25 August 2015

"The Last Vanishing Man"

Littleton Opera House, Littleton, NH c.1900, a location in the story
I have a new story — my first (but not last) of this year — now available on the Conjunctions website— "The Last Vanishing Man".

This one's a bit of a departure for me, in that it is a serious story that will not, I'm told, make you want to kill yourself after you read it. In fact, one of my primary goals when writing it was to write something not entirely nihilistic. Various people have, over the years, gently suggested that perhaps I might try writing a ... well ... a nice story now and then.

(I actually think I've only written one story that is not nice, "Patrimony" in Black Static last year. And maybe "On the Government of the Living". Well, maybe "How Far to Englishman's Bay", too. And— okay, I get it...)

So "The Last Vanishing Man" is a story that has an (at least somewhat) uplifting ending, and the good people triumph, or at least survive, and the bad person is punished, or at least ... well, I won't go into details...

Here's the first paragraph, to whet your appetite:
I saw The Great Omega perform three or four times, including that final, strange show. I was ten years old then. It was the summer of the Sacco and Vanzetti trial, a time when vaudeville and touring acts were quickly fading behind the glittering light of motion pictures and the crackling squawk of radios. What I remember of the performance is vivid, but I am wary of its vividness, as I suspect that vividness derives not from the original moment, but from how much effort I’ve put into remembering it. What is memory, what is reconstruction, what is misdirection?
Continue reading at Conjunctions...

24 August 2015

Alice Sheldon at 100


Alice Sheldon was born 100 years ago today, which means that in a certain sense, James Tiptree, Jr. is 100, because Sheldon wrote under that name. Yet James Tiptree, Jr. wasn't really born until 1968, when the first Tiptree story, "Birth of a Salesman", appeared in the March issue of Analog.

Nonetheless, we can and should celebrate Sheldon's centenary. She's primarily remembered for Tiptree, of course, but as Julie Phillips so deftly showed in her biography, Sheldon's life was far more than just that byline.

I've written about Tiptree a lot over the years, though nothing recently, as other work has taken me in other directions. In honor of Alice Sheldon's birthday, here are some of the things I've written in the past—
If you're new to Tiptree, you can read two stories online at Lightspeed: "Love Is the Plan the Plan Is Death" and "And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill's Side".

19 August 2015

New Website


It was time I had a website under my own name, and not just this here Mumpsimus. After all, I am more than a mumpsimus! Or so I tell myself.

Thus: matthewcheney.net!

Because my book of short stories is coming out in January, the focus of the site is my fiction more than anything else. At the moment, there's nothing there that isn't also here, aside from some pictures. But I'm sure I'll figure out something unique to host there in the coming weeks, months, years...

16 August 2015

The Perils of Biopics: Life in Squares and Testament of Youth


The universe has conspired to turn my research work this summer into mass culture — while I've been toiling away on a fellowship that has me investigating Virginia Woolf's reading in the 1930s and the literary culture of the decade, the mini-series Life in Squares, about the Bloomsbury group and Woolf's family, played on the BBC and the film Testament of Youth, based on Vera Brittain's 1933 memoir of her experiences during World War One, played in cinemas.

I've now seen both and have mixed feelings about them, though I enjoyed watching each. Life in Squares offers some good acting and excellent production design, though it never really adds up to much; Testament of Youth is powerful and well constructed, even as it falls into some clichés of the WWI movie genre, and it's well worth seeing for its lead performance. 

The two productions got me thinking about what we want from biographical movies and tv shows, how we evaluate them, and how they're almost always destined to fail. (Of course, "what we want" is a rhetorical flourish, a bit of fiction that would more accurately be expressed as "what I think, on reflection, that I want, at least now, and what I imagine, which is to say guess, what somebody other than myself might want". For the sake of brevity, I shall continue occasionally to use the phrase "what we want".)

30 July 2015

Of Purpose, Audience, and Language Guides


There are lots of reasons that the University of New Hampshire, where I'm currently working toward a Ph.D. in Literature, should be in the news. It's a great school, with oodles of marvelous faculty and students doing all sorts of interesting things. Like any large institution, it's got its problems (I personally think the English Department is underappreciated by the Powers That Be, and that the university as a whole is not paying nearly enough attention to the wonderful programs that don't fall under that godawful acronym-of-the-moment STEM, but of course I'm biased...) Whatever the problems, though, I've been very happy at the university, and I'm proud to be associated with it.

But Donald Trump and Fox News or somebody discovered a guide to inclusive language gathering dust in a corner of the UNH website and decided that this was worth denouncing as loudly as possible, and from there it spread all over the world. The UNH administration, of course, quickly distanced themselves from the web page and then today it was taken down. I expect they're being honest when they say they didn't know about the page. Most people didn't know about the page. The website has long been rhizomatic, and for a while just finding the academic calendar was a challenge because it was hidden in a forest of other stuff.

I, however, did know about the page. In fact, I used it with my students and until today had a link to it on my Proofreading Guidelines sheet. It led to some interesting conversations with students, so I found it a valuable teaching tool. I thought some of the recommendations in the guidelines were excellent and some were badly worded and some just seemed silly to me, like something more appropriate to an Onion article. ("People of advanced age" supposedly being way better than any other term for our elders reads like a banal parody of political correctness. Also, never ever ever ever call me a "person of advanced age" when I become old. Indeed, I would like to be known as an old fart. If I manage to achieve elderliness — and it is, seriously, a great accomplishment, as my amazing, 93-year-old grandmother [who calls herself "an old lady"] would, I hope, agree — if I somehow achieve that, then I will insist on being known as an old fart. But if you would rather be called a person of advanced age rather than a senior or an elder or an old fart, then I will respect your wishes.)

27 July 2015

"Anti-Fragile" by Nick Mamatas



As a little addendum to my post about the somewhat narrow aesthetics of Ben Marcus's New American Stories anthology, let me point you to Nick Mamatas's "Anti-Fragile", a story that does pretty much everything I was hoping to find somewhere in New American Stories and didn't.

On Twitter, I said:
And that about sums up my feelings.

Well, also: I may be partial, as I am an avowed and longstanding lover of long sentences, and this story is a wonderfully skilled, thrillingly long sentence. It's well worth reading and thinking about.

25 July 2015

Notes on the Aesthetics of New American Stories


Ben Marcus's 2004 anthology The Anchor Book of New American Short Stories is a wonderfully rich collection for a book of its type. I remember first reading it with all the excitement of discovery — even the stories I didn't like seemed somehow invigorating in the way they made me dislike them. I've used the book with a couple of classes I've taught, and I've recommended it to many people.

I was overjoyed, then, when I heard that Marcus was doing a follow up, and I got it as soon as I could: New American Stories. I started reading immediately.

Expectations can kill us. The primary emotion I felt while reading New American Stories was disappointment. It's not that the stories are bad — they aren't — but that the book as a whole felt a bit narrow, a bit repetitive. I skipped around from story to story, dashing in search of surprise, but it was rare. I tried to isolate the source of my disappointment, of my lack of surprise: Was it the subject matter? No, this isn't quite Best American Rich White People. Was it the structure of the stories? Maybe a little bit, generally, as even the handful of structurally adventurous stories here feel perfectly in line with the structurally adventurous stories of 50 years ago, and somewhat tame in comparison to the structurally adventurous stories of 80-100 years ago. But that wasn't really what was bothering me.

And then I realized: It was the style, the rhythm. The paragraphs and, especially, the sentences. It wasn't that each story had the same style as the one I'd just read, but that most (not all) of the stories felt like stylistic family members.

18 July 2015

Advice


Stephen Dixon:
Good advice for writers: Write very hard, keep the prose lively and original, never sell out, never overexcuse yourself why you're not writing, never let a word of yours be edited unless you think the editing is helping that work, never despair about not being published, not being recognized, not getting that grant, not getting reviewed or the attention you think you deserve. In fact, never think you deserve anything. Be thankful you are able to write and enjoy writing. What I also wouldn't do is show my unpublished work to my friends. Let agents and editors see it — people who can get you published —and maybe your best friend or spouse, if not letting them see it causes friction in your relationship. To just write and not worry too much about the perfect phrase and the right grammar unless the wrong grammar confuses the line, and to become the characters, and to live through, on the page, the experiences you're writing about. To involve yourself totally with your characters and situations and never be afraid of writing about anything. To never resort to cheap tricks, silly lines that you know are silly — pat endings, words, phrases, situations, and to turn the TV off and keep it off except if it's showing something as good as a good Ingmar Bergman movie. To keep reading, only the best works, carry a book with you everywhere, even in your car in case you get caught in some hours-long gridlock. To be totally honest about yourself in your writing and never take the shortest, fastest, easiest way out. To give up writing when it's given to you, or just rest when it dictates a need for resting; though to continue writing is you're still excited by writing. To be as generous as your time permits to young writers who have gone through the same thing as you (that is, once you become as old as I am now). To not write because you want to be an artist or to say you're a writer. And to be honest about the good stuff that other writers, old and your contemporaries, do too. 

10 July 2015

Gratis & Libre, or, Who Pays for Your Bandwidth?

via Philip Taylor, Flickr

In talking with Robin DeRosa about open educational resources (OER), a lot of my skepticism was focused on (and continues to be focused on) the question of who pays for it. If I'm not just skeptical but also cynical about a lot of the techno-utopian rhetoric that seems to fuel both the OER advocates and, even more so, people who associate themselves with the idea of Digital Humanities, it may be because I've been paying attention to what the internet has done to writers over the last couple decades. It's not all bad, by any means — this blog is one of example of that, I continue to try to write mainly for online venues so that my work can be relatively easily and broadly accessed, and I put most of my syllabi online. I can do that because I have other income and don't rely on this sort of writing to pay the bills. Thus, in my personal calculations, accessibility is more important than revenue.

But that freedom to choose accessibility over getting paid, or over doing work other than writing that would pay me, is a gigantic luxury. I can only make such a calculation because I have other revenue (the stipend from the PhD program I'm in and money saved from selling my father's business, which, though it's not enough to let me stop working, pays a bit over half of my basic expenses), and so the cost of my writing for free here on this blog, rather than doing remunerative work, is absorbed by that other revenue.

Further, aside from blog posts and some academic material, I usually won't write for free. Both because there are, in fact, people who will pay me, and also because I don't want to de-value the work of writing. Letting people have your work for free means they begin to expect that such work ought to be free. And while yes, in a post-capitalist utopia, I'd love for all work to be free ... we are, alas, not living in a post-capitalist utopia (as you might've noticed). Bills must still be paid. Printers and managers and bosses and technicians all get paid. And therefore writers should be paid.

In our Q&A, Robin said, "For materials to be 'open,' they need to be both free as in no-cost (gratis) and free as in free to repurpose and share (libre)."

It's that "no cost" that seems to me dangerous — the idea that there is no cost. Of course there's a cost. There's the cost of labor, first of all, with somebody working, either for free or not (and if for free then how are they paying their bills?). But then there are all the other things: the cost of bandwidth and of technological infrastructure, for instance.

Somebody is paying, even if it's not you.

30 June 2015

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara



Wrenching.

I don't know a better word for Hanya Yanagihara's novel A Little Life, published earlier this year by Doubleday.

Heart-wrenching, yes. But more than that. Not just the heart. The brain, the stomach, all the organs and muscles. It is a full-body-wrenching experience, this book.

It's too early to say whether this is a Great Novel, whether it is a novel for the ages, a novel that will bear numerous re-readings and critical dissections and late-night litchat conversations; whether it will burn long or be a blip on the literary landscape. Who knows. It's not for me to say. What I can say, though, is that working through (sometimes rushing through) its 700 pages was one of the most powerful reading experiences of my life.

There are passages and situations in this book that many readers will not want to live with, will not want in their minds' eyes, and I can sympathize with that. Yanagihara's own editor said, "I initially found A Little Life so challenging and upsetting and long that I had to work my way through to appreciating it. ... (My private little descriptive tag for the book is 'miserabilist epic.')" Miserabilist isn't the right modifier for me, despite the many miseries in the book, but there's certainly an epic quality to the novel's expanse, at least in the everyday vernacular sense of epic. In a genre sense, though, A Little Life is seldom epic; indeed, it's often the opposite: instead of expanding across history and myth and fantasy, telling digressive and episodic tales of heroes and villains, it narrows the world, history, and myth into ahistorical psyches and bodies, constructing a world less of event than of feeling.