Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Airing My Laundry

OK. Here's the deal: I have written a story. I want to get it published, so I've been doing a lot of research into literary journals and magazines, both in print and online. It has been time-consuming but very interesting. I have discovered a lot of really great writing. I have also learned a lot about how this kind of publishing works--not that I necessarily will be able to get published. First I have to get my story accepted, which means getting it ready to send out, picking where to send it, submitting it according to various sets of guidelines, and then waiting around at least a few months to get any response.

While there are many lit. magazines that I know of, there are many more I'd never heard of before I started doing this research. So then I started wondering, what were the various reputations of these publications? Which ones were the most prestigious to be published in, and which ones were considered laughable? How could I be sure I was not submitting work to a publication that would be embarrassing to be published by? Of course, beggars cannot be choosers, so I cannot be too picky. Getting published is the main thing . . . right?

I came across a West Coast online literary journal that described itself as avoiding the glibness that seemed to pervade contemporary writing, and I thought, great! I'm not glib! Maybe that's the perfect place for me. Then I read some of their submission guidelines, and started to doubt that I had any idea what this whole thing was about, because their guidelines struck me as odd. I couldn't help thinking, do these people know what it means to publish something? Or am I the one who knows nothing of publishing? Then, after a little more research, I turned up this blog post reacting to the same guidelines. I guess I'm not crazy after all. Moral of the story: Trust your instincts.

It's entertaining to go look at some of the online reactions to the above post, but also a little embarrassing. You want to stop but you just can't. To quote one of the commentators, "It's sad (in several meanings of the word)."

Sunday, November 6, 2011

The Interpretation of Dreams

Last night I had my first dream in the form of a website. I was clicking through various pages on a site, looking for the information I needed. Not sure what to feel or think about this.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Operation Puppetmaster

Sometimes when I skim the cursor of my Macbook over the application icons at the bottom of the screen, I think I see the words "Philip Roth." It really says "Photo Booth," but for a second I get a thrill that someone has invented a Philip Roth app, or maybe he sent me a new kind of e-mail! My dream author made waves a while back with his assertion that the novel will die within 25 years, or at best reach a level of cultishness similar to that of Latin poetry. (I assume he means poetry in Latin, not poetry by modern Hispanic writers, but what do I know?) While there may be cause for concern about the future of the serious, literary novel, I think the future of the independent bookstore and traditional publishing is in more jeopardy than the form itself.  What with e-readers and vooks, it is sadly possible that fewer and fewer people will take the time to read novels the old-fashioned way. But I can't help but be somewhat more optimistic than Roth, if indeed he's being serious. He could just be trying to be provocative, or, as has been suggested, just can't imagine the novel surviving very long after he is dead.

His outlook could also be influenced by his stringent requirements for the correct way of reading novels. Apparently, according to Roth, if you take longer than two weeks to read a novel, "you aren't really reading it." I would love to be able to read any novel I like in less than two weeks. However, we aren't all living alone in cabins in the northern hills, with hours to do nothing but read or write in seclusion. Heck, it took me two weeks to read one-sixeenth of 2666. OK, that's not the greatest example, because (a) 2666 is 893 pages long, and (b) since it is so huge, it stays on my bedside table, not traveling on the subway or anywhere, so I only read it for the scant few minutes after I get in bed and before I fall into a deep, well-deserved sleep. Also, he is most certainly talking about serious fiction: I daresay Stephanie Meyer and Charlaine Harris have little complaint with their readership numbers. So it's a question not only of whether how people read novels lives up to his standards, but also would a particular novel itself meet his standard of what a novel should be.

But of course, Roth's job is not to encourage anybody to do anything, and I respect his attitude of not caring what anyone thinks about what he says. His job is to write. More recently, he said in an interview that he no longer reads fiction. That statement has launched a great deal of comment in the world of blogs and elsewhere, as well as speculation as to what exactly he meant when he answered "I wised up" when asked why. Some say it's a terrible thing (if true); others praise him for concentrating on his own writing. Still others admit they hardly read fiction any more, implying they are Roth-like in their own genius.

The answer is less interesting than why Roth would say something so attention-grabbing in the first place. He doesn't give many interviews, but when he does, he certainly seems to know how to get some play. Compare this interview to the earlier one I mention above, and it seems obvious that for every interview he makes it a goal to come up with one or two sensational proclamations that are sure to get him more publicity than if he just said the same thing over and over. He retains an attitude of not caring what anyone thinks about what he says by making such statements, but it seems to me underneath it all he is just toying with us, masterfully. First there's the implicit criticism of all us philistines for not reading enough, or taking too long to read novels, so that we are personally responsible for the imminent death of the form; then there's the admission that he no longer reads novels himself because he "wised up"! How could he not be messing with us? My guess is he does still read novels when he feels like it--but if you're Philip Roth, you can be exempt from all the usual novel-reading requirements. He probably does not really care when or if the novel is going to die, as long as he can keep writing. It's just fun to throw out a proclamation and see everybody run to their keyboards to try to opine about it. No matter; I'm  still waiting for that magical e-mail to come through. That should make everything perfectly clear.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Story Time

[Deeply embarrassing as it is, I started writing this post last summer, and let it languish. Although it is not really finished, I have decided to post it anyway. Maybe some day I will use it toward something else, but in the meantime it might actually help me write something new to have this out of the way. There's another post in a similar state in the pipeline. Reader, be kind.]

After my post re Let the Great World Spin, I was reading some of the reviews of LTGWS on goodreads.com, and it struck me that the book is often referred to as a "short story collection." While reading it, I never had the feeling that I was reading short stories. I felt the book was made up of long chapters with overlapping characters, some of whose relationships were not immediately apparent. So that got me thinking more about the literary fiction vs. genre fiction split, specifically the assertion that speculative fiction tells a story better, while a literary story is seen as a stringing together of minor epiphanies with little plot development. Michael Chabon has ranted against the "contemporary quotidian, plotless, moment-of-truth revelatory story."

While I disagree with the point of making such a split, I do understand the complaint. While I would not hold up LTGWS as the ultimate example of the kind of literary fiction that scifi lovers would love to hate, I found it ironic that a novel that one could say strings together various minor epiphanies without much direction uses the story of Philippe Petit as a framing device. (I'm not going to say jumping-off point!) The story of Philippe Petit is one in which something definitely happens. It has a beginning, middle and end. It has suspense--quite literally. A version of it has been written as a children's book. It is a traditional, pre-postmodern STORY.

In the foreword to the recent collection Stories, Neil Gaiman writes that, in compiling the stories, "[W]hat we wanted to read, were stories that made us care, stories that forced us to turn the page. Yes, we wanted good writing (why be satisfied with less?). But we wanted more than that." These stories are mostly what-if fiction. Speculative fiction seems to give a little more weight to the author's intent. For instance, it seems easier, or more expected, for the science fiction writer to say, "Well, what I was trying to say by writing this story, is that virtual reality could go too far and have unforeseen, scary, bad consequences." (Yes, I did start reading "The Veldt" to my kids; did not go over too big as a bedtime story.) So is the science fiction writer better, smarter, more admirable? Of course, all good postmodernists know that authorial intent is worthless. One can only read the text; it does not matter what any author intended to "do" in his or her writing.

Colm Toibin wrote in a review of an E.M. Forster biography: "[N]ovels should not be honest. They are a pack of lies that are also a set of metaphors; because the lies and metaphors are chosen and offered shape and structure, they may indeed represent the self, or the play between the unconscious mind and the conscious will, but they are not forms of self-expression, or true confession." Trying to impute any characteristics to the author based on the text is a fool's game. What matters is the experience of reading.

Of course authors have an intent. They must have some purpose when they choose to start writing,  instead of doing something else. They can choose to write any form, any genre, a short story, a novel--something of their intent is inherent in this choice. Whatever the label the author puts on his/her work, or the reader later--science fiction, realistic, literary, experimental, romance, chick lit--does not matter in the slightest, because it is all a pack of lies. All fiction is speculative; all writing is speculative. Every story postulates a reality that is not the real reality. Whether it "tells a good story" or not, depends on the reader's taste. It is meaningless to say one kind of fiction is better than another.

Maybe some authors would say they are representing the real reality, or at least to the best of their abilities. Others may say they are deliberately representing an alternative reality in order to make some point about the real reality. (Is there a real reality? That is another question entirely.) It may be interesting to know what the author says he or she was trying to do, but again, it hardly matters. If he or she did a good job of doing whatever it was he or she was trying to do, then the reader will get the point. If the author did a poor job, or if the reader did a poor job of reading, then the reader will not get the point, or will get an entirely different point. Or don't we all as readers get our own individual points, that may or may not come close to each other, or to the author's original intent?

The only genre fiction I read in any quantity is mystery. How is my experience different when I read mystery as opposed to “literary” fiction, and therefore what am I seeking when I read mystery? I admit the experience does offer a prurient thrill, which I enjoy, and also the satisfaction of questions being answered. When I somewhat unexpectedly found myself pregnant for the first time, the first thing I read was the complete Sherlock Holmes. Faced with an staggering mystery in my own life, I derived satisfaction from the fictional solving of mysteries by an unflappable, ingenious protagonist. While of course some writers write better mysteries than others, and the best transcend the genre, there is a certain similarity to the experience of reading mysteries. One is reassured--however speciously--that there is some sense to the universe after all.

What is it readers of romance are seeking? Of scifi? Of fantasy? I will have to leave that to others to answer---but there must be a similar certain similarity to the experience of reading any genre. What then am I seeking when I read an author touted as more literary than genre? I daresay those authors do also tell stories, but they also pay more attention to the language that they use to tell them. What seems to be missing from these discussions—both the Franzenfreude movement and the storytelling vs. literary debate—is artistry. A great novelist is a prose artist, the kind of writer who can sweep you away with a description of a field at night, or a devastating dialogue.

I recently read The Ghost Writer by Philip Roth, one of the early Zuckerman novels (part of my campaign to read more Roth). It tells a story—the story of a guy who spends the night at another guy’s house. What a boring story—how could anyone possibly care what happens in such a story? Yet I found out to be a "gripping" "page-turner." The story is not about a serial murderer or an alternative universe; rather it is about love, family, sexual attraction, cultural heritage, the responsibility of the author, and most of all artistic influence and artistic creation itself. Why and how did Anne Frank create her diary? It could be a subject for a dry term paper, but Roth makes it riveting. How? Could it possibly have anything to do with how he uses language?

Bookstores often have a section called "Fiction and Literature"--where the line falls is different for every reader. However . . . the populist Franzenfreuders (viz. Jennifer Weiner) seem to want to erase the differences between cookie-cutter novels of whatever genre, and truly great writing. The question of artistry is ignored. Some readers can't tell the difference between pedestrian and excellent writing, and I suppose for some it does not really matter. The book publishing industry certainly does not care, as long as people buy the books. If people enjoy reading whatever books they read, I applaud them no matter what, for not succumbing to the mind-numbing pop culture of television and celebrity culture. In fact, I think we've reached a point in our culture when picking up a book (or Kindle, or Nook, etc.) is a radical act of independent thinking, whether it's obscure Latin poetry or Twilight.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Roth Going to the White House

Philip Roth and President Obama in the same room!  Roth is to receive a National Humanities Medal, along with Joyce Carol Oates and other notables.



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About Me

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New York, NY, United States
Overeducated mom, addled by constant interruptions due to demands of family and dog, trying to read books and write coherent sentences about them. Luckily, yoga keeps me centered. Sharing my love of yoga through teaching helps make sense of it all. I have a yoga blog at susiemarplesyoga.com. Since 2015, it has been my pleasure to serve as a reader for Epiphany, a literary journal publishing fiction, poetry, nonfiction, and art; on Twitter as @epiphanymag. http://profile.to/susiemarples http://pinterest.com/susiem66


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