us versus them

in my previous post, tim jones-yelvington brought up this important point (somewhere along the comment stream) about this us v. them dichotomy: “my kind of writer” or not, with us or against us, etc etc.

this is important because this isn’t just an “innovative” v. “traditional” writer question. even within our little world, small though it may be, there’s this split, where we have to “prove” our coolness. i mean, look who we promote. look who htmlg promotes. it’s totally a cool club. (i admit my egotism: i troll hoping to see my name. who doesn’t?) but it’s more than just that.

at &now (a conference for “innovative” writing), i found myself an underwhelming minority. when we (“my kind of writer” which we all were there) went out, i was consistently the only female, among fifteen to twenty males. when we went out, james yeh & i were the only “non-white” people. when we went out, almost all of us had academic affiliations in one way or any. (yeah, here, there was a bit more of a split, but come on!)

let’s just say: there’s a mold.

“my kind of writer”: turns out he’s not really “my kind” at all. so then it becomes problematic for me, where it’s impossible to NOT question whether i’m just a “them” being paraded with “us,” a poster child for diversity & open-mindedness. (ok. i get it. asians are, after all, the “model minority.”) i don’t want to be a token. nor do i think i’m being too sensitive about this.

ok. this isn’t where i wanted this post to go at all. but this is where it went. i want to ask about clubs & exclusivity. i want to ask about the hip factor. i want to ask about gender and class and race and heteronormativity. i mean, let’s just admit it: we’re a privileged crew, whether monetarily or educationally.

so what’s “us” anymore?

my kind of writer

this morning, i had a conversation with one of my colleagues about writing, & i kept on saying “my kind” of writers. a philosopher, she asked exactly what i meant by “my kind,” which is a more than fair question. do you think it’s limiting or even degrading to ostracize ourselves as “innovative” or “conceptual” or “experimental” writers? these terms are all lame. why do i feel a need to differentiate? is it problematic? do you differentiate? does it have value or use?

i mean, we’re all different writers writing very differently. furthermore, i’m not doing anything that wasn’t done a century ago, and arguably, those who did it a century ago did it a hell of a lot better than i do. we are, after all, working within a tradition, as much as any “traditional” writer does, right? how do you all feel about this?

yes, this is an old question, but a question worth revisiting over & over again, until we reach a solution. i’d rather just call myself a serious writer. or a writer. fuck. may as well call myself anything. who cares, right, all of 20 people?

Appropriate Appropriation?

What is appropriation, & when does it cross the line into plagiarism?

Also, is it different to do this with a living writer’s work v. a dead writer’s work?

I’ve been having this conversation A LOT lately, with a wide range of writers with a crazy amount of variation in answer. Oddly enough, one of the most conservative/traditional writers I know is totally ok with appropriation that is practically plagiarism, whereas some of the most least conservative/traditional writers have been arguing against it. Those of you who know my more recent writing know I’m all about appropriation, but when does it “cross the line”? I find myself increasingly conservative on this issue. Hmm…

Why, Hello, Friend

It’s a small world, that’s for sure, and it’s inevitable that as writers, we get to know each other. We form friendships, etc. etc. Over at HTMLg, they’ve had discussions about friends publishing friends, which is a question worth exploring, but let’s not beat a tired horse.

So I’ll reframe their question: How do you feel about friends reviewing friends? Is it ok, or is it not? Does being friends with someone change your reading of their book?

I have to admit: I’m biased when reading a friend’s book. If I like him/her as a person, I’m bound to read differently than if it’s a stranger. Now, I’m not necessarily saying I’m a more generous reader if I know the person (though that’s often the case), but it does change things if you’re friends, right? Or am I wrong?

I had a conversation with a writer-friend (let’s call him Adam) recently who asked me why I liked another writer (let’s call him Bob). Adam argued that Bob was not a good writer, his sentences were un-noteworthy, and the book itself without point or purpose. I respect Adam. I generally respect his opinions too, esp. on books. (Though sure, we don’t always see eye to eye. But who does?) When asked why I like Bob’s writing, my first default answer was that he’s my friend. But I like his writing too. Only: do I like his writing because we’re friends? Except I can usually separate my opinions from my friendships. Kind of.

I often find myself saying: I don’t especially like his/her writing, but I think he/she’s a great person. So then do I read what I read, do I like what I like, primarily because of friendships? I’ve confused myself. I’ve talked myself in a circle.

How much of an influence does friendship play in your reading?

A lead up

Tomorrow morning, early, I’ll get on a plane to go to New York. Whereas I grew up in a city, I’ve been in small town Midwest for the past five years or so, and the whole concept of New York is overwhelming. It’s a city. I mean a real city, with arts & food, etc. To add to any pre-existing anxiety, I’m supposed to go hobnob with “big” people. As it is, I can barely stumble out a few words to someone like Ben Marcus, who’s a nice as heck guy.

But that’s not my point. At the PEN “celebration,” which is titled “Crossing Over” this year, I’m slated to participate in a panel discussion with my co-winners Uwem Akpan (Oprah’s new book pick) & Juan Felipe Herrara (who’s won a NBCC poetry prize), NBCC president Jane Ciabettari, & Norton editor Brendan Curry about “crossing over” in genre & how this leads to critical & commercial success. Little, Brown published Uwem’s book, and Juan is published by university presses. I’m obviously small press. Many of the proposed discussion deals with our experiences working in these different types of presses. Jane has one question in particular about the role of small presses. Yes, I’m in the world of small press, & yes, my books are all small press & I serve as editor for two small presses, but what is the ROLE of small press? I’m proud to represent small press, don’t get me wrong, especially for an event that is bound to generate publicity, but I have to admit, I’m nothing but nerves about this. So give me some advice, Big Other. What role do YOU think small press plays? Of course, I have my own conception (both ethical & aesthetic) of the role of small press, sure sure, but I’d like to open a dialogue about this! Tell me your thoughts!

& if you’re free, please come support me & small press! The event is tomorrow at 7pm at Housing Works.

what you read what i read, part ii

because folks liked my last version of this, for your viewing pleasure, below are the books i read last week. it’s a pretty exciting list:

1. Patrik Ourednik’s Europeana: A Brief History of the Twentieth Century (Dalkey Archive, 2005): The twentieth century boiled down to painstakingly concise and shocking truths. No one is left unscathed or uncriticized in this book. Ourednik’s dry humor pairs well with sentences that are dense in their simplicity, that makes sense. For instance: “Psychiatrists said that in many people the First World War provoked traumas that had been previously hidden in the unconscious, and in the 1920s and 1930s the people started to be neurotic because they were not adapted to their inner or outer state, and in Europe in the 1960s, 25% of women and 15% of men were neurotic, and journalists called it the disease of the century. And in the 1970s the number of people suffering from depression also started to rise, and at the end of the century every fifth citizen of Europe was depress” (65). Every sentence in Europeana reads this way: biting, revealing, absurd, contradictory, a slap across an entire century’s big sweaty face.

2. Urs Allemann’s Babyfucker (Les Figues, 2010 but available now!): This is a book to talk about. This is a book you want to carry around with you, just so people can ask you what it’s about. Last week, as I was sitting at a cafe in South Bend, this slender volume lying on top of my usual stack of library books. It’s cover is a lovely yellow, it’s spine an unobtrusive pink. But the title! The title is what interests people most. So someone asks me: What’s that you’re reading? And I say: Babyfucker. Just like that. And that person responds: Hmm. There’s no follow-up question. I have to force their discomfort. I say: It’s a book about a man who fucks babies, or not. It’s this little Beckettian book, this man obsessed with the sentence, ‘I fuck babies,’ constantly repeating, ‘I fuck babies. That’s my sentence.’ Whether or not he actually fucks the babies is irrelevant to the reader, but to that person standing by your chair at the cafe, that’s the only question that matters. Here’s the thing, I haven’t even started touching the substance or the incredible writing in this book, but it’s all solid. This is an inadequate review of a truly stunning book, but I’ve only managed to do exactly what I’ve criticized that person at the cafe of doing: getting lost in the spectacle. Continue reading

the google-self

I’m not ashamed to admit it: I love Googling myself. I try to keep myself in check, limiting how often I do it, and really, it’s pretty rare that anything new pops up, and so I wonder: Why do it? What do I think Google will reveal to me about me? Is it just self-obsession, a desire to feel important in a world that perpetually reminds me that I’m not important? Because let’s just say it, we’re writers. Who cares? Arguably, we care about ourselves & each other, but it’s a small community. We self-reference each other. We read each other. We review each other. Sometimes, one of us blogs about another one of us. Or our names appear on group blogs like this one or htmlg or clusterflock. But my point is: Why does Google (or any other search engine) offer us (insert: me) validation? It shouldn’t, right? And yet, it does.

Argue with me peoples. Tell me I’m wrong. & while you’re at it, disclose how often you Google yourself. I’ll be most impressed if someone honestly says they never have…

wittgenstein, emoticons, & the death of email

yesterday, i was schooled by my friend austin choi-fitzpatrick. apparently, email is dead. email is “so 2006.” according to choi-fitzpatrick (wtf? i’m citing him like he’s the fucking scholar he is), email had it’s heyday from 1996-2006. now, email is a dead form. for him, email is only his inbox: subject headings, nothing more. for him, it’s all about facebook, text messaging, etc. we, as humans, reduced to 140 characters or less as our mode of communication.

this morning, i read wittgenstein’s notes & lectures on aesthetics, psychology, & religion. wittgenstein argues that language is not universal; however, physical reactions are. he talks, at length, about the inadequacy of words such as “beautiful” or “lovely,” that “beautiful” comes to represent not what is beautiful but an interjection. he argues:

would it matter if instead of saying ‘this is lovely,’ i just said, ‘ah!’ & smiled, or just rubbed my stomach? as far as these primitive languages go, problems about what these words are about, what their real subject is, don’t come up at all.

whereas i get wittgenstein’s point–words like beautiful or lovely are at times empty, they come to mean much less than what we mean them to mean–i don’t think we could simply substitute a grunt or a physical action. and i agree that words like “beautiful” never conjure up the same thing to any two people, that does not make the word itself–or words in general–obsolete. after all, facial expressions, gestures, etc. can be just as misleading, if not more so, than words.

Continue reading

what you read what i read

what have you been reading this week?

this week, i’ve read:

1. stewartcovermichael stewart’s a brief encyclopedia of modern magic: a beautiful, magical little thing. cutting words, drawing serious blood. the first of many appearances we’ll be seeing of michael stewart, a name to remember & cite.

spinoza2. baruch spinoza’s ethics: dense, intense logic, a necessity for readers, writers, & people. the influence his philosophy has had on my thinking writing etc is invaluable. i took 20+ pages of hand-written notes. i probably could have taken more, had i more patience.

greenstreet3. kate greenstreet’s the last 4 things: i’ll write a full post about this later, but greenstreet’s poetry is brutal. for instance: “Dear friend, I can believe in the influence of Mars as fully as I can in the aorta. It’s all invisible, in a normal day–though felt, as rhythm or excitement or pressure. You have the plate you can’t drink from. And that one’s missing an arm. And making art, too, is a kind of disappearing. A bucket with holes, on purpose.” i usually don’t read like understand poetry. greenstreet’s collection defies any of that. her words go through you, pausing here and there to grab flesh and crack bone, or at least, that’s what she’s done to me.

proust4. marcel proust’s swann’s way: i usually read very quickly, but proust demands a patient & tender reading. i had a conversation with matt kirkpatrick about this, & i’ll post more on proust soon, but why talk about joyce etc, when there is proust? where’s the proust love? this is THE book, the book if i could have no other book but one, this one, where i would want to both hide and die and be resurrected. (to be fair, i haven’t finished this book. this does not dilute my impressions in the least though!)

Continue reading

a single *blank* that kills

tonight, one french horn destroyed an entire symphony, and not just any symphony: tchaikovsky 5. first movement was fine. i was pleasantly impressed. second movement: disaster. if you know the piece, it starts with this lovely melody given to the french horn. she played it like it was half-time in notre dame stadium: short, blasting, breathless. wrong all wrong!

maybe i’m being unduly harsh, but i’m a hard critic to please, whether it’s art, literature, music, etc.

earlier this week, my house-mate invited me & a friend to see the notre dame orchestra. she knows i like my tchaikovsky. when she said they’d be playing his 5th symphony, i was hesitantly elated. they were also playing gershwin & mahler. the gershwin piece was unnoteworthy, except to say that harmonics are hard to pull off, esp. if just one person is out of tune. with mahler, i began to get worried. during intermission, i told a friend: that poor french horn! but i hoped for the best. first movement of tchaik 5 went better than expected, as i’d said before. sure, a little fast for my taste, but that’s the conductor’s call. then, the second movement. oh the second movement! that’s where they lost me. redeeming qualities: 2nd chair flute thought he was jacqueline du pre. he felt it, yeah? 3rd chair cello, the only musician up there with spirit. 4th movement was also painful. they seemed to understand the concept of crescendo, but they failed at enacting fortissimo without the aid of crescendo.

but what does this have to do with writing? in the same way a single french horn can kill an entire symphony, a single word can demolish a short story. my students of late, for some reason, have turned in a number of stories with sex scenes. i try to explain: sex scenes are hard. one word, and the whole things falters. and still, words like “throb,” “pulse,” “enters,” etc. keep appearing. on the same note, any appearance of words like “soul” and “heart” make me cringe, much like that french horn.

what words do you avoid? what words “kill” stories, poems, novels etc for you? understand: each of these words can be made fresh, but it’s rare. or rather, can you give examples where words like these work?

The Dreaded Q&A Session

When you give/attend a reading, what questions do you want to ask the writer? What questions do you actually ask the writer? What are the questions that make you wince?

A few years ago, I went with a friend to see Michael Chabon read in Cambridge. (My friend’s suggestions, not mine, and he’d gone through the trouble of getting us tickets.) After Chabon’s reading, people lined up to ask questions. One woman, who’d been standing in line for a solid 15 minutes or more, got up to the mic, cleared her throat, and asked, “You wrote a book that took place in Pittsburgh. Are you ever going to set a book in Pittsburgh again?”

The question was innocent enough. Sure, let’s give her credit, maybe she’s from Pittsburgh. Whatever. But to stand in line to ask that kind of question, well, yeah. Whatever. I don’t remember exactly how Chabon responded, but I’d say he handled it well enough. I guess the boy’s got practice dealing with questions like that.

I gave a reading in Houston last year. I’d read an excerpt from Changing, then a portion of my Choose Your Own Adventure manuscript. (The part I read from focused heavily on cats performing surgeries, then crawling into a woman’s body to function as organs.) This very nice professor guy raised his hand and asked if I considered myself a “sentimentalist.” Unlike Chabon, I didn’t answer the question well. In fact, I was totally confused. I think I said something along the lines of: I appreciate sentiment, though I wouldn’t call myself sentimental or a sentimentalist, whatever that means. (He proceeded to continue asking questions about “sentimentality” & fiction today!)

In light of these two examples, what kind of questions do you like or dislike, dread or desire?

The world, Set on Fire, by Reading

The world, Set on Fire, by Reading

Adorno says: Few things separate more profoundly the mode of life befitting an intellectual from that of the bourgeois than the fact that the former acknowledges no alternative between work & recreation… Only a cunning intertwining of pleasure & work leaves real experience still open… Suck experience is less & less tolerated… Atomization is advancing, not only between men, but within the individual, between spheres of his life. No fulfillment may be attached to work, which would otherwise lose its functional modesty in the totality of purpose, no spark of reflection is allowed to fall into leisure time, since it might otherwise leap across to the workday world & set it on fire.

AcademicI think Adorno is onto something. I’m a big reader (obviously). I’m constantly reading, not for work, but for more knowledge. Even though I’m surrounded by “intellectuals” at work, my colleagues, when they see me reading, always ask me why I’m reading: are you writing a paper? Are you prepping for class? Are you teaching this next semester? & they seem to be perpetually taken aback when I explain that no, I’m reading for pleasure. Why is it that even in academic institutions, where people are supposed to by nature be intellectuals, that reading–for non-explicitly work-related reasons–is such an aberration?

So here I am, questioning the academy–the academy where I’ve been so comfortable for so long–asking if those hiding in it are  intellectuals or the bourgeois. And ultimately, is there any difference between these terms any more? (I’m leaving my cushy job next month. While scared of an existence outside the academy, I’m also thankful for a chance to rethink my place in it: Am I really a part of it or apart from it?)

genius

Inspired by comments about “intelligence,” I offer you an open forum on “genius.”

 

Genius is one of those words, esp. for writers artists etc, that carries heft to it. Most of us want to be genius, or at least the romanticized mythological version of genius, as if genius offers us validity as writers or something like that. Then, of course, there’s that link to insanity, addiction, and excess.

 

What are your conceptions of genius? What fairy tales and mythologies do you associate with the word?

Smart people

I had this conversation the other day with a colleague of mine (who’s also a writer, short stories, as if genre really matters, though it does to her because she works firmly in the tradition), and she proudly declared that intelligence is no longer the “most attractive” quality in a man to her. By “intelligence,” I hope you understand I mean “very intelligent,” and by “very intelligent,” I mean really fucking smart, well-read, articulate etc etc etc. But I think you all know what I mean.

To contextualize: I’d just returned from &NOW and was telling her how smart people there were. Not to de-emphasize my own smartness but simply to praise others. Being in a bombed-out midwestern town, one forgets.

In an attempt to tease out exactly what she meant, I came to learn that it was not “intelligence” per se that she found problematic but the unwaning privilege of the floor and arrogance that “intelligence” often demands. Now, she argues characteristics such as “kindness” and “caring” are more important to her. That, and of course, attractiveness. Before, all this things could be ignored for intelligence. Genius, if you will.

But there’s the thing, yeah?, as writers, we do value intelligence. We value smartness productivity publishing reading writing etc etc etc. Do you value it more than “kindness” or “caring”? What’s important in a friend/partner to you?