A Sequence on Sequence, Pt. 2: Matt Dube

[A guest post from Matt Dube. Matt Dube is the fiction editor for the online journal H_NGM_N. He teaches creative writing and American lit at a small mid-MO university. His short story manuscript _Pay What You Owe Me_ is unpublished but unpublishable.]

Add it up: I’m not Lydia Davis (thirty-four stories in Break It Down) or Etgar Kertet (I counted thirty-five stories in his latest, Suddenly a Knock on the Door), but my manuscript is twenty-four self-consciously separate stories. There are themes that connect them, of course, but those same themes will probably connect everything I ever write. Twenty-four is just about double the usual recommended number for a book of stories coming out of an MFA program, isn’t it? And more importantly, who can think about twenty-four things at once? Didn’t someone say you’re a genius if you can mange two? I got a handle on how to order them by cheating: I broke the book down into four sections of about thirty-five pages. Then, I put the four sections in order: the first stories introduce the book’s themes (being in debt to other people) and the methods (lightly surreal, often about family); the stories in this last section sound to me, at least, like the last word on the subject. Think Beckett, and that good kind of exhaustion. The sections between those poles? That’s where the stories go that try out different versions of the initial set-up, stories that make sense in relation to other stories, stories that show I’m a schematic thinker and an improviser, a tinkerer and a clown. Within the sections, I tried mostly to not do too much of the same thing: not too many first person stories in a row, not too many that and on an image, not too many in a row with plots that hinge on surprise. In a chapbook, I think I’d call that kind of limited range a strength, but in the collection, it became a liability. Continue reading

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We Know Best What’s Nearest (Living Art Backwards)

A quick follow-up to Tim’s post here, which was itself in response to Jackie Wang’s post here. Wang had asked:

Do you feel a duty to read and acknowledge your literary, theoretical, and musical foremothers?

I’d argue that most people have no idea who their artistic forebears are. For example: students tell me all the time that David Foster Wallace is their favorite novelist. And when I see their work, they’re indeed writing very DFW-influenced stuff. But they rarely know anything about DFW’s own inspirations, or the lineage(s) he inhabits.

This is only natural; we all of us live artistic lineages backward. (I’m no exception; my initial influences were G.I. Joe and X-Men comics.) And this is why I’ve been saying for a little while now (polemically, mind you) that Ulysses is no longer all that influential a novel: not many people sit down and actually read it, let alone get direct inspiration from it. (“I discovered stream of consciousness by reading Molly Bloom’s soliloquy, and now I use it in my work.”)

Rather, people read more contemporary authors, like DFW and DeLillo and Franzen and Pynchon (to name authors of a particular type), and they imitate them. And so they get a lot of Joycean influences, but only indirectly, and mainly through those authors. (E.g., they see DFW or Pynchon shifting narrative registers, but they don’t see how Joyce did a lot to pioneer that trope in Ulysses.)

This is always happening. People imitate Lydia Davis without reading the Symbolists. People (used to?) imitate Vonnegut without reading Céline. And so on.

Where Do Our Desires Come From? (Want as Tradition)

Owl City: I steal, therefore...

I’ve been thinking about comments that darby and Mike Meginnis made on Amber’s recent post “I Don’t Like Crap Games.” In response, darby wrote:

[…] im saying dont think/worry about what editors want. dont worry about “what they like.” read what you like and write what you like. dont study a journal just to try to get published by them. first, you should love what you write. then you should love what you read. then think about maybe this fits here maybe.

Mike then added:

Yeah, I pretty much agree with Darby’s thinking on this. When editors ask me to figure out what they like I don’t think very much of them. That’s their job. My job is to make what I like. Sure, it’s possible to take that attitude too far, but editors who want fewer submissions can limit their window for slush or etc. I want everyone to submit to Uncanny Valley who wants to so I can choose the best possible, coolest work. I don’t want them worrying in particular about what I want. And I never worry too much about what they want.

I agree with Darby and Mike (and I admire Mike’s editorial stance); I’ve said things like this myself: writers should write whatever they want to write, and damn everyone else’s eyes.

But today I want to try thinking past that thought. Why do I want to write what I want to write? And is it really entirely my decision?

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“Fat, too, fool, hey?” – The Mind in Morning (Snow in film)

Snow: Kubrick style

Having just reread William Gass’s “The Pedersen Kid” yesterday morning, I decided to do a study of associations–what my brain does as I read, what I think of, what I take away–though right there I sally and this Heraclitus quote, used as an epigraph in W.S. Merwin’s The Lice, drips back into my consciousness:

All men are deceived by the appearances of things, even Homer himself, who was the wisest man in Greece; for he was deceived by boys catching lice: they said to him, “What we have caught and what we have killed we have left behind, but what has escaped us we bring with us.”

Is this nugget saying that which we can’t understand stays with us? Maybe. But more and more I take with me what is mysterious. The trove of Wallace Stevens poems that I’ve examined recently has somewhat sunk into me as what I write now leaks his influence. But really the conglomerate of Gass/Gaddis/Rilke/Stevens via John Madera has been instrumental in boosting the language quotient and destroying a quasi-plain style I took on after a few months with Lydia Davis. So lines or formations like, “She wouldn’t let him do what he wanted to do and this frustrated him,” become “There is a way you carry yourself, he said, quickly breaking off because evening drew on, evening and everything evening measures. Our pace, the space between canyons, this leaf living in the book on the chair.”

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Over Forty Writers Over Forty to Watch

Writing the title of this post actually felt very silly; it seems such an arbitrary way of gathering a list of writers to look out for. What could be sillier than singling out writers in this way, according to their age? Surely, there are more worthy criteria. Well, there is an answer to what could be sillier than singling out over forty writers over forty to watch, namely, singling twenty writers under forty to watch, especially largely mainstream writers writing, for the most part, conventional and redundant fiction. And the New Yorker has done just that. But this isn’t surprising. Theirs is an idea once again institutionalizing, reinforcing our decayed culture’s obsession with youth, not to mention its eyes wide shut wallowing in mediocrity. So, not only have they missed, for the most part, who are the best fiction writers under forty to watch, but, with their unapologetic valorization of youth, they missed entirely. The following writers (and I include poets, essayists, and theorists among them) are writers who have consistently written great work. I anticipate great things from each of them in the years and years to come. With full awareness of how a corrective sometimes ironically and paradoxically legitimizes what it seeks to correct, here, in the order in which I thought of them, are over forty writers over forty whose work I will be busy watching.

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Women on Men

Time for some editing.

Recently I’ve gloried in the prose of some of my favorite female writers: Alice Munro, Paula Fox, Christine Schutt, Diane Williams, Kim Chinquee and Lydia Davis. The way they see men fascinates me.

Here is an excerpt from Davis’ novel The End of the Story. The narrator is talking about a younger man she had an affair with:

I wasn’t sure I would speak to him, because when I imagined it I was disturbed by the anger I saw in his face. Surprise, then anger, and then dread, because he was afraid of me. His face was blank, and stiff, his eyelids lowered and his head thrown back a little: what was I going to do to him now? And he would move back a step as though that really took him out of my range.” p. 7

Danger is all around in this passage, but the female character is seen as the aggressor, though the man is clearly afraid that his not loving her anymore will throw her into a rage and he lives by looking over his shoulder.

In Alice Munro’s story ‘Hired Girl,’ the narrator describes Mr. Montjoy, the owner of an island resort she is working at one summer:

His blustering was often about things that he had misplaced, or dropped, or bumped into. “Where the hell is the-?” he would say, or “You didn’t happen to see the-?” So it seemed that he had also misplaced, or failed to grasp in the first place, even the name of the thing he was looking for. To console himself he might grab up a handful of peanuts or pretzels or whatever was nearby, and eat handful after handful until they were all gone. Then he would stare at the empty bowl as if that too astounded him.  p. 241

Here, a powerful, rich man is seen as a buffoonish, perplexed, unable. How he has ever risen to such a station in life is a wonder.

Finally, near the end of  Desperate Characters, Paula Fox goes into the mind of Otto Bentwood as he looks at his sleeping wife Sophie:

He knew she must be awake. But he would not speak her name. He would not say anything at all. Sometimes, over the years, that had happened, his not wanting to talk to her. It didn’t mean he was angry. But sometimes…he simply didn’t want to talk to her. It was a very deep feeling, a law of his own nature that, now and then, had to be obeyed. He loved Sophie-he thought about her, the kind of woman she was-and she was so tangled in his life that the time he had sensed she wanted to go away from him had brought him more suffering than he had conceived it possible for him to feel.  p. 144-5

There is no obfuscation in this passage, no mystery or metaphor, no wasted word, the pattern is simple. In all the books and stories I have read no other writer has described the darker corners of my experience as a man in relation to women so well as the paragraph above.

Can women see men more clearly? What about in your own writing. Do you shy away from one gender? Would you not put a story in a woman’s voice if you are a man? Vice versa?