Waiting for Godot is incredible, funny, bleak bare beautiful. Murphy is very funny and cruel. To be entirely honest, most of his work is less immediately enjoyable for me, but it's so purely itself, so uncompromising in its pursuit of its own ends, that my enjoyment becomes sort of irrelevant, and I marvel at the thing he's built. This is part of what we mean when we say we want to be surprised.

Franz Kafka: Do I really have to say this? Do I need to explain it?

Kelly Link: Kelly Link is incredible, a master of short fiction. Her restless invention, her fearlessness, her mixture of genres, her love for story for story's sake, her style of characterization, her utterly charming voice, her sharp sense of humor, her ability to mix horror and beauty and laughter, the sheer massive amounts of fun she clearly has writing, make her work completely irresistible. Kelly Link, if you read this, please send us something!

Shirley Jackson: This is one Tracy and I share. I'll leave it to her to explain her feelings, but I think Shirley Jackson is probably one of the single most underrated writers in American history. Yes, there's "The Lottery," which is very good, but sort of has a trick to it, right? You read it once and then you can never quite read it again. Her short stories are subtle, strange, frightening, mysterious, and lovely, human and inhuman in the best ways, prickly and weird, engaged with the problems of her time and place from an unexpected, unpredictable angle. If I could only pick one writer whose influence I want to see more strongly in our slush and in the world more generally, I think it would be her.

Tim O'Brien: The Things They Carried is widely recognized as a great novel in stories, but the sheer range and depth displayed therein is, if anything, under-appreciated. Any collection containing something as formally relentless and utterly itself as the titular story next to something as fearless, surreal, inventive and frightening as "Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong" is bound to be one of the best.

Thomas Pynchon: Don't feel like I can say anything about Pynchon that hasn't been said a hundred million times. He's great.

Helen DeWitt: I'll be teaching her The Last Samurai to my creative writing students this fall. DeWitt may be the best living writer by which to understand my aesthetics, because she is both endlessly inventive in formal terms (her manipulation of language and the page, her energetic narration) and devoted to powerful, emotionally resonant narrative (the stories of the various potential fathers and so on). Have you read this? You should read this.

Brian Evenson: Evenson looms tremendous in contemporary writing. His interest in genre, his wide range of styles and subjects, the horror he can evoke, his visceral language, his invention, his crystal clear aesthetic (even as his aesthetic mutates), and his citizenship within the community of writers and readers all inspire. The Subtle Knife is a good starting point.

Of course there are a lot of others as well, including a lot of less widely-known young new writers, but I've omitted most of them for a lot of different reasons you wouldn't care to know. Suffice it to say that I am very sympathetic to the aesthetics of journals like No Colony and Caketrain and so on, but I would like to read many other things as well.

The things my favorite writers share in common, I think, are fearlessness and invention. These are writers who write what they want to read, writers who create works that are utterly and totally themselves. They combine formal innovation with exciting story. And they're, you know, fun.

Tropes I tend not to enjoy

Manliness as the solution: If I'm supposed to leave a story thinking, "Ah, so the solution was being more of a man," or, "Wow, I didn't realize how great real men are," that is not a story I'm likely to go for. Half of English literature thus far reads this way to me and I could use other things in my life now.

Manliness as the means: Likewise, if your prose is calculated to be read in a very deep voice, possibly through a haze of cigar smoke and whiskey stench, this may not be your home. It's not that I'm opposed to masculinity (rather proud of my own) but that tired reiterations of MANLY MANLY MANLINESS are, well, tired.

Stories about drunk guys making fools of themselves: Especially southerners. This seems to be the favored joke of literary journals but I'm so incredibly tired of it I could puke.

Stories about the inscrutability of women: Or stories about the inscrutability of black people, or stories about the inscrutability of Asians, or etc. While perceived sexual and racial difference are still fertile ground for fiction, generally speaking I can't respect a protagonist who finds other human beings so totally baffling -- at least, not if I feel like the writer has the same problem.

Stories about painting houses: I guess teachers really do spend their summers this way fairly often, because sweet Christ have I read too many stories about dudes painting houses. I'm not categorically against this as a subject but it really feels like at this point we need to give this one a rest for a while.

Stories about the difficulty of coming home from war: Some of these are great. And I'm actually very sympathetic to war stories -- I write a lot about it myself, though usually from a less direct angle. The thing that gets me about these is that people tend to write this stuff more from a sense of obligation or opportunity ("people will think this is literary and smart!") and I usually feel blackmailed to respond emotionally, rather than a genuine response. If you really mean it, okay, cool, let's try it. But do you really mean it?

Stories about bad sex: There's a consensus out there that stories of bad sex are more "literary." And, yeah, awkward sex can make for great stories. But personally I'd rather have some fun and read something genuinely hot even in its awkwardness. I feel like I read a lot about rape. That's fine, but what if we publish one story featuring healthy sex for every story featuring sexual assault?

Stories about writers, especially if the writing itself is not central to the story: Oh God. Ugh.

Stories wherein a foreign language is rendered in italics: There's probably a whole post to do about this issue, but since the magazine I edit in my day job is called Puerto del Sol, I spend a lot of time reading stories composed 95% in English, with the other 5% being words any moron could understand from previous knowledge or context, rendered in italics. "Maria asked her abuelo for some tacos." That kind of shit. Foreign language in a story is great, but generally the first thing I'll do is strip the italics from it and see if it still works, because I likely won't publish something with italics if I can possibly help it. I also can't handle the condescension of stories that use other languages like a Super Friends token character. "This situation is muy bad, Super Friends! Hola!" This one drives Tracy crazy too.

But don't worry too much

You write your best work. We'll sort it out. That's our job.


  1. This has been great to read, Mike.

    I'll use it as a suggested reading list.

    Bob M

  2. Now I kind of want to write an entire story in Superfriends speak. "Los enemigos are swarming over todo la mountain! It is time to think muy quick! Gracias! Nada!"

  3. I can see a way to make that work, actually. Assuming you didn't choke to death on the bile that gathered with each punctuation mark.