Slow It Down

August 31, 2012 § Leave a comment

After taking in a paragraph, I might pause and stare off into the distance for fifteen minutes. I will then read it again, maybe twice more if it’s especially striking, and pick apart its construction. … If I’m reading a chase scene, I might try to understand the mechanics of it, how it uses run-on sentences to create a sense of breathlessness, how it opens up paragraphs with a long string of prepositions to orient us in a city, that kind of thing.

At The Rumpus, Benjamin Percy on learning the virtues of slowing down one’s reading, or what he calls “reading like a writer.” In my case, I was already a slow reader—I might average 35 books a year, a minuscule number compared to most people I know who consider themselves book lovers—and the writer excuse came around later. My instinct will always be to absorb things linearly, which means not skipping over the mundane parts. But what Percy is talking about is the need to go back and analyze phrases and construction and narrative choices in a text, something that one needs not do when strictly “reading for pleasure.” I sort of do that, too, but usually when I’m reading something a second time.

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Completely Lost

August 31, 2012 § Leave a comment

So what am I looking for as a reader for Potomac Review? The main thing is that I need to read without thinking. I want a piece that makes me think later about your themes and imagery and language. But during that first read, I need to get completely lost in your story. If I think about what you are doing as a writer during a first read, I will reject.

At The Potomac Review blog, Associate Editor Mike Landwebber on what he looks for in prose submissions.

BASS 2012

August 29, 2012 § Leave a comment

The Table of Contents for the upcoming Best American Short Stories 2012 has been announced. Congratulations go out to all of the writers whose stories were selected, as well as those who made the Notable shortlist.

I am happy at the range of literary journals represented among the selections, particularly two stories from Hobart, as well as stories from New Ohio Review, Fifth Wednesday Journal, American Short Fiction, Orion, Tin House, and Ploughshares. It’s not all The New Yorker and Paris Review this year. 

How to Be a Contemporary Writer

August 17, 2012 § Leave a comment

7. … The truth is that a significant percentage of the slush pile … is absolutely terrible because people are lazy and will submit any old thing. If you can write a good sentence you are already heads and shoulders above most of what is found in submission queues.

8. Be nice. The community is small and everyone talks. Being nice does not mean eating shit. Being nice does not mean kissing ass. Being nice just means treating others the way you would prefer to be treated. If you’re comfortable being treated like an asshole, then by all means.

19. Participate in the literary community in the ways you are comfortable participating. What matters is that you contribute. That could be subscribing to a magazine, attending a reading, volunteering at a literary magazine, and so on. (See #8)

22. You will probably need a job unless you’re fine with financial stress. Yes you can have a job and be a writer. It happens all the time. I used to be fine with financial stress because I was young and my fantasies were exciting. I am not anymore because I am old and I love my apartment and health insurance and buying stupid shit. A job facilitates these things so keep it in mind. There are worse things than a job.

Roxane Gay offers a welcome perspective, in twenty-five points, that actually gives hope to those of us who have convinced ourselves that we have stories worth telling.

R.I.P. David Rakoff

August 10, 2012 § Leave a comment

Via The Awl, sad to learn of the untimely passing of essayist and This American Life contributor David Rakoff, known for his collections Fraud (2001), Don’t Get Too Comfortable (2005), and Half Empty (2010).

His essay in the New York Times Magazine from April 15, 2011, which told of his experience being treated for the sarcoma that claimed his life, was a glittering example of the dark humor in which he specialized:

“Have a fantastic day,” the technician said as I left.

“Fantastic”? Fantastic days are what you wish upon those who have so few sunrises left, those whose lungs are so lesion-spangled with new cancer that they should be embracing as much life as they can. Time’s a-wasting, go out and have yourself a fantastic day!

Fantastic days are for goners. Was I fated to take some final vacation to see Venice for the first and last time? Or should I corral some long-cherished idol (I’m talkin’ to you, Meryl Streep) into posing for a photograph with me, both of us giving a thumbs up to the camera before she beats a hasty retreat back to the Land of the Living? That kind of fantastic day?

The podcast for “Stiff as a Board, Light as a Feather,” from the TAL live show in May, can be found here.

Too Nice

August 10, 2012 § Leave a comment

But if you spend time in the literary Twitter- or blogospheres, you’ll be positively besieged by amiability, by a relentless enthusiasm that might have you believing that all new books are wonderful and that every writer is every other writer’s biggest fan.

At Slate, Jacob Silverman on the epidemic of ‘niceness’ in online literary culture, a problem of which I have been quietly aware and actively guilty. At Fictionaut, for example, there seems to be an unspoken policy forbidding any negative criticism; the only comments are meant to praise, with ‘faves’ serving as a scoreboard for the most beloved work, and if a story is bad, it is simply skipped over. Fictionaut has been great for my confidence and for inspiring me, even in a competitive way, to create new work that I can show off and feel good about, but this method can only help a writer so much. Who is keeping us honest?

One problem with not pursuing an MFA is that it leaves me without a mentor. Just once I wish I had someone who could tell me when I am not being true to myself as a writer, or not matching my abilities, or that I just plain suck.

Silverman isn’t talking about writing-share sites like Fictionaut, though; he’s talking about real authors and publishing and professional critics. We are too busy championing the art and the industry to judge what comes out of it critically for the sake of making it better. But this isn’t so much a new thing. Susan Sontag—who one would never call a reviewer, but a critic, in the manner of Trilling and Wilson—only wrote about books and films she loved, figuring that writing about anything else would be a waste of her and her readers’ time.

At Salon, Roxane Gay responds:

While Silverman makes an interesting argument about an excessive culture of enthusiasm in literary circles, it is curious that he never talks about books. Instead, he focuses on these cults of personality that rise out of social networking — Twitter, Goodreads, Facebook and the like, conflating people interacting via these networks with serious criticism that might take place in the New York Times, Los Angeles Review of Books, London Review of Books, Bookslut and any number of rigorous critical outlets – so many of which exist because of the Internet and have their voices amplified by Twitter, Facebook and other dorms of social media.

And there are indeed certain authors who promote themselves very well on social media, and they develop loyal such followings so that the content of their art becomes secondary. If you were to write something harshly critical about such a writer, even in an honest way, those followers would be breathing down your neck, because the Internet has a way of zeroing in on such offenses like an angry mob before the arguments the critic makes can be fairly considered.

Gay addresses this point with candor:

There is, indeed, a very simple solution. If a critic feels like he or she cannot follow a writer on social networks and review their work honestly, don’t follow writers on social networks. It is not mandatory to follow writers beyond their actual writing. James Wood and Michiko Kakutani are not worrying about how friendly writers are online as they consider what to review next and how.

I would argue that any critic shouldn’t get too close to his/her subject if that critic expected to review the subject fairly. But Mailer and Updike and Cheever and Roth and Bellow all managed to write about each other’s books without feeling the need to be their cheerleaders; if anything, they often let their competitive sides get the better of them, yet they still maintained friendships to certain degrees. It also took a couple of days for each’s letter to reach the other in the mail. Perhaps a little distance is all we need to be honest.

Fitzgerald in the New Yorker

August 5, 2012 § Leave a comment

It was one of those days full of waiting—everyone was busy, was late, and it seemed that when the clients did appear they were the sort of hatchet-faced men who did not like other people’s self-indulgence, or they were women willingly or unwillingly committed to the ideas of these men.

In The New Yorker this week, “Thank You for the Light,” a new unpublished story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, which gives you a sobering indication of how fast their turnaround times for fiction submissions are over there.

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