Salvatore Pane

Month: February, 2010

Top Ten Graphic Novels for the Literary Inclined

A few weeks ago I workshopped a story involving superheroes. It wasn’t genre, and the piece took place after every hero and villain on earth lost their powers. So really, there wasn’t even much discussion of superheroics. Instead, the piece leaned closer towards doemstic realism except every once in awhile someone would say something like, “Is this about the Eternity Gems? Have you found the Eternity Gems?” with little to no explanation. Mostly, I used the bygone era of super-powered adventuring as a metaphor for feeling like your best years are behind you.

The workshop went really well, but what was particularly interesting to me was my classmates’ assumptions about comic books. It seems that most people still think comics are aimed at children and riddled with the genre trappings of not the Silver Age, but even earlier, before Stan Lee and Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko and Will Eisner altered the face of sequential storytelling forever. It was with this mindset that I recently read Dan Phillips’ how-to on IGN about getting comic virgins into the medium. It’s a great article but purposely doesn’t have a list of books to recommend because Phillips believes (and rightfully so) that you should tailor your recommendations to that particular person. For example, if somebody liked the X-Men movies and asks what to pick up, don’t hand over The Saga of Swamp Thing by Alan Moore where Swap Thing goes back in time and fights the nothingness before creation.

What I’ve decided to do is come up with a list of required reading for the literary inclined, people who love prose but would never dream of stepping foot in a comic shop. Everything I’ve listed is in graphic novel format, meaning you can skip the comic store altogether and head to the more familiar Borders or Barnes and Noble. There’s a lot I’ve missed here (it was particularly difficult cutting Kingdom Come, Y: The Last Man, Civil War, All-Star Superman, The Sinestro Corps War, The Dark Knight Returns and We3 from the list, and everybody must know about Maus by now) and I’m not going to mention Jonathan Lethem’s graphic novel since I wrote about it a few entries ago.  But if you consider yourself someone who reads almost exclusively literary fiction, this is the list for you. Try and at least give one of these a shot, and let me know what you think. If you think comic books are all about four-colors and BAM/POW signs, then you’re in for a big surprise.

10. Superman: Red Son

Written by Mark Millar with Art by Dave Johnson

Pretty much everybody knows the origin of the original superhero, Superman. Krypton explodes and a scientist sends his only son in a rocket to Earth. He’s raised by farmers in Kansas and becomes the hero we all know who stands up for “Truth, Justice and the American Way”. Red Son is a re-imagining where Kal-El lands in Russia at the beginning of the Cold War. He becomes a Communist and helps usher in an era where the entire Earth (minus America led by President Lex Luthor) falls to Russian control. Millar’s take on Czar Superman is smart and bombastic, and this book has a concrete beginning, middle and end (all you need is this one 12 dollar graphic novel). This one comes highly recommended as an interesting political book with enough cameos to keep fanboys happy (did I mention Anti-Communist Batman?).

9. Astonishing X-Men vol. 1 Gifted

Written by Joss Whedon with Art by John Cassady

Joss Whedon is most famous for the television show Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but he’s also a well-lauded comic scribe. Astonishing X-Men is his greatest work to date and perfect for anyone who enjoyed the films. The book is set in continuity but isn’t enslaved by it. Pretty much anyone with even a tangential understanding of the Children of the Atom can enjoy this book. With amazing art provided by superstar artist, John Cassady, Astonishing is the perfect example of a traditional superhero book that transcends comic stigmas and feels much more like a sci-fi drama ala Lost or Battlerstar Galactica.

8. Ultimate Spider-Man vol. 1

Written by Brian Michael Bendis with Art by Mark Bagley

When Marvel wanted to relaunch Spider-Man to coincide with the 2002 film, they called up Brian Michael Bendis, a noted indie creator, to the big leagues. Ultimate Spider-Man is the definitive Spidey book of the last two decades, and this is the ground floor. The book starts with the origin: nerdy high school student Peter Parker gets bitten by a radioactive spider. The difference here is that even after 130 issues, Peter is still fifteen and the book is still amazing. He deals with contemporary problems, and Bendis has populated the book with a wonderful and expansive cast. When the Spider-Man film reboot hits in two years, you can be sure that it springs out of this book.

7. Ultimates vol. 1 Super-Human

Written by Mark Millar with Art by Bryan Hitch

Some people will criticize me for going with two Mark Millar picks and no Grant Morrison books, but I don’t care. Ultimates is easily the best superhero team book of the aughts. Much like Ultimate-Spider-Man, Ultimates takes place in a new reader-friendly universe with no previous continuity. This is the first story of the Avengers: Captain America, Iron Man and Thor. And Millar imbues it with his typical wit and penchant for the political. This book is smart and plays with the War on Terror in interesting ways. If you’re curious to see how Captain America is deployed during the Iraq War then this is the book for you.

6. Scott Pilgrim vol. 1: Scott Pilgrim’s Happy Little Life

Written and Drawn by Bryan Lee O’Malley

Imagine a world with poor Canadians who start shitty bands. Imagine a world where Canadian hipsters engage in Dragonball Z-esque battles while dissecting two decade old Nintendo games. This is Scott Pilgrim. One part indie rock, one part Nintendo, one part fighting, Scott Pilgrim is the most awesome manga remix of the last fifteen years. O’Malley delivers believable characters that we truly care about even as he inserts them into hilarious and ridiculous situations. If superheroes aren’t your thing, and you’re willing to give faux-manga a try, definitely pick up Scott Pilgrim before the Michael Cera movie hits this summer.

5. Ghost World

Written and Drawn by Daniel Clowes

If you love Catcher in the Rye, then you’ll enjoy Ghost World. This lean graphic novel tells the story of two hipster girls during the summer after high school. It’s a very typical coming of age piece that could easily stand side-by-side with the best offerings of the genre from literary fiction. This is definitely a gateway drug for readers completely unaware that indie/literary comics actually exist. Its aims are not tied up with plot like many of the other selections on this list but with character.

4. The Walking Dead vol. 1 Days Gone By

Written by Robert Kirman with Art by Tony Moore

Drawn in black and white, The Walking Dead is truly one of the most terrifying books you will ever read. Writer Robert Kirkman doesn’t employ a lot of cheap jumpy shocks, but instead chooses to horrify readers with the actions of his living characters. The premise of the book is as simple as it genius: it’s the zombie movie that doesn’t end. What happens to these characters three weeks after the first zombies show up? How about two years? The best part is the theme Kirkman hits again and again: it’s not the zombies who are the walking dead, but the living, humans pushed to frightening extremes they never dreamed possible.

3. The Complete Persepolis

Written and Drawn by Marjane Satrapi

Do you like memoirs? Ok. Then go get The Complete Persepolis today. It follows Marjane Satrapi, a liberal girl who comes of age in Iran during the Islamic Revolution. It’s poignant and terribly contemporary. And for my money, this is the best book on the subject I’ve read, light years ahead of Reading Lolita in Tehran. If you like coming or age tales or are even remotely interested in the history of Iran, this is an absolute must buy.

2. Watchmen

Written by Alan Moore with Art by Dave Gibbons

This one appears on every list of this kind and for good reason: Watchmen is the deconstruction of the superhero and comic book format. This is Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman seen through a postmodern lens. This is Cold War allegory of the highest order. This is everything superhero comics should aspire to. Incredibly intelligent and deceptively well-drawn, Watchmen is the rare book that is universally considered the best of its kind. If you’ve seen the mediocre movie and weren’t convinced, you owe it to yourself to give the ultimate graphic novel a try.

1. Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth

Written and Drawn by Chris Ware

Most people know Chris Ware. He’s a big McSweeney‘s dude and the closest thing the comic industry has to a Dave Eggers. This masterpiece of a graphic novel came out shortly after Heartbreaking Work, and the two writers are often compared. Jimmy Corrigan is about so much it’s hard to describe. It’s utterly postmodern and involves a fair at the turn of the century and a man who encounters his dying father after a lifelong absence. The book is painful. The book is dark. And at times, the book is uplifting. I put this graphic novel at the number one spot because even though I don’t consider it as strong as Watchmen, Jimmy Corrigan is the closest in terms of structure, tone and character to a literary novel. If you like Dave Eggers, Jonathan Safran-Foer, Keith Gessen or Ricky Moody then you will be shocked at how dense, how intelligent, how damn literary Jimmy Corrigan actually is.

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Salvatore Pane’s Guide to AWP

Believe it or not, AWP is less than two months away. Hosted in Denver from April 7th through the 10th, this year’s conference promises to have its share of swoon-inducing moments for the literary inclined (seriously, George Saungers and Etgar Keret are reading at the same event. THE SAME EVENT). But you should take it from me, a past AWP attendee, and really try to not waste your time at the conference if it’s your virgin trial. With that in mind, I present to you my own personal guide on the 2010 AWP Conference.

1. AWP Is Not (even though it kind of is) a Party

This was my experience at AWP last year. I drove eight hours from Pittsburgh to Chicago in a car with three lovable lunatics. I arrived. I marveled at so many people interested in literature gathered together in one place. Then I proceeded to drink for 72 hours. Sure, I saw Don Lee and Dan Chaon in a bar. And Pitt prof Irina Reyn introduced a few of my friends to one of the friendly people over at BOMB who eventually got me my book reviewing (non-paying) gig. I also had the utmost pleasure of seeing Charles Baxter and Stuart Dybek read back-to-back.

But for the most part I partied. I didn’t go out of my way to network, and for the most part, I drank with the three friends I drove with or old pals from college who I hadn’t seen in a while. Sometimes I even drank with other Pitt MFAers who I see on a regular basis. And on the final night, I completely avoided AWP and drank my way through Rigleyville. The bottom line here is that AWP is a social event. There’s a lot of coffee and booze. And a lot of writers, agents and editors to meet. You should enjoy yourself. You should have a good time. But don’t let AWP turn into an all-out vacation, a mistake I made in Chicago. If you want to take a trip with your buddies, take it. If you want to meet some people who could point you in the right path career-wise, then get a little more serious.

Don't spend the entire conference boozin' with this guy miles away from the convention.

2. GOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOAL!

Since I’d never been to AWP before last year, I didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t realize there would be so many panels, and I had no idea the conference was frequented by so many writers, editors and agents. And the literary journals! So many literary journals. Tables and tables of them for as far as the eye could see.

So I dabbled without accomplishing much of anything at all.  I saw a panel on applying to fellowships which has been invaluable this last year and I got that BOMB reviewer job while purchasing a ton of lit mags. It’s clear now that I could have done a lot more in 72 hours had I simply arrived with a plan. That will not be the case in Denver. I’ve already decided which panels to attend and what my two major goals are. A) Find more outlets for book reviews, and B) An agent approached me about my work last week, so I guess it’s time to begin that type of search. Figure out why you’re going to AWP and accomplish you goals. That may seem like obvious advice, but it’ll feel a lot less obvious when you arrive and are distracted by ten-million things that  seem equally interesting all happening at the exact same time.

3. General Pointers

A couple minor, yet helpful, points. Make sure you head into the book fair on the last day of the conference. There will be a ton of lit mags there and the staffs probably don’t want to pay to ship unsold issues back to wherever it is they came from. That means journals will sold with a heavy, heavy discount. Be on the lookout for major deals. I picked up nearly 20 different magazines for $25 last year on the final day.

Don’t feel like you have to stay at the same hotel where the conference is happening. The AWP hotel is going to be utter madness and pretty expensive. Shoot for one even two blocks away and you’ll have already saved major money before you even arrive.

Head to the conference hotel bar at night. As I learned last year, the major parties are behind closed doors within the hotel itself, but you’ll find a lot of interesting people in the main hotel bar if you wander in after ten. That’s where I met Dan Chaon, Don Lee and the BOMB editor last year.

Do not go to the nightly AWP Dance Party. It's a nexus to hell.

4. OHMIGAWD THE PANELS!

Below, I’ve assembled all the panels I’ve seriously considered attending this year along with commentary in red (Unfortunately: I’ll only be at AWP Wednesday through Saturday morning this year so you’re on your own concerning the last day). Read at your own discretion.

THURSDAY

9-10:15am

Room 111
Colorado Convention Center, Street Level

R109. Play Ball!: The Language of Sports. (Michael Garriga, William Giraldi, Michael Griffith, Cathy Day, Andrew Ervin) Our national pastimes have the unique ability to transcend lines that normally close off other avenues: race, class, gender, sexual orientation, etc. Jackie Robinson, Nadia Comaneci, Muhammed Ali, Tonya Harding, and Michael Vick have all been touchstones for greater discussions on our society, bringing together speakers and opinions from different demographics. This panel examines the use of sports in fiction, and how it can be utilized for a larger purpose while speaking a common language.

Cathy Day has been a mentor to me for the last three years. Check out her panel!

Room 108
Colorado Convention Center, Street Level

R106. Reading, Writing, and Teaching the Literary Fantastic. (Sarah Stone, Joan Silber, Melissa Pritchard, Doug Dorst, Sylvia Brownrigg) We’ll explore how fabulous or numinous fiction can be meaningful and believable: from completely alternate worlds to literary ghost stories to essentially realist stories that depict characters’ beliefs about the supernatural. We’ll consider great examples and describe ways for writers and their students to unlock their own inventions and move beyond genre cliches. The panel will include handouts with reading lists and writing exercises.

Sounds pretty interesting for those of us immersed in pedagogy and wackiness.

Room 203
Colorado Convention Center, Street Level

R113. Grants, Proposals, and Queries: How to Write about your Writing. (H.M. Bouwman, Swati Avasthi, J.C. Hallman, Matt Rasmussen) Writers spend a lot of time on the craft of writing but sometimes not enough on the craft of presentation. Presenting what you write about in short forms is a special skill set that you can develop and hone. This panel (composed of writers of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry) will discuss how to summarize your work and make it stand out in this tight economy by incorporating a sense of voice and purpose into grant applications, book proposals, and queries.

Very interested in this as it’s always seemed so odd to me that writers spend years and years preparing themselves for a novel, memoir, or poetry collection but virtually no time working on the letter that could get them in the door.

Room 303
Colorado Convention Center, Street Level

R118. The In Sound from Way Out: Submission to Publication. (M. Bartley Seigel, Margaret Bashaar, Aaron Burch, James Grinwis, Jennifer Pieroni, Roxane Gay) Editors from five eclectic little magazines—Bateau, Hobart, PANK, Quick Fiction, and Weave—unpack their editorial projects and processes, quirks and anomalies, across genres, and invite questions to initiate dialogue among panel and audience members.

Great advice here for writers just starting out on the journal submission route. There’s a lot of these types of panels at AWP, but this one has Jennifer Pieroni, who picked one of my pieces for Quick Fiction, and Weave Editor Maragaret Bashaar from Typewriter Girls, a cool group that does literary events around Pittsburgh.

12:00-1:15pm

Room 110
Colorado Convention Center, Street Level

R153. Going Long: The Long Short Story. (Jill Meyers, Josh Weil, Suzanne Rivecca, Karen Brown, Christie Hodgen) The long short story is a literary form revered but not often published. It offers a generous scope and a larger world for readers; for writers, an opportunity to get messy. Four skillful practitioners of the form gather to read from their works and to discuss the form’s challenges and rewards. What happens when you write beyond the ending?

I’ve been working on a novella in the early stages for a little over a month now. Starting to wonder about what options I’ll have in terms of sending it out into the world. Hope this will address that very issue.

Room 203
Colorado Convention Center, Street Level

R156. A Pen Behind Your Ear: Gathering, Editing, Publishing, Marketing, and Promoting an Anthology. (Andrea Hollander Budy, Laure-Anne Bosselaar, Kurt Brown, Camille Dungy, Michael Martone) Five editors of recent anthologies will discuss all aspects of creating an anthology, including making selections, locating and working with a publisher, obtaining permissions to reprint previously published material, working with designers, and attracting readers. As the panelists are also writers themselves, they will also discuss the pleasures and challenges of editing an anthology while trying to maintain their writing lives.

Two things: 1) Who doesn’t want to edit an anthology? and 2) MICHAEL MARTONE!

Rooms 401, 402
Colorado Convention Center, Street Level

R163. What’s Your Platform? What Agents & Editors Are Looking For in Writers. (Christina Katz, Jane Friedman, Robin Mizell, David W. Sanders, Sage Cohen) Yes, the quality of your writing still matters. But becoming visible and influential is more crucial to landing a book deal than ever, according to agents and editors in every facet of the publishing industry. Aspiring authors need to develop a platform in order to get noticed. Fortunately for emerging writers in all genres, there are more affordable, accessible tools available for platform-development and building, which make this important responsibility a pleasure and not a chore.

This is one of the worst hours of AWP because it’s so jam-packed with stuff. Any of these three panels sound amazing, yet there’s nothing I’m super pumped about at the 10 o’ clock hour. Such overwhelming sadness!

1:30-2:45pm

Room 112
Colorado Convention Center, Street Level

R177. Following the Paths to Publication: First Books and What Happens Next. (Dan Wickett, Seth Harwood, Anis Shivani, Shawna Yang Ryan, Lowell Mick White) The first book is an important, joyous event in the life of any writer. Yet the process of achieving the first book is rapidly changing, largely through accelerated technologies and increasingly fractured demographics. How can writers successfully react to these changes? What constitutes ultimate success? On this panel, five debut authors will discuss their varied paths to publication, the impact the book has had on their lives, and the larger implications of change in publishing practices.

As you may, or may not, know: I’ve been working on this novel. I have a second draft, and I can finally see the light at the end of the tunnel. It’s time to start thinking about the next step.

Rooms 401, 402
Colorado Convention Center, Street Level

R186. Ecotone 5th Anniversary Reading. (Ben George, Robert Wrigley, Benjamin Percy, Kathryn Miles, Cary Holladay, Reg Saner) Ecotone, the award-winning semiannual magazine published at UNC Wilmington, celebrates its 5th anniversary in 2010. In its short life, the magazine has already had its work reprinted in several annuals of the Best American series and in the Pushcart Press anthology, among others. Ecotone seeks to bring together the literary and the scientific, the personal and the biological, the urban and the rural. Please join us for a reading by six of our outstanding and widely acclaimed contributors.

BENJAMIN PERCY! I saw this guy read at Gist Street back in 2007/2008, and he was ridiculous. His voice is just like the guy who does movie trailers. Also, he made fun of my current roommate for drinking a highball I ordered him. Recommended. Oh, and Ecotone is a pretty sweet journal as well.

3-4:15pm

Room 205
Colorado Convention Center, Street Level

R203. That’s Private!—Using Personal Details About Others’ Lives in Fiction. (Steven Schwartz, Antonya Nelson, Ann Cummins, Sylvia Brownrigg) The measure of nonfiction is how closely one adheres to the truth; the measure of fiction is how much one changes it. But what happens when a writer finds it necessary to include the exact details of someone else’s life? The panel’s four writers will chart their relationships to the private and public. In a genre that assumes transformation, when, why, and how do writers disguise the truth, and when does the unaltered truth make good fiction?

Not sold on this one, but it could turn out to be really interesting, especially if you’re the type of writer that smashes together fact and fiction.

Room 111
Colorado Convention Center, Street Level

R200. Just Passing Through: The Pros and Cons of the Visiting Professor Position. (David Ebenbach, Jerry Harp, Kevin Haworth, Stephanie Reents, Brandi Reissenweber, David Wright) Tenure-track jobs in Creative Writing are always in short supply. In our current climate many of us are turning instead to visiting professorships, sometimes moving from one visiting position to the next. What are the advantages of such positions? How can you use them to help your writing and your employment prospects? What are the downsides? The panelists, current or former visiting professors, offer their experiences and advice on how to navigate the world of the visiting professorship.

This could (hopefully) be my future. Better gain some knowledge.

4:30-5:45 p.m.

Room 107

Colorado Convention Center, Street Level

R219. Literary Laughter: Humor in Fiction Writing. (Teresa Milbrodt, Stephen Powers, E. C. Jarvis, Michael Czyzniejewski) This panel examines humor in our fiction writing and the work of other writers we admire: how we elicit laughter by delving into surreal or bizarre worlds, creating intelligent disjunctures in conversation, or finding moments for literary slapstick. While we explore the function of the comic in these writings, we also ask if humor writing can be taught, or if it is inherent in one’s style or particular way of looking at the world.

Very interested in humor in literary fiction and also whether or not this is a specific aspect of writing that is impossible to teach. Don’t know the names of the panelists but sounds intriguing enough.

8:30-10:00 p.m.

Centennial Ballroom
Hyatt Regency Denver, 3rd Floor

R237. Keynote Address by Michael Chabon, Sponsored by the University of Colorado, Denver. . AWP’s 2010 Keynote Address by Michael Chabon.

Pulitzer winner! Former Pitt grad! Friend of Chuck Kinder! You better believe I’m going to this one.

FRIDAY

9-10:15am
Room 203
Colorado Convention Center, Street Level

F112. University of Arizona MFA Alumni Reading. (Aurelie Sheehan, Robert Boswell, Gregory Martin, Kristi Maxwell, Richard Siken, Padma Viswanathan) The University of Arizona MFA Program celebrates its 35th year with an alumni reading featuring work of fiction, literary nonfiction, and poetry. Come hear some of the many exceptional and groundbreaking authors who spent their earliest days reading, writing, and pondering craft in Tucson, a literary oasis in the Sonoran Desert.

I am a huge fan of Robert Boswell. “The Darkness of Love” is one of the very first short stories I fell in love with, and two of his novels, Crooked Hearts and Century’s Son, are among my absolute favorites. If you’re a Boswell virgin, then attend this. If you know him, you’re already going.

Rooms 401, 402
Colorado Convention Center, Street Level

F119. The Place of Place: Crafting Place as Character in Fiction. (Sejal Shah, Margaret Lazarus Dean, Geeta Kothari, Michael Byers, Jesmyn Ward) It’s a commonplace notion that setting can be so central to fiction that the landscape can become a character—even a central character. But how, in craft terms, does it come to pass that place can inhabit fiction as much as fiction inhabits place? Five fiction writers will discuss their approaches to writing place—both urban and rural—in their works, drawing on settings as diverse as Bombay, the Mississippi Gulf Coast, Upstate New York, Cape Canaveral, Washington State, and the American Midwest.

I’ve always been very drawn to setting in fiction and have thought about putting together a panel like this myself. Also, it’s got Geeta Kothari and Michael Byers, both Pitt people.

10:30-11:45 a.m.

Room 110
Colorado Convention Center, Street Level

F129. The MFA in Academia. (Matt Tullis, Joe Oestreich, Kyle Minor, Emma Bolden, Miroslav Penkov) This panel focuses on first-year experiences of MFA-degree holders holding tenure-track (or comparable) jobs in academia, including finding a job, defending the MFA as schools look for PhDs and generalists, and defending your scholarship in the face of colleagues who may not see it as serious work. It will look at how these attitudes differ greatly from institution to institution, how to move from a visiting to a tenure-track position, and how to carve out writing time amidst a heavy teaching load.

This is something I take pretty seriously: the idea that the “work” of an MFA degree holder is just as valid (if not more so) than the “work” of a PhD graduate. I have a LOT more to say on this subject, but will avoid it for now. Just be aware that this panel exists and deserves serious attention.

Room 111
Colorado Convention Center, Street Level

F130. Summer Writing Conferences: What they Offer, How to Choose the Best One for You. (James Jordan, Rob Spillman, Wyatt Prunty, Claudia Emerson, Rebecca McClanahan, David Lynn) The director/founders and writer-teachers of the Tin House Writers’ Conference, The Kenyon Review Writers’ Conference, and The Sewanee Writers’ Conference discuss their workshops, faculty, and culture, informing poets and writers about their communities and educational and networking opportunities, including the application process, craft and guest lectures, workshops, selecting a workshop leader, and scholarships. The panel is moderated by a recent participant of these conferences.

I need to know more about summer conferences. A couple people suggested I attend a few this summer, but Jesus H. Christ are they expensive. I’m planning on attending something by Summer 2011, but going mere weeks after finishing graduate school is just not fiscally responsible for me. Hopefully this panel will help me understand more about the whole topic.

Room 303

Colorado Convention Center, Street Level

F138. The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction: Tips from Editors, Teachers, & Writers in the Field. (Abby Beckel, Randall Brown, Kim Chinquee, Sherrie Flick, Robert Shapard, Lex Williford) Join five of the twenty-five contributors to this ground-breaking anthology for a roundtable discussion on the history, cross-cultural influences, reemergence, and current practices in the field of flash. These authors also will offer exercises and read examples of stories that will be of use and interest to anyone who writes, teaches, edits, or just generally enjoys the short short form.

Sherrie Flick runs the best reading series I’ve ever been to: Gist Street. And also, I’m a huge fan of flash fiction, and Rose Metal was way ahead of the curve on this shit. This one looks like a highlight, folks.

12-1:15pm

Room 108

Colorado Convention Center, Street Level

F150. Indie Mags: Publishing Outside of MFA Programs and Other Institutional Support. (J.W. Wang, Aaron Burch, Dave Clapper, Mike Young, Jennifer Flescher, Blake Butler) Independent journals provide an alternative to the established journals affiliated with universities and creative writing programs, and they frequently serve as pioneers in the world of literary publishing. Join editors from Tuesday; An Art Project, Hobart, NOÖ Journal, Juked, Lamination Colony and SmokeLong Quarterly for a roundtable discussion about the workings of independently-published literary journals, what it takes to keep them going, and what these journals mean to potential contributors.

Having served as Editor-in-Chief of an online literary mag with virtually ZERO support from the institution that was supposed to be backing it, this is a definite pet interest of mine, especially in the wake of all the great new online journals that have sprung up seemingly overnight.

Room 110
Colorado Convention Center, Street Level

F152. An Insurgent Surging: The Case for the Novella Now. (Josh Weil, Michael Knight, Tom Franklin, Cynthia Reeves) This panel will examine the novella as a renegade art form whose time has come. We will discuss the underappreciated rewards the form offers writers, readers, teachers, and publishers. But the focus will be on the craft of writing novellas—challenges, rewards, and the unique approaches that the form—all directed towards answering this question: why is right now the right time to refocus attention on the novella?

*See thoughts above the novella above. Also, Tom Franklin is kind of a badass. I saw him give a personal reading at Tom Bailey’s house a few years back. His collection Poachers is very good.

Rooms 401, 402
Colorado Convention Center, Street Level

F164. The Future of Book Publishing: How Authors Should Navigate the New Market. (Mary Gannon, Dennis Loy Johnson, Jeffrey Shots, Michael Reynolds, Lee Montgomery, Julie Barer) Editors and agents will discuss the changes that have occurred in the practices and policies of literary publishing—from acquiring books, producing them in all of their incarnations, and marketing them. They will also offer timely advice on how authors should best navigate the changing industry and the new market.

*See thoughts about becoming more professional above.

Granite Room
Hyatt Regency Denver, 3rd Floor

F168. Pen, Screen, Action: Digital Storytelling in the Writing Classroom. (Shannon Lakanen, Daniel Weinshenker, Christina Fisanick, Kayann Short) This panel explores the ways writers take creative writing from the page to the screen by incorporating still images, voice over narration, video footage, soundtrack, and nonlinear editing to create digital poetic, narrative, and reflective texts. Panelists will share their experiences teaching digital storytelling in community and college workshops, examples of the work produced in these forums, and the challenges and advantages this multimodal form offers writers and artists.

Shit! I love incorporating digital storytelling into my work and produce a major boner when thinking about using it in the classroom. This one may demand my attention.

1:30-2:45pm

Centennial Ballroom
Hyatt Regency Denver, 3rd Floor

F189. The Southern Review 75th Anniversary Reading. (Jeanne Leiby, David Kirby, Sydney Lea, Steve Almond, Bonnie Jo Campbell, Beth Ann Fennelly) Founded in 1935 by Robert Penn Warren at Louisiana State University, the Southern Review celebrates seventy-five years of publishing the best contemporary fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction by the world’s most accomplished writers.

The Southern Review. Steve Almond. I hope he’s selling his independent chapbook.

3:00 p.m.-4:15 p.m.

Room 108

Colorado Convention Center, Street Level

F196. From MFA Thesis to First Novel—Five Writers Share Their Stories. (Sheila O’Connor, Geoff Herbach, Nami Mun, Valerie Laken, Patti Frazee, Margaret Lazarus Dean) Is the MFA thesis an end or a beginning? How do we know if our thesis project is a viable book or an early draft that still requires radical revision? For books that need revision, how do writers practice the necessary discipline novels require over the long haul? How do emerging writers secure agents and publishers for that first book? Focusing on the challenges and triumphs of seeing theses projects into print, five first- time novelists will share their diverse writing and publishing experiences.

I’m not even going to bother discussing why I so desperately want to attend this one.

Room 109

Colorado Convention Center, Street Level

F197. What We Hate: Editorial Dos and Don’ts. (H. Emerson Blake, Katie Dublinski, Andrew Leland, Denise Oswald, Daniel Slager, Rob Spillman) You won’t find this in the FAQ. Get it straight from the source. Six distinguished magazine and book editors speak candidly about what they love and loathe and everything in between. What do editors really want from writers? What do they absolutely not want? If you’re positively sure you know the answers to these questions, then don’t come to this panel featuring editors from The Believer, Graywolf Press, Milkweed Editions, Orion, Soft Skull Press, and Tin House.

I’ll probably end up picking the MFA Thesis to First Novel panel, but this one will probably be really great for writers just beginning to prep their work for submission.

4:30 p.m.-5:45 p.m.

Room 203
Colorado Convention Center, Street Level

F222. Plot as Ritual, Not Representation. (Debra Monroe, Antonya Nelson, John Dufresne, Lynne Barrett) A reader approaches a story expecting what Iris Murdoch called the consolations of form: concordance, development, characters who matter, a past which applies, and an ending which changes our perspective on the beginning and middle. Plot is not an imitation of life’s details as much as an antidote to the random way we experience life’s details. The writer can find tension between details and use it to forge a plot that’s resonant and yet startlingly new. Plot generates, not stifles, a story’s content.

Antonya Nelson? ANTONYA NELSON! If I can see both her and her husband (the aforementioned Boswell), my life will be complete.

Room 304

Colorado Convention Center, Street Level

F228. This Story Based on Actual Events. (Jotham Burrello, Randall Albers, Maggie Kast, Sharon Solwitz) At the end of the movie, Europa, Europa, color gives way to documentary black and white, and it hits us: this fiction is based on reality. Does this matter? Does reality affect the reader’s belief in the story? Every fiction creates what Umberto Eco calls its small world, the part of reality needed for its telling. How do fact and fiction mesh in stories with an element of real time or place? Four writers of reality-based fiction discuss this interaction in their works and the works of others.

I kind of just picked this one because I like the movie Europa, Europa. Dark horse panel!

Rooms 401, 402
Colorado Convention Center, Street Level

F229. Navigating Chaotic Changes in Literary Magazine Publishing. (Melanie Moore, Maribeth Batcha, Carolyn Kuebler, William Pierce, Stephanie G’Schwind) Join publishers and editors from American Short Fiction, One Story, AGNI, Colorado Review, and the New England Review for a discussion of the opportunities and challenges in the current “publishing crisis.” As more readers come to expect free content on the internet, how can literary publishers continue to pay writers, sustain their operations, and build their audiences? As paradigms shift, learn how these magazines are adapting their business models and their magazines to succeed.

That is one helluva lineup of journal editors. THIS is the big lit journal panel of the conference. If you go to one, make it this one.

8:30-10:00pm

Centennial Ballroom
Hyatt Regency Denver, 3rd Floor

F234. A Reading by George Saunders & Etgar Keret, Sponsored by Wilkes University Low Residency MA/MFA Program in Creative Writing in association with Blue Flower Arts. A Reading by George Saunders & Etgar Keret.

WHAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAT!?!?!?! Saunders!!!! Keret!!!! AT THE SAME EVENT! I can’t even take this I’m so fucking happy. I didn’t think anything would top the Charles Baxter/Stuart Dybek double-punch from last year, and now they call up George Saunders! Well-played, AWP, well-played indeed.


Rediscovering Nonfiction

A few weeks ago I was at a multi-genre reading with segments of fiction and nonfiction. I sat. I listened. I thought about how cultured I was. And I was utterly bored, especially during the creative nonfiction components. It was mostly navel-gazing and that genre I hate more than anything in the entire world: “Memoir of a Privileged, White Twenty-Something”. Ok, I guess that’s slightly better than “Memoir of a Privileged, White Twenty-Something Who Goes To The Third World and is Enlightened Spiritually”.  I sat there scowling and thinking about how much I used to love CNF back in college when I enjoyed literary journalism as well-deserved respites from devouring novel after novel after novel. I sat there thinking how I no longer cared about the genre.

In a workshop class I’m taking, writer Cathy Day has us thinking about “the negative cultural and critical reaction to personal nonfiction writing vs. its popular/commercial appeal”. It’s interesting that in an era of publishing history when nonfiction greatly outsells all facets of fiction that CNF, particularly the memoir, is under attack. Check out Taylor Antrim’s tirade on The Daily Beast. How about Maud Newton’s slam over at the LA Times? Two big name authors who swung through Pittsburgh both discussed how much they disliked CNF: Lorrie Moore and Aleksandar Hemon.

I can only speak to my own experience. I’m not a huge reader of the genre. I’m very often bored by memoirs, especially if the writer isn’t famous or hasn’t gone through something exceptional. I don’t read nonfiction for assurance that I am not alone in the universe and that there are others out there like me; that’s why I read fiction. These are my favorite works of CNF: On Becoming a Novelist by John Gardner. Lives on the Boundary by Mike Rose (light pedagogical theory). Portions of Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez (a pedagogical biography).  No More Vietnams by Richard Nixon. Killing Yourself to Live by Chuck Klosterman. A Tragic Honesty: The Biography of Richard Yates. And New New Journalism, a fantastic collection with long, informative essays by writers as varied as John McPhee and Hunter S. Thompson.

I bring these up to illustrate a point. The Rumpus recently ran an interesting article about why people read nonfiction. It quotes John D’Agata who asks, “Do we read [nonfiction] to receive information, or do we read it to experience art?” I think this is the fundamental sticking point in the nonfiction debate. I’ve looked at my shelves, thought about this question and my own instinctively negative reaction towards memoirs. Clearly, I’m not reading nonfiction for art. No one who lists the prose of Richard Nixon as a favorite could possibly be looking for art, and it’s now obvious I value the genre for its ability to distill and disseminate information.

So to sum up: I think that a bunch of leather-elbowed professors and critics sitting around trying to decide whether CNF is a bankrupt genre is silly. It’s different from fiction. The two genres aren’t in competition with one another. People whose natural instinct it is to chide CNF are probably just coming at it from a different viewpoint: they’re not looking to experience voice, or sometimes even emotion in nonfiction; they’re looking for (at times clinical) information. And if that’s your primary motivation for reading nonfiction, it’s difficult to really compare it to fiction in any favorable way. Nor should you.

The Difficulty of Multiple Mediums: Literary Fiction and the Graphic Novel

It’s been snowing here in Pittsburgh for nearly two weeks now. Being unable to drive anywhere should’ve been a golden opportunity to get writing done, but I wasn’t very productive until this past Thursday. Everybody goes through periods where they feel their work is crap, but I think this time I’ve pinpointed the problem: I was writing in two mediums at the same time.

As I posted a few weeks ago, Arcana Studios recently purchased a graphic novel for publication that I’ve been working on with Mark Kleman and Lamair Nash. Let’s talk about that for a minute. I’ve never written a comic before. I’ve never even written a screenplay–other than a disaster I composed for a college class five years ago. I got the comic gig after writing a twenty-two page sample with Mark. We found Lamair on the internet. He drew it and we sent it to a bunch of companies and Arcana was the one we went with. Now they want 110 pages.

Writing the comic isn’t hard; it’s quite pleasurable in fact and scratches a very different itch than literary fiction. I’m on page 60 currently and plan to have a first draft done within the next two weeks as Mark and I are attempting to bang out the whole script in 45 days. The problem is with my literary fiction. For awhile, I was trying to write the comic book in the morning and work on short stories right after. That didn’t work. I found that scripting comics diluted my prose. So I wrote three aborted short stories before I decided to take a break from writing the comic. Then a short story flowed pretty effortlessly. With that out of the way, I’m back to the graphic novel until it’s completed.

What I’m curious about is whether other authors have such a difficult time transitioning between two mediums. Literary writers have worked on screenplays since the days of Fitzgerald and Faulkner. But comic books? Not so much. Two years ago, Jonathan Lethem did a year-long run on Omega the Unknown for Marvel.

Newsarama has an excellent interview with him where he addresses this topic somewhat:

NRAMA: What’s the experience been like, going from prose to comics?

JL: A learning experience. Reading comics as long as I have was a huge head start, but it wasn’t everything. I needed to feel my way into the form. You quickly realize that in a sense it’s not a written form. The words are important, but the more important part of my work is giving Farel Dalrymple these assignments to draw.

I think the dominant part of the comic book experience is the visual. One reason why I’ve been slow has been that I really have to do this job of storyboarding and visualization in my head, in order to make to my storytelling work in the medium’s terms.

NRAMA: What are some of the advantages and disadvantages of working in this medium?

JL: Well, I don’t think I think of it in terms of disadvantages. It’s completely satisfying on its level. I could never do only this kind of work, because I’m so engaged with language, and as I say I’ve come to feel that language is fundamentally in the back seat in comic book. Or, anyway, in the kind that I like and seem to be trying to write.

I would be a frustrated writer if I had to satisfy my entire ambition through this narrow aperture of comic book panels. In the most basic sense, as containers for words, panels just don’t hold very many of them! So on the one hand I’m excited about doing this kind of work, and on the other, it confirms my sense that I’m fundamentally a prose writer, a novelist and short-story writer.

It’s interesting that Lethem had difficult moving to the visual medium–so did I; as freeing as it was to write, “(SFX) KaBoom!” it was also terrifying when I had to rely on someone else’s visuals to convey emotion–but this doesn’t address the issue of whether Lethem found it difficult to work on both literary fiction and comics at the same time. Omega was a year-long project. Did he work on it concurrently while writing his new novel? Did he bang out all twelve Omega scripts as quickly as he could before returning to prose? I’m not really sure, but if any of you have any answers I’d be glad to hear them. This is my first stab at multi-genre productivity as you no doubt can tell.

On Love and Despair: A Valentine’s Day Theme Post

It’s almost Valentine’s Day, so I guess it’s appropriate that the literary world think about relationships and love. Over at The Millions, Anne K. Yoder wrote an article that, among other things, disagreed with HTML Giant’s Nick Antosca’s editorial claiming writers should date readers. Yoder writes, “writers should date writers, who will likely understand the importance of clearing time and mental space to write.” I’m not sure how all of you feel about this, but writer on writer relationships always seemed dangerous to me. Jealousy over one partner’s success always looms over the relationship. I can’t imagine things being much better for already established authors who meet and date. Writers are inherently egomaniacs, the only people on earth who can look at the sagging shelves of fiction and think, “No. That’s not enough. I have something fundamentally vital to add.” How does one partner react when the other gets a Guggenheim? How about when the other’s presence is requested at Bread Loaf and you’re not?

But of course, there are examples of writer/writer couples working. Yoder lists a bunch, and let me add the wonderful Robert Boswell and Antonya Nelson to the mix. However, I’m still inclined to go with Nick from HTML Giant. For one thing, the process of writing is a romantic mystery to readers. They don’t know that it mostly involves me sitting in my underwear trying to see my computer screen behind day-old coffee and empty beer bottles. And I’m sure many of us who’ve gone through undergrad writing programs and MFAs can relate to writer breakups playing out in workshops again and again.  “You don’t have a grip on male voices! This isn’t moral fiction! Why did you cheat on me with that bassist? His low-fi alterna-folk band blows!”

And now a topic only slightly unrelated to love: DESPAIR. Maud Newton recently blogged about feeling intimidated by really good works of art. She read a book she quite enjoyed, then turned to her own fiction and froze up, unable to reconcile her “shitty first draft” with the assumed brilliance of the published–and polished–book. This happens to me often and has especially been a problem over the course of the last week where I’ve been locked down in Squirrel Hill due to the never-ending snowstorms of Western Pennsylvania. My usual method of dealing with said despair is just to keep on writing until something halfway decent inevitably turns up. I’ve always felt that it was the only thing writers could do: to have some of that faith Flannery O’Connor and JCO are always blabbing about.

Maud Newton has a better strategy. “I’ve kept on hand a well-reviewed novel that I don’t like or respect,” Newton writes. “It’s sitting on my desk right now, in fact. I don’t re-read it in any detail, because I don’t want it to contaminate my thinking, but flicking through the book makes me feel better about my own work, however imperfect it may be.” Hmm… I’m not sure this would work for me. I’m always very careful about what I read while writing out of fear that the published voice will seep into my own–case in point: Richard Nixon is a major character of The Black List so I’ve been reading his delightful No More Vietnams to get his voice “right”.

What I’m afraid of is that although reading some lousy book will manage to cure my stage fright, its flawed voice will also infect my own. Do other writers feel this way? Are they conscious of mimicking whatever they’re currently reading? Are there other ways of beating writerly despair that I just haven’t thought of? Comment below if so.

Optimism in a Digital Age

A few days ago, I watched a panel from the Brooklyn Book Festival entitled “Literature in a Digital Age”. Check it out here. My thoughts are kind of scrambled considering it’s Super Bowl Sunday and that Pittsburgh, where I live, is just now emerging from a twenty-two inch blizzard in which a tree fell outside of my house and missed my car (a prestigious 1997 Saturn SL 2) by just a few yards. With that in mind, I’m going to distribute some opinions via the bullet.

  • THE FUTURE OF THE BOOK! Maud Newton, the venerable blogger and novelist, is clearly the most invested party among the panelists concerning the evolution of what exactly will constitute a book in the future. She’s filled with an optimism that is quite refreshing considering all the doom and gloom we’ve been hearing for years on end from major publishers. As I mentioned in two earlier posts, alternative avenues are rising up to replace the literary gatekeepers of old. Electric Literature stands as one of the lit mag’s great new hopes for the future, and as the major publishers announce “no new acquisitions”, university presses and indies rally around writers of literary fiction. Newton brought up the possibility of Sony, Amazon and especially Google becoming the major publishers of this century, and that shift promises a sea change (and a slew of new opportunities for writers) for how we look at writing in the future. Oh, yeah, and there’s that whole iPad thing.
  • Class Issues. John Freeman, Editor of Granta, brings up the hornets’ nest of class differences when he mentions how eReaders will fundamentally change the price of books. In the past, anyone who wanted to read could do so for free with a library card or twelve dollars for a paperback. Not any longer when the average eReader is well over a hundred dollars. Doesn’t that remove an inherent element of democratization from American letters? None of the panelists wanted to really discuss this issue, and I’ll be interested when Maud Newton comes to Pittsburgh this week to hear her thoughts on the subject.
  • The bookshelf as death. The panelists described bookshelves as a metaphor for death (basically, if you have a lot of unread books in your collection, you only have so much time before you die to read them). Interesting point but there’s not much you can really do with that observation. Ok. Is that metaphor altered in any fundamental way by PDF books or eReaders? I’m not sure. I’m not even sure if it matters. Just an intriguing tangent that caught my eye.
  • Some of the panelists lament the fact that nowadays authors have to become public personas in order to sell their books, i.e. they have to have blogs and post on Twitter. Some of the panelists fear this will be deeply detrimental to future books, but Maud Newton doesn’t think so and neither do I. Isn’t the act of writing for mass consumption an inherently public act? In an age where everyone has Facebook profiles and YouTube videos, trying to become famous is now an integral part of global culture. Isn’t it the duty of writers to grapple with modern issues? And what better way to write about these themes than actually experience them firsthand? I detected a bit of stodginess on the panel’s part during this section.
  • Speaking of stodginess, what was up with the nostalgic reverence for all those “experimental” writers of the 1960’s? Very odd references that came off as pure crankiness. The great works of the past are great works, but to say that no one today is doing work on the same level of the drug-addled ’60’s crowd is a bit much for this millennial to swallow.
  • How about all those hipsters? Every time the camera panned the audience I thought they had cut away to the Pitchfork Music Festival. Yeesh.
  • I’m getting off topic but what the hell. As long as we’re on the subject of hipsters, check out this interview with Tao Lin. A friend of mine from Boston pulled out this tasty quote: “My target demographics include hipsters, depressed teenagers, depressed vegans, happy but sensitive teenagers, people of any age who are severely detached from reality, Europeans, all college students, and I think sarcastic vegans.” Yuck! I only stumbled onto the interview because Lin’s new book is named Richard Yates after my all-time favorite author, but regardless of your thoughts on Lin, few can deny that he represents a new breed of author. He’s super-young and a whiz at self-promotion. He recently even sold away his back end royalties for two-thousand dollar “endorsements”. Is a new literary Brat Pack that far away?
  • Finally, as a counter-point, I point you to Teddy Wayne.  I recently finished his novel Kapitoil for a review I’m doing over on BOMBlog and I absolutely loved it. More thoughts to come obviously, but this is the exact opposite of what I expected from a writer who frequently contributes to McSweeney’s and The Huffington Post. Kapitoil is a turning away from postmodern irony and a return to human emotion in a complex, globalized age. It comes highly recommended.

The Black List

It’s official. The lawyers have spoken. The contracts are signed. The Black List, an original, 110-page graphic novel written by myself and Mark Kleman with art by Lamair Nash, has been purchased by Arcana Studios. Expect it to be released in late 2010 or 2011. More news to come as we get closer to the release date.

 

Digital Distribution? Video Games? Marvel Illustrated? The iWhat?

In my Salinger post a few days ago, I made a quick jab towards the end about the video game-ization (I coined it here first, folks) of novels. So in case you haven’t heard the news, the 14th century Divine Comedy is being converted into a video game by EA, the same company responsible for this. Numerous sites have already lamented the transformation of Dante’s words into a corpse-littered action game, so I won’t belabor the subject. What’s interesting to me is what’s next. Take, for example, Penny Arcade’s take on where this could go in  the future:

This is obvious farce, but it does bear the question of what shapes literary fiction will be made to fit in the future. Are we that far away from an Old Man and the Sea game? Maybe something that fleshes out the conquering back story of Othello? And what happens when we throw other forms of media in the mix? For years now, Marvel Comics has been adapting great literary works that have fallen into the public domain into graphic novels. That’s all one branch of their publishing house, Marvel Illustrated, works on. Check out their takes on Pride and Prejudice, The Odyssey, and yes, a deluxe, hardcover edition of the aforementioned Moby Dick.

So how will literary fiction be represented in the future? Writers are already bemoaning the fact that they have to keep up blogs and concoct elaborate viral videos even as major publishing houses slash their advertising budgets or focus everything on a few mega-blockbusters. What will happen when the release of a new novel must coincide with a tie-in video game and comic book? Will the actual work on the page suffer? Improve? Stay the same?

Obviously, e-readers like the Kindle are one way this whole digital distribution thing may shake out, but perhaps you’ve heard of Apple’s iPad, a project so long in development you can find cave paintings about its impending arrival. The iPad has promised to revolutionize the print industry through iBook, a digital distribution system/eReader. With the iPad and a wifi connection, users will be able to download books, order magazine subscriptions and even purchase comics without ever leaving their home. And the best part is that everything’s in color and the text can be displayed in two appealing ways: horizontally and vertically. It doesn’t resemble the monochromatic Kindle that looks suspiciously like my Gameboy circa 1989. It doesn’t matter if you think eReaders are the worst thing to happen to literature since Dan Brown. If the iPad has even a fraction of the impact on the book market that the original iPod had on the music industry, then we’re on the precipice of a major turning point for how the publishing industry will operate. There’s no point in commiserating. 

And if all this news about the digital is too much for you to handle, I suggest you take a deep breath, relax, and check this out.  It’s the Angry Video Game Nerd reading the novelization of Mega Man 2 in its 90 minute entirety. Enjoy.