21 June 2018

Writing in Crisis


I prefer, where truth is important, to write fiction. 
—Virginia Woolf, The Pargiters
Preface
It seems my doctoral dissertation has hit the ProQuest dissertations databases, so now is perhaps a useful time to say a few words about it here. First, the details for finding it, since there doesn't seem to be an openly accessible link: The title is Lessoning Fiction: Modernist Crisis and the Pedagogy of Form, and it is Dissertation/thesis number 10786319 and ProQuest document ID 2056936547. (If you don't have access to any of those databases and would like a copy of the manuscript, feel free to email me and I will send you a PDF.)

Here's the abstract:
Writers committed to Modernist ideas of artistic autonomy may find that commitment challenged during times of socio-political crisis. This dissertation explores three writers who developed a similar literary strategy at such times: they pushed fictionality toward and beyond its limits, but ultimately preserved that fictionality, revealing new value in fiction after challenging it. Virginia Woolf, Samuel R. Delany, and J. M. Coetzee shaped their writings at these moments to provide readers with an experience that I argue is congruent with the goals of critical pedagogy as espoused by Paulo Freire, bell hooks, and others. Such a reading experience avoids an authoritarian mode of communication (a writer dictating a message to a passive audience) by requiring any successful reader of the work to be an active interpreter of the texts' forms, contents, and contexts. The pedagogies Woolf, Delany, and Coetzee infuse into such works as The Years, The Tale of Plagues and Carnivals, The Mad Man, Elizabeth Costello, Diary of a Bad Year, and Summertime free those works from being either narrowly aestheticist or quotidian social realism; instead, each asks for an active interpretation, one that supports certain habits of reading that may develop into habits of thinking, and those habits of thinking may then affect habits of being. By pushing against fiction's fictionality, these writers of very different backgrounds, geographies, privileges, situations, tastes, and styles created texts that do the pedagogic work of liberating the reader toward a critical, ethical thinking that less Modernist, less polyphonic, and more traditionally fictional texts do not — even if those texts are more explicitly committed to particular socio-political visions. Monologic, preaching, propagandistic texts may present ethical thought, but they are less likely to stimulate it than the polyphonic pedagogies practiced by Woolf, Delany, and Coetzee in their fiction.
Though I had settled a few years ago on the writers and most of the texts I planned to study, the direction of the dissertation didn't become clear to me until the US election of November 2016. In the days following, countless writers seemed to ask — on social media, in hastily-written essays, in private communication — what value writing, particularly the writing of fiction, serves when it feels like the world is falling apart all around you.

I did not myself share this sense of writing being in crisis, for a few reasons — I've pretty much always thought everything in life is in crisis, and I agree with Corey Robin that Trump is (vulgarly) emblematic of much that has dominated American politics for decades, so while I found his triumph nauseating, it didn't plunge me into a sense of futility any more than growing up with Reagan as president had, or Bill Clinton's assaults on the social safety net, or Newt Gingrich's triumph in the 1990s, or George W. Bush's atrocities, or Obama's fondness for bankers, drones, and deportations.

But the sudden distress among many writers after the election now made me think of writers of the past, ones who had faced social and political crises that threatened their lives. This overlapped with a different sort of uncertainty I was feeling, an uncertainty about the value of my own academic work. Academic writing, particularly for us literary scholars, can feel utterly useless even in the best of times, and as I approached writing the dissertation, I needed some sense of what I was writing this dissertation for (other than, of course, the obvious: to earn a degree).

Given the three writers I wanted to work on, I suddenly felt a new sense of purpose: I could explore what approaches these very different people had taken when the world seemed overwhelming to them. Within such an exploration I might find some sort of insights of use to people now, some models for how to proceed in the face of disaster and apocalypse.

The first approach I took to this exploration is one that is detailed in my Woolf Studies Annual essay, "The Reader Awakes: Pedagogical Form and Utopian Impulse in The Years". Originally, that was going to be the first chapter of the dissertation. Parts of it are in that chapter, but in revising both, they went in somewhat different directions, with different emphases, and so ended up more as cousins than twins. The idea of the pedagogical potential of the novel form is important to both, however, and important to my ideas about artistic autonomy and socio-political crisis. Here, I'll try to boil some of that down and offer a few examples and excerpts from the dissertation.

28 May 2018

Gardner Dozois (1947-2018)


The first rejection letter I ever got was from Gardner Dozois. I was in 6th grade and had just learned about submitting stories to magazines; I had also just started reading my mother's boss's copies of Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine, which Dozois had recently become editor of. I don't remember anything about the story I submitted, but I'm sure it was awful. I don't think I expected it to be accepted, because what I most remember is how excited I was to get a letter from the editor. My parents were kind and didn't tell me it was a form letter, nor that the signature was printed onto it, not written by the editor himself. I brought it to school to show my teacher. She, too, very kindly did not tell me that thousands of people likely got just this same letter. (After a few more submissions, I figured it out.)

Dozois also edited what may be the single most important anthology in my life: The Year's Best Science Fiction, Third Annual Collection, which I got from the Science Fiction Book Club when I signed up, roughly around the time I started submitting to Asimov's. The local grocery store carried Analog, not Asimov's, and since it wasn't expensive, my mother would buy me the new copy to keep me from being too much of a pain during grocery shopping. (Or Twilight Zone or Omni, the other magazines at the store that held my interest.) It was Tom Easton's review of the Third Annual that made me decide to include it among the books I got on signing up for the SFBC — I remember what he said in the review, that there were now a number of "Year's Best" anthologies, but this one was "the one to get if you're getting only one". I didn't have the money to get more than one, and ultimately could only get this one because of the SFBC's introductory offer (10 books for $1 or something like that).

Looking at the table of contents now, I'm astounded: James Tiptree and Lucius Shepard — Frederick Pohl and Pat Cadigan — Bruce Sterling, R.A. Lafferty, Howard Waldrop, John Crowley — writer after writer whose work would challenge and inspire me for decades to come.

And "Solstice" by James Patrick Kelly. I've told the tale of this book and that writer and me before. Though Jim has published all sorts of stories since "Solstice", none could ever mean as much to me.

19 May 2018

Ambiguity Machines and Other Stories by Vanana Singh


For the Los Angeles Review of Books, I wrote about one of my favorite recent collections of short stories, Vandana Singh's Ambiguity Machines, published by the great Small Beer Press:
There is a stately elegance to all the stories collected in Ambiguity Machines and Other Stories, Singh’s second collection after The Woman Who Thought She Was a Planet and Other Stories. Both books are rich with models of what science fiction can achieve as well as models of the short story as a form. Even when she is writing about far-future, faster-than-light-traveling aliens, Singh never resorts to the clichés familiar from space opera unless to undo them, never forces fast pacing with staccato sentences and short paragraphs, never plays gotcha! with the reader. Singh is a scientist — a professor of physics — and all of her stories show a scientist’s determination to develop ideas carefully and responsibly. 
Yet Singh is also an artist, a writer who evokes sensual wonders in musical prose. Hers is a literature of ideas, but it is also a literature of myth and intertextuality in which stories are material things, living things, organisms that transmit knowledge, feelings, history, and magic. Stories are themselves ambiguity machines of a sort, and one of the strengths of Singh’s stories is that they do not balk at ambiguity, but embrace it. Few science fiction writers have as Chekhovian a sense of both story and world: a sense that the best stories suggest at least as much as they state, and that the world exists through interconnections of people and places, humans and other creatures, natural landscapes and technological innovations. The ending of Chekhov’s “Gusev,” in which a corpse tossed overboard is considered by pilot-fish and a shark while the ocean contemplates the sky — such an ending has what we might call a Singhian movement to it as the narrative point of view insists that the wonders of the universe are not exclusive to humans alone, and that we, the readers, must expand our perspective and sympathy beyond our selves.

Continue reading at LARB.

16 May 2018

Compulsory Genres


In writing about Brian Evenson's book about Raymond Carver, I noted that both Evenson and I first read Carver right around the time we first read Kafka and Beckett, and we did so without knowledge of the contemporary American fiction writers he's often set alongside (e.g. Ann Beattie, Tobias Wolff, etc.). Later, I gained that context and, consequently, the context I'd originally brought faded, which is one reason why Brian's book so effectively brought Carver back to me — which is to say, it brought a way of reading Carver back to me. I don't mind the American writers Carver typically gets grouped with, but I'd be lying if I said their work really excites me. Kafka and Beckett, on the other hand, are among a very small group of 20th century writers whose work I am in awe of, work that I feel utterly incapable of writing about analytically, work that I can only point to and say, "That. Whatever great literature is, it must surely be that."

Now, Carver is no Kafka or Beckett, not by a long shot (which is not a slam; he's no Shakespeare, either!), but reading his work with the lens of Kafka and Beckett allows me to appreciate it in a way I simply can't if I think of it as cousin to work by American writers who are farther from Kafka and Beckett, and whose writing lacks most of the features I get excited about with fiction. From the other side of things, I first got excited by Kafka and Beckett as a young teenager because I was able to perceive them as doing something like the science fiction, fantasy, and horror stories that first got me excited about reading and writing.

I got to thinking about Brian Evenson's discussion of the Carver-Kafka-Beckett lens when I read Victoria Nelson's introduction to a new selection of Robert Aickman's stories published by New York Review of Books Classics, Compulsory Games. I've written about Aickman at some length, both here, in discussing his great story "The Stains", and at Electric Literature, where I wrote an overview of his work in October 2016. He's a writer I come back to again and again with pleasure and wonder, and because his work is so strange, I'm fascinated by how we talk about Aickman, the lenses we find clearest, the pigeonholes we try to plug his work into.

14 May 2018

The Complete Short Stories of James Purdy


At the end of my recent post about Raymond Carver, I noted the influence of James Purdy on Carver and Gordon Lish, an influence I hadn't paid attention to before. Coincidental to my rereading of Carver, I picked up a copy of The Complete Short Stories of James Purdy. Over the years, I've read and enjoyed (or at least admired) a number of Purdy's novels, but only a couple of his stories. Roaming around in The Complete Short Stories, I was stunned, overwhelmed. It was a similar feeling as I had when I first picked up The Complete Stories of Clarice Lispector — an impression of a vast, original, surprising oeuvre revealed and tantalizing, like standing at the edge of an extraordinary landscape: knowing that what is in front of you is unlike anything you've seen before, and that more wonder lies on the other side of the horizon.

There's more in Purdy's Complete Stories than I have time or inclination to delve into here, from brief stunners like "Sound of Talking" and "Don't Call Me By My Right Name" to one of the great American novellas of the 20th century, "63: Dream Palace". Here, I simply want to look at two of Purdy's later stories, ones that are very different from each other, but both, to my mind, perfect examples of what short fiction can do: "Dawn" and "Brawith".

13 May 2018

"The Reader Awakes" in Woolf Studies Annual


My academic essay "The Reader Awakes: Pedagogical Form and Utopian Impulse in The Years" has now been published in Woolf Studies Annual volume 24 in a special section devoted to the late Jane Marcus. Here's the abstract:
This essay considers Virginia Woolf’s 1937 novel The Years as a text in which the aesthetic functions pedagogically to train the receptive reader’s imagination toward liberation from oppressive literary and social structures. This interpretation develops from implications within Jane Marcus’s reading of Woolf’s later writings and seeks an understanding of how we might continue to learn to read The Years. Marcus proposed that the form of Three Guineas, which required “much noisy page turning”, was key to the way it sought to teach readers to read and, thus, to think. This insight can be applied to The Years to develop an idea of the novel’s subversive pedagogy: the way it teaches readers to imagine new alternatives to old forms and exhausted ideologies. Such a reading constructs The Years not as a work proposing a utopian system, but rather as a novel of quietly utopian desires, a novel that yearns for an ever-shifting unity of senses and sensibilities that could resist and perhaps even triumph over the threats of authoritarianism, patriarchy, nationalism, and militarism.
Note on access: As far as I know, Woolf Studies Annual is not currently available via common full-text academic databases like JSTOR or Project MUSE, and individual volumes are rather expensive at $40 each. The inaccessability of this journal is frustrating, though typical of academia: their publishing agreement steals all rights to the work from the writer without compensation, then their publishing practices make the work difficult to get hold of. I wouldn't normally publish with such a place, but it's a leading journal in one of my fields of study and tends to publish excellent work (indeed, this volume contains a number of compelling, insightful essays), so I put aside my objections to their (sadly common) exploitative practices. It's bitterly amusing that a journal devoted to a writer who wrote two books titled The Common Reader is, for all practical purposes, unavailable to common readers. (The amusement is compounded with this volume, where a tribute to the marxist-feminist academic Jane Marcus is sold at prices only the well-heeled can afford.)

In any case, if you would like to read this article, I'm very happy to email you a not-entirely-copyedited PDF. Just contact me.

12 May 2018

Reading Raymond Carver Now


[May is National Short Story Month. I have no idea who declared it such, but for years I've paid attention to it thanks to Dan Wickett and the Emerging Writers Network. Last year, I wrote about John Keene's sentences for EWN. This year, I thought I'd write some quick posts about stories and writers I've been reading and rereading. This is the first.]

Put Yourself in My Shoes
After finishing my doctoral dissertation a month ago, I found myself with free time to read whatever I wanted, a luxury that has been rare over the last five years. The only things I wanted to read were short stories. I needed to clear my mind of all the words and ideas and feelings that the nearly-500 entries in my dissertation's bibliography mapped, the years of skimming and mining books and also reading books over and over, slowly, carefully; both exhausting practices that developed an  intellectual armature I now felt weighed down by. One of the central topics of my dissertation is the novel as a form, and once I'd submitted the final draft to the university for archiving, my brain seemed to want to have nothing to do with novels for a while. (This did not surprise me, as it's typical of what happens at the end of a big project — after working as series editor on the Best American Fantasy anthologies for three years, for instance, I didn't read any short fiction for months, and even after returning to reading it, for at least a couple years I read vastly less than I had before.)

What sort of short fiction did I read? At first, just whatever happened to catch my eyes, various styles and genres. A potpourri. Then I found myself reading stories by men. For a while now, the significant majority of fiction I've read that wasn't for school/work has been fiction by women. It wasn't a conscious decision either way — I didn't make a pledge to read primarily work by women, nor did I recently say to myself, "Enough with these women! Bring me men!" It was simply the way of it, and I noticed the new pattern only after I was on my fourth or fifth book. With one exception, the writers were not particularly Men's Men, many weren't exclusively heterosexual, few showed any great interest in traditional, patriarchal ideas of masculinity.

The exception was Raymond Carver.

08 May 2018

God's Own Country


The revelatory, and perhaps even revolutionary, power of Francis Lee's film God's Own Country resides not in the plot, which follows a formula familiar for centuries, but in the absence of conflicts we have been trained to expect by other narratives. It is a film that has inevitably been marketed as a story of gay farmers, a kind of Brokeback Yorkshire — but the wonder is that it is not that, not at all. Brokeback Mountain is all about the pain of repressed love and socially unacceptable lives. In God's Own Country, love may be repressed, but it is not because of same-sex desire, and there are elements of life that are socially sanctioned, but not because of homosexuality. When it comes to farming in northern England, there are far bigger conflicts and problems than how two guys have sex.

This is not, though, one of those awful "gays are just like straights!" movie-of-the-week stories in which two people elicit all the feels by demonstrating that just because you like a bit of homosex doesn't mean you can't be a member in good standing of bourgeois consumer society. The two men at the center of God's Own Country, Johnny and Gheorghe, would be different people leading at least somewhat different lives if they did not have desires for men. Imagining Johnny as a heterosexual, for instance, can be frightening, because his anger at the circumstances he has been born into could easily explode outward in violence against whatever young woman had the bad luck to cross his path. (Think of another Johnny: the protagonist of Naked.) Within a patriarchal environment with long-settled scripts for how masculine men behave with each other, the kind of frustration Johnny feels is likely to express itself differently (and/or be interpreted differently) when the object of sexual desire is a man. Johnny's world is one in which most of the people he's in contact with are weaker than him or submissive to him. Gheorghe is the first person that Johnny can't brush aside, dominate, or bully. We know much less about Gheorghe's past than Johnny's, so his emotional life is a bit more opaque, but it's clear that Gheorghe is capable of real violence, even if his basic compassion and decency usually prevent him from inflicting it. (Usually.) Unlike anyone else in the film, he is able to tame Johnny, even to domesticate him, and he does so as he would a wild animal.


The world of God's Own Country is physical, not intellectual, not verbal. It is a world of human and nonhuman bodies, bodies that feel, bodies that excrete, bodies that fail. The sex scenes are vivid, but they are no more or less vivid than scenes of farm tasks: births and deaths, cleaning up manure, milking a sheep and turning that milk into cheese, skinning a dead lamb and covering another lamb with the hide so a ewe will accept it. Lee fits his scenes of human nudity and contact into a larger context of bare physicality. The tenderness Gheorghe shows to the animals prefigures his tenderness with Johnny.

The basic plot of God's Own Country may be one of the simplest, most familiar love stories, but what the film depicts is much more complicated, specific, richly detailed, suggestive. The power of the film is fundamentally cinematic: its depths are felt, and while I might analyze them here with words, there is no need, because analytical language lacks the clarity of these images and sounds.

19 April 2018

A Conversation with Nathan Alling Long


Nathan Alling Long is the author of the flash-fiction collection The Origin of Doubt, recently published by Press 53. Timothy Liu said of the collection, "He blurs the lines between flash fictions and prose poems. All of a sudden, genre distinctions start to give way, and what we thought we thought we knew is altered, transformed. These stories span the gamut from traditional to queer trans-genre forms, marvelous to behold in times like these when political discourses and abuses of language have sunk to unforeseen lows."

Nathan's writings have appeared in a wide range of publications and venues, including Glimmer Train, Tin House, The SunStory Quarterly, Strange Tales V, and NPR. He has taught at various schools; currently, he teaches creative writing, literature, and Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Stockton University. Though he has lived all around the country, and traveled all over the world, he now lives in Philadelphia.

I met Nathan in the summer of 2000 when we were both attending the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference — indeed, I think he might have been the first person I met at Bread Loaf. After checking in and settling my bags in my room, I went to the big barn on the grounds in search of people. I was shy, completely uncertain of myself as a writer, and not convinced I belonged at the famous Bread Loaf. But Nathan and I hit it off, and somewhere along the way he read a story I'd written, and he liked it, which made him immediately one of my favorite people in the universe. We've remained in touch over the years, and I continue to be impressed by his thoughtfulness, insight, and compassion.

Flash fiction isn't something I know much about, despite having published a couple of such fictions myself. Nonetheless, every flash (or short-short) story I've written has been an accident rather than a plan: I didn't sit down to write a really short story, it just turned out that way. When Nathan's collection came out, I read it and immediately knew I wanted to interview him, because here was somebody I knew to be thoughtful about craft and also someone who approaches flash fiction as flash fiction. Always fascinated by form, I wanted to know how he does what he does.

I’m curious about your writing process, particularly with the sorts of stories in The Origin of Doubt. Where do you begin? What happens in revision? Do you have a sense of the form and structure before you start out, or is it a matter of discovery?

Often times my stories start off with exercises or constrictions I place on myself to attempt to write something new.  The first story, “The Scent of Light” started with wanting to write about synesthesia. For  “Between” I wanted to write a story that took place in ten minutes that I also wrote the draft of in about ten minutes. “Alignment” came from a journal (52/250) prompt “Threesome”; in that case, I wanted to make the idea of a threesome beautiful, instead of its more slutty, cheesy connotation.  The last story, “A Future Story” was for a contest by the online journal Brilliant Flash Fiction: write a story under a 1000 words on “the future.”  Every idea I had about the future seemed cliche or familiar, so I decided to set it just a few hours from now, and the rest sort of wrote itself.  

A few stories in the collection are based partially on real life events, such as “How to Bury Your Dog,” or from an incident I’ve overheard, like the story of the skeleton in wall of the house in “Reconstruction,” or what the Chinese woman does on the bus in “Chicken.” But in general, I’m always trying to write something different from what I’ve written before. Then I discover that what I produced doesn’t really stray as much as I thought.

That said, I had a hard time getting this collection published at first, because editors told me they wanted the stories to be more cohesive, center around a common theme.  I’ve read many flash collections like that, but I always get bored with how similar all the stories are—forty stories of failed relationships with cowgirls, or whatever--though I’m now reading a great collection of mostly flash pieces, Doug Ramspeck’s The Owl that Carries Us Away, which all deal with the hardship of impoverished families, yet constantly surprise me.

What’s nice about flash fiction is you sort of know from the start if you have a good story or not, if the story is working.  So revision comes first by weeding out work—I have as many flashes in a computer dustbin as I do published—then on the sentence level, which is what I like most.  

28 March 2018

Virginia Woolf's Final Decade


Today is the anniversary of Virginia Woolf's death in 1941. Tomorrow, I defend a doctoral dissertation with a chapter on Woolf's 1937 novel The Years, and I have spent much of last few years studying Woolf's writings and life in the 1930s especially. Here, a few thoughts on that.

Woolf's last decade is under-appreciated both by general readers and by scholars, although there seems to be growing scholarly interest in her final, not-quite-finished novel Between the Acts. ("Under-appreciated" is, of course, relative — Woolf is one of the most-studied writers of the 20th century, and many of her contemporaries don't have even a small percentage of the attention for their entire ouevres that Woolf has for her least-read writings.) The relative lack of interest in Woolf's life and work after The Waves has various sources, many of them having to do with why readers are attracted to Woolf in the first place. Her achievement with Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, and The Waves is one of the great literary triumphs of the 20th century — these books reconfigured the novel as a form and the language as a medium. (Orlando, her first bestseller, isn't far behind as an achievement.) She wrote hundreds of essays, with many of her most powerful statements about aesthetics and literature being in the essays of the 1920s, and she finished the decade with A Room of One's Own, one of the most influential essays of the century. It's no surprise that the 1920s is the decade focused on by the majority of Woolf scholarship, and that decade's work what most readers are familiar with. That focus, though, does have an effect on how Woolf is perceived as both a person and a writer.