Salvatore Pane

Month: June, 2010

Ownership of Experience

Last weekend I went to the American Serbian Club. It’s a bar in Pittsburgh that caters to the Serbian elderly complete with traditional Serbian music, foods and supple Serbian granddaughters. I drank. I danced. I potentially got engaged to a young beauty. The next day, I sobered up and decided that the ASC DEMANDED to be written about.

Happiness, thy name is American Serbian Club

But who can claim ownership over such experiences? I jokingly messaged another friend of mine who attended the ASC trip and told her she could not write about it because I already had 900 words (which I did). Obviously, this was meant in jest. But now, a few days later, I’m wondering if there’s any validity in that statement. If we, as writers, can ever truly claim to represent a location, an experience, a feeling.

One of the reasons why this is so interesting to me is because I’m the type of writer who can’t imagine faces. I can do setting and internalization and dialogue, but I can never truly picture my characters if what you mean by that is actually generating entirely new humans that don’t already exist. I’m a big believer in the amalgam, of taking one real life person and jamming them into another and seeing what happens because of the inherent tension. Also, I can’t picture clothes. That’s why I’m so thankful Facebook exists, because now if I need an outfit for a trendy, thirty-something dude, I can just go onto Facebook, look up one of my friends who matches the description and get to work.

Is this creepy? Fair? Why, as a writer, do I think we are allowed to do this, that we deserve this even? In my work, if I fictionalize scenarios or characters or settings even a little, I feel as though I now own them, that I can rightfuly claim ownership. Is that outright insane? How do non-writers feel about this? And what about nonfiction? A few weeks back, Amy Whipple was telling me about the ethics involved in interviews. I couldn’t even wrap my mind around such a scenario: the idea that a writer has to consider the feelings and privacy of their subjects. Various ex-girlfriends have liked the idea that certain things they said or did would appear in my work. They figured that since people couldn’t 100% attribute those elements to them, it made it ok and even somewhat desirable. But does that really make it justifiable or should I feel guilty when I stick a close friend into a story? I never have before and always fell into the Richard Yates camp. When asked about which of his characters he really disliked, he said none of them. He told the interviewer that in some small, meaningful way they were all him, pieces of his psyche at work. That’s both a very complex and reductive way of looking at what characters and experiences writers are entitled to.

I've always had a thing for amalgams...

Audiobooks, Podcasts, THE FUTURE

Anyone who read my AWP Media Guide knows I’m a total over planner when it comes to having crap to do on long drives or flights. I’m going on a couple of big drives over the holiday weekend and have been pestering people about what new audiobook to get for the trip. After a lot of input, I settled on The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot, another Pitt MFA grad. But what I’m wondering about is what you all do for long drives. Audiobooks? Podcasts?

Before I discovered audiobooks (about twenty years too late, trust me I know), I was really into podcasts. On the literary side, I really dug the selections from The New Yorker, The Missouri Review, Selected Shorts and Hot Metal Bridge (which sadly doesn’t seem to put out new content anymore). Each one has their own unique feel and is well worth a listen. TNY is special in that it features a big name author (somebody like T.C. Boyle or George Saunders) who goes through the TNY archive, selects a story, reads it aloud, then does an interview about it with fiction editor Deborah Treisman. It’s always helpful to hear what other writers think about stories that aren’t their own, and I can remember very vividly listening to James Salter’s amazing “Last Night” on the TNY podcast and nearly swerving off the road during its creepy climax. TMR, on the other hand, uses its podcasts mostly for contest winners. What’s cool about their contests is that they’re often billed specifically as audio contests, meaning performance factors in. Nothing against TNY, but writers aren’t always the best public speakers. Selected Shorts is similar. They use professional actors to read all the stories which gives the podcasts a different flair. Sometimes they go a bit overboard and sound too stagey, but for the most part they succeed. Oh, and Hot Metal Bridge? We used to release our grad student readings. It was always nice to see your friends names pop up in iTunes I guess.

Of course, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention my favorite comic book podcasts which have gotten me through many hours of driving and working out (via Twitter, Josh Flanagan assured me I’m not the only one who listens to iFanboy podcasts while biking). First up is the aforementioned iFanboy’s Pick of the Week podcast. Josh, Conor and Ron spend a little over an hour a week going over the major releases and answering fan questions. What I love about this podcast is that Josh, Conor and Ron have been friends since college (at least) and their discussion reflects this. There’s a chumminess to their show that’s not always present in other podcasts, and it reminds me of hanging out with my buddies back at Susquehanna, drinking forties and talking about Spider-Man. Next up is IGN’s Comics Smash podcast. Headed by three IGN editors, this one is released less frequently but also covers that month’s biggest comic and movie news. It’s a bit more informative and slightly drier but definitely one of my favorites. 

As for audiobooks, I typically stick with CNF (no memoirs). I find it difficult to focus on longer narratives while driving and prefer short stories or more informative books like Sarah Vowell’s Assasination Vacation or the almighty Simpsons: An Uncensored, Unauthorized Biography. But I want to flip this discussion and turn it back to you. What do you guys listen to on trips? What are your favorite podcasts? Your favorite audiobooks? Do you have strange preferences like I do when it comes to narrative and driving? And what lit podcasts am I missing? I heard Electric Literature releases its issues in podcast form now. Any other options like this out there?

Bi-Weekly Friday Comics Roundup VIII: I Am the Terror That Flaps in the Night

1. Darkwing Duck #1 written by Ian Brill with art from James Silvani

In the year 1993, I won a Darkwing Duck trivia contest at my local Blockbuster. The prize: a television. That never made sense to me as obviously I had a TV if I knew so much about Darkwing. Regardless. DW is a touchstone for most kids born in the eighties and the wonderful BOOM! Studios (the folks behind Irredeemable), have brought Drake Mallard back as an ongoing comic. You want to know the best part? Like a Pixar film, the book’s aimed at children and adults alike. The first arc is titled “The Duck Knight Returns”, a play off the Frank Miller classic, and begins with a retired Darkwing working a soul crushing office job in a cubicle he shares with Mega Volt. It’s depressing. It’s awesome. It’s a comic book with Launchpad McQuack. If I haven’t yet convinced you to buy this, then please stop reading this website. You and I have nothing left to say to each other.

2. Soccer Comics written and drawn by Steve Gillies

Not only is Steve one of my fellow graduate students, but he also works with me. I can’t tell you how many times we’ve ended up in long, drawn out conversations about comic books that end up making everybody else leave the room (once, famously, he used props to explain Dr. Who’s Tardis to my then girlfriend. She broke up with me seven minutes later). So it delights me to see that Steve is working on his own webcomic. Check it out. It’s about soccer, and people like that now because of the World Cup and the US finally being declared a better country than Algeria. It was a long campaign, guys, but we did it.

3. Amazing Spider-Man #634 written by Joe Kelly with art from Michael Lark

Most people know that my obsession with Spider-Man borders on the insane. I followed him weekly for years during the 90’s and have to say Spider-Man’s better than ever. Aimed 100% at adults, the new thrice-weekly Spidey’s been spectacular ever since it launched in January 2008. But issue #634 marks the beginning of a new six-part storyline, “The Grim Hunt”, in which the Kraven family attempts to resurrect their fallen patriarch. You know who else is there? Kaine. The evil Spider-clone (seen above) from 1993. HAPPY DAYS ARE HERE AGAIN! But seriously, if you have even a passing interest in Spidey, this is the story to read. It’s a landmark arc on the title and the culmination of a project that managed to successfully revamp most of Spidey’s villains (Vulture, you still suck).  And that Michael Lark art? Superb!

4. Gorilla Man #1 written by Jeff Parker with art from Giancarlo Caracuzzo

Hi. Do you see the above image? Ok. I don’t have to sell  you on buying this one. Just look at it.

Let’s move on.

5. Jurassic Park Redemption #1 written by Bob Schreck with art from Nate Van Dyke

Remember Jurassic Park? It’s back! In comics form! Usually, licensed comics are terrible, so I might be careful about picking this one up, but the buzz is good. It follows the two kids from the first movie about ten years later which is a nice connection and nod to the original film. Plus, Frank Miller’s doing covers. That’s pretty impressive comic lineage for a licensed book and proof that the fine folks at IDW are really getting behind this one. Definitely worth picking up the first issue.

Cash, Money, Hoes: BABY BOY’S GOT TO EAT!

A couple of great posts on The Rumpus recently focused on something near and dear to my heart: writers getting paid. Elissa Bassist–whose amazing exit interview with her boyfriend has to be read to be believed–quotes the writer Elaine Showalter who wrote:

I told… all my graduate students, ‘Learn to write so well that you can be paid for it, rather than so badly that someone has to be paid to read your work.’ Many graduate students in English deliberately make their writing so obscure and pedantic that it is unreadable. But actually getting paid as a freelance journalist demands hard work and luck, as you know, and these days the market is tighter than ever.

Elissa then goes on to discuss her decision to self-publish some of her work and implore readers Radiohead style to contribute via paypal. The second Rumpus post to deal with money is a farce about a writer answering fan mail and essentially begging for money or a job. Doesn’t seem too far removed from reality.

Compensation is something I discuss a lot with my MFA pals, but usually that conversation’s about the tiered funding system our program uses. But when I think of getting paid to write (and by write I mean publishing short stories, doing book reviews, blogging for lit websites) is it an absolute travesty for me to say I don’t think we should be getting paid, or at least not very much?

Let me back up. Many will accuse me of  having a privileged opinion, and hey, I come from Scranton. My whole family’s working class, especially my immediate family, and I have enough student debt and scholarship cash to jump start the economy all by myself. So that shouldn’t be a major issue. But something that’s always stuck with me is a scene I witnessed in a workshop at Susquehanna University, where I went to undergrad. A professor of mine, the oft-mentioned Tom Bailey, was leading a workshop of a story about an arty photographer who got really mad that they had to do day jobs. Tom got pretty angry and gave us a speech about how real artists should be willing to sacrifice for their art, that they should even do so happily.

Now I’m not saying that writers are paid 100% fairly. There’s pretty much zero way for any writer to support themselves wholly off of literary writing. But there’s other ways, right? Teaching? Technical Writing? Writing in a different field–be that screenplays or comic books or what have you? And of course, the argument is always that if writers didn’t have to do all that extraneous stuff to feed themselves, they’d be able to produce better art. Maybe. But writing is a privilege and it has to be earned (and guys, don’t forget that Chekhov was a full time doctor and I think he did just fine).

I really applaud what Elissa Bassist is doing–check out her work and donate some money here. She saw something in the system she didn’t like, and she made an attempt to change it. And maybe one day, that will be the new model, and writers will be paid for doing much of the work they now do for free. But in the meantime, I’m absolutely fine with blogging and reviewing for free and making the majority of my income through teaching or other means. But where do you guys all stand on this? Does it burn you up that writers make so little, or do you see it as a necessary sacrifice for your art (because honestly, there’s probably a billion easier ways to make better money than writing literary fiction)?

The Query Letter

The query letter is the bane of my existence. Distilling a 300 page novel that I’ve spent untold days, weeks and months writing down into a few paragraphs seems so reductive as to actually harm my soul. So far, I’ve avoided writing such a document by having mentors recommend my manuscript straight to agents. But lately, I’ve been worrying whether or not that’s enough, and I’ve decided to query some agents just to shore up my chances. Because you only need one agent to say yes, right?

What follows is not patented advice. I’ve found out most of this stuff from people who’ve worked in agencies, other writers and a few helpful websites. I’m not claiming this will get you a partial request from the agent of your dreams, but this is what I did.

Step One: Find Some Agents

I’m sure that most serious writers could name the top lit journals or publishers but very few could name a ton of agents. I certainly could not. And when I began the querying process, I first had to do my research. Mostly this consisted of reading the acknowledgments sections of books I like and seeing who the agents are. Also, Query Tracker, the Duotrope of Agents, has a great feature called “Who Reps Whom”. Check it out.

Step Two: Writing the Query

Ugh. Ok. Here we go. All in one page. Get ready.

Paragraph One – Personalized Introduction

This means addressing your query to a specific agent and explaining why you want to work with them. This usually means bringing up one of their clients you admire. In this paragraph, you should also introduce yourself and the title/length of your book manuscript.

Paragraph Two – Synopsis

You know those paragraphs on the back of books? Write one. About your book. Don’t hit every beat. Don’t hit every character. Make it snappy. What are the major thematic concerns? What’s the plot? Who is the protagonist? You only have one page so don’t waste space.

Paragraph Three – Market

What is you book’s role in the marketplace? What book is it similar to (hopefully that sold well)? Is it voice-driven, plot-heavy, a generational anthem in the vein of Bright Lights, Big City?

Paragraph Four – Who the Hell Are You?

Give your writer’s bio. Degrees. Publications. Teaching appointments. You know the drill.

Paragraph Five – Personalized Conclusion

Restate why you want to work with this specific agent. Make this seem as little like a form letter as humanly possible.

Step Three: Agony

Now you wait.

This isn’t the only way to write a query letter. Different formats can be found at Agent Query and other online resources. I culled most of my info from an amazing panel I attended at AWP (Grants, Proposals, and Queries: How to Write about your Writing with H.M. Bouwman, Swati Avasthi, J.C. Hallman and Matt Rasmussen).  Hopefully this helps.

A Disturbing Trend

Every so often I find myself stuck in strange, sometimes unproductive writing routines. The first one I really remember started in spring/summer 2006. I was preparing my application for grad school and tried to write a new story every two weeks. The only problem was they all had the same voice: first-person working class dude in his mid-fifties.  I’d try to write other things, but they just wouldn’t go anywhere. They’d stall out after a page or two and I’d revert into that familiar voice that was one part everything I’d grown up with at my father’s garage and one part Ray Carver imitation. This consumed my writing for about four months, until finally, I produced a story with this voice that wasn’t mind-numbingly terrible. I put it in all my grad school applications and luckily got into Pitt. So the end result was positive but all that time spent drafting failing stories with the same exact voice felt pretty unproductive, and at times, like a personal affront.

Recently, I’ve found myself going through a similar cycle. Ever since I’ve finished my novel (or at least, slowed down enough where I could focus on short stories), the same routine keeps recycling itself. I write about five or six pages of a new story, get an idea for something totally different, drop the first story completely, then finish the sexy new thang. For example, during the cataclysmic snow fuck that was February, I started writing a story based very loosely on the Angry Video Game Nerd’s wife. I don’t know a thing about her, but I’ve always wondered: who married that guy? What does she say at office parties when people ask her what her husband does? “Oh, he used to work in an office but now he reviews video games from the 80’s and early 90’s and the odd nostalgic board game.” Who is that person?

Clearly, that’s not a good basis for a story. There’s good character potential but zero idea for a plot. And after the aforementioned office party scene, it stalled out and drifted towards the most overused plot device in all of my work: the classic love triangle. I took a long walk around Squirrel Hill on one of the days Pitt closed on account of the blizzard and came up with the idea for my final workshop story: a piece about a former NCAA swimmer from Egypt who works in athletic advising at Pitt and knows his wife is going to leave him after work. That seemed to go a lot better in that I actually finished the story and revised it considerably. The AVGN piece sits untouched on my desktop.

Since then, the same process has repeated itself twice. A few weeks back I posted about my frustrations with my novella. I thought the problem was a post-novel slump, but the truth was I just couldn’t deal with that material at the moment. I swapped it out for something more familiar (aging comic book writer deals with a love triangle via Twitter!) and called it a day. Even this week, I started work on a project about President Garfield’s assassin’s time in the Oneida Society as narrated by his death row grandson, but the scenes just wouldn’t go anywhere. Its failure left me in a funk until I abandoned it and moved onto, again, something at the opposite end of the spectrum.

What I’m interested in is whether or not all writers develop odd quirks or routines. Do you ever find yourself  going through a strange process that you know isn’t the most productive way to be doing things even if at the end you come out of it with a decent story? I’m not talking about having a specific writing chair or pre-writing routine. I mean an actual tick that develops in your writing, like a superstitious belief that every other story you write is crap and must be sacrificed to the ghost of Richard Yates in order to produce something worthwhile. TELL ME I’M NOT ALONE!

Review (Essay?) About Tom Bissell’s Extra Lives

Guys. This is easily the best review I’ve written. At three pages, it’s more like a mini-essay. As Amy Whipple would say, I have a lot of feelings about Tom Bissell’s meditation on gaming, Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter.

Flashback Monday I: My Interview With McSweeney’s or The Great Cataclysm of 2043

My entire novel is about digital narcissism, about what it means to an exist in an age where anybody can voice their opinion to an audience of billions instantaneously through Twitter and Facebook. I have a love/hate relationship with these outlets. On one hand, I see the danger, how isolated we’re becoming, how what it means to be human is being altered on a very fundamental level. But on the other hand, I really like tweeting about old Nerf Herder songs and linking to the sexual tension that is Comicvine’s video review show on Facebook. I often wonder how deceased writers would interact with these sites. Chekhov. Dostoevsky. They’re lucky in that most of the stupid apprentice writing they did will never see the light of day unlike David Foster Wallace whose undergraduate thesis is seeing publication later this year.

I don’t intend on bucking the trend. In fact, I’m going to embrace it. I’ve been cleaning out my external hard drive recently and found a back-up of my laptop from right before I finished college. Buried there is every file I ever wrote, including the incomplete 253 page single spaced fantasy novel I wrote at age fifteen (final line: “Immediately after her demise, the picture vanished, and the Memory Cube returned to its standard hue of blue, leaving the three Chosen Ones in complete and total disarray…”). So I’ve decided that every once in awhile I’ll post something from my more formative years that may be of interest to people other than myself. I won’t do this with any regularity so don’t worry.

The first item of inquiry is an interview I did with Eli Horowitz, the managing editor of McSweeney‘s, for a paper I wrote in an editing and publishing class with the poet Karen Holmberg. The questions aren’t super interesting, but the answers are kind of funny. And I really can’t believe how nice Eli was to do this, and how much of a pompous douche I was for even asking. Also, I titled the paper “The Future Is Robots” which is pretty neat.

1. What was the genesis of McSweeney’s? Did it come out of the end of Dave Eggers’ Might Magazine or did the creators think that they could fill a niche not catered to by the rest of the literary journal market?

Initially, if was made largely of work rejected by other magazines.  And something for Dave to do while he procrastinated on his book.

2. An obvious pillar of the McSweeney’s philosophy is to publish and nurture young writers. What guided you in this direction? Many other literary magazines don’t follow your principle about unpublished authors and I find it slightly alarming.

I don’t know — it just makes sense, right?  Why others don’t, I’m not sure, except I guess it’s kind of slow to sort through all those submissions.

3. How do you go about choosing which submissions to run? Do the section editors have meetings with reading boards? And if so, do they look over everything or is there a slush pile? If so, who goes through all the entries and decides what to go into the slush pile?

There isn’t really a slush pile; almost all the stories go through the same system.  Basically, there are a bunch of readers, and if any of them like a story it becomes a contender, and then Dave and I pick from that group. Everything definitely gets read, generally by three different people.

4. What do you usually have your interns do when they are on site? What about interns who are helping away from a farther location? On your website, you say you sometimes have both.

All sorts of things — reading submissions, fact-checking articles, going to the post office.  Those distant ones are generally readers — I’m not yet sure whether that actually makes sense.

5. Every issue of McSweeney’s seems very fresh and different from the last, but do you have any overarching message or theme that you hope each book contains?

Not really.  Well, a sense of excitement and possibility, and a respect for the stories themselves.  But there’s no conscious mission, I don’t think.

6. How did you personally go about getting your position at McSweeney’s?

I started as a volunteer carpenter for 826 Valencia, our tutoring center. One thing led to another, in a series of flukes.

7. Unlike most literary journals, you do a lot of public events such as They Might Be Giants vs McSweeney’s. What do you think these events add to the magazine, and what type of events would you like to see happen in the future?

Maybe a sense of community?  Once I say a woman on a giant unicycle flip five bowls from her foot to her head — I’d like to include her in a future event.

8. As a publishing house, McSweeney’s published the inherently political The Future Dictionary of America last year. Do you think McSweeney’s will constantly dabble in politics or was that a one shot type of thing?

Hard to say.  I think there will always be some element of that, but probably rarely anything so straightforward; that seemed like a particularly urgent need.

9. The designs of McSweeney’s magazines, even your books like How We Are Hungry, are known for their interesting and unorthodox designs. When creating the magazine, which is more important, the design or the contents within?

The contents.  Well, both, but the design can never interfere with the contents.  Our goal is to create a design that honors the writing inside.

10. Finally, what is the future for McSweeney’s? Whose hands would you like to see the magazine fall into eventually, and what vision do you want to see it taken in?

The future is robots, and an underground clan of freedom fighters. McSweeney’s will be destroyed in the Great Cataclysm of 2043.

Bi-Weekly Comics Friday Roundup VII: Obama, Spawn and Harry Potter Together At Last!!!

I’ve hit a bit of a buying comics lull. During the busiest of weeks, my pull list occasionally balloons into the low twenties (I know; I’m a huge dork). But ever since The Heroic Age started at Marvel, I’ve found myself picking up three books at most, occasionally four. This has less to do with the quality of the comics and more to do with Marvel reshuffling their line and staggering their big releases. I’m still reading a bunch of indie and DC/Vertigo titles, but Marvel definitely makes up the lion’s share of my pull list, and I was definitely reading the majority of their Dark Reign/Siege offerings. In terms of trades, I’m making my way through Daredevil: Born Again. I’ve never been a huge fan of the Man Without Fear, but Frank Miller is making me a believer.

All right, enough procrastination. Let’s talk some comics.

1. Guardians of the Globe #1 written by Robert Kirkman with art from Benito Cereno

I know almost nothing about the Guardians of the Globe. They’re a superhero team in the Invincible Universe created by Robert Kirkman, one of my favorite writers and the scribe behind my beloved Walking Dead. Normally, I wouldn’t check out this book because I do eventually plan on reading Invincible from the beginning. But this stunt is enough to pique my interest. A few months back, Image teased the team lineup including Barack Obama, Spawn, Rick Grimes (the black-and-white protagonist of Walking Dead), and a Harry Potter knock off. Eventually, Image admitted it was all a prank, but now Chris Giarrusso of G-MAN fame is writing a back-up feature in Guardians about the fake team. I’m sold. Barack and Spawn!? Fake Harry Potter!? RICK MOTHERFUCKING GRIMES!!?? This is going to eat my face.

2. Avengers #2 written by Brian Michael Bendis with art from John Romita Jr.

Look at that cover. No, really, LOOK AT THAT COVER! Are you kidding me? Really? It’s so awesome I can barely even focus right now. Look at those evil clowns in the bunny suits! How about the gnomes holding hands with the walking eyeballs!? As for the comic, well, I’m a huge Bendis devotee and John Romita Jr is the closest thing the American comic industry has to royalty. I didn’t fall head over heels in love with the first issue of the new series–I thought Secret Avengers #1 one-upped it–but I’m willing to give the time traveling Kang story another whirl for a cover this gloriously strange.

3. Irredeemable #14 written by Mark Waid with art from Diego Barreto

I’ve sung the praises of Irredeemable many times on this blog. I love Mark Waid, and I love his tale of a Superman analogue who has had enough of petty human demands and goes insane, murdering the Justice League and blowing up entire countries. But what I really love is this cover. It says it all, doesn’t it? You take one look at this cover and you know what you’re in store for. God bless you, Mark Waid. And please, if you haven’t read Irredeemable, do yourself a favor and pick up the first trade. It’s only ten bucks!

4. Thor and the Warriors Four #3 written by Alex Zalben with art from Gurihiru

Alez Zalben is hilarious. His comic book review show, appropriately titled Comic Book Club, is awesome and the CBC live show in New York is legendary (I’m dying to see it in person). I wouldn’t have picked this up if it wasn’t for Zalben, but I’m glad I did. He brings his trademark humor to the Thor/Power Pack franchises, and if you’re a bit tired of the doom and gloom of the more mainstream superhero books, Thor and the Warriors Four is the way to go. Let me just put this out there: Baby Beta Ray Bill. Ok. Is that sinking in yet? Go buy this book. And Marvel, please put Zalben on some kind of Short Halloween-esque Spider-Man one-shot.

5. Sweet Tooth #10 written and drawn by Jeff Lemire

I’ve gone back to the well a few times this week, but I just couldn’t resist highlighting Sweet Tooth once again based on this two-page spread. If it looks wonky on your display, I apologize. Just know that Sweet Tooth #10 is one of the trippiest comics I’ve read in forever. The second arc in Jeff Lemire’s opus hasn’t been quite as strong as the first, but the standout moments are so great that they demand readers stick with the series. Again, the first trade is only ten bucks. So if you’re one of those people who complains about not wanting to jump on Spider-Man because it’s in the 600th issue, shut up and go buy Sweet Tooth. You can catch up to ten.

Thoughts on Plot

I’ve been reading Lorrie Moore’s most recent novel A Gate at the Stairs. It’s enjoyable, and if you like Lorrie Moore (which I certainly do), you’ll enjoy this book. The voice is strong. The descriptions are surprising and unique. But there’s one crucial element missing: plot. I made a complaint about this on Facebook and certain people (ahem) complained about said complaint. I’ve been wondering a lot about why this is. Why when someone criticizes a literary novel for not having plot, many thoughtful readers will rise up and say literary novels don’t need plot. But that would never hold true for dialogue or characterization or any of the other fundamental building blocks of fiction. Imagine someone critiquing a novel’s characterization and a reader saying, well, literary novels don’t need characterization. 

By plot, I don’t mean melodrama. I mean tension, an inciting incident, anything that grabs readers’ attention and forces them onward. It could be something as monumental as a mother having sacrificed one of her children to the Nazis and dealing with the aftermath (Sophie’s Choice) or something as subtle and quiet as finding out how the final night of a closing Red Lobster plays out (Last Night at the Lobster). Plot is an absolutely necessary component to any work of fiction for me, but at some point, it became a dirty word in hoity-toity literary circles. In MFA workshops, it’s often thrown around as an insult. This story’s too plotted or too plot heavy. Again, can you even picture a reader who would say that a story has too much characterization? But what is a story without a plot? A quirky observation? A rant? 

Tension! A Plot!

 

When I think of really strong plots, I think of books that have elaborate underpinnings that are hidden from the reader. I think of Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road. On one level, not much happens. A married suburban couple is unhappy. They think moving to Paris will solve all their problems. The wife becomes pregnant and the husband uses that as excuse not to go. What will happen? But if you reread that book, you can see thematic seeds planted throughout. References to April wanting an abortion appear in the first 50 pages, before she even gets pregnant. Characters talk about how people are more alive in Paris before the trip is ever brought up. Rehearsals for Frank’s eventual failure of the soul occur again and again and again. Each scene is necessary, and pulling out even one would destroy the book as a whole. In that sense, it’s structured like an elaborate end-game Jenga tower. But upon first reading, none of this is apparent to reader. Everything is organic. This is an instance where plot is as important as dialogue, characterization, empathy, and all the other elements of fiction of the traditionally dominant aesthetic set. 

I can’t say why exactly I’m so drawn to plot, but it definitely has to do with my odd inclination towards structures. Maybe it goes back to my fascination with genre storytelling as a boy, and subsequent return to comic books as an adult. I’m not sure, but it certainly explains why I prefer Philip Roth’s Goodbye, Cloumbus (a tightly plotted coming of age novella) to his more celebrated Portnoy’s Complaint (a long, first-person rant directed at a psychoanalyst). One uses plot effectively while the other does not. Both are great books, but one plays more towards my preferences in literary fiction. The same holds true for Lorrie Moore. I love her short stories (the characters usually want something and try to achieve those goals, or else their inaction and stagnancy are the “point” of the story). But I’m not loving this novel as much as I’d hoped because the protagonist (though wonderfully vivid and defined) is given little drama or tension to play off of. She is adrift. That is all. One scene follows another but only a handful feel vital to the book’s movement and soul. Of course, I’m only 150 pages in, so maybe I’ll have a very different opinion by novel’s end (although I’d be hard-pressed to see a reason for the first aborted adoption meeting at Perkins). All these years later, and I’m still a believer in Tom Bailey‘s second rule of fiction: story happens when shit hits the fan. 

As advertised, a LOT of complaining.