Is Class-blind Literacy Responsible for Shitty Books?

from Flickr user rachelkramerbussel.com

I shared an article on Facebook.  It was called “My Stephen King Problem: A Snob’s Notes by Dwight Allen” from the L.A. Review of Books about how Stephen King doesn’t write literature.  I’ve been thinking and reading a lot about SK, but nothing by SK, except for On Writing.

The article inspired a lot of impassioned comments.  Some of the commenters felt anger and annoyance.  All directed at the guy who wrote the article.  And I am really confused about how people could get so angry with Dwight Allen.  He actually read SK’s books, a good number of them, and with thoughtful consideration to SK’s body of work, which I am mostly unwilling to do.

In the piece, he said, “Yes, I have read these books, and they are mostly without literary merit, but SK is the most famous-and-rich writer alive, and that’s really fine with me.  But I become annoyed when he is awarded prestigious literary prizes, like the one for his contribution to American Letters in 2003, just because he’s a nice, liberal guy. Also, why do we choose to read this when there are so many better things to read.”  That’s pure paraphrase.  The article was wonderfully written, full of money vocab and openly a little snobby and pretentious.  Go on, click the link.

But I get it. Because I think what’s going on here is that there’s a chasm between my sense of literary merit and that of the unwashed masses. We writers are a little bit uppity about our relationship with craft, and we have every right to be.

I mean, it’s simply not fair that people who write utterly un-extraordinary sentences, and sometimes people who write horrible books that are full of tropes, redundant phrases, flat characters, and totally predictable turns of plot get to do so and make money from it, while many more people who honor the craft are labeled snobs and relegated to academia or the reviewer’s circle.

Other commenters said, “But you’re wrong!  SK does write literature!”  He does not.  It’s not a value judgement, it’s a fact.  SK writes books that a lot of people like.  That does not, as we know, literature make.

And that brings me round to the review of 50 Shades of Grey by EL James that I read (and shared on facebook) yesterday by PhD candidate Alison Balakskovits in The Missouri Review, a literary journal.  And after my inital twinge of “OMG, why the hell are they talking about that turd in a literary journal or even on its blog,” I read the article.  I was deeply amused.

And the Facebook comments on that review were mostly “Yeah!” and “I’ll never read that shit!”  And I’m glad my friends feel that way.  But the only difference between EL James’s contemporaries and SK’s is that SK got started when there were still gatekeepers, and when books meant something more than money to publishers.

Though it’s a stretch to slide SK and EL James in the same file, it is a much grander stretch to file SK and say, Joan Didion together.

I’ve been wondering a lot and for some time about this disparity between the popularity of books that are strict genre fiction and books that are literary.  I’ve written a bunch of blog posts about it, including one for Jane Friedman’s blog that has a lot of terrific comments and also impassioned views.

And I was thinking before that maybe the problem is the labels we put on books: that genre labels are unhelpful.

And I still think they are, perhaps, part of the problem; though I recognize the need for some finer classification than just Fiction and Nonfiction, because the shades of variation of each are greater than fifty to be sure.

And I was thinking that if we could just get more smart books and writing in front of more people, change the perception of “literary” that inspires fear and angst in the hearts of previously-tortured high school English students, that’d be terrific. People would read them and see, and smart books could enjoy at least equal market share.  And I still think that’s true, too.  I think a lot of the reason that high school kids hate literature is that they’re not yet mature enough to understand it.

I think maybe those people who teach classics in well-done, well-written comics are onto something.

But it occurred to me in this morning’s wee small hours, as I sort of talked myself through what I know of the history of literacy (which is admittedly little) that reading used to be a thing that rich people did. Poor people didn’t read.  They didn’t know how, and they didn’t have time.

Rich people were tutored by classically-trained teachers, learned to read Latin long after it was a dead language, learned not only reading, writing, math, and science, but usually to play a musical instrument, which is shown to be beneficial to a person’s intellect.

But it seems to me that the advent of books for mass-consumption in the US coincides nicely with the latest stages of the industrial revolution, with a kind of upward slope after WWII when attending school became compulsory for all US children of a particular age.

So now, 60-70 years in, we’re in a place where not only can everyone read, our educations are so diluted that we don’t even know what good reading is.  We’re so ignorant on that topic that people actually read and enjoy! BS like 50 Shades of Grey.  And worse, anybody thinks she can write a book!

I mean, I’ve read tons of books, and my canonical, classical reading repertoire is shit.  And mine is loads better than a lot of people. I can at least say that I’ve read one or more works from all the major literary periods.

Not at all to vilify teachers and education, I’m beginning to think that the misfortune of literature is owing to the logistical problems with literacy and education for everybody and funding of it.  Of course, I’m not proposing that we return to the class-determined education model.  Certainly, I would be a laundress (though I do love doing laundry), but I’m suggesting that perhaps we ought to re-evaluate how we do book teachin’ at the primary and secondary levels.

Do you have any ideas?

Do Literary Authors Need a Social Media Support Group?

from flickr.com user pedrosimoses7

Whenever I am not sure where to take my blog post for the day, I spend a few minutes with Twitter before getting out of bed.

This is one of the many things on my smartphone that make my job as a writer better, easier, or more efficient.  This morning, my friend and former teacher Cathy Day tweeted about her female #amnoveling students being pissed about some things that were pointed out by a particular op-ed by Meg Wolitzer about women literary fiction writers, and differences between the ways books by men and women are publicized.

So of course, I Googled that shit right up.

And of course, it’s not shit at all.

It’s a beautiful essay.  It’s a thing I love about the New York Times (And the L.A. Times), the writing is just gorgeous.  There seems to be a pervasive notion among the newspaper set that the writing does not have to be good, it has to be fast.  But it’s nice about the digital age: the writing can be.  The web gives us our poorly-written, instantaneous news, and in the print media we can slow down a bit.  Thanks, New York Times (and L.A. Times) for understanding that.

And as I read the beautiful piece that talks about literary fiction like it’s something people talk about, I got sad, because it’s true that in the literary fiction world, it does seem like people are talking about it.  But even Jonathan Franzen’s popularity is nothing next to, say, Neil Gaiman’s or Stephen King’s or Norah Roberts’s or J.K. Rowling’s.

I was talking to Sari Wilson at The Wildcat Comic Con about how Literary Fiction is sort of atomized or ghettoized, and that there are all kinds of irritating preconceptions about it that are moshing around in the mass market.  Sari Wilson, though also an educational writer and collaborator with her partner Josh Neufeld, who is a graphic novel artist and author, is a literary writer herself.

So I offer that the unceremonious labeling of literary fiction by women as “women’s fiction” is probably the action of someone who’s noticed this odd ghetto and wondered, from a book-sales (not academic) standpoint, what could be done about it.

Enter the clumsy semantic.

And Wolitzer observes, rightly, that it’s problematic.  But she also acknowledges that women are the biggest consumers of fiction (all types), and that “as readers they are attentive and passionate.”  My friends who write romances experience this generosity. Plus, they are superstars.  Everyone in their world knows them.

But you know what about commercial fiction writers?  Something HUGE that’s different from literary writers?  They give back (to their fans).  I’m not talking about giving readings at colleges and signing books or answering questions after, showing up at AWP (though the commercial fiction writers I know do that, too, only with a different conference).  I’m talking about blogs–they do blog tours about their books, blog about their processes, their offices, their characters–they are active on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, etc.

I’ve linked to this piece from Justine Musk a million times, but she really says it eloquently.  She says that the world of publishing and marketing and authorship has changed, and that fans want to be able to connect with authors, online, immediately, without having to go somewhere or be a student.  Even readers of literary fiction.

It’s true that commercial fiction authors don’t often have mountains of undergraduate papers about killing the first buck to read, but they do often have other careers, children, partners, homes.  And oh yeah: book deals.  They’ve promised a publisher they can write four of them.  In eighteen months.

Of course, writing literary fiction is totally different from writing commercial fiction in terms of time.  Language does not make itself beautiful, and conflicts do not complicate or render themselves, and characters do not deepen without major intervention.   Probably the average literary fiction novel is about two to five years in gestation.

What’s the deal?

The thing that defines what you think about the literary fiction world is where you sit in relation to it.  If you are within it, there is nothing more important, even though the reading audience of literary fiction is much smaller than that of mainstream (or commercial or genre or whatever you will call it) fiction.  I can’t find any hard numbers on this, but go to a book store, and compare the number of genre labeled shelves with the contemporary fiction shelf and you’ll see how it just can’t not be true.

But if you’re outside of lit fic, there’s nothing less important.  It’s like this fuzzy blurb of hoity toity on the periphery of culture that the Amazon Bestseller list ignores, that the New York Times has a special bestseller list for, and that’s slowly getting smaller or getting absconded with by other genres.

For example, I read “Some Zombie Contingency Plans” by Kelly Link in an anthology of Zombie stories, fully expecting the poor writerly discipline I’ve grown accustomed to in commercial fiction, and was pleasantly surprised.  I can see it anthologized like “Trauma Plate,” by Adam Johnson, because it’s doing a similar sort of cultural commentary thing.  It’s asking why we value what we do, and when stuff is important, and maybe it’s even indicting the way we handle the mentally ill.

I wonder how many other little anecdotal literary stories and novels have been absorbed by the mainstream, that nobody in the literary world even knows about.  In my experience, the literary world is incredibly insular.  It, like its mainstream counterpart, posseses a great number of biases and misconceptions toward the mainstream literary world.

So we have a genre which is itself other, within which women’s fiction is acknowledged to be equal but is still other, and we wonder why people look poorly upon the academy which–as my friend Carolyn points out in the comments of my post about MFA vs. PhD–does within itself that which it proclaims to abhor.

I’m still concerned about literary fiction and I still think that something needs to be done to make it more visible to more people.  But what I’m starting to think, as I read and study this topic is that–while marketing and publicity efforts would surely help, literary fiction authors need to help themselves.

Like Cathy Day and probably a small number of other literary authors have done, they need to figure out Twitter and Facebook and Blogging and build themselves a platform.  I suspect that if they build it, their fans will find it.  And that will happen without additional effort.

But somebody needs to figure out how to put it in terms that are adequately academic such that they take notice and actually do it.  Jane Friedman’s blog is going a long way toward this end, but I don’t know if a blog is the medium that can get through to enough literary authors.

Maybe that’s the scholarly thing I’ll do for my MFA:  Social Media for Very Brainy People Who’ve Written Beautiful Books and Are Perfectionists And Who Think Social Media Will Ruin Their Lives (and It Might, but More People Will Read Their Books).

How To Be a Great Writer

public domain image from http://www.public-domain-image.com

First, a writer should live some life.

And I don’t mean the pansy, TV-watching, under-mom-and-dad’s-protective wing sort.  The sort that almost all high school and college kids–and even some grown-ass people with children of their own–are guilty of living.

I mean the real stuff: having to go to a horrible job because if you don’t, you don’t eat.  Fill in your own personal blank of hell here__________________.  Then do that.  For at least a year.  Five years is better.

If you don’t emerge still wanting to be a Great Writer, you will learn much about the world and yourself.

A writer should try to live.  A writer does not necessarily have to make foolhardy decisions that have a lasting impact on her life, but it probably would help.

I read this terrific, acerbic (almost to the point of hatefulness) article at Huffington Post by Ruth Fowler.

Ruth Fowler has lived.  I get why she has little patience for tales of (and by) inexperience!

Fowler’s theory is that the MFA is to blame for the spate of ridiculous novels that are being touted as brilliant and/or revolutionary by prestigious literary prizes or the critical journalist set.  These novels came from lackluster MFA programs pumping out competent writers.  I do not think that is true.  The MFA might be the last stop on the fail line, but we don’t get to the MFA without our overburdened, under-funded elementary, secondary, and post-secondary programs failing in some way.

A specific educational failing

I think “Hills Like White Elephants” is a shitty story to show to a bunch of aspiring writers.

I read it in high school in my honors lit course, then again in one of my first writing workshop courses in college.  I get it.  It’s Hemingway.  He’s doing something clever (or at least was then).  But he also wrote the story as a 30+year old man, and had been writing professionally since the age of 17, during a span of history in our country in which we lacked the distractions of TV, tablets, iPods, the internet; when life was a little (or a lot) harder in general.

Hemingway was dead before TV made its way into most middle class households.

What it does is tell young wannabes, who’ve probably only written what was absolutely required of them to the point at which they encounter “Hills,” is to try their hand at something that’s so far beyond their depth that they’ll almost certainly fail, and then they’ll either think themselves genius or just give up.  How is either pole desirable?

For one thing, it’s difficult to tell a whole story only in dialogue.  For another thing, “Hills” is a story that it’s impossible to tell without having lived some life.  All good stories are impossible to tell without living some life.  Perspective, wisdom, and experience make good stories.

It’s been during my tenure on our green-blue globe that there’s been this cultural shift toward prizing self-esteem above achievement.  According to a documentary called Waiting For Superman about the public education system in the US, the only thing US kids score best on worldwide is confidence.

Confidence is not helpful when there is no call for it.  Confidence is a thing that needs to be earned after years of toil.  Especially as a writer. I can think of no other pursuit in which rejection and failure are such an integral part of the process. And absolute confidence is a myth for a writer: self-doubt remains of tantamount importance throughout.

I find it to be obnoxious when writers talk about their compulsion to write as an albatross, but I can understand why some of them feel that way.

I spent about a decade living and trying to escape being a writer, because almost everything else is easier.

Here’s a truth that nothing I learned before the age of 25 prepared me for: Not Everyone Can Be a Great Writer.  It is NOT true that you “can do whatever you want.”

Also, you must read.  You must, you must, you must.

Truthfully, if you haven’t been reading voraciously as long as you could–which is something all the writers I know have in common–being a Great Writer is probably out of your grasp.

If you’ve been reading since you were a child, it probably doesn’t matter what you’ve read.

If you want to be a writer and you haven’t been reading, you should start reading now.  And try to read everything that’s ever been written that is like what you want to write.

Do this before you make it to the keyboard or pick up a pen.

Once you do, remember that the widely accepted theory on expertise is that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become awesome.

The Silver Lining

I should tell you that I have practiced at writing for far many more than ten thousand hours.  I have been scribbling out sentences since I could write full words.  I remember yearning to learn to write, to create with a pen.  I did not know what that meant at the time, only that I needed to do it.

At least for the time being, our fair interwebs and its voracious appetite for content makes living life as a writer possible.  I am living my life–at least half time–as a writer.  More unpaid than paid at this point, but I am working and studying hard to flip that.

You, my blog readers, are making this possible.

And my fellow writers are telling me how.  And how not to.  For free.

So maybe the new truth is that Great Writers are a thing of the past.  Because the two sources linked above  agree that the biggest ingredient of success at making a living as a writer from your blog, with social media, and by marketing yourself, is effort, energy, and dedication.

Maybe the new Great Writers will be the most driven and tech savvy with the best grasp of SEO.

Tomorrow, a survey, a collection of resources, and a Weeks to Geek teaser.

Friday Writing: Scenes & New Promises, Honor the Process

from: http://www.public-domain-image.com

I’ve been under the freelance water these last couple of weeks, doing a ton of writing and editing and a “special” project for one of the papers I write for.  That’s all winding down early next week, but I haven’t spent too much time with my draft.  In fact, today is one week since the last time I did any draft writing.

This morning, however, I wrote around 1500 words in about an hour, and thought, “gosh, if I did this every day, I’d have a complete draft in no time!”

So that is my new promise to myself.  Write 1500 words a day.  No matter what.  I do feel a ton better about getting on with things.  It helps me to honor other people’s work and demands if I am honoring my own.

But that got me thinking about promises to readers.  As writers, we make tons of them.  We often make them without realizing that’s what we’re doing.

I’ve talked before about making a promise to the reader in terms of point of view and tense.  But you make a series of promises in scenes, too.  Props that are introduced will need to be managed either within the scene, or before the end of the story.  Sometimes–like with foreshadowing–the reader doesn’t even realize you’re making the promise if you do it well.

But these promises always start out as promises to ourselves as writers, the shorthand of our subconscious.  So be mindful of these notes to yourself once you have a full draft.  Sometimes, you give yourself something that’s better than what your conscious mind can do.

When you’re in the drafting stages, the best tack is to just write–do not think too hard about what your characters are doing or why they’re doing it.  Just let them.  Sometimes, you’ll make yourself promises too unwieldy or cliched or silly to keep.  But don’t evaluate the writing while you’re doing it.

When I was in high school, in art class, when we did drawing from observation or blind contour drawing, the teachers encouraged us to just shut off our consciousness and draw.

It’s kind of like meditation.  I’ve learned to do this while I’m writing, too.  I think it’s what Fiona Cheong was trying to teach her highly resistant graduate students when I took her workshop.  We began each class by meditating. Fiona would sound a gong, and we would start.  The practice would end when she sounded it again.  I loved it, but I think I was the only one.

In the scene (or parts of two scenes) I’m sharing today, the beer is a promise about a particular character’s behavior.  You get to see this character two ways: one having had too much beer, and one sober and maternal.

Also, last week, I said that my narrator, Paige, is the guardian of these friends?  I was wrong.  This is her book.  It will be her messy life.

I offer this to remind you that you have to stay flexible and keep your ego at bay as much as possible as you write and revise.

Scene/s

PUSS was Lauren’s idea, but most of the time, we felt relieved if she couldn’t show up.  She recruited me after I ran into her at a showing of Run Lola Run at the Lisbun Arts World Theater.  We were in the same Brownies troupe when we were kids, and I remembered her turning up her sleeves to hide a cigarette when we were eight.

She was always wild, and I was always intrigued in the way I was intrigued by a dead mouse in the bath tub.  When she was ebullient, she was fun.  She could be the perfect party host: sweet and accommodating and welcoming, all of it.  Her mom hosted our troop in their basement, but refused to participate.  She said Lauren had to do Brownies on her own, that she couldn’t be involved in all of her extra curriculars.

So, by the time we were thirteen, Lauren was sexually active and skipping girl scouts, but telling her mom she was going, expecting me to cover for her and getting her birth control from Planned Parenthood.

Part of me wondered how her parents didn’t know, or if they even cared.

Of course there was Leon, but Lauren seemed sad about him.  She seemed to sprint toward promiscuity to erase the memory or something. The boys ranged in name and character from Greasy Gerry who was sixteen and Lauren said “hung like a horse,” which meant less than nothing to me at thirteen, to Serene Samuel who had large brown moles on his face, sensitive eyes and a brillo of hair that was the precise color of milk chocolate.  Lauren said he demanded to touch her tits, and that it turned her on.

Even to my inexperienced ears, it sounded like she was putting on sex like she put on a winter coat, or a pair of leggings or ear muffs.

So it’s tourney time, and she’s slurping her 4th cocktail with that clumsy confidence that reminded me of junior high, and I am watching, watching her, tapping my toes against hope that she’ll meet a slow simmer and we won’t spend a day watching her smear her mascara.

Her phone buzzes.  I see Leon’s name in her black touch screen.  His digits flashing below it.  She hits ignore.  She turns it face down and eyes it, seeming to fear it, or to expect it to grow legs and hop up and touch her.

It buzzes again.  She flips it over and stabs ignore.  I can’t see that it’s Leon, but I know it is.

“I hate him.”

I wish I could ignore her.  This is Lauren’s in-comment, it’s the comment she always makes that tricks me into expressing empathy.  Once the empathy’s on the table, it’s supersonic to the Pity Lauren party ball.  Whenever we get in neck deep and I’m an accessory to her bitching, I picture myself wearing a lovely, black, Victorian taffeta gown, an updo that rivals the best 60s bee hive, and a tall, lean, dashing dancing partner who I know nothing of and owe nothing to.

She knows how to trick me, because she knows I can’t not empathize.  So I do, and in fewer than twenty seconds, I can see the racehorse of her misery’s tail end about half the way around the track. “He’s just so fucking lazy.  He won’t get a fucking job, and he spends all our money. He ignores the kids, and he won’t help with housework…” In my taffeta gown, I am regal, beyond the ether.  I weigh nothing.  I rest my tiny hand on my partner’s wide shoulder and he touches my waist with such honor.  I focus my gaze on the Grandfather clock that ticks seconds like a metronome in the corner of the gilded ballroom.  “Mm hmm.” I intersperse.

“You won’t believe this, but he called me a whore the other day.  He thinks I’m fucking my boss.” She does this when she thinks she’s losing your attention, she adds a spin that she perceives as extreme.  I know this is not true because I have heard Leon say that the only reason he stays with Lauren is that he knows she can’t cheat on him.  Not that she doesn’t want to, but she can’t. He says, “she doesn’t have time, and nobody would fuck her.  She’s too much of a fat shrew.”  I sweat in my fantasy.  I twirl in the gown, but as it gaps at my chest, I can smell familiar tang of my sweat, and I realize as Lauren talks that I’ve forgotten deodorant.  She prattles on, and I fish in my bag for the stick I keep in there.

“Excuse me, Lauren.  I have to go to the bathroom.”

“No problem,” she says, looking lovingly into her last sip of candied apple.

We’re not even through the first giro, and Lauren’s already drunk, Leon’s already calling.  We have five more giri, and I’ve got that heaviness in my gut that tells me we’re in for a drama fueled afternoon

In the bathroom, I look at myself in the mirror.  My dyed red hair in a sloppy pony tail, looking like straw on the ends, puffy under my eyes, my skin looks drier, older.  I sigh and concentrate on washing my hands.  I think about my own wasted youth and worry about my looming thirty-fourth birthday.   At least I can say I don’t have a child.  Or children.  I don’t want them.

And my current boyfriend is nice.  He’s troubled.  But nice.  I do a lot of Jedi Mind Tricks on him.  I suggest something that I want to do, and anywhere from 72 hours to three weeks later, it is his idea.  This works out ridiculously well for me.  I have always had a too-deep understanding of the fragility of the male ego.

His name is Chester.  I know. Shhh.  He’s sweet.  He loves going down on me.  Sounds shallow, maybe.  But it’s his way of saying he loves me.  It’s also his way of saying he’s sorry.  Or that he thinks I’m sexy.  I’ll take it.  He’s a lot better than the last one whose mother was a suffocating banshee, whose ex girlfriends tried to poison my mind against him while pretending to be pals, and whose general love of ferrets turned our apartment into a cheese stinking pit of shit.

I am not great at relationships.  Perhaps my barometer of Lauren and Leon’s is not to be trusted.  Still.  I can almost hear the tension building out there over the Aerosmith ballad.  I’m afraid to go back.  I do find it to be entertaining that no matter how long a pause in our conversation, Lauren remembers precisely the last thing she said, and can pick up without missing a beat.  It is eerily narcissistic.

I’m not even back to the table properly when she’s started back in, “So you know how I’ve been putting in extra hours at work?”

“mmhmm.”  I don’t.

“That’s why Leon thinks I’m fucking Chad.  Chad’s gay.  Besides, Leon spends all his free time with his bestie Noah.  I swear to Christ they’re gay for each other.”

“Wait.  What?”

“I think Leon’s gay.”

Leon is one of the most hetero men I’ve ever met.  He likes art, but only because he figured out young that arty girls with strange accessories are generally as hot as popular girls when they’re naked, and way more fun in the sack.  Lauren has regaled me with tale after tale of his college girlfriends who were all stringy and purple haired.

****

So I’m watching her tend to them in that deft, mothering way, surprised that my friend who was so fucked up for so long, who wanted this motherhood thing so hard, but who did it on dishonest terms, has fallen into step with herself as a parent.  I feel warm for a minute.  Then she looks at me with this face I’ve only seen her make one other time, it was when I picked her up from a car accident.  It was a pure version of her regular face, grateful and with the blinds open and the guard dismissed, a much prettier version of her regular face—like her blemishes disappear and she radiates light.  She says, “Sometimes I hate watching you and Chester together.  I’m jealous.  I know I shouldn’t be, but I am.”

I tell her, “Don’t be.  We’re just new.  Thirty percent of the time, I wish I was still single.  I would be if I didn’t like sex.  It’s not good because it is natural.  It’s good because we lie about it.  We show off.  We barely speak at home.”

Her face is back to normal and I wonder if I’ll ever see that other, nicer face again.  “Anyway,” I say, “your kids are great.  I’ve been thinking maybe I’m wrong to be so anti kid.  Watching you with these guys.  It’s elemental.  It’s beautiful.  I like how they smell.”

“We’re honest about this,” she says, “but me and Leon aren’t good.  It’s not going well.” She whispers t hat last part.  She says it with something that sounds like haughtiness, but that I know is shame and fear and helplessness.  She knows she’s too proud to do the work of fixing it.

Her kids are in their beds, and we’re standing sentry in the hallway, waiting to make sure they’re out before we go downstairs and crack our own beers, get dealt in on Blackjack.

What is Literature?

Stitches, A Memoir, by David Small

Sometimes, I like to concern myself with philosophical questions like “What is beauty?” And lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about literature, specifically literary fiction, and asking the ether, “what counts as literature?  What are the standards?  Should there be standards?  If there are standards, who should be in charge of them?”

It is clearer every day that the time-honored model of the academy as bastion of literature and high art doesn’t jive with new media.  The academy itself is dabbling in new media with online courses and virtual text books, Facebook pages & marketing departments who tweet… We’re in a state of cultural reckoning right now.  It’s exciting and confusing and wonderful.

If we want high art–or really any standards at all–we’re going to have to figure out how to let the academy, the canon, and new media work together, or at least integrate into one another to some extent.

Graphic novels are totally old news.  I was kind of peripherally exposed to The Sandman around 7 years ago, and I’ve been paying a bit of attention, so I know that graphic novels have been adapted to film somewhat frequently lately, as in The Watchmen and V for Vendetta and others.

And really,  they’re not typically in my taste.  It’s not that I can’t see the beauty, or recognize the value, but like with video games: try as I might, I just can’t make my stubborn, realist self be so in love with the fantasy. I find the writing to be generally poorly done, or overdone, even–or especially–when the art is fabulous.  I do love particularly fanciful children’s books.  But really excellent children’s books hit that sweet spot of beautiful writing and beautiful art.  It seems wasteful or disrespectful to me to make gorgeous images and attach them to poor writing.

Comic book movies are old news, too.  Batman, Superman, The Fantastic Four, The Hulk, Spiderman, all began as comic books, whose cousins, graphic novels, are appearing with greater gusto and in a wider array of disciplines and applications all the time. Less famously–and more in my aesthetic–American Splendor explored the “real” world in comics as told by Harvey Pekar.

But I’m trying.  Really trying.  Trying so hard that I’ve agreed to present at the Wildcat Comic Con on character development in writing (specifically, that it is important to know and love one’s villains), and to moderate a panel on Zombies.  I do enjoy The Walking Dead, the show & books, those graphic novels are entertaining.  I’ve read chapters of The Zombie Survival Guide here and there, and I find voodoo zombies to be particularly fascinating.

 I recently read Stitches.  

Stitches is realism, a proper memoir that is at turns tragic and funny and strange.

 David Small is a well-known, award-winning, beloved illustrator.  His illustrations have adorned children’s books and magazines for decades.

In 2009, he released this work, and I will tell you openly that this is one of the most literary things I have read in a long time.  I would have laughed at you if you’d told me several weeks ago that I would think of a book with fewer than a thousand words as high literature.

Stitches is.

The book works like a prose poem.  It tells a vivid and affecting story with carefully chosen words and often eyeless, expressive figures, leading the reader to certain conclusions without doing any of the work for her.  The writing is spare, beautiful.

Here’s a taste: My step-grandfather, Papa John, came home from work.  Papa John had a scratchy face.  He wore a watch and chain.  He was the “greeter” at a funeral home.  He took me to see the trains come in.  Papa John knew everyone in town.  He knew all the “boys” at the bar.  And on chilly mornings, he stoked the furnace. 

“What do you put in there?”

“Coal.”

“Do you put little children in there sometimes?”

“Don’t be silly.”

In this scene, it’s clear that young David feels unsafe at his grandparents’ house, but free to ask his step-grandfather–who is one of the nicest adults in the book–questions that indicate that fear.  Small, drawn clues to the narrative signal us to slowing action with greater detail,  lead us to questions and conclusions, as in the facial expressions showing subtle intention, so you get the right read on each character.

I don’t want to tell you too much.  I want you to go get this book and read it.

Stories I wrote: Good Material

This piece was one of my first experiments with First Person.  It is the piece that kind of led me there as a writer, one of the first to insert itself into my sleep, and evolve in my mind as I did other things that, to my 22-year-old mind, were more important.

My favorite anecdote about this piece is that my mentor wrote on my workshop draft that this is a typical young-writer story, but he said “you save it a little at the end by making it a moment of real emotion.”  He gave me other suggestions, which I employed and now don’t remember, preferring to think of them as my ideas; but I have always been one to focus on the 1/8 of a good thing, and motor through the other 7/8 discouraging.

Not that my mentor was discouraging.  He was not.  He remains unbelievably positive and encouraging.  Even now, 8 years later, his persistent belief that I’m the real thing–as writers go–is one of the things that keeps my nose to the grindstone.  That, and legitimate obsession.  Perhaps a measure of delusions of grandeur.  Still.  What do we have if we don’t have our dreams?

Good Material

I look miserable.  I look miserable and I’m at a bar.  We at bars look miserable.  We obsess.  We drink because we’re miserable and we obsess.   Sometimes I wonder about the correlation between miserable people who obsess and writers.  Writers are miserable, obsessive people.  They go to bars to get attention for looking miserable.  They go to bars to obsess.  I am miserable, obsessing at the bar and writing.

Yesterday, my mother told me she’d like me better if I weren’t a writer.  She said, “You’re so condescending all the time.  You think you know something because you write about nothing.”  I said, “Thanks mom,” because I know that is the point.  There is nothing, and so I write about nothing.   Nothing is why we exist.  We exist because we have to: because of the clash of atoms and particles in matter.  Matter needs more matter to interact with.  It’s like the law of supply and demand.  Matter demands something to do with itself, and so we exist.

Today I obsess about the couple a few tables in front of me.  They are twenty-somethings.  I hate them.  I hate them mostly because they are together and I am alone, being miserable and obsessive.  At least they are together being miserable.  They look obsessive about each other in that horney, alcohol-induced way.  He is bald and has a tattoo of Popeye on his neck.  Her fingers cover Popeye’s forearm, and so it looks like Popeye-the-amputee.  She looks like she was beaten as a child, and so accepts his groping.  I would be humiliated if I were her.

I get up to get another beer and leave my notebook on the sticky table.   I look forward to the brown spots over the letters when I read it later.  It will make me feel dirty like the bar is dirty.  It will also make me feel clean because I will not be at the bar when I read it.  I do not want to be clean.  I want to be dirty.  That is why I am at the bar.

They could be anybody, the Popeye couple.  They could be neurologists.   This is not a classy joint, but they might be slumming it.  They are not dressed like neurologists.  They are dressed like hicks.  Maybe they are incognito.  Maybe they want to be like the people here for the night: the people who drink, then cry and rub on each other — desperate for connection, for empathy.

I bet the bald guy is a stock-boy at Wal-Mart.  I bet he got the tattoo of Popeye because his father was a Marine who made him play football, even though he was obviously too skinny.  Skinny people are gross.  My mother is a skinny person.  She used to be fat.  Now she drinks Slim Fast and smokesNewport100’s.

Once, my father smacked me so hard I had black and blue on my butt.  My mother told him if he ever did it again, she’d leave him.  She was serious, because he did and she did.  I have a therapist.  I will tell her about the Popeye couple, and she will tell me I am projecting.  I think she is full of shit, but my mother pays for it, so I keep going.  My mother pays for it because she feels guilty about leaving my father.  I tell her that was fifteen years ago, and that I am over it.  I tell her that I would rather not have a father than have one who beats me.

The couple is sitting on the same side now, and they face me.  I can see them both in profile.  Her face is much shorter than his, but this does not seem to present a logistic problem.  It seems to work in nose-bumping favor, because her nose presses his upper lip, and his nose presses her eye.  They do not tilt their faces to kiss like normal people.  They kiss with their heads upright.  I think it must be awkward, but they don’t have any trouble.   I am not disgusted because I am a little buzzed.  I am not excited because I don’t care to be.  I have tremendous control over my libido.

I get bored watching the Popeye couple, and I shift my attention to an attractive older man sitting alone in the corner.  We are sitting alone in opposite corners, and because of this I imagine kinship. I think he looks like Kenny Rogers: stocky and white-haired, leathery.  Because my eyes start to sting and water, I look away.  My eyes start to sting because of the smoke lilting from the top of my lit cigarette, but I do not want the attractive older man to think I am crying because of him.  I am not crying.  I push my fingertips under my glasses and rub both eyes.

It seems harmless, so I imagine Kenny Rogers Man as my father.  I am a little girl with blonde ringlets even though my hair is brown, and he pushes me on a swing.  I fall off and cry, and his thumb presses into the flesh of my bottom when he picks me up and strokes my hair.

The Popeye couple are whispering in one another’s ears now.  They both grasp the thighs of the other, and there is urgency.  I think they will get up soon, and so I hum “Let’s get it on” to myself.  The last time I was at the therapist, she asked me about sex.  Her office feels like a non-place, and I am uncomfortable there.  I wonder if she would meet me at a bar.

The first and last sexual encounter I had was three years ago with a boy I graduated from High School with.  I call him a boy because I was a virgin and knew more than he did.  He was not a virgin.  We were both very, very drunk.  He was so drunk he couldn’t finish.  I don’t know if I did.  I don’t care.  I didn’t plan to see him again.  My therapist said I have “intimacy issues.”  I told her that intimacy issues are good material, and that I’d like to keep them.   I didn’t tell my mother about that.  She would have blamed herself, but it is my fault.

I glance to the other corner and Kenny Rogers is back.  He winks at me, and I can’t help but smile.  We make eye contact, and when I think he might guess what I’ve been thinking, I look away.  The room is full of smoke, so everything looks grayish, like on a rainy day.  I wish the bar smelled like rain.  I get another beer, and I can feel Kenny Rogers watching me.   I notice the blue carpet.

I return and Popeye couple is gone.  Kenny Rogers man has moved to their table, and is grinning.  I notice his teeth are yellow and stringy.  I stare into the notebook and pretend to write furiously.  Unfortunately, people in bars don’t get subtlety.  He continues to grin, and he reminds me of a recurring nightmare I had when I was young.

I dreamt that a tall, skinny man who’d wrapped rubber bands around each of his joints, and had gone rotten and turned stringy, wore a scary rubber mask and chased me through a rubber mask store.  The store smelled stale-rubbery, and the shelves were as tall as I could see.  There were two feet or so of space between them, and they were made of two-by-fours, each shelf tall enough for a row of rubber masks.  The dream was monochromatic in shades of brown.  I always woke from the dream sweaty and scared.

I had that dream because I asked my father what would happen if I wrapped a rubber band around my wrist so tight that there was no blood circulation.   He told me, quite simply, “It would rot.”  My mother didn’t know my father told me that.

Kenny Rogers has passed out, and his head looks like a gigantic cotton ball resting on fat, stacked hot dogs.  I am startled because standing next to the table I’m at is a boy my age with longish, curly, brown hair who nods his head at Kenny Rogers and says, “Heh, old guys.”  I am repulsed, and pretend I did not hear him.  He is one of those people who thinks that being a similar age as someone gives you something in common.  He talks and I don’t listen.  I nod my head, and he seems encouraged.  I wonder what he is saying.  I would not like it if I knew, so I don’t listen.  He sits down next to me and nuzzles me.

I notice that it is getting late and that I am drunk.  I am drunk because I came here to be drunk.  I am not drunk because I wish to lose my inhibitions and sleep with this boy sitting next to me.  I tolerate his touching because sometimes it is nice.  It is nice when you don’t have to be involved in it, really.  It is nice when you can accept it and not offer much in return.  It is nice when you doubt you will ever see the person touching you again.

It is nice when you don’t know anybody and they will not give you a hard time about it over the next night’s beers, like “so, who was that guy last night?”  It is nice when you don’t have to blush and say, “Eric,” and not know when they ask “Eric who?”  It is nice when the person touching you is drunk and you know they are as miserable as you are.  It is nice, and I am just sitting here.

There is somebody to my right watching the drunk boy nuzzle me.  It looks unusual, I am sure.  I sit here with my hands planted on the tabletop at either side of my notebook.  He swishes his nose on my neck and cups my breasts through my cardigan.  The person to our right probably thinks I am sober.  The person to our right probably thinks I have low self-esteem.  Self-esteem is bullshit.  What difference does it make if I like myself, but nobody else likes me?  I hate myself, and so people can like me or not like me and it wont matter, because my self-esteem is sitting this round out.  Self-loathing is good material.

Kenny Rogers is still asleep, and I wish that Popeye couple were here so that they could watch me.  They are probably home, rolling sweaty in the sheets by now.  I wish Kenny Rogers would wake up sober and tell this boy that he’s had his fun.  He is trying to weasel his hand into my jeans, but my jeans are tight.  They are tight because I have gotten fatter.  They are impenetrable because my belly obscures the button, and this boy is sans coordination a la drunk.  He will give up soon.

I think about my mother, and I miss her.  I want to hug her like I used to.  I want her to stop feeling guilty about my dad.  I want her to stop paying for therapy because of it.  I would do better on my own.  I think about what my mother would say if she saw this boy pawing me.  I do not know what she would say.  We have never talked about boys.  We have only talked about my father.  My mother says my father bruised me twice, but that he was an all right man.  I think that is impossible.  If he were an all right man, I would know him.  We would talk.  We do not talk.  I hate him because we do not talk.

I cannot help myself and I begin to cry.  The attractive boy next to me stops making out with himself on me.  He feels drips from my face and gets up.  He is so anxious to get out, he trips on a chair on his way.  I take the last sip of my beer and pick up my notebook.  I watch tears darken circles of the tile in my path.  People will think the circles are beer drips.

I feel the damp, cool air on my face through the open door of the bar.  I am shocked that curly-hair-boy is waiting outside.  I am dizzy, and I do not remember where I put my car.  He asks, “What’s your name?”  I do not answer.  I keep walking.  I do not know if I am going in the right direction.  He follows me.  He says, “Sorry sorry sorry sorry sorry.”  I pretend not to hear.

Guest Post: Five Failed Barbie Concepts

Marc Schuster, a PA Literary writer, will be guesting over at Billtown Blue Lit’s blog on alternating Mondays.  Here’s a delicious and funny post by him that didn’t quite fit in over there.  I’m honored to share it with you here, and hope you’ll go buy Marc’s book.

 

  • Grindhouse Barbie: Cool concept, but hard to fit into a pantsuit.

    Woodstock Barbie: Proposed in 1994 to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Woodstock, the roll-out for this edition was to include a pink flower-power themed VW microbus. The doll was axed due to alleged licensing issues surrounding the Woodstock trademark, but rumors circulating at the time suggested that authorities had found a “sizable” bag of weed in the VW’s glove compartment.

  • Muscle Madness Barbie: Also known in some circles as ‘Roid Rage Barbie, this Barbie represents the most dramatic departure from the standard skinny waist and buxom chest that most collectors associate with the plastic fashionista. Though seven prototypes were produced by placing Barbie’s head on various Ken bodies, the idea was eventually scrapped when the US Senate escalated its investigation into the use of performance enhancing drugs in Major League Baseball.
  • Grindhouse Barbie (pictured): With the 2007 release of Grindhouse came plans for a down-and-dirty version of Barbie based on the film’s iconic heroine, Cherry. Oddly, this version of Barbie tested poorly among the target demographic not because she was missing a leg, but because children found it difficult to slip Barbie’s fashions over the machine gun.
  • Lock ‘n’ Load Barbie: When Sarah Palin was tapped to be John McCain’s running mate in 2008, Mattel jumped right on the bandwagon with this brunette version of Barbie, which came with stylish glasses, a plaid hunting jacket and cap, a rifle, and a fake-fur bear carcass. Plans for the doll were scrapped, however, with the election of Barack Obama.
  • Midlife Crisis Barbie: Although Barbie’s 50th birthday has come and gone, rumors continue to circulate that a Barbie with crow’s feet and a sagging neck is in the works. Though Mattel has not commented on this matter, the National Association of Cosmetic Surgeons is gearing up for a massive boycott. “If it’s okay for Barbie to get older, then what does that say to women throughout the world?” said one surgeon on the condition of anonymity. “That aging is natural? That laugh lines are no big deal? Please!”