Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Library Review: Orlando Main Location

Today I went to the library. I decided to do this because our landlord requested to show the apartment to a prospective renter's mother, who would decide whether her daughter would take over this place after Sarah and I leave. I could have stayed in the apartment but who wants to sit around drinking coffee while a stranger shows another stranger the hallway, the bathroom, the dining room without a table, especially when that second strangers is not even the person who will inhabit the space? Weird. Anyway, I had just paid off my eight-dollar library fine, which wasn't enough to keep me from checking out books but was enough to earn me a talking-to from whatever librarian happened to swipe my card, and now there was no threat of browbeating, lecturing.

So I went to the library, feeling sad about my pretty, expansive, noisy, hot, strangely colored apartment, and about the city around my apartment, which could adopt those same adjectives, and I decided to write about the downtown library, and then I decided to review it.

SADNESS: The only library I've been in that hasn't squelched with sadness is the Rod Library on the University of Northern Iowa's campus. It is made of four floors, each appearing to exist in a separate slice of time, so that you start in the burnt-orange fuzziness of the basement and climb a set of stairs or ride one of the tiny shaking elevators up to the glass and polished wood of the fourth floor. People sleep everywhere, and they look peaceful doing it, and nobody hassles them. People flirt across work tables. Even the people shoving carts of hardbacks look happy.

But most libraries are sadder places, and Orlando's main branch is no exception. You approach on a sunshot street noisy with traffic and the library's bulk hulks ahead, gray and matte against the blue sky, and you think, that's not so bad, and then you turn and you think, It's a bunker.

It's an attractive bunker, at least, in an attractive part of town. A wide domino of concrete juts out over the main doors, and it is usually festooned with a gaudy advertisement. Last year the library and an artist put patrons up on the awning to read their favorite books into microphones, to the passersby and to those with nowhere to go who wait in the awning's shadow. I considered applying to read Candide and then imagined myself up there at 9 in the morning, waving to Sarah, Take the picture!

But it is a sad bunker, too, and the sidewalk beneath and the spaces inside are filled with backpacked people who look like they would like to rest somewhere more comfortable than at the library. The water faucets operate with unpredictable force, and the computer area is clotted always with users. The colors of everything are comfortable, but not too comfortable, in the way the walls of a grandparent's house are inviting but not too inviting, not enough to make you want to stay. The furniture is such that after an hour of reading I was ready to get up and move. As at any library, books lurk everywhere, long untouched.

So there is a fairly steady creep of melancholy in this library, sometimes undetectable but all the more sinister for its stealth.

EXTRA STUFF: Some libraries give themselves over wholly to their books, and others devote space and time to instruction, meetings, shows. Our city's main branch seems devoted to reaching into the community, pulling people in. A few minutes ago someone from the library tweeted in interest in finding local bands to play, presumably on this stage:

There are rooms in which you can vote when it's voting time, and rooms in which you can see authors speak. (I saw Laura van den Berg read from What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us here, in a room inexplicably lined with caricatured beer steins.) There are classes, but with titles like eBay Buying and eBay Selling. My favorite feature of this location is a small café, just off the lobby, in which you can buy a one-dollar coffee to drink while reading your books and trying not to spill all over them. You can buy a fairly cheap bagel or a salad or a breakfast sandwich and try not to crumb up the pages of your hardback. The walls are lined with blown-up comics featuring coffee. Some of the walls are flimsy pieces draped between the tables and the main collections table, the observation of which horrified me at first, as if at any moment a raving librarian may burst through, Kool-Aid Man style. I wanted to take some pictures in this café today but the place was full of people who may have been concerned about a fairly disheveled man taking shots from the corner.

COLLECTION: It is weird. The collection here is weirder than at anywhere else I've been. It is usually unlikely that a book you come for will be in, even if it was supposed to be in (most books not listed in the online catalog as checked out are listed not as available but as check shelves, which may as well read maybe), but it is likely that a book you didn't know you wanted or that you'd forgotten you wanted will be there. Today I found Ben Percy's novel, which is not so weird, but I think of him as up in Iowa (he teaches now where I went to grad school) and didn't expect his name on these shelves. I also looked for an Arthur Phillips novel and found this instead:

"One man knows the location of the Ark of the Covenant!" This seemed much more exciting and silly when I took the photo.

I intended to complain here about the music collection, as its shelves are even more unpredictable than those that house the books, with CDs just gone, seemingly forever, and with everything jumbled together by first letter, so that you will never, never find anything in a precise or even close-to-precise alphabetical order, will never find Mi after Me after Ma, but today a library employee was finally fixing this problem, and talking to herself while she did it, and to me, and to anyone else around. Last time I tried to pick up a few albums I was stymied by a guy with a basket who seemed bent on filling it indiscriminately, click click click, scoop, rearrange, and today there was a woman cleaning things up! It was amazing! I still couldn't find any of the discs I'd hoped for, but still: hope.

On the relationship between detective fiction and literary fiction

For two semesters in a row I taught a class on composition in the humanities and social sciences that used detective fiction as a way of exploring how we know what we know -- or what we think we know. The class was my attempt at introducing freshmen and sophomores to relatively sophisticated concepts of epistemology by way of entertaining fictions and a bit of television. Both times, the syllabus said that we would read Flannery O'Connor. I never had the balls to specify in advance which story: it was going to be "The Artificial Nigger," a longtime favorite of mine (and, to my thinking, probably one of her top three stories, though it should have ended several paragraphs sooner). 

Inevitably I found that my students were not mature enough to deal with matters of race as difficult as those raised by the story, especially in the terms the story employed -- they could barely make sense of the Sherlock Holmes mystery "The Adventure of the Yellow Face," which is both less and more racist (more in intent, less in its apparent surface) and in any case far simpler. So both times I dropped the story. But what I wanted to do, and this may have been a project beyond the scope of that classroom anyway, was to make a link between detective fiction and literary fiction. I wanted to talk about the principle they have in common.

Literary fiction has often been a way of communicating between classes, races, and sexes. Often this has served oppressive ends (the main literary communication between sexes before women were allowed full participation in fiction seems to have been paternalistic moral instruction, and more generally the re-inscription of official hierarchies) but it can also be a way to advance our empathetic connections across apparent boundaries. Uncle Tom's Cabin, one of the greatest successes and failures in English literary history, was meant to rewrite race relations by revealing something about the secret lives of black Americans. As I've said, it was both a great success and a great failure: inaccurate, but effective as political and cultural intervention.

Literary fiction is generally, I think, at least a little recuperative even when it attempts to revise hierarchies; there is an expectation in the genre that even the most unappealing villains will be afforded some amount of sympathy and understanding by the story's end. But it also attempts the more profound goal of reassuring us that we are all human beings. It often does this by revealing the internal lives of various classes, sexes, professions, etc. -- it helps us understand what it is to be a woman, to be a man, to be rich, to be poor. Or at least what it could be.

Detective fiction often has overlapping goals, but with a different emphasis. In detective fiction, the goal is more explicitly than ever to understand a different sort of person -- a criminal. This often, even usually, involves detectives crossing boundaries of race, class, gender, nationality, and etc. in order to find out whodunnit and, more importantly, why. However, this crossing of boundaries is only occasionally designed to foster real empathy. In the Sherlock Holmes stories, the program is fundamentally one of re-inscribing hierarchies: the criminal's defective character is often linked to his defective race or class, and by totally understanding and defeating the criminal, Holmes masters his subordinates. 

Better detective fiction usually complicates this equation. Modern tastes run toward more emotionally troubled detectives who share a little or often a lot more with their criminal prey, to the point where Holmes himself is usually rewritten as a total fuck-up. Detective shows focusing on official law enforcement often focus on the grey areas where criminals and white hats blend (i.e., The Wire) and there is more concern over the possibility of a detective's failure (i.e., the constant worrying of the titular character's colleagues in House). We are more capable of admitting, at least in fiction, that authority often screws up, that it misunderstands its subjects, that the evidence doesn't always point in the right direction. We allow for a little more uncertainty.

It's no coincidence that detective fiction and television with these traits tend to seem more literary. Detective fiction and literary fiction are frequently negotiating spectra of uncertainty and empathy, circling a sort of sweet spot where the two meet. The more uncertain we are, the less capable we are of making the basic judgments about others necessary to empathy. However, too much certainty also moves us away from real empathy: the more rigid we are in our beliefs and perceptions, the more we inevitably force others into hierarchies for our convenience, management, and subjugation. 

Flannery O'Connor inhabits an interesting place from this perspective. At her best, she refuses to speculate on the internal lives of others (she is not very good, when she tries it, at such speculation). Instead, she evokes the mystery of others. In "The Artificial Nigger," a man and a boy journey through a city, encountering difference and its strange beautiful mystery. And yet at the end it suggests -- though to paraphrase great fiction is to rob it -- that even this mystery may be another way of managing the hierarchy, that white people in this city need black people to contemplate, to want, to fear, to not know. 

It is widely understood, thanks in large part to O'Connor's own speeches and essays, that mystery is very much at the heart of great literary fiction. And yet literary writers and readers rarely acknowledge the relationship of their preferred genre to that of, well, mystery -- to detective fiction. In both cases, we are often fundamentally concerned with the problems of how we can know each other.

For my part, I am skeptical of most answers both genres have produced. But I do love watching them try. And I will say this for detective fiction; because it is more explicit in its interest in knowledge, it can often be more explicit about the problems of knowledge, and this is (to me) far preferable to the falsely smooth surface literary fiction often offers. My favorite literary fiction is profoundly skeptical of itself and its own knowledge. When detective fiction makes things too easy -- as in Sherlock Holmes -- it is at least honest about itself, it at least admits that it is pure entertainment, even a sort of pornography, the facile story of an effortless penetration. Literary fiction will very rarely do us the favor of admitting when it's full of shit.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Ruin Your Characters' Lives

I have a weakness for TV shows about police and detectives more generally. Some are genuinely excellent -- The Wire, for instance -- and some are merely entertaining (that would be most of the rest). I used to watch Law and Order with some regularity, even Special Victims Unit, in spite of the fact that I find that particular iteration of the franchise not only tedious but morally deficient (the pleasure it takes in its own ugliness is second only to the smug pride the characters take in their own perfection). So my standards for the genre aren't exactly high, I'll admit.

I took an interest in Luther, a BBC detective series starring Idris Elba, first because I was curious what sort of British detective show would need an American actor, and because I love Idris Elba (again, The Wire). Well, turns out Idris Elba is British! So, that's one mystery solved. And for the first three episodes, I was mostly watching for him: the writing was okay, but -- much like SVU -- it seemed a little smug in places, a little too proud of its grasp of The Criminal Mind, a grasp that was (as it will be in any hour-long show) basically nonsense, the sort of excessively confident simplification that so often haunts the genre. And it felt, to be honest, a little exploitative at times.

There were a couple of continuing threads in the series: Luther's estrangement from his wife Zoe, who had found another man, and his relationship with Alice, a sociopath who murdered her own parents and got away with it. Alice immediately recognizes Luther's genius and becomes obsessed. This stuff was fine, but when an unexpected third element emerged in the fifth and penultimate episode -- a betrayal that made it impossible for things to continue as they had been -- the show seemed to find its legs. There were echoes of Othello here and there in the show, but of course a proper Othello requires an Iago, which is what the show found. And, here's the thing: suddenly it was fearless about ruining its characters' lives.

There had been a number of signs that the show would basically operate as a tragedy. Luther is an intellectual, but he's also a very large man with an uncontrollable temper, one who allowed at least one suspect to die (or nearly die) under his watch. In the first episode, we see him tear a door apart with his bare hands. Where his wife is involved, he tends to lose control. In a later episode, he throws something through his office window in full view of the entire unit, in spite of the fact he's currently under investigation for ethics violations and instability. He risks his career seemingly once daily, and his life nearly as often. However, unlike some shows featuring occasionally reckless cops, I always felt the odds were he would eventually ruin himself, that the status quo could not last.

In the fifth episode, this seems to happen. Central characters are killed in unexpected ways, Luther is sent on the run, his few real friendships are destroyed, and his career seems very likely to be over. So to do those of the people he's worked with, the young policeman he's taken under his wing, the officer who put her career on the line to keep him in work. By the sixth episode, some of these people are trying to kill him.

Luther is basically heroic, and so by the end of the series he comes around to make the right decision. Even still, he's screwed; his remaining allies make, in the last moment, an error that should put them all in prison. The cops are on their way. It seems impossible that they can talk themselves out of it, or flee, or otherwise repair what they have broken. There will apparently be another series, two episodes of two hours each, very soon. I don't know what on Earth they'll be about. As far as I can tell, all these lives are ruined.

This takes me back to when I was teaching introduction to creative writing, and I had one of those insights that you realize immediately should have been at the center of a whole day's lesson, or a week, or a semester's. We read a story by Daniel Wallace, from his novel in stories Ray in Reverse. The story was about a moment in Ray's life where he could have found love with a man. It seems clear, from the rest of the book, that Ray wasn't gay, but this story suggested that he was very probably bisexual, and that he could have been happy with this man, this artist. We talked as a class about how the reasonable thing to do in this moment would have been to explore the possibility of a relationship with this man. To take his time. To talk with friends about what he had come to know about himself. To find a way to accept himself, and to be happy. 

Instead, he flees the man he could have loved, finds the woman he already failed to love, and asks her to marry him. In subtle ways and ways less subtle, it probably ruins his life.

We talked about how this was probably the right way to make a story, or at least a certain kind of story. You find a character with the capacity to ruin himself or herself. You figure out what would make that happen. And then you push them until they snap. They don't have to go all the way, of course -- the ruin can be very small, in a sense, so long as it seems the worst thing this character could do, the worst thing he or she could see or know or feel. You want characters who make big mistakes. Who live to regret.

We so often encourage and reward carefulness in writers. But I think that a lot of us could stand to be more careless. It hurts to break someone you made. But that's what fiction is for. To imagine that level of pain without having to live it.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Atul Gawande's Harvard School of Medicine Commencement Speech

One of the best writers on health care and health care policy is Atul Gawande. Here are excerpts from his commencement speech at Harvard Medical School:
We are at a cusp point in medical generations. The doctors of former generations lament what medicine has become. If they could start over, the surveys tell us, they wouldn’t choose the profession today. They recall a simpler past without insurance-company hassles, government regulations, malpractice litigation, not to mention nurses and doctors bearing tattoos and talking of wanting “balance” in their lives. These are not the cause of their unease, however. They are symptoms of a deeper condition—which is the reality that medicine’s complexity has exceeded our individual capabilities as doctors. 
The core structure of medicine—how health care is organized and practiced—emerged in an era when doctors could hold all the key information patients needed in their heads and manage everything required themselves. One needed only an ethic of hard work, a prescription pad, a secretary, and a hospital willing to serve as one’s workshop, loaning a bed and nurses for a patient’s convalescence, maybe an operating room with a few basic tools. We were craftsmen. We could set the fracture, spin the blood, plate the cultures, administer the antiserum. The nature of the knowledge lent itself to prizing autonomy, independence, and self-sufficiency among our highest values, and to designing medicine accordingly. But you can’t hold all the information in your head any longer, and you can’t master all the skills. No one person can work up a patient’s back pain, run the immunoassay, do the physical therapy, protocol the MRI, and direct the treatment of the unexpected cancer found growing in the spine. I don’t even know what it means to “protocol” the MRI.  
Before Elias Zerhouni became director of the National Institutes of Health, he was a senior hospital leader at Johns Hopkins, and he calculated how many clinical staff were involved in the care of their typical hospital patient—how many doctors, nurses, and so on. In 1970, he found, it was 2.5 full-time equivalents. By the end of the nineteen-nineties, it was more than fifteen. The number must be even larger today. Everyone has just a piece of patient care. We’re all specialists now—even primary-care doctors. A structure that prioritizes the independence of all those specialists will have enormous difficulty achieving great care. ... the pattern seems to be that the places that function most like a system are most successful. 
By a system I mean that the diverse people actually work together to direct their specialized capabilities toward common goals for patients. They are coordinated by design. They are pit crews. To function this way, however, you must cultivate certain skills which are uncommon in practice and not often taught.
For one, you must acquire an ability to recognize when you’ve succeeded and when you’ve failed for patients. People in effective systems become interested in data. They put effort and resources into collecting them, refining them, understanding what they say about their performance. 
Second, you must grow an ability to devise solutions for the system problems that data and experience uncover. When I was in medical school, for instance, one of the last ways I’d have imagined spending time in my future surgical career would have been working on things like checklists. Robots and surgical techniques, sure. Information technology, maybe. But checklists? 
They turn out, however, to be among the basic tools of the quality and productivity revolution in aviation, engineering, construction—in virtually every field combining high risk and complexity. Checklists seem lowly and simplistic, but they help fill in for the gaps in our brains and between our brains. They emphasize group precision in execution. And making them in medicine has forced us to define our key aims for our patients and to say exactly what we will do to achieve them. Making teams successful is more difficult than we knew. Even the simplest checklist forces us to grapple with vulnerabilities like handoffs and checklist overload. But designed well, the results can be extraordinary, allowing us to nearly eliminate many hospital infections, to cut deaths in surgery by as much as half globally, and to slash costs, as well. 
These values are the opposite of autonomy, independency, self-sufficiency. Many doctors fear the future will end daring, creativity, and the joys of thinking that medicine has had. But nothing says teams cannot be daring or creative or that your work with others will not require hard thinking and wise judgment. Success under conditions of complexity still demands these qualities. Resistance also surfaces because medicine is not structured for group work. Even just asking clinicians to make time to sit together and agree on plans for complex patients feels like an imposition. “I’m not paid for this!” people object, and it’s true right up to the highest levels. 
I wonder if there is, or even conceivably could be, a similar shift in writing and what people need from writers. If there is, how so? If there could be, then how?

Friday, May 27, 2011

It's Friday: Feel Nostalgia For The Ass You Danced Off

The Shape of "Short" Fiction

In my last post, "The Genres of Length," I wrote about, well, length. It seems fairly elementary when considering the short story; after all, the qualifier is a measure of length.  Not "small" stories, not "tiny" or "light" stories, but "short" ones.

But as I've spent more time with the question (and with the kind Socratic aid of Robert Alan Wendeborn and the discussion following a few readings I've attended of late), I've come to the conclusion that it is not at all an elementary one. Not only that, but it no longer seems a matter of length, either. I mean "length" in the way that I have differentiated "short" from its diminutive cousins above, as a measure of distance traveled in a more or less straight line, a sort of hash mark on the imagined narrative ruler -- word 1 to word 3141 = 3141 words: a short story. But, as you will no doubt have guessed from the title of this post, I believe that it may instead be a matter of shape.

Edgar Allan Poe believed (with some cause) that fiction, like poetry, should not exceed in length the attention-span of its reader. His stories were meant to capture and hold the fascination of their audience like a piece of music, thus distinguishing them from novels and other long narratives as librettos are distinct from lecture series. Poe did write a novel/novella, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, but even it -- provided you were not irremediably bored through the first twenty-thousand words or so -- could comfortably be consumed in a single sitting, and this was an essential part of his design. To some degree, this definition of the short story persists -- a narrative which can be consumed in a single sitting -- even as its contemporary practitioners would almost certainly spurn the reasoning behind Poe's limitation.

For he also believed in a unity of effect, in setting out to produce some emotion or state of mind, and then in arraying all of the elements of his story to producing that one effect in his imagined reader, as though the short story writer were an engineer, not an artist. Whether we concede that this is what we are after, too, in writing "short," or rail against the inevitable, Poe's read of the form is probably the right one. It is the presumption of his process that we decry as naive, possibly pernicious.

Perhaps most vehemently opposed by the very people who, a la Curly Howard, "resemble that remark," Poe's idea of unity of effect finds its analogue in the MFA workshop under the guise of "compression;" that a story should have no jagged edges, no messy excelsior seems utterly uncontroversial even to those who wouldn't dream of ascribing to their work "unity of effect." What is opposed, I think, is the audacity with which Poe pronounced it formula. "If I should want to write a story to produce the effect 'fear,' well then, I shall just sit right down and do so, paying attention to every element of the story and making sure that it goes toward producing that reaction in my reader." As the slush-pile reader or workshop leader knows, this sort of thinking tends to produce over-written, over-determined, predictable stories, and to avoid the head-shaking that must accompany reading them, denies unity of effect a place in the classroom in favor of the more nebulous "compression," "efficiency."

I won't necessarily mount an argument against this attitude (I am as guilty as anyone else in this regard, though I do teach unity of effect, too), though when I was a participant in my MFA workshop, I probably would have. I'll simply say that it represents the rear guard of a losing battle, art vs. craft, the practice vs. the discipline. The reader will make of the short story a unified effect whether the writer wills it or not, and this is a product of its shape, for good or ill. "Short" stories have shape, form appreciable even at the myopic scale of the so-called "average" reader. Unlike longer narratives, whose demands on our attention can be much, much greater, it is possible with the short form to take the full measure of a story, to find oneself equal to the task, to, as I exhort my students, read more than once so that the field becomes clear for the ground covered. Of course this is possible with novels, but it is, even in its conception, a much more daunting task, and thus less likely to be seriously considered, much less undertaken.

And so I propose that even when the short form does not, ouroboros-like, have its tail in its mouth, it is nonetheless encompassable in a way other forms, the poem excepted, are not (essays are, by their etymology, trials, not results, and so we should be suspicious of those that behave too much like fiction). Circumference, the measure of the distance one covers in returning to one's origin, the product of the quality we began by considering ("length") and an irrational number, pi, one whose exact enumeration is endless and non-repeating (doesn't that sound more like what we are after?), is what we are talking about, a function not arithmetic but trigonometric.

If the short story must be a line, certainly, if it is to be a satisfying one,  it must be one without shadow, without terminus or origin. Don't we begin and end where Homer taught us to, in media res? Never more so than in the short form, where all is media res. And so we, as readers, supply terminus and origin, shadow and satisfaction. We do so by appreciation of the form of the form, by standing above or outside of this thing and turning it in our minds as we would any constructable figure.

I realize I have said much that is abstract, and provided little in the way of proof, and so I will end this post, this series of posts, with an example: John Madera's "Notes Toward the Recovery of Desiderata," in the latest issue of Conjunctions. It is a story that begs to be turned over, flipped about, turned and returned, a story whose first sentence is:
This being something about closed doors and opening windows; or, this being an omnibus of memory's debris, history's talus, and desire's residuum; or, this being a brooding topographyof perception and a cross-section of time's strata; or, since there is always a forgetting in the remembering...
[which sentence continues onto a second page] and which story concludes some 15 pages later:
What you have, instead, is something with a lot of holes in it, each hole a kind of scotoma, an obscuration of the textual field, something chockablock with porous words like doors, brooding, look, blood, choosing, logos, schoolgirl...schoolroom, tobacco, rococo, hooked, swooning, nook, doom, fool, unmoored, scotoma, and porous.
Rest assured that the 14 pages between are not simply anagram or half- blank crossword. They are full of life, history, full of narrative and incident. But we find satisfaction here because the distance traveled is not so great that we find ourselves on this near shore with no memory of the far, of our embarkation and our route. The pleasure comes in recognizing just where we began ("doors") in this ending ("porous"), seeing the contours we have traveled in getting there, contours that would be as invisible in a larger ("longer") work -- at the very least, difficult for most readers to discern upon a first reading, like asking an ant what shape the Superdome is (mushroom-cloud-shaped, for you sports-heathens, though ask an ant what shape a mushroom is, and you're likely to find yourself doubting your understanding of the shape "mushroom"). For that ant, the answer is likely to be "flat," just as we perceive the earth's surface, just as we perceive the "unraveling" of the epic as taking us in one direction or another. We do not have an analogous expectation of the short form, and this, I believe, is because we have a different appreciation for, and different demands on, its dimensions, for its contours and, yes, its shape. Regardless of its heft, it is something we feel we can lift, something we can turn, something whose design, while perhaps still ineffable, bears more or less immediate rewards to those intrepid enough to investigate. It is in some ways a human scale, given that we understand our consciousness as a mistake, distraction as oeuvre rather than detriment.

And yet I certainly would not want my own reader to come away thinking I believe that the short story is a lock to which we naturally have the key, any more than anyone would say the same of the poem. The quantity of facets to a cut diamond is limited by the skill of its craftsman, not by its size, and it is no less sharp at one than it is at a hundred. A true appreciation of the form should lead to sophistication, not dissatisfaction or disillusionment.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Vend Some Poetry

Like Mike, I will soon be moving. In my case, it's because my job evaporated in a strong, bright wave of corporate cutbacks. Oh well!

I mention my new freedom here because it's had a strange effect on my writing and reading life. I assumed productivity would bloom inside my apartment and I'd spend vast chunks of day reading, typing, editing, posting. Really, my pace has slowed. I tend to open a document, start typing, then think about all the other things I've planned for the day, then walk to the laundry room and start laundry, then make coffee, then stare out at construction workers assembling ever more attachments to the new theater across the street, then start typing, then open my email. The new expanse of my day is like a lake of tasty green Jell-O I leap into each morning, then smack around at, sinking but sugar-high.

The situation seems to be improving lately, and I suspect that I'll fall into a really almost perfect rhythm just as I find a new position.

I've spent some of my final evenings here in Orlando working as part of the Poetry Vending Machine, a benefit for the city's Fringe Festival. This is a project that has been run for several years by local spoken word artist Tod Caviness. (I was introduced to Tod by J. Bradley, who rehabilitated my idea of lit culture in this city.) There is a table near the outdoor stage, in the same loose jumble as the booze and barbecue vendors, and you, the customer, approach the table and for five dollars, which goes to the festival, you can write a title and a string of words and somebody behind the table will write you a poem in twenty minutes. You can also pay one dollar and somebody will write you a haiku.

I am not a poem-y guy, but I have written a few poems and I have enjoyed this project so far. For the most part we sit in lawn furniture and drink beer while strangely dressed people wander around. Sometimes people bring their dogs over. There's one man with whom I've enjoyed discussing new SF novels that he keeps pulling from his backpack. I know almost no one, but get the sense of a strong community buzzing around from theater to theater.

I have also learned a little about the expectations different people bring to poetry, and to writing in general. After knocking out 200 flash pieces in my Story Every Day project I thought I'd be an easy fit for this, but have found that some puzzle boards are very hard to squeeze words into.

If you ask for the word "heart" to be included in your title, you are probably not going to be thrilled with the poem we provide you.

If you ask for a poem featuring the phrase "death squad," you will probably be happy with the poem we provide you.

If you want a poem for your mother/wife/daughter on the occasion of her birthday, you will probably be happy with the poem we provide you but we will feel as if we have swum in pancake syrup after writing it.

If you are a hyper and awkwardly flirty teenager, you will probably laugh at any poem we provide you and then fold it into your pocket and stand around for too long.

If you demand an ABAB rhyme structure, you will come across as a dick but probably reveal yourself to be kind of funny as we write your poem.

If you provide as a prompt a prop you found on the ground, you will probably come back later, drunk, to discuss any poem we provide you.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The Online Research Consortium Wants to Analyze Your Personality Through Your Writing

I was linked to this site the other day via Jezebel, who touted this quiz that's supposed to tell you your compatibility with someone else based on your written communication styles. From the University of Texas psychology department, there are quite a few different quizzes that are designed to act as "a form of entertainment rather than solid truth." The UT label legitimizes it, I guess, but the tone of the site is pretty strange.

It's kind of a weird site all around. Kind of tongue-in-cheek, kind of self-conscious, but interesting in that many of the quizzes rely on writing to reveal aspects of the quiz-taker's personality. In one of the quizzes, you write a story about what is happening to the people in the picture, in one you write about an everyday object for five minutes, and one is a 30-minute" emotional writing experiment." I'm especially weirded out but drawn to the quiz where you deeply analyze yourself in writing, answering questions like "In thinking of yourself, what are you most proud of, most ashamed of, most worried about? What are the deepest values or beliefs that may be influencing you most?" 

How, though, are these writings analyzed? How is my personality revealed in my writing, at least according to these surveys, to this weird little psychology experiment website? I'm always intrigued and puzzled by what is (perceived to be) revealed about a writer by reading his or her writing. 

In the case of this site, I imagine that word choices, sentence construction tics (personally, I'm known to use semicolons heavily), use of capitals or italics and things like that are what is used for determinations about a person's state of mind. I'm not sure if they're looking at themes like sex or death or motifs like plants or clouds or recurring mentions of the color white. Or are they? 

I'm kind of scared by what the commonly used images and ideas in my poetry (eyes, cars/driving, light, hands, sex, teenage girlhood, clothing and materials, among many) might say about me to a psychologist. As a poet, I'm especially self-conscious about the common conflation of the persona in my poetry with my own, actual self. My writing is quite a bit more flamboyant, more honest, messier, louder, braver and more clear-eyed than who I actually am, I think. But people still think that if I write "I" than the "I" in the poem is Carrie, and sometimes I don't care about the persona conflation at all and sometimes I do quite a bit, getting all tangled up in explaining that no, that didn't actually happen and I don't actually think that, and that my poems are not me, or not really me. Sometimes poems (writing) can just be poems (writing), right?

I don't know. It's a Monday night at 10:54 and I don't feel like submitting a writing sample to this site to see what happens. You should, though, and then comment here and tell us what your results were. Especially if you've got a big secret, four or five hours, and a yen for a $50 iTunes card or money order from the University of Texas. I did take some of the shorter quizzes, including the Demographics quiz and the LIFE survey (apparently I have a very low "suburbanite" score and a very high "preppie" score, whatever those mean). 

Monday, May 23, 2011

Programming note

Dear Readers,

I love you. Really I do. But at the moment I am in search of employment. This search requires me, at present, to drive for two entire days, across the country, to Indianapolis, where my brood originates (and Tracy's brood, also). What that means is as follows:

1) We are currently spending all of our time preparing for this journey by divesting ourselves of all our Earthly possessions, except for our books and video games and dishes. We will then attempt to fit what is left in Tracy's white Buick sedan. And also our bikes, on a bike rack. This is about as much fun as it sounds (last time we did it, I spent much of a day literally bellowing at the sky.) We are also, and relatedly, moving out of our apartment, which has its own logistic pleasures.

2) We will not be writing a lot for the blog, if at all. What this means is that we will have exactly as many posts as our delightful, professional "staff" decides to write. I would not surprised if the only things posted here for the next few days are YouTubes Robbie finds between his teeth. In fact, here is a YouTube:

3) I am still on hold with the electric company. You may be thinking that you weren't aware I had been in the first place, or that you aren't sure what it has to do with anything, but I am writing this post with my head at a 90-degree angle to the computer monitor, pinching the phone between my ear and shoulder. It doesn't feel good. I felt you should know this.

4) If you live in the Indianapolis area and would like to touch me directly on my eyes, we can make this happen. Let me know. Tracy may not want you to touch her eyes but we'll see what we can do.

5) I am now off the phone with the electric company. My account will be disconnected at the end of the month. This is exciting. In celebration, a YouTube!

Friday, May 20, 2011

Mike reads from Fat Man and Little Boy

On April 29, Mike gave his MFA reading, and I had the pleasure of introducing him. You can hear that in the clip, so I won't repeat anything I said there--though my thanks to those who contributed nice compliments, many of whom are readers of the blog. Mike read several selections from his book Fat Man and Little Boy, which is a novel about the two atom bombs reincarnated as a fat man and a little boy. His reading was very well-practiced, and communicated the energy, sweetness, and passion of the book.

Enjoy! It was a great performance.

It's Friday: Feel Nostalgia Tomorrow For Today

Thursday, May 19, 2011

The Genres of Length

If I hadn't already planned to do this post, Robbie's post ("Why?") and Mike's answer ("Hobart is Why") would have been prompt enough for it.

This may sound anachronistic or just plain stupid, but I am constitutionally unable to write "flash" or short-short fiction. I have only been successful at the < 1000 word genre (on which choice of label, more below) when taking as my subject nonfictional material, and I believe this has to do with that material's inherent opening-out, i.e., the possibility that my use of that material will inflate its asphyxiated expression into something worth writing for me, the writer, and worth reading for you, the reader. Don't misunderstand me: this is a personal tic; I don't have any biases when it comes to reading fiction (though I will admit to a certain weakness for books in the 170-220 page range; they just feel right in the hand, in the palm of the mind). But my own short work, unless of the (non)fictional stamp, seems to me to fail to ever take on that lacquer of lived experience, the patina of a kind of truth, that longer narratives must have by default, and is thus unsatisfying to me. Usually, I don't bother.

The short story is a genre. The novel is a genre. The haiku is a genre. The limerick is a genre. The short-short is a genre. The prose-poem is a genre. I mean that, like those generic ghosts of the now-haunted video store, sci-fi, horror, comedy, drama, documentary, etc., we have expectations when we come to them, whether those expectations are conscious or not. Our understanding of what it is that we are reading has nothing to do with length and everything to do with the weight of history and our particular familiarity with it. We do not scan ahead to read "The End" and calibrate our reception according to its proximity; instead, that calculation is based upon our perception of the author's intention. Allow me to present two ~recent examples. First, though, as always, a digression.

I had wanted to consider the question of some kind of hybrid genre, provoked at least to some degree by Mike's professed preference for novels over short stories. What, exactly, was the difference, I wondered? I wanted to say that this wasn't substantially different from the commonly held bias against science fiction, or fantasy, or romance, or literary fiction, or whatever genre one doesn't like. But I know that Mike knows this, and I certainly didn't want to hold him or his reading preference up as straw man. Rather, what he was expressing seemed to me a preference for just that patina I spoke of above. I share that preference, though I cannot say with equal confidence that I prefer novels over shorter work.

I've spent the last year reading much more short fiction than I had ever done prior, on my way to completing a collection of shorter work (in the breach, a novel that remains unfinished -- does this perhaps point to some inscrutable process at work in me? Afferent or efferent?). I cannot say that I "missed" novels, though I did on occasion feel the pang of slightness in my reading. Again, it was not the pang of brevity -- the soul of wit, how could it be otherwise than pleasurable? -- but the pang of a lack of care, a lack of concentration, and a corresponding lack of depth. Novels, almost as a rule, have these things generically. Their writers have had to live with them for a matter of months, sometimes a matter of years, and there is something of that in them, whether it is willed or not. Time is somehow appreciable in the artwork itself (poorly constructed works are considered "rushed," are they not?), so it stands to reason that a breadth of time can be appreciated in the depth of the work's conception (although of course there are exceptions on either side). In general, novels simply aren't composed, much less completed, in less time than are most short stories, and the editing process is often exponentially longer (again, I am perfectly aware that there are exceptions to this, as there are always exceptions to any generic rule). I try to be a careful writer (at least, in all but my blog posts), and so my preference will always be for those things that exhibit care, whatever their length.

But to the examples:

In its evolution, the short story seems to have experienced something of the island effect ("Foster's rule" of evolutionary biology). "The Turn of the Screw"? "Bartleby the Scrivener"? They would be called novellas today, perhaps even novels. And because of length restrictions, most, if not all, university-sponsored literary journals wouldn't even read them (the Seattle Review's novella-only policy is the only exception that comes to mind, though even they wouldn't take a look at "The Turn of the Screw" -- it's more than 90 pages in my Library of America edition of Complete Stories 1892-1898). Now, of course, it's relatively rare to find anyone who will even look at anything over 5000 words, and many definitions of "short story" (at least according to respective submission guidelines) would put its limit at 3000 words, which seems incredibly short to me. I don't say this is necessarily a bad thing, though it is as pernicious as any bias is; at least there are still plenty of outlets for this kind of work (The Cupboard, for instance, or MLP's Nephew, or any number of chapbook presses), even if they aren't the places that the genre's enthusiasts typically go looking (i.e., those same university-sponsored literary journals). Naturally, this tends to solidify those generic boundaries, and to reinforce the biases of readers suspect of things out of their narrow scope of professed interests. But, by some miracle, there are still writers pushing back.

Joanna Howard's collection of short fiction,  On the Winding Stair -- in terms of word-count, shorter than "The Turn of the Screw" even in toto -- contains one explicitly-labelled "novel in shorts" ("Ghosts and Lovers") and a number of novel-like stories ("The Tartan Detective" and "The Black Cat" prime among them). All three of those just-mentioned pay visual homage to the novel, with chapter headings, generous white space, and page breaks, but it is the obvious care lavished on all of the narratives here, and something also in their careful conception, that marks them as ungeneric.

But, one wants to ask, would we, if not for the author's explicit warning ("A Novel in Shorts"), approach them as anything more than short stories? This is where the lie of the generic boundary comes so clearly into focus. What is the difference between a short story and a novel? Here, one can't be so sure of him/herself when sticking to definitions based on word-count or page number. The question is revealed as spurious, the same as any bias both in its lack of any truly global applicability and in its logically-indefensible foundation. It is the marker of the bias-holder's history of disappointment with the genre, not a predictor of future outcomes of his/her reading.

Regardless of literary merit, one might say, with the compression of narrative inevitably comes a corresponding size problem: One finds fewer opportunities to fit oneself into something so slim; there simply isn't room to inhabit a short story in the same way as a novel. To this argument, I would advance a peculiar but peculiarly rewarding book, one of the best books I have read this year, Yuriy Tarnawsky's Like Blood in Water.

Though you don't find out until the second title page, Like Blood in Water is subtitled "Five Mininovels," a subject (the mininovel) I was lucky enough to see Tarnawsky lecture on at AWP in 2010 and which lecture caused me to buy this book. What is interesting in the context of this particular post is that each mininovel (they range in length: the shortest is 15 pages and the longest is 58) does indeed have the feeling of breadth that seems a generic condition of the novel, even though its actual breadth is much slimmer. Even more fantastic, though, the mininovels play off of each other in the way that mirrors give perceived depth in shallow rooms. The echoes of each previous mininovel allow more and more points of entry into later mininovels for the reader.

As addendum
I can adduce proof of this: when looking up the page lengths for my parenthetical above, I had really and truly believed that the final one, entitled "Surgery," was somewhere around 100 pages. I can remember my experience of reading it and thinking that it couldn't possibly be considered fodder for a post such as this one (for even then I was considering what I should call these, if not mininovels). A novella, I remember thinking, in length if not in intent. But, at 58 pages, it is intermediate even between short story and novella, proof, as I say, that length is only an indicator of genre, not at all one of intent.

Cat Books

I was really into books about cats when I was younger. And when I say I was into books about cats, I mean I was into all books, and all cats, and people in my life frequently brought the two together at Christmas and birthdays.

A few cat books still hold up. I still think Ursula K. Le Guin's Catwings series is pretty well written. Mine came in a tiny set, each book about as big as your hand. Le Guin is, of course, pretty much a master of strange and beautiful creatures, but what always shone to me in these books were the utterly mundane settings. The flying cats were, let's face it, pretty spectacular, and they brought the book around to really interesting presentations of the family bond and of feeling lost, but what I remember more are her cityscapes at the beginning, her forest in the middle, and the family farm the cats find in the end. That each location was presented through a cat's-eye view gave her a chance, I think, to show off her incredible specificity with place, along with her powers of describing the way that something with wings might be uniquely vulnerable and uniquely at risk.

Another of my favorite cat books was Elizabeth Coatsworth's The Cat Who Went to Heaven, which sounds like a really awful attempt at reassuring kids that Puffs went somewhere nice after losing that raccoon fight. But it's not! Most of it just concerns a guy in Japan, a literal starving artist, who finds a cat that brings him good luck in his work. It's more a story about faith--faith in luck (the cat's lucky markings), faith in a deity (the cat's appearance of praying to the Buddha), or faith in one's own choices. The artist is pretty clearly making a leap of faith with his choice of career, and though this is a well-worn theme, I think now that it was an especially sensitive treatment. The question seems to be less what will fulfill the artist personally, or what will give him the strength to pursue his dream. He knows he's going to keep making art. It's more a question of what ways he will ensure his health and wellbeing--how he will live with the nearly inescapable repercussions of the choice he's made, and what he will count as worthwhile if his art disappoints him. And maybe when your life is simple as this, a cat can be what keeps your brain and heart alive. That's naturally a common theme among cat books, too, but a strength of this book is that the cat is not taken to be representative of a human in any way. It does not do what it does out of an understanding of the man's problem. And so what it does can be seen as a trigger to his story, a phenomenon for him to react to.


This was not so with the Cat Who... mystery series written by Lilian Jackson Braun, which I pretty much forced myself to read because, at age 10, I craved series along with the company of cats. The problem with these was not that the cat was too central or too humanlike. Ursula K. Le Guin's cats, after all, were basically written with human cares and motivations. The titular cat in the Cat Who... books actually appeared rarely, even though its purpose was to direct the main character to the one clue essential to solving the mystery. The problem with the mystery was not that it was a bad mystery, and it wasn't that there was a cat in it. It was the House problem--the cat was the suspended music that precedes House's diagnosis, or the sudden gleam in his eye when the joke he's just told hits closer to the truth than he knew. The cat in these books was a trigger, but it was a trigger that worked independently of the main character, pushing events to the next step when things got slow. It was the harbinger of coincidence. In the best mysteries, the detective is the one acting as the trigger for the plot, the one whose actions both unravel and enable the plot. If he or she has no part in pushing the mystery to the next height, then there's no reason to read about why it had to be him or her that solved it.

To be clear, I'm no longer interested much in cat books, even those that were my favorites. What I'm interested in is what might make a particular cat book better and worse than another. I'm interested because there are many people in the writing world who believe that the presence of one element that is sentimental, childlike, immature, or cliche can completely demolish a piece before it even has a chance to prove itself. And I think we're seeing fantastic writing right now that gets its start from these kinds of impulses. To blacklist a piece because it's about prom or dinosaurs, Super Mario or super spies, King Kong or Christmas, seems like a very lazy way of figuring out what makes writing good or bad, and seems to shut down some possibilities for what could potentially be very engaging or important writing.

This is increasingly why I have a bit of hostility toward the notion of "craft," which typically seems to denote having all of the right tools and none of the wrong ones—beautiful language without cliches, engaging plot without formula, characters who are flawed without sacrificing dignity. If anything, craft should refer to what you do with the tools you've got, and how you work with the tools either appropriately or creatively to achieve a desired effect. If kitties are in your toolbox, then use them! There is nothing to say they can't be used well.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Hobart is Why

Robbie has asked us "Short Stories: Why?" and he has done so at the height of Short Story Month, the very apex, in a post crowned by the official Short Story Month logo. I was tempted when I read his post to remind the readers that I do not necessarily agree with everything anyone says on my blog, which is something I am sometimes tempted to post after Robbie posts because he is a funny, provocative guy who likes to Stir Shit Up. But then I decided not to disown his post because a) that would be a dick move, you guys already know I don't agree with everything that gets said here, to the extent you give a damn what I think at all, and b) he said some nice thing about one of my stories, though it was one that has sadly not yet found a home and may never, and c) because actually I do kind of agree with it, maybe to the surprise of nobody.

This is to say that as a "form" I find the short story pretty confusing. It may be my least favorite genre of writing, to be totally honest, and mainly for the reasons Robbie identifies: I often feel as if people are writing and publishing short stories because short stories are what you write and publish. As Robbie says, I don't think most of the venues that publish short fiction have asked themselves why they are doing that, and I don't think most people who write them really know why either. Short fiction has been reduced to a pedagogical  tool; it is, explicitly, how you "walk before you run." It is manageable. It is nonthreatening. It is an institution. It is shrinking, because this is convenient for both college instructors and magazine publishers: it is becoming less expensive in terms of time and space because this is what the market demands. Insofar as we define "the market" as "anyone but readers."

Why, then, are we participating in Short Story Month 2011? Why do we run a magazine that will publish quite a lot of short fiction? Why did Tracy and I spend the last two and a half years working on Puerto del Sol, publishing the same? I would submit that Hobart is why. Or at least Hobart is an example of why


Hobart describes itself as "another literary journal," and there are ways beyond the literal in which this is true. Hobart skews (in the issues I have read) closer to the aesthetics of magazines called The ________ Review than do most of the "indy lit" scene's heavy hitters; the stories are not strictly realist, but they often operate in something recognizable as at least adjacent to the literary realist mode. You might mistake the magazine for a member of this bland set if you don't actually bother reading it. What sets Hobart apart is that its editors have clearly asked themselves why short stories and they have come up with an answer. They more or less exclusively publish short fiction, and they take the time to choose things that are interesting, that are well-made, that are (above all) fun to read. I saw founding editor Aaron Burch on a panel at AWP 2010 and I think he said the word "rad" about 3,405 times in five minutes. I knew this was a guy who enjoyed enjoyment, who loved loving, who wanted to read good things. I was excited when my copies of Hobart 12 arrived, and I am excited now to glance through its pages and talk about a few of the stories. I guess the issue is not officially out and on sale yet but here is the website anyway; consider this a preview. 

The first story I want to note for now is Robert J. Baumann's "What Can Be Done," a story about two sixteen year old girls who work three days a week at the morgue for the summer. This is an entry into a familiar genre of story, perhaps the one I see most often in slush: the "description of an unusual job" story. These often concern house painting, golf course maintenance, airplane security work, or, as in this case, the handling of dead or dying people. Baumann's writing is strong enough that he could simply work within the confines of the genre and create an entirely satisfying story, but the story accumulates a sort of crippling self-consciousness: it knows that it's a late entry into an extremely familiar genre, and so it hints at the inadequacies of its own research (one of the girls introduces a morgue factoid that she found on the Internet, where we suspect the author has done his own fact finding -- the other girl mocks her). It remarks on its own clichés and then revises them until they become fresh again.

In theory this should be too clever by half, too self-conscious for pleasure, but it works. Baumann's prose and careful choice of details (both banal and fresh), as filtered through his narrator's searching for a way to tell this story, creates a sense of quiet desperation. Perhaps my favorite passage from the story:
Sometimes, something dry and brown crusts over the linoleum tiles on the floor in front of the wall of chambers. The two people will have to clean this with a small brush. This has been done, but maybe not in a morgue; maybe that doesn't matter: anytime someone describes something disgusting being scrubbed with a toothbrush it counts against how many times it can be described again. 

So maybe instead they use a special gun that only shoots air to break up the crust. They have to wear masks that make them look like animals.
The story is gradually crippled by its own self-awareness, leading to a series of turns that would not only spoil the fun but sound terrifically stupid if I were to describe them to you here. The surprise, for me, is that though the closing section is under-motivated and ridiculous (the girls make a rather big mistake on the basis of their shared knowledge that, this being the end of the story, something definitive needs to happen) I find it weirdly touching. The last two sentences of the story are probably, in a very real sense, two of the stupidest sentences I've ever read in a short story. They are also wonderful and weirdly touching. You don't publish a story this weird and subtly daring by accident. You do it by asking yourself how you got here, what you meant to accomplish.


Rob Roensch has a story, "I Was a Math Student," which explores the mysteries of a particular high school math class. The mysteries are difficult to name -- perhaps the deepest mystery is how the students, including the narrator, came to care so much about math -- but they are there, on the page, or sort of hovering above it. Who is the strange new student who seems to attend school only for the sake of achieving perfect grades (and then better-than-perfect) on the tests written by their teacher, Mr. Brook? Could he have known that when he paired his students by gender and alphabet (boy-girl, boy-girl) he would ignite some dozen little romances? This story is justified by the dialog at its beginning alone, as the teens fall in love via math class:
Then, a few nights later, the first phone call, maybe a little late: just to verify 5c: x is negative 1, right? And 6b: An asymptote at 5? 
And then the next night, later: 280 square feet? Does that sound right? Is everyone else in your house asleep? It sounds quiet. The phone does. I mean when you're not talking. 
And: I think sometimes I can hear my calculator working. There's this tiny, tiny click when it gives me the answer. Like one drop of rain. 
Why did I call you? I had a question.

Right now I am poor enough that I mainly get my literary magazines by contributing to them, so I will go ahead and admit it: I have a story in this issue, it is more or less about Metroid. It is adjacent to four Brian Oliu pieces about Super Mario Bros. and Ninja Gaiden. Leaving aside the virtues of my story, I think the decision to publish no less than five consecutive pieces -- fifteen pages! -- of writing about Nintendo games tells you most of what you need to know about Hobart: they believe that video games are rad. And I agree. Brian's pieces are, as always, awesome. One of them is essentially a blank page, and that's awesome.


There are several stories here that come in sections, also: by Aubrey Hirsch, by Jon Chopan, Melinda Moustakis, and Dave Housley. Why does a story seem to gain so much when we explicitly divide it? Perhaps because it suggests they have asked themselves why. Section headings tell us from the outset that the writer knows her writing is finite: that it will have to end someday, and that in this case, in this short story, the ending will probably come sooner than we think. They lend the story a sense of aboutness, a clarity of purpose. We know that it was heading somewhere when we found it. We suspect it will continue walking as we join it.

I meant to write about more of these stories, but I'm moving across the country in a week. I am looking for work. I am tired. I love you.

Short Stories: Why?

So it's Short Story Month and I seem to have a reputation as a hater of fiction or prose or short stories.  I don't.  I might hate 'mainstream' or 'academic' or 'literary' short stories, but not all stories or prose or fiction.  I actually love reading fiction and some of it is mainstream and some of it is academic and some of it is literary.  I loved Evan Lavender Smith's Avatar.  I loved this story by Roxane Gay.  I really liked All the Pretty Horses and Jesus Son is my favorite short story collection of all time.  I can't say why I like what I like though.  It's as if it comes at me and I just put it in my mouth and if it tastes ok, I swallow, and if it tastes really good, I keep eating and if it still tastes really good, I'll try something else when I'm finished.  

When Mike explained the idea of drama, I was dumfounded:  "OMG THAT'S SOOOOO EASY!!!"  The characters could want anything!  And anything could stand in their way!  From a craft perspective I don't get how they (stories) work, and so I don't know why I like them.  It's a very pre-enlightenment approach:  I don't know how this thing works, it must be magic/a god/God.

I may not know how it works, but I can tell if a story works.  One of my favorite stories that I read in my two semesters (one workshop, one form and technique) of story training at NMSU, was not a story assigned to be read by a teacher, but one turned in by Mike for a workshop.  I can't remember the name of it, but it was about a guy in a post-economic-apocalypse world where camps of starving people butt up against normal middle class-ians.  The main character talks to himself in the second person and the third person and the plural first person and the first person singular (and there might have been more).  The POV was complicated, but it worked:  this man was starving and out of his goddamned mind.  It made sense to me and felt alive and fresh with words and emotions in ways most stories don't.  Most stories in university print journals feel bland.  They feel like over-rehearsed, over-performed speeches.  They don't feel like I'm sitting with a person telling me a story.  They don't make me feel anything new.  They don't make me think.  To me, if it's any writing, except non-fiction, it needs to be a fresh act of speech (non-fiction has a pass, but just barely).  I think this is why I like the stuff that Mud Luscious puts out and why I like Blake Butler's writing:  they seem to see writing as a chance to utter some different speech acts in a very cluttered world of literature.

This is also why I don't like a lot of print journals.  They don't see literature this way.  They probably have never asked themselves, "why do we publish this thing?"  I doubt their answer would be "to give a venue to bland MFA stories."

I asked this question in the title, why?  Why read, why write, why publish a story?

The reading part should be fun right?  Or engaging on some sort of level?  The writing should be too right?  I started writing a prose thing the other day that might be a story, and it's fun!  I usually never have the compulsion to write a story, but when it happens it is fun or challenging or something.  Why publish a short story? Because as a reader, you enjoyed reading it for its fun or its challenge, and as a publisher you want to share that joy with your readers.  If it wasn't an enjoyable read, why publish it?

So I'm going to keep poking fun at fiction in journals, with the hope that editors will wake up and publish good short stories.  In the meantime, I will be reading The Return and writing my own weird prose thing to celebrate Short Story Month.