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Not-Seeking Exposition, Mud Luscious Press

Mud Luscious Press has accepted 2 of the 136 submissions received in the last few weeks. & while all of our rejections have personal notes of some sort, the most common reason for rejection is the heaviness or thickness of a writer’s exposition.

Some examples from declined work:

‘Unlike so many other mornings, today I feel refreshed and rested.’

‘You park the car, approach the house, and are about to unlock the sliding front door when you find your face reflected in the glass.’

‘She gave up and called him. Called him anyway.’

Do writers understand what we mean when we say ‘exposition’? Are there other journals fighting the same battle? Am I just ranting to a wall? Am I wrong?

Sincerely,

J. A. Tyler & Mud Luscious Press

32 thoughts on “Not-Seeking Exposition, Mud Luscious Press

  1. You could argue that exposition which is not heavy is not doing double duty, or that it doesn’t refer to anything outside itself, and isn’t particularly significant.

    But that refers to the metaphors, heavy, thick. Weight. Is weight bad in literature? That seems unlikely to me.

  2. i fight the same battle at abjective.

    i dont necessarily blame writers though, i dont see it as a universally bad thing, just abjective’s preference. i tend to think just about all literature published anywhere exposits too much.

    1. i take heavy or thick exposition to mean its explaining more than it needs to to be effective. and possibly to the extent that it insults a reader’s intelligence.

      its a matter of necessity. marco’s is not overexplaining so much as its just description like you say. in the end, interestingness trumps whether its overexpositing anyway, such as the image of a jar of potatoes, something i wouldn’t typically think of as being in jars.

      ‘Unlike so many other mornings, today I feel refreshed and rested.’ — ‘unlike so many other mornings’ is unnecessary and uninteresting. you could chop this entire sentence down to ‘i feel rested’ and have the same effect since ‘today’ is probably implied through context and that you are mentioning it at all implies that on other mornings you arent this rested.

  3. i struggle with this a lot, but also write in several different modes, some favoring exposition, some not.

    i think the idea of exposition, especially in dialogue, has been hammered into readers for so long, that people are scared of leaving it out, cutting it, or doing away with it altogether.

    i don’t know. but i think anyone who has read a fair amount of mud luscious titles should get a sense of what you’re looking for, no?

  4. The one thing I would say is why would you close yourself so intensely to writing that could be good. There is good expository writing out there. Are you really not interested in even considering that sort of thing? I worry whenever something is unilaterally dismissed. Then again… that’s the great thing about having your own press. You do get to define your aesthetic.

    1. I like the idea of presses (and journals) refusing particular literary devices. “No Dialogue Press,” e.g.

      Here’s mine (second song, after Pink Eyes moons the audience):

      [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=60ja-AeEfdw&hl=en_US&fs=1&]

    2. I think Roxane hits on the key point. that’s the great thing about having your own press. You do get to define your aesthetic.”

      The NY’er rejected Richard Yates throughout his life. Was it aesthetic or story or both?

      We all have journals we’d like to get in. Maybe it is about story, pure story, maybe not. What do people think?

      In the film business when Casino came out, only Sharon Stone was rewarded with an Oscar nom, because she played against her type or stretched herself, while De Niro and Pesci were ignored because they had played these roles before. But I think in the writing world, the big editors tend to reward those stalwarts that deliver an able-bodied story – Oates, Antonya Nelson, etc. Whereas the unknowns who really try something different aren’t so embraced. By smaller places yes. I guess this gets back to the arguement always popping up about the big journals embracing edgier writers. Would Tin House have published Ben Marcus’ pieces from Wire and String without his track record, like the Quarterly did. I think not.

      1. It’s never about pure story. Story is never pure. I think it’s pretty obvious that politics is all over writing, both in the making of it, and in the reception of it. But how could it be any other way? It’s a human activity, and all human activities involve politics. Politics is people.

          1. This is changing the subject some, but I don’t think many people write stories these days. Meaning, I think people write prose, but those prose pieces usually aren’t narratives. They’re organized around some other concept. (The realists often base it around character psychology and sensuous description—lots of adjectives and similes! Meanwhile, the post-Silliman/post-Marcus/post-Language etc. crowd usually bases it around language play and anti-narrative devices.) (I like to say that the one thing that realist fiction and experimental fiction have in common is that they’re both anti-narrative. And I’m generalizing, of course, but I think there’s a lot of truth in that.)

            Which is fine. Although I do wish there were more variety, and more room for narrative-based pieces.

            (And that’s not everyone, of course, but it’s a lot of the field.)

            OK, you can tell me I’m wrong. I have to go bowling, though, so I won’t be back until…doomsday.

  5. “He carried a jar of green beans and one of potatoes to the front door and by the light of a candle standing in a glass he knelt and placed the first jar sideways in the space between the door and the jamb and pulled the door against it. Then he squatted in the foyer floor and hooked his foot over the outside edge of the door and pulled it against the lid and twisted the jar in his hands. The knurled lid turned in the wood grinding the paint. He took a fresh grip on the glass and pulled the door tighter and tried again. The lid slipped in the wood, then it held. He turned the jar slowly in his hands, then took it from the jamb and turned off the ring of the lid and set it in the floor.”

    Sorry pal, I understand this passage illustrates the momentous significance blah blah in a context of blah blah but we at Abjectlicious have a strict no-exposition policy. I’m sure many other presses will be interested in your novel.

  6. Soooo, I’ve always used exposition as a narratological term, especially when critiquing student work, as in: the presentation, usually declarative, of circumstances occurring before the main action of the narrative.

    This is what I usually get:

    S and M sit down for coffee. S felt anxiety because of his past with M. M had always had a crush on S, but only acted upon it at the sock hop two years ago. S was still angry because of the way M acted at the funeral…etc…

    Or, worse:

    M felt that his father never understood him. M really wants to impress his father by getting better grades in school. M wants he father to know that he does not really hate him, despite their big argument… etc…

    And so I’m not sure I would call Marco’s example exposition, or, even the examples that started the thread.

    I’d call Marco’s simply “description” or maybe “narration.” The MLP examples strike me as expository, perhaps, in describing interior character feelings after the image/action meant to articulate the feeling, but this seems different than the narratological usage.

    I’d be happy to be enlightened, though, on the definitions you are all using for exposition.

    1. Yeah, I’d call Marco’s quote scenic description—as I would examples 2 and 3 in the original post. Exposition, I always learned, is explanation—exposing. Which is supposedly bad because a writer’s supposed to “show, don’t tell.” (I understand the spirit behind that rule of thumb, and I think that spirit a good one, but there are times and places where it’s best to cut off one’s thumbs.)

      Indeed, heavy description is often the opposite of exposition. The MFA realists privilege showing over telling because they also love extensive, detailed description. Which leads to stuff like, “She chewed the soft bit of muscle at the base of her thumb, pinching the flesh between her stained front teeth. The marks took minutes to fade, looking like angry little parentheses containing her pale skin.” Rather than the more expository, “She was feeling nervous.”

      If scenic description is right out, then I suppose Beckett couldn’t get in the door at Mud Luscious? (But neither could Joy Williams, I imagine?)

      Personally, I like anything and everything in fiction. All devices and modes and grammatical marks are useful—except when they aren’t.

      What strikes me about the three original examples, and the bit Marco quotes, is that none of them are in my mind interesting pieces of writing. Which is why I wouldn’t want to read them—but I don’t care that they’re heavily descriptive.

      “one of potatoes” = awkward
      “by the light of a candle standing in a glass he knelt” = awkward
      first sentence = run on, logistically murky for no discernible effect
      “The knurled lid turned in the wood grinding the paint.” = more interesting, but sudden shift in tone, and the lack of commas garbles the logistics

      …and so on. It takes more work to read the passage than it’s worth, especially since nothing seems to be happening.

      Speaking in the abstract.

      1. Yeah, I’d call Marco’s quote scenic description—as I would examples 2 and 3 in the original post.

        You are right. I chose that quote because it is structurally very similar to #2: both are step-by-step descriptive sequences.
        You could argue for a definition of exposition that includes descriptive sequences – from a rhetorical standpoint exposition is the mode of writing whose main concern is conveying information – but it probably wouldn’t be a useful definition.

        My other point was the importance of context. It is difficult to defend example #1, but I could envision situations in which #2 and #3 would work, or at least would feel inconspicuous: repetition in #3 as a means to convey a sense of tiredness and defeat , #2 delaying/preparing a sudden shift in tone, etc.

        The bit I quoted comes from The Road. It’s interesting because the points you rise – awkwardness of sentence structure, lack of punctuation marks – are trademarks of McCarthy’s style.

        especially since nothing seems to be happening.

        Everywhere else “he opened the jar” would have been more than enough, but in the context of this story a jar of beans is akin to Manna from Heaven or the Holy Grail, and the heightened description reflects that.

        1. Well, that’s why I didn’t finish The Road! I’m Big Other’s resident Cormac McCarthy hater.

          Although if it took him the whole novel to open the jar, then—maybe.

          Exposition and description aren’t mutually exclusive, of course. And exposition is more than just telling how a character feels, thinks, etc. Sometimes it’s just backstory, often a very useful thing. And sometimes an unnecessary thing.

              1. I divide all the art I know into rough two categories: that which I like, and that which I haven’t yet learned how to like. I haven’t yet learned how to like McCarthy. I see things in his writing that I respect, because of course he’s a very talented writer etc. etc. But I don’t see how what he’s doing benefits me. I don’t enjoy reading his work, I think his weaknesses are too apparent and embarrassing, and I also don’t like how popular his work is—how it dominates so much of the present. Because I think it’s “the wrong work for the wrong time,” and I worry about his influence as a writer. (Although of course people should like whatever they want to like.)

                I’ll confess that I also like to criticize CM because I’ve found that people don’t like seeing him criticized. 5–10 years ago, when I would criticize Blood Meridian, people would stare at me, agog. They couldn’t believe I was saying negative things about it! They would get very upset and defensive, as though I were criticizing them. (People are the same way about Sebald, and used to be the same way about DeLillo. Giant white male authors all who need loyal defending!) I find that rather interesting, and think it points out a need for more criticism. Because I’d rather there be a diversity of opinions about everything, rather than just, “Oh my god, I love Blood Meridian!.”

                I love The Dark Knight Returns, but I’m really glad people are willing to criticize it. Because there are many ways in which it can and should be criticized. Hell, I agree with a lot of those criticisms, even as I think it’s a marvelous masterpiece.

                But now that more people are criticizing CM, maybe I’ll start praising him. Who knows? Maybe tomorrow I’ll pick up Blood again, and really get into it. Certainly I have nothing against him personally. I’d love to go shoot tin cans with him, down in New Mexico. He could help me open those jars I’ve been struggling with.

                1. I think we’ve have this converation before. I definitely grok the anti-McCarthy stuff. He’s the big fish, he can take it. In five years it will be someone different. I guess it would have been like (well maybe not) saying Schindler’s List was kind of sappy in 1993. But that’s a whole other can of worms. Though every time I see Unforgiven, I have more respect for it. But not Million Dollar Baby – oh lord. I was just dialing up a few best picture winners.

                  1. I don’t really mind that CM is popular; I like plenty of popular writers (I’m always sticking up for J.K. Rowling, for instance). It’s the lack of critical diversity regarding CM that has, until now, most bothered me (although I have other issues with his writing as well). For a while, no one I knew was saying anything critical about the guy—it was just assumed that you loved him. People would get genuinely upset with me when I criticized him—like I was doing something forbidden. That type of situation always bothers me (and encourages me to become even more critical).

                    Same thing with DeLillo: people just assume that you love the guy. “And why don’t you love White Noise, Mr. Jameson? Eh? Don’t you know how good that book is for you? Don’t you?…Maybe this will make you think otherwise!” (They insist I read it for the umpteenth time.)

                    Meanwhile, I can’t get folks who love DeLillo and McCarthy to read Yuriy Tarnawsky’s Three Blondes and Death. Or Jane Bowles’s Two Serious Ladies. But those books, you see, aren’t in… It’s not sexy to talk about them. (Plus they seriously warp and challenge what the novel is supposed to be, something you’ll never get from McCarthy or DeLillo.)

                    Why is everyone reading Roberto Bolaño these days? Well, I imagine a lot of people genuinely like his writing. But there’s more to it than that. Can I be the guy who also doesn’t like Roberto Bolaño? Or does that make me too much of a curmudgeon? Roberto Bolaño, like McCarthy before him, and DeLillo before him, is (among other things) a writer whom everyone can read because everyone else is also reading. It’s One Book America! And then everyone can feel secure in liking it, because everyone else likes it. It’s culturally sanctioned! It’s safe! It’s easy to like Blood Meridian. It’s easy to like White Noise, The Savage Detectives

                    Now, I’m not saying that everyone who likes these things is wrong! They’re all good books. Of course they are: they have to be good, because you can’t convince people to read and like garbage (not usually, not everyone). But there is a strong cultural pressure—usually backed by big media companies—to like—and buy—and obsess over—the latest big thing. And, sure, hey, why not? Reading groups are fun, sometimes (not all the time, but occasionally they’re fun). But when everyone then has to like it—I draw the line.

                    It doesn’t have to be that way. It’s funny, but literary society, which is so highbrow and so intellectual, often strikes me as less contentious, less argumentative, than film culture. Quentin Tarantino is rather a big fish, but there’s a lot of debate over his work. People feel free to say they despise his latest movies, love it, are indifferent to it, whatever. I think that’s precisely right. The same is true in music scenes, many other scenes. Hell, you see better thinking and debate over Vampire Weekend than you do over McCarthy. You just have to like McCarthy, read Blood Meridian again, receive the pearls of wisdom from the master. Doesn’t matter if you think Blood Meridian is as bourgeois and as heavily marketed as Vampire Weekend…

                    My own opinion of any artist, and any artwork, is usually some mixture of ideas. For instance, I adore Donald Barthelme, think he’s one of the most interesting American writers of the past fifty years (hardly a controversial opinion these days). But there are plenty of reasons to criticize the guy, and his work. I think a lot of his writing is pretty lazy, and lousy. And I’m aware of how the Culture Industry has brought Barthelme to me, and told me to like him (as I said, it’s not a controversial opinion). I’m happy his books are in print and on the shelves at Barnes & Noble…but I wonder who’s profiting from their being there. I’m suspicious of my culture for wanting me to like Donald Barthelme. Who’s gaining from that? And what, precisely, do they want me to like? (And to not be reading in lieu of Don B.)

                    And not to be too much of a sourpuss, but I think that a lot of writers since Barthelme have taken the wrong things away from his work (myself often included)—too much fragmentation, say, and his humor, and not enough social criticism. Or his love of 19th century French communist literature.

                    Anyway.

                1. Yeah, spoiler warning on that.

                  Kiss Me Deadly is a must-see, I think. Key influence on both Raiders of the Lost Ark and Mulholland Dr.—and how many films can you say that about, eh?

      2. MFA programs stress showing-not-telling because it forces the student to write in the active voice. Your example of the parenthesis is quite good and beats the hell out of “she was feeling nervous”. If done right, as your does, it not only portrays a feeling, it also gives characterization. Not only is your character nervous, but she’s closed off and a sexual deviant.

        The trick that MFA students, and sadly some professional writers, haven’t learned is how mix up the show-don’t-tell, and use it on stuff that’s important. Also, “she was feeling nervous” is passive voice, and while I strongly disaggre with passive voice nazis, it is weak with characterization.

        A famous show-don’t-tell, yet at the same time expository sentence, that gives all kinds of deep characterization and character ambiguity/mystery:

        “Jesus wept.”

  7. There’s exposition, there’s description and then there’s just lazy-ass writing. You know when a writer is doggin’ it and when they’re bringin’ in, when they’re moving around the Barbies and when they’re actually sitting down and crafting words.

    A lot of times I reject people because they aren’t even trying to push past the tediousness that comes with writing. Instead of trying to make a chunk of text work, they leave it to me to look past it or fix it. A lot of times that means they write terrible exposition. Like a third person narrator telling the entire story in one character’s head. Fucking boring. Or a story where a person’s just talking to herself.

    There’s ways of doing exposition well, but not a lot of people know how to do that.

    Of course, I’m a nice guy and I would never say that in a rejection letter.

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