Tolerance and Accessibility

OK, well, obviously, anything that spawned Godwin’s Law isn’t going to be the best place to start an intellectual inquiry into tolerance, but I am drawn to the difficult and obtuse and comment threads are nothing if not difficult and obtuse and nothing’s going to cure me of this perversity short of a stroke or a railroad spike so here we go. Reading the comments below the following video led me to think further about the ill effects that aboutness can have. First, let’s take a quick look at the video:

As I’ve already said, the video is less important than the comments that follow it, so let’s see a couple of those:

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Screen shot 2014-07-04 at 11.52.12 AM(Just a soupcon. Wouldn’t want to spoil the sauce!) Continue reading

“Serious” readers, and maybe why they’re so rare

ImageDid you know there’s a Wikipedia entry for “Death of the novel“? Well, now you do, and it seems that Will Self is trying to will himself (see what I did there?) into its bibliography, with an article in the Guardian titled “The novel is dead (this time it’s for real).” According to Twitter, he’s wrong, and possibly a bad person. Here’s the thing, though: you can’t go by what Twitter says—it’s just, like, a bunch of people’s opinions, man. American opinions, even, unlike Will Self’s opinion, which is British. Imagine hearing the essay in a British accent (it is actually the text of a speech to be given today, so someone is hearing it in a British accent)—are you still so sure he’s wrong, Twitter? But listen, now that we’ve got our ears tuned to his words anyway, let’s hear what he has to say.

For one thing, he says, “I believe the serious novel will continue to be written and read, but it will be an art form on a par with easel painting or classical music: confined to a defined social and demographic group, requiring a degree of subsidy, a subject for historical scholarship rather than public discourse.” So, the novel is as dead as easel painting is, which is to say: not dead, just caricatured as such. Well, since Self or his editor is the one doing that caricaturing, there’s not much there. There are more contemporary and relevant analogues he could have chosen instead of easel painting, of course; literature is, with very few exceptions, already exactly what he claims it will become (“confined to a defined”—come on, Self! no wonder no one reads this shit—”social and demographic group,” check; “requiring a degree of subsidy,” check; not “a subject [of] public discourse,” check). But to make such an argument would be to preclude a headline like “The novel is dead (this time it’s for real),” since its parenthetical would then be a foregone conclusion, like printing “Napoleon Bonaparte is dead (this time it’s for real).” No one’s going to read that. So perhaps Self isn’t really saying much after all, or nothing much worth getting worked up over, since it’s where we already find ourselves. But perhaps you take issue with my caricature of the current state of literature. Continue reading

Politics and the Novel

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Why do I listen to NPR? Lately, it seems as though it’s been overrun by heathens, although maybe I’m just mistaken as to its past. In any case, last week, an interviewee, an author, claimed that “literature is boring,” and the interviewer didn’t challenge her, didn’t so much as say a word. As much as I might want to credit this author with a biting, trenchant analysis of those awful new books often shelved as “literature,” she was placing the category of literature in opposition to her own, commercial fiction: Her shitty books about angels or vampires or dinosaurs or dinosaur angel vampires or whatever are, at least, not boring, like, I don’t know, Shakespeare? Jane Eyre? Jane Bowles? Reader, I wish I were joking. Anyway, while torturing myself in the car on an earlier occasion, I heard a different author who also ought to have remained silent—we’ll call him Author X and put the bag over his head for him—complain that publication at his Big Five house was taking so long that the “political” novel he’d written about [fill in the blank with current event] now won’t make sense because things are different all of a sudden, and, in the country where it all takes place, things will probably be even differenter when the book finally sees print. Gosh! Can you imagine? How will he ever earn back his advance? Our hero then went on to say that he had rewritten the book to better accord with how things are now in Country Y, and that version, the updated one, will be the one hitting the shelves this fall. (Actually, I’m not entirely sure of this last bit—as soon as he mentioned revising his book in light of the events transpiring in the country he’d written about, my mind leapt far away from what he was saying, as one does when a gun goes off under one’s window. Let’s call it self-preservation.)

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Being About Aboutness

The title of Joshua Landy’s How to do Things with Fictions should not lead you to believe that what is written therein is anything like a recipe book or a technical manual; no, instead, what Landy’s short book is after is proving that fictions do things at all—that is, rather than being about things, a fiction does things for its reader—or can—a claim, he argues, that is no longer obvious if it ever was. The reason for our dull-witted view of fiction is that “For some reason, we have systematically—albeit unwittingly—engaged in a long-term campaign of misinformation, relentlessly persuading would-be readers that fictions are designed to give them useful advice.” You can argue with that last part, but if you read the book, you’ll see that’s just the first of our reading deficiencies: if we look to fiction for advice [on how to live our lives], it can only be because we suppose that fiction has a paraphraseable content (as this post will have). If a fiction is about, then it can be paraphrased, and if it can be paraphrased, it can be reduced, and if it can be reduced, shouldn’t it be reduced?

By focusing on one relatively uninteresting aspect of fiction—its “subject,” for lack of a better word—we teach readers that the experience of a fiction is secondary or even tertiary to the reading—if it is considered at all. Thus, Cliff’s Notes. The very existence of such a thing as Cliff’s Notes should tell us that we have completely misunderstood fiction under Landy’s theory, and not at the level of the student, but at the level of the teacher: teaching for message, for content, for subject is teaching readers how to read fiction badly. There is a great deal more subtlety to Landy’s argument, and a great deal more nuance, but then, he has 250 pages to convince you, and this post will be much shorter than that. Continue reading

One may say that the human ability to understand may be in a certain sense unlimited. But the existing scientific concepts cover always only a very limited part of reality, and the other part that has not yet been understood is infinite. Whenever we proceed from the known to the unknown we may hope to understand, but we may have to learn at the same time a new meaning of the word understanding.

-Werner Heisenberg, Physics and Philosophy

Rust Belt Bindery

Rust Belt Bindery is “a book bindery that’s committed to producing and distributing new work as well as repairing and rebinding existing objects. Working collaboratively with artists and writers, Rust Belt puts out limited edition works of fiction and artist books.” I found out about Rust Belt Bindery when their literary editor, Blake Kimzey, sent me a copy of Ashley Farmer’s “Farm Town,” a beautiful chapbook of poems replete with hand-colored illustrations from Meredith Lynn. Here’s one of Farmer’s poems, “Gone to Waste”:

IMG_20130623_151004 Continue reading

A Bird, a Plane

From David Shields’s How Literature Saved My Life:

When I was a little kid, I was a very good baseball player, but I actually preferred to go over to the park across from our house, sit atop the hill, and watch Little Leaguers, kids my age or younger, play for hours. “What’s the matter with you?” my father would ask me. “You should be out there playing. You shouldn’t be watching.” I don’t know what’s the matter with me—why I’m so adept at distance, why I feel so remote from things, why life feels like a rumor—but playing has somehow always struck me as a fantastically unfulfilling activity.

I don’t think it’s entirely a matter of temperament (I distrust absolutes anyway—”always,” “never”—I’m a contrarian, and those words invite my most annoying tendencies). Sometimes watching is more fulfilling. Sometimes playing is a great deal less gratifying. Don’t believe me? This looks like a job for Superman!

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A Sequence on Sequence, Pt. 5a: Matthew Salesses

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[Matthew Salesses was kind enough to expand just a bit on his earlier thoughts about ordering his new book, I'm Not Saying, I'm Just Saying, out now from Civil Coping Mechanisms. Thanks, Matthew!]

I used to have a picture of me standing among the chapters of I’m Not Saying, I’m Just Saying, which is out this month from Civil Coping Mechanisms, as I reordered the book before submitting it to my editor there. But then I went swimming with my phone in my pocket, and now I have only the memory.

I’m Not Saying, I’m Just Saying is made up of 115 one-page chapters, which were published in various lit mags as flash fiction pieces. When I was asked to put a book together, I had to figure out how those individual pieces could build into a larger, compelling and hopefully satisfying, arc.

What I did was print out everything I had–then about 140 stories–and ask my wife to clear the room. She kept our baby from crawling over (helpfully, this was before walking), and I tried my best to shoo away the cats. I left aisles between the columns of pages, and I walked between the stories, looking at them from this zoomed-out, very physical perspective. Obviously, I wasn’t going to read them like this, to get down into the details of the stories. What I was looking for was rising and falling action, was pacing, was repetition, was thematic connections. I wanted the reader to get caught up in the larger story, to wonder if my narrator was going to get his act together or not. I didn’t want the reader to be bogged down in places where too many alike stories sided together, or to forget about certain storylines or characters when they disappeared for pages at a time. Continue reading

Doubles

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Dear Reader,

 

I would like to compile a list of books/stories about doubles, and I would love your help with that list. As incentive, I would like to give away two copies of Adam McOmber’s novel, The White Forest, which is, yes, about doubles (well, partly, anyway). I have an extra copy of the hardcover and an extra copy of the paperback galley, and I’d like to send them each to a randomly chosen commenter, someone who will help me with my list. Continue reading

A Sequence on Sequence, Pt. 7: Elizabeth Frankie Rollins

[A guest post from Elizabeth Frankie Rollins: Elizabeth Frankie Rollins has published work in Conjunctions, Drunken Boat, Bellevue Review, Trickhouse, and The New England Review, among others. She has received a NJ Prose Fellowship and a Pushcart Special Mention. Rollins lives in Tucson, AZ, where she teaches writing. Her debut short story collection, The Sin Eater and Other Stories, is available for pre-order here: http://www.queensferrypress.com/books/sineater.html.]

“Stick a fork in it and call it done,” wrote my friend Dawn Paul in 2001. She was talking about my collection of stories, The Sin Eater and Other Stories (forthcoming in Feb 2013 from Queen’s Ferry Press).

I want to open this discussion by saying that I have been sequencing this book for twelve years since, give or take a month or two.

When Dawn wrote this to me, my sense of organization about the book looked like this:

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Kellie Wells’s Fat Girl, Terrestrial

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Chronology commits you to a straight line, I said. This story’s ovoid.” But no, not ovoid either. Vertical. Kellie Wells’s Fat Girl, Terrestrial looks up rather than out. There’s that “terrestrial,” right there in the title, to remind of us the orientation the book intends us to have; the language comes from Wallace Stevens (as do several names, or else maybe that’s coincidence), but instead of pointing me to Stevens, it had the effect of making me feel alien to myself somehow. Continue reading

William Gaddis Interview

“Saul Steinberg, the artist, said one of the major problems for the creative person is to avoid boredom. . . . If I’m bored, the reader is bored. There are writers that we know—we needn’t name them—I don’t understand why they don’t die of boredom at the typewriter. And they sell millions of copies.” William Gaddis in conversation with Malcolm Bradbury, on the occasion of the publication of Carpenter’s Gothic.

Dalkey Archive, publisher of new editions of both The Recognitions and J R, is doing their 10 books for $65/20 books for $120 winter sale right now. Be not bored.

 

A Sequence on Sequence, Part 6: Peter Tieryas Liu

I stuffed too many stories into the first draft of Watering Heaven. There were originally thirty of them and I picked the stories in sets. For my short stories, I find myself frequently latching onto themes and exploring them through three stories. For example, the stories “Searching for Normalcy,” “The Interview,” and “Urban Dreamers” were written as triplets exploring the abnormalities of corporate life. “Chronology of an Egg,” “Gradients,” and “Staccato” were another set that examined hybridized love and the metamorphosis of the American dream. Tenuously speaking, these sets of threes coalesced into the first draft of the book. It was a messy web that ran unevenly throughout. Determining the title, Watering Heaven, based on the William Blake poem, “Tyger,” helped me focus on the theme of a journey and disillusionment, weeding out a few of the stories including the one of a guy with insecurity issues because he has a green dick and two lovers who fall in love over a dying bird. After deleting three others, I had seven sets of three and one solitary story, “An Empty Page,” that was always a bit of a loner. To supplement those, I had three experimental stories that hadn’t been published yet, but that I personally loved. That brought the grand total to twenty-five.

I’ve worked in both games and films, and one of the most amazing things to see is a storyboard of the entire film through rough images on the walls. There’s often a colorkey pass and you see the hues transitioning between different arts and moments in the film. Without hearing the music, without even seeing the specific images, you can tell the mood of specific parts just by the color tone. Continue reading

Noy Holland’s Swim for the Little One First

Noy Holland’s new collection of short fiction, Swim for the Little One First, came out in September. I would like to encourage you to buy it and read it. I read the first page, and, despite my enormous stack of books-in-progress, I felt compelled to read the rest, immediately. Maybe you will, too:

Rose called.

I said, “Hello, Rose.”

“You sound funny.”

I was lying on my back with my legs in the air trying to make a baby with my mister. I had his seed in there. My poor egg had slipped out to meet it.

“Can’t you come out here and help me?” Rose pleaded. She had bunions. She had busted her elbow stirring oatmeal.

I was busy. My mucous was of a quality. I had just the least clutch of eggs left out of the millions I got when I started.

“Get off,” my man said, “and I’ll do it again.”

“Is that Tonto I hear?”

Tonto snorted. “She’ll talk all day if you let her.”

But maybe you need more convincing. Continue reading

elimae’s last issue?

Some sad news from Cooper Renner and Brandon Hobson, editors of elimae:

 

In light of which, may I suggest taking a look through those archives and of course reading the latest issue, which, as always, has a bunch of really great work in it: Catherine Lacey, Jimmy Chen, Joseph Scapellato, Sam Martone, Daniel Grandbois, and Kristina Marie Darling among others.

If you go to the 1996-2004 archives (those apparently most likely to vanish), you’ll find wonderful stuff from Brandon Hobson, Michael Kimball, Norman Lock, Brian Evenson, Stacey Levine, Gordon Lish, Matthew Derby, Gary Lutz, Peter Markus, Dawn Raffel, Eugene Marten, David Ohle, Jim Ruland, Shya Scanlon, Terese Svoboda, Jane Unrue, Ken Sparling, Derek White, Diane Williams, Guy Davenport . . . I guess I’m not sure why you’ve haven’t already clicked over yet.

Moving Through the World: An Interview with Alex Gallo-Brown

In March of this year, Alex Gallo-Brown sent me an email about a book of poems called The Language of Grief, with a link to a Kickstarter page and [in part] this message:

[I]mportant to the publication of my book is the development of a gift-giving community: the idea of giving around the corner, people’s artwork, their gifts, moving through the world to places they cannot yet conceive. Many of you are poets, writers, artists, whether you are published, whether you show your work or not. Many of you make things other than traditional artwork in your spare time — spoons, sweaters, etc. Others of you have access to knowledge that is unusual, that is valuable. I hope that you will pledge to give this secret knowledge, this artwork, this poem, to someone else. In return, I will provide the name and contact information of another person in the community in addition to a copy of my book. In the event that it costs you money to deliver your gift — to transport a painting, say — I would be happy to apply some of the money raised to offset that cost.

As an enthusiastic fan of Lewis Hyde’s The Gift, I wanted to know how and even if this would work, so I asked Alex a few questions about the book and about the gift-giving community. Continue reading

Much Gnashing of Teeth: Reviewing a Review of Book Reviews

Jacob Silverman writes “Against Enthusiasm” at Slate: “The writer Emma Straub has 9,192 Twitter followers . . . let’s say you’re part of this web of writers, fiction-lovers, literary editors, and readers in the social-media world, and you’re assigned a review of Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures. What if you don’t like it?” Without wanting to sound (too) facile, isn’t that, um, not really much of a problem? Given that she has “9,192″ followers? (World Bank’s 2011 World Population: 6,973,738,433.) Is it newsworthy when 53 people “like” their friend’s picture of his new car, and one of them happens to write for Road & Track? (“Only 11 of them actually liked it, our source says.”) Authors post about their books, filmmakers post about their films, your 14-year-old cousin posts about MMA—that’s what social networks are for.

[Silverman's op-ed seems to be about the prevalence of "positive" reviews, and the problem that poses for "literary culture." By way of counterpoint, here's a fascinating story, from Foz Meadows, about goodreads, bullies, and bullying goodreads bullies. Which would seem contrary to what Silverman is saying, given that goodreads is a social media platform. For talking about/reviewing books. But we won't dwell too much on that.] Continue reading

Unstuck #2

[Unstuck's first issue, which came out last November, was big: 352 lavishly illustrated pages, and incredible fun to read (stories from Joe Meno, J. Robert Lennon, Matt Derby, Aimee Bender, Rachel B. Glaser, Amelia Gray, Lindsay Hunter, Meghan McCarron, Matthew Vollmer, and many more). With some help, their second issue is going to be even bigger (disclosure: it will feature one of the longest stories in Critique of Pure Reason), "over 500 pages." They'd like your help with that, and I think you should help them. Here's a link to their just-launched Kickstarter. All of the money will go to printing, distribution, and paying their contributors.] Continue reading

Something Else Unknown: Richard Froude

“I want to think of this work as contoured. I want it to rise and fall.”*

Richard Froude, born in London, moved to the US in August 2002 at age 23. I was 24, having just moved back to New Orleans from five years out West. Because I knew no one in the city, I walked along the Mississippi after the sun had gone down—for the breeze that blew away the closeness of the Quarter, and for the lights of the ships. Maybe just for the movement. Continue reading