August 23, 2013 § Leave a comment
Matt Bell ends his tenure as editor of The Collagist with an exclamation point of an issue as Gabriel Blackwell and Matthew Olzmann are set to take over as co-editors-in-chief.
For the Fiction section Bell invited past contributors to the magazine to submit new work, and so Issue Forty-Nine contains stories by Brian Evenson, Tina May Hall, Robert Kloss, Sarah Norek, Amanda Goldblatt, Brian Kubarycz, Evelyn Hampton, David Hollander, Amber Sparks, Robert Lopez, Kate Petersen, Jonathan Callahan, and Kate Wyer, as well as the usual rich selection of poetry, nonfiction, novel excepts, and book reviews.
I have always liked The Collagist for getting right what many electronic lit journals do not: the value of selection. It has a clean design that segregates out each month a handful of stories, poems, reviews and essays that are chosen not just for their merit but for how they fit with each other. The issue then becomes a product of its own, as opposed to a continuing aggregate that isn’t much different from a blog.
Three stories I’ve got bookmarked from The Collagist are Tessa Mellas’ “Dye Job,” from Issue Forty-Four; Sarah Malone’s “Bridal Discount,” from Issue Thirty-Six; and Tara Laskowski’s “The Etiquette of Arson,” from Issue Thirty-Three.
August 22, 2013 § Leave a comment
American Short Fiction has posted the winner and finalists for its Camera-Flash Fiction Contest.
People who stopped by the ASF table at AWP Boston were given their choice of one of eight vintage photographs on which to base a piece of flash fiction. The winning story is “After Taking on the Milk Challenge the Earth Bear Learns Something About the Nature of Human Experience” by Caleb Curtiss:
This is what cattle looks like before it becomes a carcass, his father, who’d just finished using what looked like a machete to peel primal cuts of beef from the bone and tendon that held them, said. It was the Earth Bear’s duty to sort what was left of the animal into three metal cans labeled Edible, Inedible, and Bones. These buckets and their contents were what he thought about as he sat watching cowboy after cowboy being thrown to the ground like plaid handkerchiefs.
The other finalists are Lauren Becker, Joanna Kenyon, Kevin Fink, Amy Butcher, and Shawn Huelle.
I selected number 8, the only color photo in the bunch, with the people doing the jigsaw puzzle on the coffee table, because it reminded me of photos from when my mother was young and raised my older brother as a toddler, but then I never got around to writing my story because I left the photo at the bottom of my tote bag, amongst the beer coozies and promotional cards, and forgot about it. Maybe I’ll still give it a whirl. I’m a little disappointed that one didn’t prompt any of the finalists, though it is interesting that the same photo was used for three of the six featured stories.
August 20, 2013 § Leave a comment
The Detroit News is reporting that famed crime novelist Elmore Leonard has died at the age of 87, of complications from a stroke.
In 2001, Leonard shared his rules for writing with the New York Times. True to his stark crime sensibilities, they are all about getting the author out of the way of his story, and therefore cruelly on spot about our faulty human habits:
1. Never open a book with weather.
If it’s only to create atmosphere, and not a character’s reaction to the weather, you don’t want to go on too long. The reader is apt to leaf ahead looking for people. There are exceptions. If you happen to be Barry Lopez, who has more ways to describe ice and snow than an Eskimo, you can do all the weather reporting you want.
8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
Which Steinbeck covered. In Ernest Hemingway’s ”Hills Like White Elephants” what do the ”American and the girl with him” look like? ”She had taken off her hat and put it on the table.” That’s the only reference to a physical description in the story, and yet we see the couple and know them by their tones of voice, with not one adverb in sight.
10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.
A rule that came to mind in 1983. Think of what you skip reading a novel: thick paragraphs of prose you can see have too many words in them. What the writer is doing, he’s writing, perpetrating hooptedoodle, perhaps taking another shot at the weather, or has gone into the character’s head, and the reader either knows what the guy’s thinking or doesn’t care. I’ll bet you don’t skip dialogue.
My most important rule is one that sums up the 10.
If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.
August 13, 2013 § Leave a comment
In workshop we talked a lot about two recurring themes: at-stakeness in fiction, the importance of putting of something on the line for a character so that his or her situation had undergone a change by the end of the story, and the narrative appeal of a character that is—to use the word we used—unhinged.
Meaning the character is not always going to make the right decisions for him/herself in the pursuit of a goal or happiness, and that flaw adds an intriguing layer of complication to the plot. And that is the kind of behavior that is going to have irreversible effects that will linger after the conclusion of the story. The reader expects to be taken to a different place, to see something sacrificed or gained or both.
One reason this came up is that my own stories tend to come off feeling very safe, with little change after the picture is over, or the kind of change that can simply be undone with an apology or the guy moving on. It’s like the sitcom plot effect; no matter how tightly you squish the sponge, eventually it reverts to its original shape. Even in my stories that have “worked”: the boys in “Where the Sun Don’t Shine” are still going to play ball tomorrow, and the worst that Petey got in “Return Policy” was a little humiliation in front of a cute ex-co-worker. (I suspect this may tie into my Parking Lot Problem, too.)
I thought about this when I was reading the stories in the current issue of Booth (Issue #5), put out by Butler University. There is some exceptional work here throughout, including a series of stories under the heading of “Winesburg, Indiana,” all set in that fictitious Middle American locale (a regular feature of Booth).
Andrew Hudgins’ “Raymond Snow” is my favorite of this quartet. Right away it puts us in the limited third-person view of a character that can’t keep his shit together:
I was wearing mittens because the warehouse was cold as hell so maybe I didn’t have as good a grip on the forklift’s wheel as I thought I did when I slipped my blades into the skip, and somebody must have got the load off-center because when I lifted, the forks hadn’t gone all the way in, and the TVs—the flat screens, plasmas break if you just fart in their general direction—sort of slouched on the pallet at about three feet up. So I sped up to try to force the fork all the way in. That’s when I kinda tossed ‘em into the shelving unit that tipped and hit another shelving unit that tipped too, but luckily there was a wall next, so it wasn’t nearly as bad as it could have been.
Well, that’s what they have insurance for.
Raymond gets fired, an act which is he forced to own up to later at a family reunion when he is trying to make a good impression on his new girlfriend. His limitations (of patience and intelligence) get the best of him. Raymond does not start a fight, but seems like the kind of person capable of starting with one when he is cornered or outsmarted.
Then there is Matthew Baker’s “Tête-á-Tête,” written in the convincing first-person voice of a young female sculptor-barista who is prone to overreaction and neediness and finds herself running away from responsibility as a response to a perceived slight from her new boyfriend.
Carlo C. calls. “Hello?” he says. “Hi,” I say, and explain who I am, in case he forgot. We met once at the supermarket—Carlo C. asked for my number, then gave me his. “Oh, that’s right,” he says. “Sure, sure, I’ll come over.” Carlo C. is a renowned attorney with a firm here in town.
I put on my orange dress and mid-thigh stocking striped stockings. Next I try and fail to clean my apartment. Next I accidentally drink an entire bottle of wine. I call my sister but she doesn’t answer. I hook on hoop earrings that are très hip, take them off, hook them on. Carlo C. is at the door and I’m holding it open, been holding it open—how long? Not sure. I decide no more wine for at least twenty minutes.
Baker’s unnamed narrator isn’t just unhinged, she’s at a loss in her pursuit of happiness. The healthiest option is would be for her to simply move on, focus on the tasks in front of her, and not let her spite inflame her other relationships, but of course that inflammation is the drug hit she seeks; it is her only motivation. Hence her piling on lies and excuses to her work, landlord, and boyfriend; it is why she calls for her sister’s approval while at the same time is revolted by her need for it, and why she makes a straight line for a rebound while feeling the need to tell us, the reader, about the guy’s successful career. It is why she winkingly asks us to condone her wine-guzzling and poor work behavior and shitty apartment management.
When the sister doesn’t answer, the narrator imagines that “she’s probably mad at me or busy getting skewered by her super nice husband on one of the counters of their super expensive flat. To which I would say—mad at me? Whilst thou are skewered by a dreamboat husband, and thy unfortunate sister doth suffer outrage after outrage at the hands of lesser men?”
But irresponsibility alone cannot propel narrative drive; these characters are at least seeking something of value through their backward ways. Conversely, there have been books I’ve read that felt overextended by a character’s seeming refusal to face up to his/her desires or responsibilities, leading to a frustrating plot surrounding a juvenile individual you aren’t convinced to root for. The characters of these books weren’t unhinged or broken enough to follow through with a change in life direction out of impulse, misguided or otherwise. They were just kind of mopey and sad.
August 1, 2013 § Leave a comment
The Normal School, Volume Six, Issue One. One great thing about The Normal School: I come away from each issue feeling like I’ve learned something. There was Ned Stuckey-French’s superb Elvis essay a while back, and now Joe Bonomo (This Must Be Where My Obsession With Infinity Began), in “Mama Loved the Ways of the World,” writes about a subject of charming serendipity: old country music 45-RPM records that approach the subject of topless dancing. There are apparently enough of them out there, if you look in the right places, to form a cottage industry, and WFMU disc jockey Greg Germani is an avid collector who shared some of his treasures with Bonomo. The jewel of these recordings is “Please Don’t Go Topless, Mother,” a novelty performance tune written by Ron Hellard and sung by 7-year-old Troy Hess:
“You’re ruining your reputation, and I can give you two big reasons why.”
Bonomo tracks down Hess, now 48, to recall the story behind the record and its aftereffects: its limited run of 750 copies; its suppression by radio stations that refused to play it and consequent aftermarket among collectors who found gold in its kitschy ribaldness; industry journalists who caught up with Hess later in his young career and portrayed him as an example of a child star being exploited by his record-producer father. Bonomo’s writing is fluid, fun and engaging; he is in on the joke without piling on to it further, and his exposure to the adult Hess gives him access to some withering anecdotes, including one of the boy, his singing career having cooled off, being dropped off at his local school in the custom van in which he once toured, with his name still in fading letters on the side.
This issue also includes a short story by Peter Ho Davies, who had a story appear in Harper’s in January 2001 called “What You Know.” That story concerns a writing teacher who must cope with the news of a deadly shooting committed by a student at the school where he teaches. It was probably one of the first pieces of post-Columbine fiction to address the subject of in-school mass violence, and it foreshadowed later novels on the subject by Jim Shepard, Richard Russo, and Lionel Shriver. Coincidentally, this issue also includes an essay about school violence: “Boys Least Likely To,” by Colin Rafferty. According to an author’s note, Rafferty had originally begun the piece in the wake of the Columbine shootings but shelved it, and picked it up again after the recent tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary. The essay interlaces a timeline of the events at Columbine with a hypothetical third shooter’s first-person account of the tragedy:
I am about to become real with a muscle’s twitch, a hammer’s fall. From my vantage point, I have watched them walk from the cars (the bombs I’ve built, the things I’ve known) to the top of the hill. People eat lunch, waiting, mouths moving slowly in contemplation. Rachel Scott is laughing at something her friend has said; her hair is falling back onto her shoulders. Down the hill, the cafeteria doors open, and I can see the toe of Dan Rohrbough’s sneaker edging out.
It is a beautiful day; this is why we start outdoors. Part of me is glad the propane does not catch fire.
The fact that a piece like this can still be fresh tells us how few of our questions about youth violence, and the rage and giving up, have really been answered.
Zoetrope: All-Story, Spring 2013. Each issue of Zoetrope is a showcase of design, not just new writing, and this issue is no exception with edgy cutout art by Geoff McFetridge (some of it tied to the stories in the issue). There is a reprint of Daphne Du Maurier’s “The Birds,” the basis for the Hitchcock film, and a clever story called “AP Style” by Dan Keane, ostensibly about beauty pageant scandal in Bolivia and set against the backdrop of that country’s crumbling infrastructure. The story is alternately told in official dispatches from a journalist stationed in La Paz and balanced out with terse, insensitive exchanges with the press agency.
The summer issue of Zoetrope is designed by Michael Stipe and includes stories by Karen Russell and Chris Adrian.
Look! Look! Feathers, Mike Young. Received this book as a gift from the author at AWP. Young’s writing is electric; in these stories he finds new and inventive ways to paint modern landscapes, dotted with new fusion restaurants and salvaged buildings and old bingo halls. His verbing of words (“tried to karate a guy”; “slump to bed, blear up at noon”; “started to windmill the dude”) creates a frantic pace that slides the reader past the obvious next step and into the sublime. A good number of his metaphors invoke food, which allows for a vicarious participation of the two least-invoked senses in fiction. Character is not skimped on; each story brings together a community of eccentrics and semi-frustrated observers who know each other and are comfortable letting their familiar quirks do the communicating for them. This is one of those books I’ll be coming back to more than once.
Fourteen Hills, Vol. 19.2. For some reason I received two copies of this issue in the mail, about two weeks apart. For the second time in three issues of Fourteen Hills my favorite piece was sports-related: the narrative poem “What people have against sports,” by Joe Sacksteder. It is ostensibly about two cousins on opposing junior-varsity hockey squads facing off in a championship game, but Sacksteder sets the lyrical scene against alarmingly on-point generalizations:
They have a problem with hockeymoms / with pennies in a milk jug, cowbells—though by the time hockeymoms get to the college level they’ve abandoned these noisemakers / They have a problem with their harpy screeches / with their unbridled aggression / with their absolute knowledge of the rulebook
May We Shed These Human Bodies, Amber Sparks. The back cover of this book has a blurb by Ben Loory, whose book I read last September, and it’s appropriate, because before I noticed the blurb I was thinking that some of the early stories in this collection reminded me of Loory’s fables. Sparks is not as deliberately elementary with her language, however; in some of these tales the plot fades off the page so that the reader’s attention is directed to sentence rhythm, the echoing of sounds, and in many cases close character is shunned in favor of a helicoptering over an arrangement of actors, as in an anthropological study:
There comes a point, always, where the wolf-child or the goat-child or the bear-child or the monkey-child is discovered by humans. There is power in the inverse of the usual myth: A child is found, is a foundling, will be the founder of a new civilization or dynasty or world. There is power in the second beginning, the tumbling out from the wild woods’ womb, the original loss glossed over and made to disappear.
I Am Charlotte Simmons, Tom Wolfe. It is as tone-deaf as any novel about the modern college experience written by a sheltered elderly writer who refuses to listen to his editor can be. The events depicted here with the intent to shock—the hooking up in place of meaningful relationships, the gaping athlete-student divide, the cheating and plagiarism, the fraternal entitlements, all in prose as subtle as a train derailment—have been going on in the American university system for decades, and I honestly think Wolfe wrote this book thinking he was doing the public a favor by letting us know about it all.