Ray and Groucho

February 2, 2015 § Leave a comment

A young Ray Bradbury, already an established author (including of Fahrenheit 451, published in 1953), appears as one half of a contestant duo on You Bet Your Life, matching wits with Groucho Marx. (Link via Atticus Books.)

The Value of Hurting Feelings

January 11, 2015 § Leave a comment

It has been encouraging, in the week following a slaughter of people who utilize the pen to express ideas, to see the many ways in which people of the same tribe have taken up the pen as a means of healing. Among them, Lucille Clerc  (an image erroneously attributed to Banksy at one point) below:


A very thoughtful piece about the responsibility of the artist comes from Joe Sacco at The Guardian.

The novelist Michel Houellebecq, depicted on the cover of Charlie Hebdo the week of the slaughters, is hiding in rural France. (My familiarity with his writing begins and ends with Les Particules Élémentaires; I didn’t love it enough to check out the rest of his stuff.) His publisher’s offices in Paris are under police protection. His new novel Soumission, out this week in France, “imagines France being ruled by a radical Muslim president after France and Europe ‘submit’ to Islam.” Houellebecq has made a living out of taking down sacred cows, and has not always done so with delicacy.

Love or hate the author, it can’t help but cut closer to the bone when the specific victims of a sick attack are those who make their livings through words and images. As one who has attempted to seek truth in art, I can attest that there can be value in going after the feelings of others—of the religious faithful, of the rich, of the poor, of parents and children, of artists and poets, of those in power, of the peasantry, of the good and the wicked, and those who protect us and those who serve us. I believe in the power of irony, mockery, and exaggeration, deployed at the right moments, as a means of directing our attention to our flawed human natures. We feel art by how we ache in response to it, by how it humiliates us, in all facets of the word. In that pursuit, however, everything that one says has a consequence, and it is the mutual acceptance of that which weights speech with a useful currency.

I think we are being harmfully reductive when we think of the act of depicting the prophet Mohammed as merely as slight or offense against the religion of Islam. It is, according to the Quran, a blasphemy; it is an attempt to distance the figure from the holiness attributed to the figure, and in this country I think it is fair to call such acts hate speech. Hate speech is still speech, but there is a responsibility to know whom you are targeting—in this case, an entire segment of the world—and what you expect from them.

I speak as one who is not religious, does not believe in God, but sees in others the fulfillment and sense of purpose religion can bring, and I feel those virtues are harmed when one attempts to stretch religion beyond the personal and into the political sphere. Religion ceases being about faith when it is used as a template for policing society—whether it’s about a Muslim’s disgust at infidels from the West or a Catholic protesting outside a Planned Parenthood. As others have pointed out, the actions of the terrorists were perhaps the swiftest way to get the rest of the world to see the images that enraged them, images they were otherwise unlikely to see. In that ironic way, it was demonstrated that a free society polices itself better than any zealot could.

On Networking, the Etiquette of Submitting, and Being a Good Literary Citizen

December 16, 2013 § Leave a comment

For writers, December runs hot and cold—a lot of rejection notices come in as the semester winds up, and a few acceptances, too. Everyone shares their end-of-year lists and nominations for prizes, like the Pushcart. I wasn’t nominated for anything this year, and I wasn’t expecting to be, but one editor did take the time to tell me that I was “a smidgen” away from making the cut for a Pushcart nod. Since it’s been a slow year otherwise, in terms of writing and publishing, it made me feel good for a few days, and I appreciated it.

A couple months ago, Roxane Gay, one of the most generous writers out there in terms of sharing advice to fellow writers, published a piece called “The Eight Questions Writers Should Ask Themselves” for the AWP site. The whole article is worth a read, but the first question, in particular, has stayed with me:

1.  Are you a good literary citizen?

I don’t want to be overly prescriptive but while writing matters most, how we move through the literary world also matters. Literary citizenship is certainly not being disingenuous, uncritical, or falsely affirming about everything you read and every writer you encounter.

Instead, literary citizenship can involve being a consumer as well as a producer of the written word. Subscribe to a literary magazine or two. Attend readings once in a while. Volunteer at a literary magazine. Do what you want, so long as you are doing something to contribute to the literary community, beyond simply offering your writing.

Don’t burn bridges you may want to cross in the future. The writing world is as small as it is big; most everyone is connected in some way. Again, this is not to suggest you should be disingenuous but you never know when seemingly casual connections will end up leading to professional opportunities to participate in a reading series, or read at a university, or teach at a writing workshop.

Good literary citizenship can also extend to how you comport yourself when participating in social networks. Are you relentless in promoting your own writing, sharing the same link more than two or three times? Do you send direct messages or private Facebook messages to strangers, promoting your latest project? Of course you should promote your work but take care in how you promote your work and consider sharing the good news about the writing of others, if you are so moved.

Mostly, literary citizenship is the importance of remembering that no one is alone in the writing world. Conduct yourself as such.

This has been on my mind lately as I make more friends and connections in the literary world. Social media tends to have a snowball effect when it comes to these things. I am connected to people—writers, editors, program directors—who don’t really know who I am, and I don’t really know them, but, as with any other field of interest, it is useful and rewarding to stay in touch with other practitioners, share ideas and frustrations about our choice of craft, and spread news about achievements and opportunities.

But it is not lost on me that many of the people with whom I interact can also give me something I want. I want to be read by them, be published by them, be promoted by them and invited to read with them. I want to be mentioned in the same conversations as them. There is a fine line that must be trod in how I interact with them. When I submit a story to a journal, and then share a link to another story published in that journal while my submission is being considered, or like news of an editor’s book deal, am I greasing the skids? Am I complicit in a fraud if that action is interpreted as such?

And if an acceptance or other opportunity were to come about from a journal I have promoted, or an editor whose work I have shared or liked, is it somehow less of an achievement if those interactions helped the editor or publisher to remember my name?

I haven’t been submitting much lately, mainly because I have only a handful of pieces that are ready to see the light of day. But I have been sharing links, reading up on other writers’ career milestones and new projects, liking and encouraging as a way of staying abreast of what others are doing. In one way it feels like a way to participate in the conversation of writing, for lack of anything of my own to contribute. And it is always great to know talented and creative people. Having them close at hand, and paying attention to how they conduct themselves, can be a bit of a tacit, poor-man’s mentorship. But there are also times when it feels as though I am exposing myself, because for all the energy I spend fostering  relationships with other writers I know I should be spending more on improving  my craft.

Earlier this week, one accomplished writer I follow and respect posted his list of favorite books of the year for The Millions’ Year in Reading, and the first commenter—anonymous, naturally—accused him of shilling for his friends. It was true, the writer admitted—a lot of the authors he mentioned were his friends. Some of them he had known for a while and others he had gotten to know only after enjoying their books. A few other commenters piled on, rather cruelly, accusing the writer of abusing his position as part of a circle-jerking enclave, which seemed to suggest a disdain not for the promotion of friends’ books but for the seeming impenetrability of that circle, a smugness among those who belonged to it, and the perception from outsiders that membership in that circle made it impossible to treat each other’s work with the same critical honesty expected in the writing community at large.

On the one hand, this kind of accusation doesn’t say much; in any business, even one purportedly transacting in merit, one establishes a coterie of people one trusts, and those are the people one is naturally eager to work with.

But I think there is also a responsibility to consider how things look from afar. The Internet gives writers a streaming, 24-hour opportunity to get their names in front of the people they seek to impress, and unlike the work of drafting, revising, critiquing and polishing, a lot of electronic networking takes place out in the open. We retweet, share, and like with no lack of awareness that we might be seen doing it and get paid back for it down the road. That’s only human nature. But it is also human nature to be cynical, and a writer who trumpets the work of another writer who has done that person a favor is going to appear disingenuous to some.

Community is a valuable thing. I am very grateful for the many friendships I have made in such a short time since I started sending my work out. But true friendship needs distance and honesty at times, and I wonder if the Internet has made the writing community too snug for its own good.

R.I.P. Doris Lessing

November 17, 2013 § Leave a comment


Were you around a lot of storytelling as a child?


No . . . the Africans told stories, but we weren’t allowed to mix with them. It was the worst part about being there. I mean I could have had the most marvelously rich experiences as a child. But it would have been inconceivable for a white child. Now I belong to something called a “Storytellers’ College” in England. About three years ago a group of people tried to revive storytelling as an art. It’s doing rather well. The hurdles were—I’m just a patron, I’ve been to some meetings—first that people turn up thinking that storytelling is telling jokes. So they have to be discouraged! Then others think that storytelling is like an encounter group. There’s always somebody who wants to tell about their personal experience, you know. But enormous numbers of real storytellers have been attracted. Some from Africa—from all over the place—people who are still traditional hereditary storytellers or people who are trying to revive it. And so, it’s going on. It’s alive and well. When you have storytelling sessions in London or anywhere, you get a pretty good audience. Which is quite astonishing when you think of what they could be doing instead—watching Dallas or something.

From The Art of Fiction #102, in The Paris Review 106, Spring 1988

All of Knowledge as One’s Province

November 9, 2013 § Leave a comment

On the release of Susan Sontag’s complete and unexpurgated (as in 168-page) Rolling Stone interview from 1978, Mark O’Donnell cannot help but marvel at Sontag’s ability to keep up with the sense of boundlessness and insatiability she projected in her approach to reading, her wish to have her assumptions challenged and the euphoria she evinced at the discovery of the new, and “the way in which she positions curiosity as not just a primary critical value, but a primary human value”:

There’s always the sense, with Sontag, of reading as a process of acquisition and assimilation, as a kind of territorial expansionism of the self. All those itemized resolutions in the journals, all those lists of things to be read and absorbed; her project was, as she put it, “taking all of knowledge as my province.”  And this is one of the most striking things about her, this conquistadorial spirit brought to bear on a basically democratic sensibility—the famous imperative to be interested in everything.

It is hard not to think that Sontag decided to invest in the responsibility of her image early in her life, what from the boasts of reading translations of Mann and Gide as a teenager to the lists and self-absorptions she committed to her journals in those years (Age 15: “It is useless for me to record only the satisfying parts of my existence.”). Such pressure to keep feeding both the self and the public image of the self could have easily led to madness.

Fittingly, here is what she wrote, at age 16, about Gide’s The Counterfeiters:

I am fascinated but not moved … Here; a novel by Gide called The Counterfeiters dealing with a small chronological slice of life around a man called Edouard, who is planning to write a book called The Counterfeiters, but is now preoccupied with keeping a journal of his life while his life is colored by the idea of writing this book (as Hopkins sees the wreck of the Deutschland through a drop of Christ’s blood)–and he thinks this journal will be more interesting than the proposed book, so that he now plans to publish the journal and never write the book. Edourard is Gide, beginning and ending in medias res.

The Literary Magazine in Popular Culture

October 22, 2013 § Leave a comment

At The Millions, Nick Ripatrazone writes about the cultural influence of literary magazines and their relatively scarce presence in film and television. Ripatrazone asked around for some examples where lit mags are referenced in these media, and I chimed in with a couple.

R.I.P. Oscar Hijuelos

October 14, 2013 § Leave a comment

And who should come by when his date gets up to use the ladies’ room but that brunette, and even if she’s not a blonde, she looks seriously fly in a tight pink dress and bops toward him with a drink in her hand, and Dios mío, but she looks hot from dancing, with beads of sweat rolling off her chin, and onto her breasts, her stomach damp and transparent through the clingy material of her dress. And what does she say but, “Aren’t you Cesar Castillo, the singer?” And he nods and takes hold of her wrist and says, “My, but you smell nice,” and he gets her name, cracks her up with a joke, and then, before his date returns, he says, “Why don’t you come back here tomorrow night and we can talk some more and have a little fun”…

–Oscar Hijuelos (1951-2013), The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love

Bruce Weber’s obituary of Hijuelos, in the New York Times, praises the writer for chronicling the “conundrums of assmiliation,” and says, “His characters were not necessarily new arrivals — in Mr. Hijuelos’s books, which sometimes ranged over decades, they certainly didn’t remain so — but in various stages of absorbing the sometimes assaultive American culture while holding on to an ethnic and national identity.”

In the parts of Mambo Kings I have read, Hijuelos shows a distinctive ear for the American babble, the arrogant forward press of youth, and the critical weight of pop culture (e.g., I Love Lucy) and fame as yardsticks of achievement.  You can see his influence in Junot Diaz, among others. I’m also seeing hints of Dorothy Baker, and even though I don’t think she wrote about the U.S. much, Jean Rhys (e.g., Voyage in the Dark).

Million Writers Award: And the Nominees Are

July 7, 2012 § Leave a comment

The ten nominees for the 2012 storySouth Million Writers Award have been posted. Check ’em out, give ’em a read, and vote for the best one.

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