I am only reading books by women in June! Follow my #Readwomen2014 Tweets (@fischermichael0) for favorite lines and miscellaneous commentary.
* In June, I will only read books by women. I already read women writers often, but it’s still important to remind ourselves to read diversely. I will occasionally Tweet my thoughts and favorite lines under the #readwomen2014 hashtag. @fischermichael0.
*I have no planned reading list for June and like it that way. I enjoy reading spontaneously. I like reaching into my boxes of unread books and pulling ones out at random and saying, “okay, I’ll read this.” Lists haven’t been fun for me since taking comprehensive exams, a traumatizing experience I’m still recovering from.
*I’m also staying near a great independent bookstore, The Island Bookstore, in Kitty Hawk, NC, until I move to Indiana in early July. I might pop in there at times to buy a book, or two, or three.
*I no longer rate all books on Goodreads. If I feel like rating a book four or five stars, I’ll certainly do it, but there’s too much career risk for a writer without a book going around rating books by his more successful peers one, two, and three stars. Maybe I’m paranoid. Even if I am, I’d rather not spend time worrying about it. My psychic space is precious.
*The star-system is ridiculous anyway. When did we reach the point where we substitute stars for nuanced and thoughtful critique? And if you write a sophisticated review on Goodreads, what purpose do the stars serve? Shouldn’t the review stand on its own?
*But I still like Goodreads as a way to track my reading. There’s no rule that a person must rate books.
*Washing off the Stink of Pomposity, Tim O’Brien.
I’ve been writing job stories lately. I finished revising a Burger King story. Now I’m working on a story based on my experiences as a cotton scout in Eastern, North Carolina for an agricultural consulting firm. Good times: yards with combat-themed gnomes, Don’t Tread on Me flags, the house at the end of a dirt road with a sign outside that read, “Armed & Dangerous,” dogs barreling out of nowhere to bare their teeth, walking through tall cotton (will shred your legs), hole-in-the-wall barbecue joints, and the best tan of my life. I can tell you about aphids, stink bugs, jimsonweed, and gun shots a little too close. I can tell you how to slice open a cotton boll in the summer, before it’s ready for harvest: puncture the boll at the bottom with your thumb and slide upward. The cotton inside is wet and slimy.
1) I’m terrified of approaching people I only know from the Internet at AWP. You two make eye contact. What do you say that won’t sound awkward as hell? You stare at your feet and feel like a loser, or, worse, an aloof jackass. AWP has a great way of reminding us what middle school was like.
2) I’m equally terrified of the bookfair. Again, what do you say? What do editors say other than repeating what’s already on their websites? Trust me, I’ve been on both sides. I’m not suggesting the bookfair is worthless—it’s a great way for journals and presses to promote and make coin–but that doesn’t make many of the social interactions less awkward and shallow. Editors cannot (and should not) discuss rejections or submission statuses. Often, they can’t even discuss work of yours they’ve published. Every veteran AWP attendee has had that moment where he or she worked up the courage to approach the table of a journal that’s published his or her work, only to get a blank stare from some hungover MFA intern who wasn’t on the staff that accepted said piece. “Um,” the intern says, “would you like a contest flyer? George Saunders is the judge and we’ve extended the deadline. Also, spin this wheel for a chance to win a free back issue.” You spin the wheel and win, and the intern hands you the issue with your work.
3) I love AWP, the buzz, the energy, the inspiration, the feeling that there are others like me. It’s rejuvenating. Writers spend lots of time explaining things to well-meaning people. At least for a few days per year, it’s nice to visit a strange city if only because you don’t have to explain to your Grandfather or Uncle that if he wants to read your story, he’ll have to send a $15 check to a university, that he can’t buy The Cimarron Review at Rite-Aid. It’s nice to exist for half a week with people who don’t need everything explained to them, or view you with suspicion.
4) I hate AWP, the awkward, often forced social interactions, the “networking.” By the end of the first day, I usually consider spending the rest of the time alone in my hotel room. Also, see 1) and 2).
5) This was the most therapeutic AWP ever. Seattle 2014 AWP will be forever known as “The Therapeutic AWP.” I’ll resist Seattle cliches and consider it a coincidence. Tons of panels on writerly psychology and such. I needed that. I needed to be reminded that writers should aspire for a devoted readership, that quality trumps quantity.
6) The idea that writers, regardless of success, are never satisfied, was a related and recurring theme at this year’s panels. It’s easy to forget that all writers are insecure, that no matter what they do, someone will always do it better or be more successful.
7) Let’s keep this going: you can allow petty bitterness and envy to destroy your life (and it can), or you can return to the reasons why you became a writer. No one became a writer out of bitterness and envy. That shit comes later.
8) You can also forget that people who are more successful than you have their own insecurities and lives outside of writing. What if the more successful writer is in a failing relationship or has a debilitating mental illness? As one of my former teachers said, “everyone in this class has someone who loves them.” Every more successful writer you know (or know of) has people who love him or her because they knew “the successful writer” long before he or she became a writer.
9) The essential you existed before you became a writer, the person family and friends love.
10) As Tim O’Brien says in The Things They Carried, “It’s 1990. I’m forty-three years old, which would’ve seemed impossible to a fourth grader, and yet when I look at photographs of myself as I was in 1956, I realize that in important ways, I haven’t changed at all. I was Timmy then; now I’m Tim. But the essence remains the same. I’m not fooled by the baggy pants or the crew cut or the happy smile–I know my own eyes–and there is no doubt that the Timmy smiling at the camera is the Tim I am now. Inside the body, or beyond the body, there is something absolute and unchanging. The human life is one thing, like a blade tracing loops on ice: a little kid, a twenty-three-year-old infantry sergeant, a middle-aged writer knowing guilt and sorrow” (223).
I recently read a line from a critic that said Twain introduced an earthy, vernacular-rich aesthetic to American literature (obviously), but the comment made me wonder if earthy, vernacular-rich fiction is mostly out-of-style today. What do you think? I think it is.
In my experience, editors are sometimes scared of dialect and rural settings–settings where characters might not behave in ways deemed “appropriate” by liberal cosmopolitan elites. It’s an interesting irony: many of these highly-educated progressives display a smug regional bias that reeks of classism. The notion of “regionalism” itself–the history of that term–is interesting because implicit is the idea that there exists an opposite of “regional,” an a-regional, universal territory immediately recognized by all. Is it a coincidence that so many “regional” writers write about marginalized and/or working-class characters?
I know this: I am tired of reading stories in literary magazines that might as well be set in a shopping mall parking lot–even though we never get the name of the shopping mall or what distinguishes it from other shopping malls–stories where none of the characters have last names, where the style is uber-plain and neat and lacks voice, where the plots are always linear and clean and every other character is working on a doctoral dissertation or engaged to someone working on a doctoral dissertation. Last year, I went through a major literary magazine that accepts less than 1% of submissions and three of the four stories featured graduate students working on dissertations or theses.
Anyway, here are six contemporary works that continue the tradition Twain helped establish in the 19th C. I return to this list whenever I become despondent over this particular issue (or pet-peeve of mine):
1) Marilynne Robinson, Housekeeping
2) Edward P. Jones, All Aunt Hagar’s Children
3) Jaimy Gordon, Lord of Misrule
4) Mark Richard, House of Prayer #2
5) Toni Morrison, Beloved
6) Lewis Nordan, Sugar Among The Freaks
How can we—your students—improve ourselves as writers?
It’s hard to talk about something like that without sounding prescriptive, but I think that there’s a reluctance in all writers in early stages of their development to really commit themselves to trust their interests as being actually focused on things that are interesting. To realize that they do not have to talk in the same dialect that is being talked around them, in terms of literary convention and all the rest of it. Something that I sometimes say, and even sometimes believe, is that there has been a loss of the cult of genius. When I was younger, I remember going around totally deluded by the idea that other people might, in fact, be geniuses or at least be able to express this in any intelligible fashion. The idea that you might do something radically brilliant—that assumption is very empowering and it has given the world a lot of really interesting things to look at. It’s a side effect of the cult of normality—the idea that it would be preposterous and perhaps undesirable to single yourself out in that way. I think that’s why a lot of stuff that basically amounts to breaking china is seen as being creative when, in fact, it’s as subservient to prevailing norms as anything else is, as obedience to them would be.