After a few long and terribly conflicted days, I’ve decided to end my warm, beautiful love affair with Goodreads. I never intended for my data to be of use to Amazon, and I still maintain only the barest of contact with them. Some of the reasons are here in this article. I’ll be looking for another great independent place to share books (though I doubt there’s anything out there as good as Goodreads) – if anyone has any suggestions, I’m all eyes.
“Occasionally, I have students who want to be rock stars. They have started a band, and they are spending their weekends and off hours writing songs and practicing. Without fail, these kids know everything there is to know about new music. They are listening all the time—they can discourse on Bob Dylan as easily as they can talk about the new e.p. from a new band from Little Rock, Arkansas, or wherever, and they have a whole hard drive full of demos from obscure artists that they have downloaded from the internet.
I wish that my students who want to be fiction writers were similarly engaged. But when I ask them what they’ve read recently, they frequently only manage to cough up the most obvious, high profile examples. What if my rock star students had only heard of …um….The Beatles? We listened to them in my Rock Music Class in high school. And…. And Justin Timberlake? And, uh, yeah, there’s that one band, My Chemical Romance, I heard one of their songs once.” Dan Chaon, From Review Review*
“But I don’t think Chaon’s advice is necessarily beneficial to literary fiction writers. For one thing, most contemporary literary fiction is terrible: mannered, conservative and obvious. Most of the stories in the annual best-of anthologies are mediocre, as are the stories that populate most magazines. It’s inevitable that this should be so; fiction writing is ludicrously popular, too many people are doing it, and most of them are bound to be bad at it. MFA programs, while of great benefit to talented writers, have had the effect of rendering a lot of lousy writers borderline-competent, and many of these competent writers get stories and books published.” Robert Lennon, Salon.com, March 29, 2013
Here’s what nobody asked me to talk about:
I’ve been similarly frustrated by the internet’s flattening of life, art, literature. In the glut of information and entertainment, I have a hard time distinguishing between what is being created for artistic purposes and what is being replicated for marketing purposes, and most of the time I come up short. It’s not that I don’t care – I do. It’s just that I can’t figure out what is really happening in the relationship between my physical brain and my internet soul. I think it is partly because I was born and raised into young adulthood before the internet, and I miss that missing piece.
What Lennon fails to recognize is that this flood of mediocre writing is a valuable means of measurement and contextualization. The fewer people writing, the more narrow our choices for what to read, and how to read it. The internet is open for business, and all kinds of people who never had voices before suddenly have tumblrs and lit mags and weird hybrid sites that celebrate inexcusable excess. And a lot of it is bad right now. So what?
What we don’t have are those visual cues that used to be dead giveaways – the covers of vanity press books, for instance. Everything now looks like it could be pretty good, and we don’t find out that a story is terrible until we are halfway through it. And that’s five minutes we’ll never get back.
The other day, my director stopped me by the copier.
“Who decides what goes into the canon?” He asked (when he taught, he taught mathematics). It’s a good question. The answers are being challenged by all kinds of writers and readers because there is simply more (and more ways) to read than ever before. There are more voices coming through, and more people challenging the standards of the traditional canon. Many of them are not great. But some are. If this is the case, how can we have too many people trying to make art?
Like any good artist, Chaon’s hopeful rock star with a million free downloads on her hard drive does not love and respect every single song, and will not recommend every single song. What that aspiring rock star will be able do, however, is tell any other listener what is wrong with the “mannered, conservative, and obvious” songs, and why those songs fail as art. Then, she can use what she knows about everybody else’s shitty recordings to avoid creative pitfalls and cliches. She can build upon her own mistakes and break stupid rules that are commonly followed by dilettantes (because she’s not one – she’s a growing artist, well-aware of the stylistic and theoretical trends (both new and old) of her community of musicians). And she can distinguish her own voice from the others.
*Full Disclosure: Dan Chaon is one of my favorite writers of all time, but that’s not why I think he’s right about this.
I stumbled across Jade Sylvan’s excellent You Know How Sometimes You’re In Your Twenties In America at Pank last week. It is sweetly wry and a little unnerving, and then it ends with a child. I don’t know about the child, and was initially dismayed that the narrative veered so roundly toward Answers Through Childbearing. But I’m not there yet and maybe I should ask my mom what she thinks about all of that before I go making faces.
It’s been a while since my own quarter-life crisis, but I can definitely attest to how mixed those distinctly American signals can get. I can also respect that since I hit my twenties in the middle of the dot com boom and Clinton’s roaring ’90s, my existential meanderings through the streets of Atlanta bear little resemblance to those of new college grads trying to figure out how to be adults.
Yesterday, I picked up Gail Collins’s When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present, and though I’m only a few chapters in, I can’t help but see the stark changes in American expectation of youth – not only of women, but also of the men who are trying to navigate a world where inequality has become the elephant (meme) in every class, board, and bedroom.
Over the past 5 years, I have been lucky enough to develop and discard my own curriculum, as needed. As I’ve grown as a writer, I’ve also been growing as a reader and a teacher, and no part of me believes that these things are not connected. After graduating in ’07, I was afraid I’d get soft with age and slowly slip into comfortable Mitford Series-style teaching at a public school (Hamlet, Jane Eyre, The Raven, repeat). Or maybe I’d struggle through a 3rd rate PhD program and spend the rest of my life apologizing to my workshop students for not being Margaret Atwood or Zadie Smith.
That’s not how it worked out, however, and I have found myself happily embroiled in a community of sweet, hard-working students and teachers who care about them. The addition of an AP Composition and Language class gave me the chance to refine a friendly, meandering overview of nonfiction and argument into the razor sharp rhetoric-focused demon child of bell hooks, Thomas Huckin, and Terry Eagleton. I love this class. The more I teach, the more I learn, the better I get.
This year is special, though, because it’s an election year. The political arena is a breeding ground of blatant lies and fallacy-ridden spin – perfect for the classroom. Given the current state of journalism, it is not difficult to find partisan-driven newspapers and blogs that bank on the hope that their readers have no idea of the existence of politifact.org (or have no use for it).
Sometimes I forget that I am not their age. Sometimes I forget what it felt like to be told for the first time that Adam and Eve was a myth. It was devastating; a paradigm shift for which I was unprepared. I really could have used some Joseph Campbell to cushion the revelation. It took a while to grow accustomed to the absence of magic. In that year, I managed to bury most of my literalist tendencies and yet still be completely freaked about Dante’s bleeding suicide trees in the 7th circle of hell.
In the search for complexity of argument, uncovering the impetus behind powerful rhetoric can be deflating at best, and debilitating at worst. While I have happily accepted my bitter fate as a stranded cynic, I feel great compunction at the idea of pulling my students onto the same island. How am I supposed to keep from doing that without resorting to patronizing essays about polar bears who rescue seals from certain death?
We start each year with William Golding’s Thinking As A Hobby, in which he separates the intellectual wheat from the chaff. Eschew Grade 3, where the hypocrites dwell in ignorant, satisfied darkness. Caught yourself listening to Morrissey and blaming The Man for that unexpected STI? Grade 2 has you in its claws. Instead, aspire to Grade 1, where Einstein assures that the world requires great attention. The questions are worth asking, and the answers are worth knowing, even when they don’t match your expectations.
The problem is, in an election year, where do their questions lead? Nowhere happy. Voter ID laws rear their heads all over the nation, just as we’re discussing Jim Crow and The Grandfather Clause. The other night, I paired up a couple of articles (from then and from now) for discussion, for synthesis purposes, and was just depressed by what I was about to show them.
We’re at our rawest when we are forced to argue the ideals of a stranger, but that’s about the only way to get at the power behind the language. Still, I wish I had an arsenal of soothing Joseph Campbell to soften and reassure.
I’ve never been a big fan of Emily Dickinson, so I’m not sure why this newly discovered photograph of her has been on my mind since I stumbled across it a few days ago. I’ve taught her poetry for years (she is a lot of fun to teach because of all that easy-to-mark meter and slant rhyme), and not without interest, but I’d never really sat down and thought about her much past what I was supposed to know as a teacher and writer. She’s part of the laundry list of writers every American is supposed to know and admire, along with Whitman, Emerson, O’Connor, Steinbeck, etc.
I suppose I stayed away, too, because I understood that dubious scholars had tried to make a lesbian out of her. Even I know that trying to make a lesbian out of a long dead historical figure is fruitless. Retro-fitting language and identity seems clumsy and useless, a shorthand put in place to avoid the more arduous process of understanding how the complexities of homosocial human relationships worked back then. For what it’s worth, historical fiction often strikes me as just as arbitrarily translative, unless it’s got some awesome time travel element to it (Kindred, Octavia Butler).
When I was afraid to come out in small town Texas, the language around lesbian identity was different (nonexistent in some cases). Hushed and angry, couched in suspicion or defiance, the language was ours alone. Now, 20 short years later, it’s a whole different ballgame. Even the most sheltered closet case can now get to the free internet at a public library, look up the word “dyke,” and see that it’s been reclaimed by proud butches and queers all over America. 20 years can do this. 160 years? We can guess, but I really don’t believe we could have any fucking clue what was going on 100 years ago in the hearts of those who dared not speak the truth.
Rebecca Patterson’s 1951 The Riddle of Emily Dickinson makes a valiant attempt to read those very hearts, but Patterson has woefully little evidence to support her claims. Her 400 page tome angered and alienated the very community she sought to embolden, and failed to capture the imaginations of the straight fan (who did wish to know more about Dickinson – just not that). Bishop’s assertion that literary biographies too reliant upon Victorian sentimentality (the very same that Dickinson’s lesser works fall prey to) make for tawdry, insipid reading is one with which I’d generally agree.
However, the raw lines of loss and pain that are threaded through Emily’s letters to Kate had a surprising effect on my skeptical, somewhat embittered heart. I stared at the new photo. I thumbed through my copy of selected poems and letters. I read these lines: ”Why did you enter, sister, since you must depart? Had not its heart been torn enough but you must send your shred?” and promptly succumbed to my own fervent wish that they might, in fact, just be in love.
I don’t know how this happened – I’m afraid that in a month or so I might just as likely assert that The Notebook deserved an academy award.
Who knew there would be a summer hiatus? Certainly not me.
I didn’t finish any new stories -
but I finished this wall
I finished the second draft of my story collection:
I tried to finish the following books:
- The Kid, Dan Savage
- Of Beasts and Beings, Ian Holding
- Lying on the Couch, Irvin D. Yalom
- Fist, Stick, Knife, Gun, Geoffrey Canada
- Broken Harbor, Tana French
- Blood Meridian, Cormac McCarthy
- Let’s Pretend This Never Happened, Jenny Lawson
- Candor, Pam Bachorz
- Guts, Kristen Johnston
- A Visitation of Spirits, Randal Kenan
- Why Be Normal When You Can Be Happy? Jeanette Winterson
- A Complicated Kindness, Miriam Toews
- Kindred, Octavia Butler
- The Body of Jonah Boyd, David Leavitt
I actually finished these:
- Are You My Mother? Alison Bechdel (this is a graphic novel)
- Official Book Club Selection, Kathy Griffin (this was an audio book)
and 4 seasons of Breaking Bad:
Normally, I am able to finish books. Not this summer! But Breaking Bad is twisted and fucked up and streaming on Netflix, so you might want to check that out if you like dreams about meth mouth.
In other news, I just got confirmation that I’m headed to AWP in March. A cappella Zoo is hosting a magical realism and slipstream event, and I’ll be reading with a few other writers whose work I’ve long admired. I’ve given papers at conferences before, but this feels different. This kind of thing aligns with a wish so deeply buried that I didn’t even remember it until the invitation came a few months ago. When you look up which events have been accepted, my name is on the same page as Alison Bechdel’s and Jeanette Winterson’s.
I’m not Jeanette Winterson or Alison Bechdel. But my name is in the same document. That’s all I’m saying. If I die tomorrow, I’m pretty sure that’s the kind of name dropping that gets you past the guards.
I’m not sure why I got a print copy of Crazyhorse in the mail. It was a wonderful surprise in the middle of an otherwise ordinary workweek. I checked back to see whether I’d entered a contest (I rarely do enter contests, though I’ve heard it’s a good thing to do), but I hadn’t. I haven’t even submitted to them in the past few years. You can take a look at their e-book sample on the website and get your subscription online if you’re not somehow magically chosen to be the recipient of a stray print issue (like me).
Anyway, I now have the spring 2012 issue of Crazyhorse (number 81). In it is Emily Doak’s “Hatchlings,” the title story of her not-yet-published collection (which was a finalist for the 2011 Black Lawrence Press Hudson Prize). It’s a definite standout in the issue, with its point of view all over the place and strange narrative we at the center of the story. There’s a pretty compelling kidnapping and all, but one of the real strengths of the story is that we watch the whole thing go down over a period of about two decades.
This we is especially captivating because they are stand ins for both the voyeuristic reader and the frightened small-town captive. As the story unfolds before them, we insinuates themselves into a story that is not theirs, dehumanizing trauma and building an even higher wall around their already insular small-town lives. Frightened not of the possible kidnapper, but instead of their own inability to scale that wall, we lives in a kind of willful state of suspended adolescence – a time when it’s far safer to dream of being captured and whisked away in a box than to pack up and leave like an adult.
And now, for your reading pleasure, here are a few authors I love and admire who have been throwing down all over the country in the past few months:
- Nick Couright’s book Punchline is getting all kinds of good press
- Flavorwire has named Amelia Gray’s Threats one of its 10 best books of the year
- Erin Pringle-Toungate has about a hundred new stories either just out or forthcoming
- Rene Perez is on a BOOK TOUR for Along These Highways
- Michael Wolfe has this interview with Edmund White in the LA Times
- Sarah Faulkner was shortlisted for the Scott Prize
- David Meischen’s story “A Man In The House” in Printer’s Devil Review
- Debra Monroe in Guernica: Gray Area
- Swift, Brutal Retaliation by Meghan McCarron at Tor.com
- Dagoberto Gilb’s Before the End, After the Beginning
- Owen Egerton’s Book of Herald trailer contains the line: ”I might have to teach a Rhet Comp class.”