Reading for Pizza (and Grades)

October 29, 2012 § Leave a comment

Karen Russell, from the New Yorker’s Science Fiction issue (June 4 & 11; subscription only):

In the early nineties, Pizza Hut sponsors Book It!, to promote reading. For every ten books you read, you get a certificate for a free, one-topping pizza. At the end of each month, you come home from Mrs. Sicius’s fifth-grade class and slam down the Book It! certificate in front of your parents like a hunter dropping a deer carcass on the kitchen table. Book that, Family! We are eating tonight!

It turns out that there is no greater pleasure than reading for pizza. No longer do you feel guilty about eschewing the “real” world for these fantasy zones. Now you have an unassailable, American motivation; you’re a breadwinner. Literally. It’s November. Since September, you’ve earned forty dollars’ worth of garlic bread for the family.

At Pizza Hut, your younger siblings drink fountain soda from red cups, bite into cartoon-yellow mozzarella. Sit back with your arms folded. “Get a refill, Dad!” you encourage, like some magnanimous king. Everything is going aces until the waitress, who, like a raccoon, combines indifference and nosiness, flips through the Book It! certificate.

  1. “The Sword of Shanarra.”
  2. “The Wishsong of Shanarra.”
  3. “The Elfstones of Shanarra.”

“Last month, she read ‘Pride and Prejudice,’ you mom says, then hustles you toward the car.

So it’s at the U.S. 1 Pizza Hut, in Kendall, Florida, under the neon-pink sconces, that you first encounter the adults’ distinction between “literature” and “genre.”

I don’t think I ever got free pizza for reading, but I did often have to read x number of books within a certain period (and, of course, write reports: Title, Author, Summary, Opinion), and instead of reading serial genre novels, my strategy was to read from my stash of reliables multiple years in a row and hope the teachers wouldn’t confer and find out I was double-dipping. Titles off the top of my head: Aldo Applesauce; the ubiquitous Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing (and its sequel, Superfudge); Alvin Fernald, TV Anchorman. And Short Season, about a kid on a Little League team who is left to his own devices when his brother walks off the team. The goofy National Lampoon’s Vacation-inspired Hooples on the Highway. And I remember coming across a weird library-bound edition of something called Sheriff Stonehead and the Teenage Termites, but that was probably over my head and I was never really able to get what it was about. Plus a lot of Hardy Boys (the original editions with actual detective work; not the later rehash where they killed off Chet’s girlfriend in a terrorist car bombing–I mean, Jesus Christ, I’m eleven) and Bobbsey Twins crap.

Russell’s delightful sidebar is one of several notes of nostalgia in the issue, along with Colson Whitehead’s remembrance of spending his after-school hours watching bad horror movies on Betamax with his brother (no subscription required).

P.S.: GalleyCat’s Jason Boog notes that “Pizza Hut still hosts the reading contest with some new media twists.”

The In Crowd

October 27, 2012 § Leave a comment

At his blog, Tom McAllister writes on the experience of having one’s work rejected and having to be the one who does the rejecting:

So, what’s the right way to tell someone their work isn’t good enough? Is it the euphemism-soaked, everyone-gets-a-trophy keep on truckin style of bland encouragement? Is it a generic, totally impersonal response that betrays nothing beyond the bare facts (you will not be published today, and also here’s how to subscribe to our journal)? Is it something performative that is a little bit potentially mean-spirited but also engages with the text in the way we all say we want people to engage with our writing? Is it a picture of a sad puppy and a bowl of ice cream?

Once I started sending my work out to journals, one thing became apparent quickly: there is a currency to the kinds of rejections you receive. No one is going to tell you why your story works or why it doesn’t, but the rejections that come back with more than just the standard boilerplate send a tacit signal: this sort of interested at least one of us. I still contend that the best rejection I ever got from a market was a preprinted colored slip on which the editor had scrawled in black pen: “This was close, Neil. Try us again soon.” Indeed, that story got accepted a couple of weeks later by a print journal I admired.

In September I sent out a story I in which I had a great deal of confidence to a good number of highly competitive journals, and one by one the rejections have come back, nothing beyond a form rejection, ice cold. I am up to ten, with one “very impressed by your writing,” but even that is a form rejection, and now I’m starting to wish I hadn’t sent it out to as many places as I did. It could say more about my choice of markets or about the quality of the story, but in the end it’s probably a little of both. The fact that it was so easy to write may have meant that it was too easy to write.

McAllister also addresses the part that nobody ever talks about:

There are so many journals out there. There are terrible journals with low standards, journals who will accept eighty percent of the work submitted to them. I could send my stories and essays to those places, could even benefit from being published in those awful journals that nobody reads, because they would become another line on my CV and make me slightly more employable from a University’s perspective. But that would be pitiful and that would be sad, and that would deny my primary reason for submitting, which is the ego.

To be published in a journal, particularly the spatial confines of a print journal, is to be admitted to a club of limited occupancy, one to which many others have been denied entry. The rejection slip is the stubborn bouncer at the door who won’t listen to your appeals—dude, I know the owner, I’m on the list. The more challenging the market—the more elite the club, essentially—the more such an inclusion feels like an accomplishment. You made it in with the in crowd. We don’t just want to see our stories published in journals. We want them to belong there.

Back When Everything Was Fun

October 24, 2012 § Leave a comment

Still working on Harper’ses and New Yorkers from June, back when the election was still talked about in abstractions and the weather was getting warmer. I particularly don’t expect much out of Harper’s these days, especially in the fiction department, so Karl Taro Greenfeld’s “Fun Won,” from the June issue, was a pleasant surprise:

You should see who my friends married in the Nineties. It wasn’t like now, when girls are marrying, like, handsome, mixed-race guys with good hair who ride bicycles. Do you know what men were like in New York in the Nineties? White and boring. They had real jobs—lawyers, architects, doctors. And they were dull. I had girlfriends I used to get stoned with every night and do blow with at Limelight and who would even suck some guy with dreadlocks at Robots, but who ended up marrying, like, an IT guy from Boston. Pretty girls who would go from dating an English junkie to a Long Island accountant. Those seemed like the only choices back then. Now you have these hybrids. I don’t know what guys do anymore, but it seems like when I meet a man in his twenties or thirties, he does something in online advertising or marketing but is more defined by his hobby of riding fixed-gear bicycles or some intense and very particular food enthusiasm.

Greenfeld gives a convincing first-person voice to a young female narrator living at a time “when you could still dream of being a writer, when writing for magazines and then writing books and all of that added up to a good life.” The time, of course, is the Nineties, and she’s a Conde Nast Senior Editor with a taste for the herb, a brother with an ample supply, a co-worker who knows a good deal of famous people (Jean-Paul Gaultier, Naomi Campbell, Giuseppe Cipriani), and a wealthy sort-of-boyfriend who converts old buildings into condominiums. The bubble of Everything Going Right allows the characters to bounce and careen without consequence through the evening, which includes a written-off dinner at Cipriani’s restaurant (a perfect opportunity to use the passive voice, as one just happens to be on the receiving end of things one cannot control):

Six plates of egg-noodle pasta with a light sauce of cream and caviar were brought over, and Giuseppe shaved generous slices of truffle onto each of our plates. Two bottles of Barbaresco appeared, and then another two, and once we had eaten, whatever anxiety or incipient paranoia I had felt seemed miraculously lifted.

The story reminded me of much of what I liked about A Visit to the Goon Squad (which, I am ashamed to admit, I remember very little about other than that I loved it). “Fun Won” is apparently an excerpt from Greenfeld’s novel Triburbia, which was released in August and is now on my Amazon Wish List.

The Scar on My Forehead

October 19, 2012 § Leave a comment

…Long live the end of the jart
Long live the end of childhood
Long live the culture of protection
Long live air bubble and hemorrhage
of left temporal region with surrounding
edema as shown on CT scan…

At Defunct, Ander Monson’s beautiful (horizontally scrolling) ode to Jarts, a/k/a Lawn Darts. My badass mother still has a set in her garage, which I believe is a Class B felony.

The Future Impossible

October 19, 2012 § Leave a comment

With word that Newsweek will be ceasing its print publication at the end of the year (more a loss for Americana, in my opinion, than America, given that lately it has been a newsmagazine in name only), a small detail from a scene in my first published story becomes problematic. The story is set in the immediate future, and there’s a description of a cover of the magazine that’s in the E.R. waiting room: it features the astronauts that take part in the mission to Mars that’s the backdrop to the story.

I had a hunch something like this would happen when I wrote it. It also has Anderson Cooper and Keith Olbermann both hosting cable news shows (on different channels), and John Glenn still alive and giving commentary. Glenn is 91 now, and if, as I’m told by my friends who follow such things, we’re looking at another 30 years before boots on Martian soil, then apparently we’re supposed to believe that other amazing technological breakthroughs have taken place on the geriatric medicine front.

Where Am I?

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