Salvatore Pane

Tag: Richard Yates

Comics Roundup X: I’m Still Doing This

Ok. So I haven’t done one of these in awhile. The reason is because bi-weekly was just too much. I don’t discover that many new comics, and most of my roundups were becoming “Hey. Read The Walking Dead, Sweet Tooth and Amazing Spider-Man” over and over again. Moving forward, I’m only going to do one of these if I have five new books to mention, or if one I’ve previously hyped is launching some mega storyline or something that’s especially new reader friendly. Get it? Got it? Good.

1. Morning Glories #1 written by Nick Spencer with art from Joe Eisma

Morning Glories is about two things near and dear to my heart: cardigans and ties.  Actually, it’s a cross between LOST and Richard Yates’ A Good School (or any prep novel really). I don’t want to dive into too much of the premise because the discovery is half of the fun, but Morning Glories centers on a group of high school students with the same birthday who are brought to a mysterious prep school. The first issue floored me. Jump on this train before you have to trade wait.

2. Taskmaster #1 written by Fred van Lente with art from Jefte Palo

I fell in love with Taskmaster as a character during Christos Gage’s awesome run on the sadly canceled Avengers: Initiative. When I heard Fred van Lente–whose Amazing Spider-Man and Marvel Zombies stories must be read to be believed–would be picking up this character post-Siege, I was instantly intrigued. But this first issue is better than I could have imagined. So many strange gangs! Look at that Revolutionary War-era militia! If you want an off-the-wall superhero story filled with levity and a dash of insanity, pick up Taskmaster. This one’s a miniseries too, so if you’re not down with the never-ending stories of most superheroes, there are no worries about that here.

3. 5 Days to Die #1 written by Andy Schmidt with art from Chee

Mark Kleman and I interviewed Andy Schmidt about 5 Days to Die a few weeks back. Go read that, then pick up Schmidt and Chee’s noir-soaked romp. It comes out weekly, and the final issue comes out next week. That gives you just enough time to catch up before the big finale. Don’t wait on the trade for this one. Support single issues, and we’ll see publishers take more chances on stories like this one.

4. Fables vol. 1 written by Bill Willingham with art from Lan Medina

Sometimes I get into things really late. I started watching Twin Peaks in 2010. I began my descent into Battlestar Galactica last fall. Fables is another of those examples. It’s pretty much a holy text in comics but I never read it, never even knew the concept. I’ve been sick the last few weeks and picked up the first trade on a lark. Everything that’s been said about it is true. This one’s a knockout. If, like me, you don’t know Fables, it’s about a cast of fairy tale characters who are exiled from their homelands because of an unseen Adversary (think Diaspora) and relocated to a small apartment complex in New York City. They self-govern while trying to conceal their magical natures from human, who they call the Mundane. If you like Harry Potter, jump onboard the Fables bandwagon.

5. Archie #616 written by Alex Simmons with art from Dan Parent, Jack Morelli and Digikore Studios

If you don’t read this, you hate America. Ball’s in your court, playa.

The Case For Unlikable Characters in Literary Fiction: Thoughts on Scott Pilgrim 6

The final volume of Bryan Lee O’Malley’s Scott Pilgrim comic series dropped last week. Entitled Scott Pilgrim’s Finest Hour, the last chapter of the six-year long saga concludes appropriately enough with Scott Pilgrim’s finest hour. For those unaware of the series, it’s about a Canadian slacker who falls for a mysterious American woman who has a legion of evil ex-boyfriends that have to be defeated in order to win her heart. Luckily, Scott’s “the best fighter in the territories” which leads to a bunch of insane Dragonball Z-esque battles. The books are composed of entirely realistic scenes of twenty-somethings (drawn in lovable anime style) getting drunk, having sex, and being generally aimless. Often these scenes are punctuated with a bizarre, otherworldly battle lifted directly from old Nintendo games. But don’t let this concept fool you. The Scott Pilgrim books are deep. The league of evil ex-boyfriends is an obvious metaphor for the baggage we carry with us after each new relationship, and Scott’s quest to rid himself of these former suitors is as much about him learning to become a better person as it is about the crazy fighting (Side note: I once loaned the SP books out to a girl I was dating and she claimed to love the first volume but not the second. When asked why, she said the second didn’t have as many engaging battles. To reiterate, anyone reading SP for the fights is totally missing the point. It’s like going into Inglorious Bastards only for over-the-top action set pieces).

But this post is not a forum for me to air out my grievances about readers who don’t “get” Scott Pilgrim. Instead, I want to talk about Scott’s journey and what it’s actually managed to teach me about literary fiction. The first thing you need to know is that Scott Pilgrim, until maybe the final 30 pages of the last volume, is an utter douchebag. Forget how Michael Cera plays him in the trailer. The Scott Pilgrim of the books is arrogant, narcissistic, selfish and utterly terrified of responsibility. When the series opens, he’s an unemployed 23-year-old dating a high school student. He sucks.

I watched a video review of the first volume of SP recently where the reviewer hated on the book precisely because Scott is so unlikable. Surely, we’ve all heard this before. I don’t think I’ve ever been in a workshop where somebody doesn’t bring up the fact that the characters aren’t likable. I don’t know about you, but this has never been a problem for me. When I think of my favorite characters in literature, I think of Frank and April Wheeler from Richard Yates’ masterful Revolutionary Road. They’re utterly flawed human beings who do terrible things, and they’re not particularly sympathetic. They’re the types of characters I relate to most. And maybe that says more about my own self-image than anything but when presented with a character who’s inherently decent or wonderful, I recoil. I can’t relate and often don’t care about their problems. Show me a character at their worst. That I understand.

There are inherent pleasures in reading about unlikable characters. Their stories usually go in two directions. They either A) redeem themselves in the style of Scott Pilgrim and become fuller, more complete humans or B) completely fail every one around them ala the Wheelers in Revolutionary Road. Option A is the type of story we as humans need to experience continually over our lives. Who doesn’t want to believe in self-improvement, that despite all of our very human failings, we can become new and better versions of ourselves? That’s what Bryan Lee O’Malley delivers in the Scott Pilgrim books. Scott’s slow and steady growth is a reminder that we too are capable of becoming better than what we presently are. Option B is the darker world view (I can’t imagine anyone who would argue that Yates has a brighter vision of humanity than O’Malley). Option B tells us that self-improvement is an illusion, that no one can ever change for the better, that we as a species are in a constant state of decay. This is also reassuring in a bizarre way, because if it’s true, then we have no real agency, and therefore, no true responsibility to become better people.

And what do we get with likable characters? Usually victim stories. Charles Baxter wrote an essay a few years back (I can’t find it, or I’d link to it) talking about how much he hates novels and stories where things just keep happening to the protagonist, where the protagonist continually reacts. These are the types of stories I hate, the ones where main characters refuse to get their hands dirty. I want books where people fail. I want stories where characters make bad decisions. For me, those are the works of fiction with the most complex emotional centers, the fullest landscapes of meaning. As strange as it might sound to some, Bryan Lee O’Malley accomplishes this over six volumes of graphic fiction. His work stands as a reminder of why we desperately need stories about flawed human beings, because in the end, they are the closest we have to mirror images of ourselves.

 

Flashback Monday II: The Single Worst Personal Statement in the History of MFA Applications

It’s an absolute miracle I got in anywhere. Abandon all hope.

Sal Pane

Personal Statement Final Draft

10/26/06

I’ve spent the last four years studying at the Writers Institute at Susquehanna University with practicing fiction writers Tom Bailey and Gary Fincke. This has not only given me the chance to take over ten workshop classes steeped in constructive criticism but also an opportunity to learn craft, be a part of a writing community, and, most importantly, discover my process. I write every day, no excuses, for a minimum of two hours or more.

I’ve become completely obsessed with writing and reading, both of which happily possess hours of my time each and every day. Any good writer must be an insatiable reader. So I try and read broadly and delve into fiction camps that aren’t necessarily my own, spending as much time poring over my Richard Yates and Raymond Carver as I do brushing up on writers like Anton Chekhov or Franz Kafka. I also think that the act of writing fiction is a way of life and an end unto itself. I don’t need to be rewarded professionally because the writing itself is the reward. My career goals are ambitious in that I want to take two more years to hone my craft and better my writing. I’m very eager at taking every opportunity to learn and become a better writer.

Aside from the actual process of writing, I’d contribute to the program at the University of Pittsburgh because I’m such a veteran of workshops. I’ll be able to jump right in and give constructive criticism aiming at helping fellow students, not hindering them. And I’ll certainly be able to take any negative comments that will inevitably crop up during my stay. I’ve found that criticism is much more helpful for my own writing than simple praise. Beyond that, I’ve also served as an editor for multiple on campus literary journals, including working as the editor-in-chief of Susquehanna University’s creative nonfiction magazine, Essay. If I was accepted into your program I’d very much like to continue working on literary journals or creative outlets in any capacity possible. That’s one of the most alluring features of the program for me, the community of writers I’d be entering into with not only the faculty, but with other students as dedicated to writing and literature as I am.

Much of my work centers on my hometown, Scranton, Pennsylvania. It’s an urban area with a rich history of decades of debt and failure after a promising start as a mining city. It’s even the first American town to have a functioning electrical trolley system, hence it’s nickname, The Electric City. I’d like an opportunity to devote even more time to exploring this subject of decaying cityscapes and the hard working people they produce. Right now I’m working on a novel set in Scranton, and a short story collection centered on various characters living in the town. In grad school, I hope to continue these projects and expand my horizons, thus giving me even more obsessions to write about. My tentative goal is to have a novel at least halfway finished by the time I complete the program, along with a finalized short story collection

I want to thank you for looking over my application. More than anything I want a chance to continue focusing on writing under the aide of a mentor and literary community, spending the next few years working dutifully on short stories and novels each and everyday. The ability to weave a continuous dream through fiction, a tangible world pregnant with feeling, is the greatest artistic accomplishment I could ever possibly achieve. Entering the community of writers at the MFA level is the next step in my evolution as a writer.

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Personal Statement Final Draft

I’ve spent the last four years studying at the Writers Institute at Susquehanna University with practicing fiction writers Tom Bailey and Gary Fincke. This has not only given me the chance to take over ten workshop classes steeped in constructive criticism but also an opportunity to learn craft, be a part of a writing community, and, most importantly, discover my process. I write every day, no excuses, for a minimum of two hours or more.

I’ve become completely obsessed with writing and reading, both of which happily possess hours of my time each and every day. Any good writer must be an insatiable reader. So I try and read broadly and delve into fiction camps that aren’t necessarily my own, spending as much time poring over my Richard Yates and Raymond Carver as I do brushing up on writers like Anton Chekhov or Franz Kafka. I also think that the act of writing fiction is a way of life and an end unto itself. I don’t need to be rewarded professionally because the writing itself is the reward. My career goals are ambitious in that I want to take two more years to hone my craft and better my writing. I’m very eager at taking every opportunity to learn and become a better writer.

Aside from the actual process of writing, I’d contribute to the program at the University of Pittsburgh because I’m such a veteran of workshops. I’ll be able to jump right in and give constructive criticism aiming at helping fellow students, not hindering them. And I’ll certainly be able to take any negative comments that will inevitably crop up during my stay. I’ve found that criticism is much more helpful for my own writing than simple praise. Beyond that, I’ve also served as an editor for multiple on campus literary journals, including working as the editor-in-chief of Susquehanna University’s creative nonfiction magazine, Essay. If I was accepted into your program I’d very much like to continue working on literary journals or creative outlets in any capacity possible. That’s one of the most alluring features of the program for me, the community of writers I’d be entering into with not only the faculty, but with other students as dedicated to writing and literature as I am.

Much of my work centers on my hometown, Scranton, Pennsylvania. It’s an urban area with a rich history of decades of debt and failure after a promising start as a mining city. It’s even the first American town to have a functioning electrical trolley system, hence it’s nickname, The Electric City. I’d like an opportunity to devote even more time to exploring this subject of decaying cityscapes and the hard working people they produce. Right now I’m working on a novel set in Scranton, and a short story collection centered on various characters living in the town. In grad school, I hope to continue these projects and expand my horizons, thus giving me even more obsessions to write about. My tentative goal is to have a novel at least halfway finished by the time I complete the program, along with a finalized short story collection

I want to thank you for looking over my application. More than anything I want a chance to continue focusing on writing under the aide of a mentor and literary community, spending the next few years working dutifully on short stories and novels each and everyday. The ability to weave a continuous dream through fiction, a tangible world pregnant with feeling, is the greatest artistic accomplishment I could ever possibly achieve. Entering the community of writers at the MFA level is the next step in my evolution as a writer.

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...

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!

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.

Why Super Mario Bros. Will Affect the New Generation of Writers

A few years ago I came across a story of Tom Bissell’s in Best American Short Stories 2005. I can’t remember everything about “Death Defiers”, but I’m pretty sure it involved an American photojournalist in the Middle East who gets swept up in some sort of bizarre, familial poison plot. The details are fuzzy, but what I recall quite clearly is the final paragraph: a beautiful piece of prose describing the protagonist stepping on a mine and flipping through the air. I’m not doing this story any justice whatsoever, but I liked the piece enough at the time to add Bissell’s name to my “To Read” list.

I’m sure all writers/readers have similar lists. Mine’s in the back of whatever moleskin notepad I’m keeping my writing notes in at the time. The list comprises every book or writer that I need to read. Sometimes I make it through these lists in their entirety, but most of the time I do not. In the intervening years between first reading Bissell’s short story and now, I’ve seen essays of his from time to time but little else. Then yesterday, over on HTML Giant, I read that he was publishing a collection of essays about his addiction to video games (and flirtations with cocaine) called Extra Lives. They linked to an excerpt at The Guardian.

HOLY SHIT!

Finally, someone is looking at gamer culture with a literary (and serious) sensibility. Interestingly enough, the same Best American with Bissell’s piece also contained a short story about a World of Warcraft-esque human slave labor camp. But outside of that and Justin Taylor’s fantastic flash fiction Tetris/End of the World mash-up, I haven’t really read much that looks at gaming with a seriousness of intent. I was particularly drawn to this section in The Guardian excerpt:

What have games given me? Experiences. Not surrogate experiences, but actual experiences, many of which are as important to me as any real memories. Once I wanted games to show me things I could not see in any other medium. Then I wanted games to tell me a story in a way no other medium can. Then I wanted games to redeem something absent in myself. Then I wanted a game experience that pointed not toward but at something. Playing GTA IV on coke for weeks and then months at a time, I learned that maybe all a game can do is point at the person who is playing it, and maybe this has to be enough….

It turns narrative into an active experience, which film is simply unable to do in the same way. And it is moments like this that remind me why I love video games and what they give me that nothing else can…

Niko [the protagonist of Grand Theft Auto IV] was not my friend, but I felt for him, deeply. He was clearly having a hard go of it and did not always understand why. He was in a new place that did not make a lot of sense. He was trying, he was doing his best, but he was falling into habits and ways of being that did not reflect his best self. By the end of his long journey, Niko and I had been through a lot together. (Bissell)

What I love about this essay is that it recognizes that video games offer a textual experience wholly unique. Literature and film require active participation to a certain extent, but no matter how much you contextualize movies or visualize the scenes in books, you can never have a  literal direct effect on the chain of narrative events in the way you can with video games. Even comic books, which require more active participation than film or books by having white space segmenting the action which forces readers to play out the missing moments of time in their minds, cannot match the interactivity of a video game.

I’m not sure where this line of thinking will carry me, but it’s something I’ve been dwelling on a lot recently as video games factor into the novel I’m very close to completing, The Collected Works of the Digital Narcissist. The protagonist is a gamer nostalgic for the 8-bit games of yore and often embeds images from those games into the text. During a trilogy of scenes which take place during the early nineties, he describes his devotion to all things Nintendo via the following:

If you’ve only casually played video games, then you can not comprehend the inner depths of their joys. You don’t know what it feels like to give yourself up so completely to an alien world of colors and sprites, of repetition and absolute safety. You are no longer yourself. You are an avatar. Super Mario, an Italian plumber tumbled through the looking-glass. Link, the boy knight on a magical crusade to rescue Princess Zelda from the terrible Ganon. Samus Aran, the intergalactic bounty hunter tracking down alien eggs on a world controlled by space pirates. This becomes more “real” than the “real” world…

And so I began my descent into the world of microchips and immateriality. And so I began to fear the natural world. Because when you are represented by an avatar, you are no longer Michael Bishop, a skinny child with a broken arm and sharp ribs that push against your polar bear t-shirt. You are not weak and loathsome and oh so frightened that some threat lurks around every corner existing only to dismember you. I lost myself in those games for hours at a time, refused to leave the safety of my house and that monolithic Nintendo. I feared forests and lakes and birds and wind and most of all people.

The digital!

My first true love!

(Pane)

What’s interesting to me about all of this is echoed in Paste Magazine’s review of the aforementioned Justin Taylor’s Everything Here is the Best Thing Ever. Reviewer Charles McNair writes, “Justing Taylor’s first short-story collection artfully captures the view of the 200s from the perspective of a twentysomethingSeveral of his stories bear the unmistakable, bloggy influence of the 2000s. Do we sense some sort of new fictional frontier? Time will tell.” This is the first generation to come of age raised on video games and technology more advanced than the Atari 2600 and the Apple II. Will that have an effect on the writing produced by those writers? How about blogs and Facebook and Twitter and cell phones? I say overwhelmingly yes. Our sense of narrative has been irrevocably shifted by technology and it only makes sense that not only will the platform literature is disseminated through change, but the very writing itself.

Two brief personal examples to illustrate a point:

1) This is my actual Nintendo collection.

Over the past six years, I’ve managed to track down about 150 Nintendo Entertainment System games, 50 Super Nintendo Entertainment games and 20 GameBoy games. I don’t play newer systems very much because I’d usually rather spend my free time reading, but also because I know that like Bissell I have an addictive personality and remember all too well the days in high school when I would play Japanese Role Playing Games on the original Playstation for disgusting stretches (during one horrible summer before ninth grade, I played Chrono Cross every day for three weeks for at least eight hours at a time. I became so addicted that I only stopped to hurriedly eat a sandwich in front of the pause screen). Since college, I have been content to play the games of my childhood. Super Mario Bros. Chip N’ Dale’s Rescue Rangers. Maniac Mansion. Blaster Master. Fun games with marginal narratives that only take about a half-hour to complete.

All that being said, how can I not be affected by video games? Even if I don’t play much now, so much of my life has been spent glued in front of a television screen controlling digital avatars that it wouldn’t be realistic to clam my sense of narrative hasn’t been deeply impacted by these digital worlds. And I’m willing to bet I’m not alone in this.

2) I went to college for creative writing. The program is very serious compared to other undergrad institutions and the teachers treat their pupils more like graduate students. I often bailed on the work in my other classes to work on fiction and cnf, and this was certainly not frowned upon by the real working writers who taught us. The books lifted up for us to worship were all written by the ’80’s dirty realists and their predecessors. Carver. Dubus. Wolff. Ford. Pancake. Munro. Bobbie Ann Mason. Richard Yates. And don’t get me wrong. They all still number among my favorite writers, and my devotion to Yates borders on the religious.

Unfortunately, after many years of writing each and every day, I eventually came to realize that I will never be a master of domestic realism. I don’t have it in me. My instincts naturally strive for the geeky, the nerdy, and it’s hard to hit that aesthetic in the parameters of sparse Carver minimalism. I wrote a very bad, failed novel a few years ago in the style of domestic realism. The characters were all working class, and the subject matter included decaying mines and the folly of local politics.

It was breathtakingly terrible, and after wonderful advice from a mentor of mine, I packed it away in a drawer. Since then, I have written something much more successful, and my work has begun to be published in very small publications. While working on my new novel, I found myself referencing Nintendo, putting up screen shots, using Twitter feeds, implementing blog posts, inserting web comics and even writing an entire scene in script format. People ask why I made these narrative decisions and I can only respond that it’s what felt natural and “right” to me at the time. Like Bissell, I feel incredibly affected by the prevailing technologies of my era. To deny that by reverting to a mode of writing three decades old is akin to denying myself, something Bissell and Taylor are very clearly aware of.

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The Most Unfortunately Titled Article Ever Published or Why America Hates English Professors

A few days ago I read an entry on the LA Times blog Jacket Copy written by former Pitt MFAer Carolyn Kellogg. The article links back to a feature published in The American Book Review conspicuously titled “Top 40 Bad Books”. Normally, I wouldn’t read such a list because there’s so much great literature out there, so many wonderful opportunities. Why dwell on the negative? But the writers Carolyn name-checked from the article were enough to pique my interest (and rage): Cormac McCarthy? F. Scott Fitzgerald?! RICHARD YATES ??!! Umm….. huh? The introduction (there’s no author credited) gives us this:

Richard Ford once said that it takes as much effort to produce a bad book as a good book. And as disheartening as that sounds, what Ford’s assertion might raise, and what most everyone who has attempted the task of a book-length work already knows, is the notion that effort alone does not ensure a book’s success, and that there are probably more ways for a good book to be overlooked than a bad book to never make it into print…

That said, what constitutes a bad book? Is it an overrated “good” book? Can an otherwise good author produce a “bad” book? Is the badness in style, in execution? Or is it in theme or outlook? Or is the notion of a “bad” book even comprehensible in the age of postmodernism, poststructialism, and cultural studies?

Calling the question of “bad books” to the fore elicited—as might be expected—an overwhelming response. The forty responses below were selected to demonstrate the sheer variety of responses to what at face value seems a simple question. But as with most literary matters, nothing is as simple as it appears—not even the question of what constitutes a bad book… (American Book Review)

Ok, let’s just ignore the fact that they used the dreaded “theme” while discussing literature. I didn’t realize this was AP English. Anyway, what’s on the list? The Great Gatsby. Revolutionary Road. All the Pretty Horses. The Ian Fleming James Bond novels. Women in Love by D.H. Lawrence. Dreiser, Melville and Colson Whitehead also make appearances. On initial glance, I wanted to yell and scream and rant. The list is made up of 40 entries written by College English Professors (in all Caps of course). A few of the entires are obsessed with attacking well-renowned writers and tearing down their legacies (the Yates and Fitzgerald entries are especially, and needlessly, unkind), but there are many examples here of professors (and a writer or two) doing good work. Some don’t even name a single book. For example, take a look at what Dagoberto Gilb has to say on the subject of bad books:

Like bad girlfriends (and boyfriends, too), there are so many categories of bad books that it’d be gruesome and pathetic to categorize the various species of that sorryness. Setting aside the intrinsically aggravating that the very coquetish author is actually stupid, or the editor who chose the manuscript is too dumb or lame or dazzled, or that the system which perpetuates both of them is as flawed as a university paying for a Glenn Beck lecture series, and omitting the writers who are really salespeople, as are their duped or complicit publishers hyping their so pretty product as though…. Wait a minute, that may be what I think is a major bad book or line of them even. (Gilb) (His ellipses, not mine)

One professor wonders about the usefulness of bad books and cites Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Another, Gerald Graff, talks about the practicality of bad books in pedagogical practice. Graff writes, “It has always seemed strange to me that bad books aren’t a prominent part of our school and college literature curriculum. How do we expect students to learn to tell the difference between good and bad books unless we assign some bad ones for comparison? Don’t you need badness in order to know goodness?” Another interesting tangent is brought up by Carol Guess who says:

Notice (2004) was published posthumously. Its narrative voice was so unique that no press would touch it until Lewis committed suicide at forty. Her suicide allowed the book’s publication; now she was dead, and sufficiently chastened for examining experiences that mainstream culture attempts to suppress. Before she killed herself, Lewis wrote one more novel, The Second Suspect (1998). This book was published and reviewed during her lifetime. It was bought, and it was read. The Second Suspect is a terrible book. But it’s not just a bad book; it’s so much more. It’s a bad book riffing off the author’s masterpiece. The Second Suspect is a rewriting of Notice, but minus everything that makes Notice literary. The Second Suspect takes plot, characters, and themes from Notice and reduces them to formulaic drivel. (Guess)

It’s obvious that Guess isn’t arguing that The Second Suspect is one of the worst books ever written, just as it’s painfully clear that some of these professors have axes to grind (look at the lambasting poor Cormac McCarthy takes!) and are using the American Book Review as a platform to air their theoretical grievances. So although the article in its entiretry is far less inflamatory than expected, what I can not stand for is its title. “Top 40 Bad Books” is a horrible title when the article in question doesn’t even have a list, when some of its contributors don’t even put forth a single book. I’m hoping that this is some type of marketing ploy, that the Editors at ABR chose this title knowing it would be controversial and would garner more attention (case in point, its mention on this blog). But an article like this written by a legion of college professors does much more harm than it does good. It purpotrates a stereotype that America loves to hate, that of the stodgy old English professor who despises everything.

For an example of what I’m talking about, check out The New Republic’s review of a recent memoir, The Professor and Other Writings, by Terry Castle. Ross Posnock, the reviewer, starts his critique with the following:

The public expression of contempt for professors is one of our cherished national pastimes and is that rare thing—bipartisan… Recently on its front page the New York Times invoked “the classic image of a humanities professor … tweed jacket, pipe, nerdy, longwinded, secular—and liberal” in a story on a sociological study of the power of typecasting. And in the annals of egghead bashing, the perennial butt of the foolproof punch line has long been the English professor. For decades Hollywood has dined out on this stereotype—Dennis Quaid’s bloated, bleary, and insufferable literature professor in Smart People is only a recent entry in a long parade of fatuity—but the Times has also loyally done its part. Their reports on the MLA convention are always good for a laugh, with their generous sampling of silly and sex-addled paper titles (who can forget “Wandering Genitalia in Late Medieval German Literature and Culture”?) that the Times cited a few years ago as proof that “eggheads are still nerds” with too much “sex on their minds (and time on their hands).” Whether the accusation is justified or not is less the point than the casualness of the contempt, the easy assumption of a license to scorn. Almost no group is more safely maligned and mocked. (Posnock)

I love the New Republic (especially their dryly titled lit blog The Book), but when they think you’re stodgy you know there’s a serious PR problem. Articles like “Top 40 Bad Books” reinforce the stereotype that English professors are cranky old dipshits seething in their Ivy Towers casting their hate outwards at everything. They are not lovers of literature; they are destroyers. Fiction, poetry and creative nonfiction are the manure from which they produce their cornucopia of brilliance. While Carol Guess and Gerald Graff and Dagoberto Gilb attempt to subvert this assumption, there are just as many examples within the ABR article that prove it. Since there are no bios included within the text of the article (only the names of institutions), one has to wonder if these hater professors teach Literature exclusively or if they dabble in their school’s Comp or Creative Writing departments.

The reason why I ask about what department these professors come from is because of an article by William M. Chace in the American Scholar. This was passed around in secret between friends of mine because the views expressed within are relatively controversial in a University environment. Entitled “The Decline of the English Department”, Chace’s article explores how and why enrollment numbers in English departments across the country have plummeted since the 1960’s coinciding with the ascendancy of critical theory as the main text of the humanities classroom. His findings are what you expect. He blames things on cultural studies and theorists with pseudo-political, pseudo-philosophical agendas (thus satisfying neither the politician or philosopher) and the shift away from the so-called Great Books. This stereotype of an English professor is in line with the bogeymen presented in the ABR article: Learned Men coming down the mount to explain to us philistines why The Great Gatsby is one of the top 40 worst books ever written.

But not all is doom and gloom. What Chase ignores is the rise of undergraduate Creative Writing programs and MFAs. Their enrollments have skyrocketed since the 1960’s with MFA programs pumping out 5,000 graduates a year. Similarly, Comp programs have also evolved thanks to the work of dedicated scholars like Mike Rose and Richard Rodriguez. While regular humanities classes become more and more specialized and in some cases jettison works of fiction, poetry and creative nonfiction altogether, creative writing and comp classrooms have put the focus back on student work and the so-called great books. So, to cap off this long, rambling rant, we need more professors like Guess and Graff and Gilb willing to ruminate over tough subjects, but also willing to celebrate the beautiful act that is the reception and creation of literature. And what we need less of are professors making lists of the worst books ever written and explaining why exactly the work of Richard Yates is so offensively terrible.

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.

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.