Monday, December 19, 2005

Why Aren't Writers More Inventive?

Why is it that writers are prized for their ability to reproduce the same sort of thing over and over in the same key? Once I discovered the charm and brilliance of J.P. Donleavy's voice in The Beastly Beatitudes of Balthazar B., I expected him to reinvent himself with the same verve in each of his novels. Imagine my disappointment when I learned that his remarkable voice, so hard-won, had ossified ever since he first revealed it in The Ginger Man. (And it's not like the man was content to write his To Kill a Mockingbird and then fall silent; he's written a heckuva lot in the same voice.) Similarly, most short story collections make an author's tics, thinness of experience, or powers of invention glaringly obvious. (I hope this is mostly an illusion -- in other words, that authors are generally more versatile than they appear in print and must appear more homogeneous to satisfy readers and sell books -- but I'm doubtful. Even the most disciplined writer can't help but betray himself or herself; we never kill all our darlings.) You can't read Russell Hoban's Kleinzeit and Riddley Walker without being impressed by how completely he revinvented himself - subject matter, voice, tone, and even orthography are all different. That's what writers should do from book to book, I think. But even Hoban suffers from this problem, as much of his opus is stamped from the same mold.

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Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Another Entry for Ambrose Bierce's *Devil's Dictionary*

The French philosopher and historian Ernest Renan once wrote that a nation "is a group of people united by a mistaken view about the past and a hatred of its neighbors."

--Quoted in "In a Dark Time," by David Remnick, The New Yorker, March 18, 2002, p. 51.

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Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Big Brother is Writing a Modernist Novel About You

From "Imperial Bedroom," in How to Be Alone, by Jonathan Franzen. Originally appeared in 1998.

"The novelist Richard Powers recently declared in a Times op-ed piece that privacy is a 'vanishing illusion' and that the struggle over the encryption of digital communications is therefore as 'great with consequence' as the Cold War. Powers defines 'the private' as 'that part of life that goes unregistered,' and he sees in the digital footprints we leave whenever we charge things the approach of 'that moment when each person's every living day will become a Bloomsday, recorded in complete detail and reproducible with a few deft keystrokes.' It is scary, of course, to think that the mystery of our identities might be reducible to finite data sequences. That Powers can seriously compare credit-card fraud and intercepted cell-phone calls to thermonuclear incineration, however, speaks mainly to the infectiousness of privacy panic. Where, after all, is it 'registered' what Powers or anybody else is thinking, seeing, saying, wishing, planning, dreaming, and feeling ashamed of? A digital Ulysses consisting of nothing but a list of its hero's purchases and other recordable transactions might run, at most, to four pages: was there really nothing more to Bloom's day?"

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Thursday, October 20, 2005

Ars Longa, My Ass: How Vivaldi Became a Household Name

From an essay by Guy Davenport in Harper's, January 2002, p. 63:

"If Olga and Ezra [Pound] had not sought out Vivaldi's manuscripts, edited them, and, most crucially, microfilmed them, we too would not be familiar with him. Bach admired him, but after Vivaldi's death (in 1741), the world forgot him. FBI agents were the first to hear him in America in our time: the shortwave broadcasts that Pound made from Rome in World War II were preceded by Vivaldi concerti."

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Sunday, October 16, 2005

Get Over Yerselves

From "Goodness Knows Nothing of Beauty," by William Gass:

"That attachment to human life which demands that it be chosen over everything else is mostly humbug. It can be reasonably, if not decisively, argued that the world is already suffering from a surfeit of such animals; that most human beings rarely deserve the esteem some philosophers have for them; that historically humans have treated their pets better than they have treated one another; that no one is so essential he or she cannot be replaced a thousand times over; that death is inevitable anyhow; that it is our sense of community and our own identity which lead us to persist in our parochial overestimation; that it is rather a wish of philosophers than a fact that man be more important than anything else that's mortal, since nature remains mum and scarcely supports the idea, nor do the actions of man himself. Man makes a worse God than God, and when God was alive, he knew it. "

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Monday, September 19, 2005

What Aristotle & N'Sync Have in Common

From Lost in a Good Book, by Jasper Fforde, p. 61:

"Remember, Thursday, that scientific thought, indeed, any mode of thought whether it be religious or philosophical or anything else, is just like the fashions that we wear -- only much longer-lived. It's a little like a boy band."

"Scientific thought a boy band? How do you figure that?"

"Well, every now and then a boy band comes along. We like it, buy the records, posters, parade them on TV, idolize them right up until--"

"--the next boy band?" I suggested.

"Precisely. Aristotle was a boy band. A very good one, but only number six or seven. He was the best boy band until Isaac Newton, but even Newton was transplanted by an even newer boy band. Same haircuts -- but different moves."

"Einstein, right?"

"Right. Do you see what I'm saying?"

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Monday, September 05, 2005

Being The World's Best-Known Archaeologists - One Downside

From "Olduvai & All That," in The Aztec Treasure House: New and Collected Essays, by Evan S. Connell, p. 31:

"[Louis] Leakey, with his wife Mary, camped season after season at the edge [of Olduvai Gorge], walked down into the gorge looking for bones, and shared a water hole with various large animals. "We could never get rid of the taste of rhino urine," he said, "even after filtering the water through charcoal and boiling it and using it in tea with lemon."

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Sunday, August 14, 2005

Most Fascinating Typo of the Week

See Deborah Bauer's otherwise-unremarkable "Flying Angels" in the July 2005 issue of Carve for this gem:

"Hard-edged dewy lawns and rows of begonias border the miniature tutors and Spanish-style bungalows."
One wonders if the tutors are small-minded as well as tiny, and if they favor begonias --?

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Wednesday, July 27, 2005

The 920-Word One-Liner

Don't we read fiction for robust pleasures like character, gorgeous language, and tragedy so pungent it slashes the hands? Damn right we do. Then why do writers (and editors) think they can get away with hanging a story on a gimmick?

Case in point: Theodore Ross' 920-word one-liner, "The Somalian Smokes It Up," in the July 2005 issue of Pindeldyboz. In such a short story, you wouldn't think it would take Ross three paragraphs (285 words, if you must know) to explain how the main character got nicknamed "The Somalian," but it does; and just when it appears that something's about to happen, the story flames out in a joke: having seen a beggar defecating in the open street, the Somalian concludes (in a tortured point-of-view shift), "Isn't that just the way of things in Cambodia, his home: someone always shitting on the Promised Land." Sheesh. This from an editor at Harper's. Read it yourself and tell me you're not disappointed.

Another case in point: Debra Broughton's "Colour of Friendship," appearing in the January 2005 issue of Word Riot. This time, it's a different kind of punchline, the sort used in detective fiction and spooky movies all the time: the main character is the one who committed the murder, though in this case you only realize there was a murder at the very end. --Oops, I think I gave away the ending again.

The problem, see, is that these stories aren't genre stories, where gimmicks and guessing games are part of the deal. Both of the stories I've mentioned so far are both presented as literature, and guess what, kids? A higher standard applies. A good rule of thumb is that literature is worth reading more than once. If it can only stand up to one reading (because the second time through, for example, you already know that Bruce Willis' character in Sixth Sense is actually dead), you're probably not writing literature. If your entire story relies on not telling the reader something critical -- not just the minor misdirections of any storyteller, choosing her pace and order of events; no, I mean, for example, when you showed your main character walking out on her boyfriend and you deliberately didn't tell your readers that she'd just stabbed him to death -- if your story rests on that sort of dishonesty, you should realize that your story's not going to be worth reading twice.

One last example: "Self Defense," by Michael Hartford, also in Pindeldyboz' July issue. Again, this is a different kind of one-liner, old as time: the main character, a normal, suburban dad, is provoked beyond endurance by his wife, who keeps shooting him with a squirt gun at their son's birthday party. In the story, much is made of attempts by the politically-correct to separate squirt guns from real guns (the ones in the story are made in the shape of animals, and the manufacturer calls them "squirters"). But scratch the surface, it seems, and we find humanity's primal impulses locked, loaded, and staring us in the face. Never mind that we know nothing, really, about the relationship between the husband and wife in this story - to understand the hostility they unleash, it's supposed to be enough, apparently, that she keeps criticizing his choices for the party (what food to serve, how to cook it, whether or not to give out the squirt guns) and that he keeps ignoring her.

Even if these stories were better than they are (when was the last time you read a story like "Self Defense," where a calm, ordinary day in the suburbs turns violent?), they'd still be weak, because they're designed only to shock the reader with the punch, if not the punchline. Are their characters presented with real conflicts that will, no matter the choice they make, cost them something they love? No. Are the stories distinguished by blazing language or formally challenging? No. These are easy stories to write, simple in concept and simple to execute. It's the curse of the short story form -- it's hell to write a great one, but it's easy to write one O. Henry would've been proud of. Try extending any of these for 20 pages, and they'd fall flat. Don't we all write and publish stories that fall flat? Absolutely. But let's not set our sights so dadgum low.

--Benjamin Chambers, Founding Editor

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Saturday, June 18, 2005

Lonesome Lonesome

Roderick Leyland’s, “Are You Lonesome Tonight,” (Eclectica, April/May 2005) starts off with a bang:

It’s a bugger when you bungle your first brain transplant. Isn’t it? Yeah, he knows what I mean. Blood, grey matter, bone fragments… Blimey! Was I on a learning curve! That’s what they say, these days, isn’t it? Not, I’ve got it wrong; but, I’m on a curve. I know the kind of curve I prefer. Don’t you, dear? Cor, look at her blushing under the pancake. I wear pancake too, love, but I’m not one of them. No, it prevents the lights burning me out, sweetheart, and stops me looking like a corpse. Who said, That wouldn’t make any difference? You wanna come up here, son, and try yourself? Yeah, you’re very brave, down there in the dark. Big gob, small dick.
This paragraph packs an awful lot into a few short sentences: it announces that the piece is going to be formally challenging, establishes the speaker as a stand-up comic, and gives him a particular sort of persona—he is vulgar and sexually aggressive, the sort of man who uses humiliation as a tool for seduction, who is able (or, more importantly, wants his audience to believe he is able) to shame a woman into bed and her boyfriend or husband into a sort of grinning acquiescence. (As for brain surgery and corpses, well—we’ll get to those later.) The stage seems set for turnabout—at some point, the reader suspects, our crude comic will get his comeuppance but good.

We are not disappointed. The voice, it turns out, belongs to one Ronnie Lonesome, the emcee of what appears to be a second-rate variety show. (Indeed, considering the allusions to blonde dancers, it appears to be vaudeville or even burlesque, which seems a bit strange, given the obvious contemporaneity of the piece.) And Ronnie Lonesome, of course, is only a stage name—and a clever one at that, invoking as it does not only the character’s loneliness but also, since it is taken from an Elvis Presley song, the sexual magnetism of The King. Our protagonist’s real name is Desmond Robinson, and over the course of the next seven or so pages he will indeed get what’s coming to him.

It is a clever stroke to make Lonesome a comic, because it naturally allows the piece to take the form of a modified dramatic monologue, typically the provenance of poetry, or, well, drama. The trick with dramatic monologues is to have their speakers unintentionally reveal something about themselves that they won’t or can’t state outright. (Robert Browning was a particular master of this—see, for example, his poem “My Last Duchess.”) And a performer with a shtick like Ronnie’s seems particularly ripe for this sort of treatment; we look forward to watching him hang himself with a rope woven entirely of his own words.

Does this actually happen? Not exactly. “Are You Lonesome Tonight,” defies our expectations in a number of ways, some satisfying, others not. The good news is very good indeed: Mr. Leyland is a gifted plotter; there are clues as to what is actually going on with Ronnie Lonesome scattered throughout the piece, but not until three-quarters of the way through does the bigger picture come into focus. Once we know the whole story, it is a pleasure to go back, find all the hints the author has dropped, and see how cleverly and seamlessly they have been fitted into the larger context of the work. For as it turns out, Ronnie Lonesome has bigger problems than mere boorishness—there is a tumor in his brain, which, we are led to believe, will likely kill him. Hence his opening joke about brain surgery, and the subsequent (better) joke about the make-up preventing him from looking like he’s dead. Ronnie also seems to suffer from olfactory hallucinations—he perceives odors that aren’t really there. Thus we get an early riff about odd smells and pretentious celebrity chefs.

Of course, the precarious state of Ronnie’s health transforms his bluster into something sympathetic—we see it not as the ranting of a cranky misogynist but instead as a dying man’s sad attempt to hold on to his self-respect. He is struggling to convince himself that he is virile, entertaining, popular; most of all he is struggling to convince himself that he is brave. One of the strongest bits in the piece stems from this struggle—here, Ronnie is talking to himself in the privacy of his dressing room, ostensibly preparing new material:

…she [Ronnie’s doctor] says [of the tumor], It’s the size of a pea.

I say, Get your specs on, girl. Listen: when I walk in the showers, heads turn.

Desmond, she says, it needs treating.

I say, Then give it a night on the town. What d’you reckon: limo, dinner at the Ritz, a box at the theatre and a suite in a Park Lane hotel?

It’s all swagger and desperation—but it’s funny swagger and desperation. Denial is certainly at work here, but it’s of an interesting variety: chosen, as opposed to reflexive. You can’t joke about something you don’t acknowledge in the first place; Ronnie’s brand of self-defense is more subtle (and, one could argue, more admirable) than the ordinary sort.

The problem is that many of Ronnie’s jokes aren’t this good. Here’s a sampling from his actual act:

…Oh yeah, that paper: New Pop Weekly. Now then, every week they print a list of the Top Sixty. Have you heard some of these?

Wanna Grapple with your Tackle, by Vicky Virago and the Vixens.

Want that Hunk in My Bunk, by Kathie Klutch and the Crampons.

You’re in my Flat, by Mick Manse and the Maisonettes.

On and on they go, these cryptic little puns, for eight more entries—three-quarters of a page out of seven pages total. Now compare this to the act of another comic, overheard in fragments by Ronnie when he is off-stage—a comic whom the story sets up as genuinely unfunny:

“No, she says, I don’t want to stroke your cat. I asked for a Marmite sandwich!”

Yes, Ronnie’s act makes more sense, but only a little more. For the piece to be completely effective Ronnie would have to be consistently, crudely funny—or he would at least have to be crudely funny when the author wanted him to be. The problem is one of control. It’s not that the voice gets away from Leyland, exactly; Ronnie never lapses from character. Rather, the words he actually says aren’t enough to carry the full weight of the piece, and so Leyland is forced to invoke other devices to bring his message home. The most distracting of these are what we might think of as stage directions, italicized bits of business which supply context, sometimes unnecessarily. Early on, they seem harmless enough:

Ronnie approaches the front of the stage, almost falling into the orchestra pit, and becomes conspiratorial.

There’s a minor problem with this—Ronnie’s voice might sink to a conspiratorial whisper, or his tone might turn conspiratorial, but for he himself to turn conspiratorial is jarring, as if we’ve become suddenly and inappropriately privy to his state of mind—but it doesn’t do much damage. By the end of the piece, however, the situation has grown more dire. Here is one of the last of these stage directions:

Ronnie continues to stand on the stage looking into the auditorium, waiting. The audience is attentive. People have gathered in the wings.

And another:

Silence has invaded the theatre and occupied everyone.

Something has shifted here—not Ronnie himself, but his story’s setting. The theatre has taken on the quality of a nightmare; the audience has come to resemble supernatural judges. Certainly, facing the prospect of death at the hand of one’s own brain is both absurd and menacing, but it still doesn’t make sense, given the rest of the piece, for the circumstances to suddenly become surreal. But Leyland needs to bring his story to a climax, and since Ronnie’s words alone won’t suffice, this is the method he falls back on. Indeed, by this point in the story, Ronnie is at a loss for words: he is having an episode of some sort, and his speech is comprised of disjointed snippets, memories and garbled fragments of other comics’ acts and appeals to the audience. It is undeniably moving, but it is also something of a cop-out. Since Ronnie’s brain is failing him at the story’s end, Leyland has the opportunity to stuff Ronnie’s speech full of things the comic, in his right mind, would never say—and he uses the opportunity in ways that ultimately diminish the piece. Ronnie, it seems, has never gotten over the death of his mother, and what surfaces here at the very end of his act appears to be a memory of her death as seen through the eyes of a young child.

It went quiet, my mum was still, and I couldn’t wake her. I shook her but she just lay there, warm. They said leave her, she needs rest now, but she never woke. And that’s God’s truth.

Now, this is certainly a heartbreaking bit of prose. The problem is that there has only been a single, fleeting mention of Ronnie’s mother up to this point, a mention so brief and devoid of detail that the reader has no sense of Ronnie’s emotional connection to her. The effect of this deathbed memory therefore ends up seeming rather contrived—it is as if the author did not quite trust the work he had already done and therefore felt he needed to play the "dead mother" card in order to drive home the point that Ronnie is scared, sad, and lonely.

This is a shame, since Ronnie’s fear, sadness, and solitude would have been manifest without bringing up his mother. After all, the spectacle of a man dying so publicly, and yet so terribly alone, is about as sad as you can get. Given the over-the-top nature of Ronnie’s voice, it might have been wiser to exercise restraint in constructing the piece’s actual events—it might have been wiser to trust us to find the pathos in the story for ourselves, rather than hanging it before our eyes in neon letters.

Still, there is great deal to admire in “Are You Lonesome Tonight,” not the least of which is Mr. Leyland’s psychological penetration—Ronnie Lonesome himself is a wonderful creation, simultaneously so self-deceiving and so very self-aware. It’s quite a balancing act Mr. Leyland attempts, and, if he does not fully carry it off, we still have a great time watching him try.

--Bill Bukovsan, Associate Editor

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Thursday, March 10, 2005

Top Ten Online Stories of 2004 - Update

Check out Terry Bisson's spooky little entertainment, "Super 8." Fun ride.

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Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Million Writers Award for The King's English & Best Online Fiction of 2004

The best news, first: The King's English won the Million Writers Award for Best Publisher of Novella-Length Fiction, 2005. Not bad for a one-year anniversary present, eh?

Hey, but there's a heck of a lot of good fiction out there on the web, and I'd like to urge you to check some of it out. Jason Sanford of storySouth, who runs and hosts the Million Writers Award, has chosen the top ten online stories of 2004. I'm sorry to say he didn't choose the three nominees from The King's English for his finalists, but his top ten should be worth reading. (Sorry, I haven't read them, either. Can't quite convince the folks at my day job that you need me more than they do.) Read the stories and vote for your favorite.

The King's English top three novellas for 2004, in alpha order, by author:

"Wednesday," by A'Dora Phillips

"Wonder" by S. M.R. Saia

"Escape Velocities" by Jim Snowden

Be sure to check 'em out!

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Thursday, January 27, 2005

If Paris Hilton Wrote Poetry

Check out Janis Butler Holm's hilarious send-up of Paris Hilton at Maisonneuve. It's a cheap shot, but sometimes those are the best. On a more serious note, see Britton Gildersleeve's savvy essay on making literature relevant for college students: "How Reading Poetry Will Help You Get a Six-Figure Job," in the National Writing Project's quarterly from 2001.

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Saturday, January 01, 2005

Ready, Stet, Go!

The Crowd, by James Chapman
Facets: a Literary Magazine

Chapman's piece is an excerpt from his novel, Stet. The eponymous main character (if one can call a character who barely shows up in a story a "main" anything) -- Stet, we mean, is a Soviet filmmaker. We gather that much, anyhow, from this excerpt, in which he manages to be born. This excerpt, however, is not concerned with anything so boring as a mere birth, and cannot be tied down so prosaically. Instead, we are treated to brief introductions to (among other things) Leningrad, Russian snow, the destruction of two complaining statues by German artillery, and the impact of film on how Russians perceived the world and their place in it -- all this in a dense, imagistic style reminscent of Michael Ondaatje or Gy├│rgy Konrad.

Take, for example, the wayward narrative strategy on display here:

…perhaps the Comedy Theatre is an unsuitable example, and we should move down the street to the Komissarzhevskaya Drama Theatre, opposite the bank-like department store Gostiny Dvor, where after rehearsals you may buy everything from a House of Friendship and Peace bath towel to the kind of wooden chair that suicides use to kick out of the way as they hang, and wives use to stand on as they hide their husbands' bottles of drink, everybody owns a chair like this, what is a chair compared to the art of the theatre? A play may reveal your whole life to you, while the chair you sit on is merely reality, a chair has no soul, it is despicable.

Chock full of such pronouncements, "The Crowd" is fascinating, gorgeous, and disappointing. Is it just us, or does its first sentence have an agreement problem?

... and the people of his city that morning put their feet onto the cobblework carefully, like a defendant who accidentally sees the judge smooth his robes, alone, before emerging to announce his decision.
Either way, the switch from plural "people" and their many feet to "a defendant" is a jarring way to begin. Combine that with "The Crowd's" determined avoidance of anything like profluence, and you have a piece that will frustrate the common reader. But for the uncommon reader -- that's you, by the way -- it's definitely worth checking out. We might even buy the book.

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