Thursday, January 22, 2015

Let's Justify Solipsistic Literature

A couple of weeks ago, I read an article on Flavorwire by Jonathon Sturgeon, "2014: The Death of the Postmodern Novel and the Rise of Autofiction," and it's been bothering me ever since. I was put off immediately by its first two sentences, which assert that postmodernism is over and no writers are interested in creating in the genre. It goes on to discuss a new, or at least newly named, genre called autofiction, in which writers turn to themselves as subjects, writing novels that aren't exactly novels about the topography of their lives. Not memoir, not exactly roman à clef, these books, like My Struggle, see the world as the writer sees them and they call it fiction.

At least that's what I gather from reading Sturgeon's article. Autofiction is news to me. What it sounds like, honestly, is just narcissism, the aggrandized importance of the self. It is not a trend I welcome.

I like it when I see me

It's pretty cute for me to criticize what I see as a narcissistic turn in contemporary literature here on my blog, subject: me. But I've been bothered for a while by novelists who put on airs (or have airs put on for them) about their genre-bending fictional tendencies when writing about their own barely disguised lives. I am definitely interested in the triangular tension between reality, truth, and fiction (in fact, it's one of my primary concerns as a writer), but from what I've read, these novels aren't standing at the same intersection I am. Really what they seem to be doing is an exercise in very accomplished navel-gazing. Is that so revolutionary? Is that so worthy of all this study and praise?

Sturgeon says that it's not just a conversation between fiction and reality, and that these novels "redistribut[e] the relation between the self and fiction." Mmkay. The central idea is that the self is made up of fictions, stories, that we tell ourselves about ourselves and others from birth to death. Well...yes. That's the nature of the brain, that it is not an indifferent camera. And it's also the twisted magic of the human experience, all the in-betweening and mitigation of reality. It's not magic that needs a mirror of self-importance to be witnessed.

It's possible I'm just stung by this assertion of the death of postmodernism. I think postmodernism is still worthy, and still has new directions in which to develop. Wallace's work is not finished; his endeavor - which I'd argue was welding a humanist approach to the random, teetering sculptures of Pynchonian postmodernism, trying to show that it is possible to live with heart and authenticity in a culture that is fractured and demanding and wholly simulacrafied - not fully laid to rest. So...fuck it? We just throw all that out and read thousands of pages about some Norwegian guy's completely ordinary life instead of trying to say something of worth about the internet?

No, no. I, lover of Proust, should not be so rude to My Struggle when I haven't read it. But I did not need a Flavorwire article to tell me that this culture is veering away from mutual connection and toward the mirror. I guess I just hoped that literature would not take the same path. I had hoped that post-postmodernism, or whatever you call DFW's work, could bleed sincerity through absurdity, could communicate a human core to our merry, tragic, impossibly splintered experience of postmillenial life. Yet, apparently, literature's solution is just to turn a camera on the author, and thence will come all wisdom.


Somewhat related is this review from The New Yorker, which doesn't quite argue but does present the idea that the possibilities of fiction are exhausted. Or at least that getting tired of putting together fictional plots and characters is something that happens to writers. I'm thirty-three, not fifty-three, and I've been writing seriously for only about seven years, not twenty. But I feel, as a knee-jerk reaction, that if you find it too tiresome to put something into fiction which you can sum up in a single conceptual word, something may be wrong with you, not with fiction itself.

Maybe I'm too bourgeois, or haven't spent enough time wearing black berets and smoking, but fiction seems limitless to me. The blandest realism can spawn worthy intellectual pursuit; look at Bovary. As you add elements beyond realism - fantasy, like García Márquez, or odd narrative strategies, like Faulkner, or odd textual strategies, like Joyce, or or or or - you get more moving parts, more to work with. How can all those various add-ons not be enough, in a career so infinitesimal as a human lifespan grants? If an intelligent, thoughtful novelist can find no way to create interesting work other than looking in the mirror, then I think our culture is in a lot more trouble than anyone suspects.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

We Interrupt This Self-Promotional Blog to Bring You a Navel-Gazing Post

On Friday, January 9, I had a really, really weird day, full of dizzying highs and dreadful lows. It contained lots of news about writing, this day, none of which I can share with you here, and it was impossible to get to sleep at a decent hour that night. Inside my head, seventy-six trombones led the big parade, and the quiet bedroom was so noisy that I had to get up and go to my computer.

I put in earbuds to block out the intermittent sound of an amorous pair with some manner of connecting wall to my living room, and then I set to work, because my head was just too loud to do anything else. I wrote a short humor piece that I'd been contemplating for about a week, and then I wrote a longer thing about Star Wars that was already visited upon you. It felt good to write; January has been quite lucky with regard to the other thing, the publishing thing, but the writing thing is the better thing. It seems like I have to forget this, over and over, in order to remember it, over and over.

Because despite my ambitions, I haven't written a word on the wikibook since the semester ended a month ago. I've read a bunch of stuff - DFW and Edith Wharton and Richard Todd and lovely Georgette Heyer and Antonia Crane - but I haven't written anything that pushed me out of my comfort zone. Not to be too plain, but December fucking sucked, and it's taken me these first two weeks of January just to exhale and get over it.

Pictured: Me (left)

It hurts that I've failed to get started as I'd planned to, but if I've learned nothing else about the way I write, I've learned that all things come in their own time. I'm finished feeling shell-shocked and exhausted and have started feeling restless, so I hope to set a rhythm in the next month that includes several hours a week of writing. And I'm staring down nothing at all except the wikibook: no short stories, no genre fiction, no Highbinder sequel. Wikibook. Or bust.

I was considering taking the spring off from school in order to work at my job (in an office) and work at my job (at my notebook), but I felt so discouraged about that idea, pushing the start of graduate school off until 20damn16, that I took Matt's advice toward the Middle Way and I'm only taking one class. I'll take another one in the summer, and then I'll finally be eligible to enroll for the MA.

Now that I'm two years in and almost there, I confess to feeling some uncertainty about my choice. CSUN has so thoroughly exceeded my expectations that I'm not wavering about that aspect, but the idea that I should've tried for an MFA instead keeps nagging at me. In terms of school suitability, I can't avoid moving locations in order to do an MFA, and I can't see my way to that. Anyhow I don't work well in unstructured school environments, plus I'm not interested in being competitive with other writers, so I struck the idea of an MFA from my vision of Writer-Me.

But still. Would I have better opportunities? Would I learn better or more useful ways to write than I have in the past two years or will in the next two years? Would it look better on my mental resume? Am I going to wind up talking myself into an MFA anyway, or even a dreaded PhD, because I won't feel finished when this is all over? Will I wind up penniless and school-addicted, unable to adapt to life outside a classroom, unable to write without a workshop group, unable to read without class discussion? Should I quit now, now that I've reached a place of mild confidence as writer and reader (even though I know there's more to learn, as there infinitely is), and I'm not yet totally broke? Or is it too late? Am I already irrevocably lost to the ivory tower?

Pretty good card, actually

Rgh. Whatever.

On another note, I know there are a few folks reading who are DFW fans. If that's you, get Karen Green's book Bough Down. (NB: I looked for it in every indie bookstore I visited for about six months before I gave up and ordered it from Amazon.) She's his widow, and the book is more or less about her grief. It's also one of the most fascinating books I've read in the past five years. It's uninterested in whether you as reader/viewer get what she's trying to say; it's inward-looking, personal, in a way different from most everything I've ever read. Not obtuse, like so much literature, but personal; it's not that she's toying with whether or not you understand, but that it's completely clear to her what she means and if you can't understand, well, you're just not her. Like unexpurgated Anais Nin, but distilled, with a sharper wit behind it. It's also deeply, deeply sad, and unnerving, and finely wrought. Get it, and maybe get a magnifier for the collages in it at the same time.

Maybe my January hasn't been wasted after all. A good book is a salvation and a blessing, is it not?

Monday, January 12, 2015

Links to Real Good Stuff!

Some good luck scattered across 2014 is coming to fruition in quick-time harch this month. Today, my short story "To-Do" goes live on The Doctor T.J. Eckleburg Review, which is frankly a personal triumph for me and a pretty nice thing professionally as well. You can read it here for free. I hope you like it.

Also this week (!), Kzine, a Kindle-only genre magazine, publishes its 11th issue, which includes "On Conti Street with the Kintner Dame," by yours truly. This story has about as much in common with "To-Do" as two-toed sloths have with Picabo Street. It's a lot of fun, though, and it sits in good company in the magazine. The issue is available at Amazon here. I think it's a free read for Prime members who have a Kindle.

In case you're not convinced enough to click through, here's a little bit about each story. "To-Do," which I've called the grandma story once or twice on this blog, is, in brief, about a fairly awful woman biting off more than she can chew.

You go, little turtle! (You're not endangering children, like Lily is.)

Writing about her was challenging and satisfying, as was writing about the Pioneer Valley of Massachusetts many years after I lived in it. I tried to make the story slightly different than the norm visually, and to (maybe) trash some reader expectations for the rhythm of a 3,400-word piece. Other than that slight push toward experimentation, I haven't got a lot to say about this one. I worked hard on it, but writing it wasn't a mystical creative experience.

"Conti Street" came out of a dream I had about a band composed of zombies. When I wrote the dream down in my notebook, I thought of just doing a throwaway line in some story about how if zombies formed a shoegazing band, no one would even notice they were zombies. But then I had another dream about a strange silver coat with magic powers (which I as dreamer never quite sussed out). My determination to write a goddamn noir story already formed a chemical reaction with those ideas, and Jean-Jacques McHugh was born. I want to write another one with him, but I haven't written a lot of genre stuff lately and I'm kind of discouraged from the get-go. I loved writing "Conti Street," and nearly everyone to whom I gave it loved reading it, but I had a hard time placing it. Most noir magazines today, I discovered, want gritty-ass modern noir instead of old-fashioned Philip Marlowe stuff. Me, I love Chandler, but it's possible that I love parodies of Chandler just as much

, and I hope "Conti Street" walks the line between the two as lovingly as I intended.

If either of those stories has brought you here, welcome! Make yourself at home. Leave a comment. Have a drink. The bar's open and I can be pretty talkative.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

The Long Redemption of Anakin Skywalker

Full-on Star Wars nerdery ahead. Really not relevant to anything else. Enjoy at will.

Like I said earlier this week, I watched the holy trilogy again in mid-December. Jedi has always been my favorite, which I used to hide and no longer care to hide. It's because Jabba fascinated me when I was a little girl, and because Luke's journey (and Hamill's deep grip on the character) has become electrifying, and because the space battle at the end is excellent chaos, and because I love redwood trees. (I don't love the Ewoks, but I'm not offended by them.) Lots of other reasons, too, but I'd essentially be summarizing the highlights of the movie if I went on. Empire is the better film, but I like Jedi best.

We got to the scene when Luke turns himself in to Vader down on Endor - when they have that pivotal conversation about Luke's father, about the Dark Side, about Anakin. I paused it, and I said that I thought this point in the trilogy is where Anakin's characterization in the prequels is at its most threadbare. A conversation followed that lasted half an hour or more, and that made me reverse my opinion altogether. I wish I'd had all my other SW friends in the room, but that's why I'm writing it up here.

Let's, just for the moment, take the position that everything in the prequels is deliberate and makes sense.

I'll give you a minute to get there.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Half the Sons Are Actually Daughters

This may not be new information, but I've been marathoning The X-Files since the end of September. I have a lot to say about the show - I mean, of course I do, because I've spent over 100 hours on it in the last three months - and maybe there'll be a long and semi-ridiculous post about it to come. In the meantime, a three-parter I watched just before Christmas gave me some food for thought about storytelling.

The first two parts were balanced between Mulder and Scully pretty evenly, and were no nuttier than the show's usual fare, but the third part kinda lost me. It portrayed Mulder as a Christ figure. There are a lot of qualifying "not really" details for that comparison, but there's no denying that the comparison is there, and in my opinion its hubris is beyond the pale (especially since Duchovny co-wrote it for himself to act). One of the episode's most prominent motifs was that of fathers and sons. This theme has cropped up in the show from time to time, but never in a way that, er, alienated me so deftly.

There was so much weight on Mulder as son, Mulder as father - weight that I just didn't feel on my shoulders. A lifetime of training in the male gaze made me comprehend that this was going on, but none of it applied to me. I am neither a son nor a prospective father, and I never can be.

Maybe this fathers/sons thing was on my mind anyway because I watched the Star Wars trilogy again mid-December, as break and reward for finishing my horrible, horrible final paper for the Faulkner/Morrison class. One of the things that happens when you watch Star Wars is you think about fathers and sons; a decent amount of the emotional heft in Empire and Jedi depends upon the theme. Thankfully, there's enough broad-stroke hero's journey stuff and enough general entertainment going on in the films that you don't have to be male to let Star Wars sweep you up in its arms, but this time around I did really notice that some of that emotional heft was missing its target in me. What a father means to a son, what he signifies, is not very available to me.

source: PaulNRoll on DeviantArt

One of the short stories I read last semester was "Boys", by Rick Moody, which I found of interest for quite a lot of reasons. Among its endeavors, the story suggests that a boy does not, metaphorically, become a man until his father dies. I'm not in a position to agree or disagree with this assessment, because it arises wholly outside of my experience, but it's certainly a common one. I could write a lot about the process of going from girl to woman, but pretty much none of it, in my view, has to do with how alive a daughter's parents are.

I have complicated relationships with both of my parents, and art that relies on daughter themes often speaks to me in the way that I think Star Wars and this arc on The X-Files are meant to speak to sons. But it bothers me that daughter themes are often in art that's directed more specifically at women, or at small audiences, while son themes are so often in art with much wider intended audiences. The two sets of issues are just so different from one another.

My quick free-association reports that son themes are about replacement, mortality, and legacy, and daughter themes are about purity, possession, and similarity-anxiety. (Of note: I rattled off three nouns for sons immediately, just thinking about father/son art, but it took much longer to come up with daughter nouns.) (Also of note: in assembling this post I found this series by a German photographer, Julia Fullerton-Batten, who has communicated many of the weird, free-floating feelings I have around daughterhood through surreal posed pictures. The direct link is SFW, but the artist's website is not.) There's more to it than three words apiece, duh, but no matter how vaguely they are summarized, the relationships are distinct. They cannot be swapped out for each other in a story and maintain resonance.

I mean, does this happen with fathers and sons? And I want to talk about this. For hours

The point of all this is to note, politely, that father/son issues are not as universal as the writers of Star Wars and this arc of The X-Files and Paul Thomas Anderson and John Steinbeck and Cormac McCarthy and oh, my God, so many other writers and creators would apparently like to think. (In fact, I'd argue that they're approximately 49.2% as universal as those creators would apparently like to think.) And I would appreciate feeling a little more included in this kind of art, or at least a little less disconnected from its emotional texture.

I remember a big crop of mother/daughter books coming into print around 2012, and I was glad for it, but I think I'll be waiting a while before a Star Wars appears that's centered around Leia's journey to cope with her mother's absence. Those stories need writing. They need mainstreaming. So let's get on that, mmkay?

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Resolute, 2014 Edition

If you are a longtime reader of my blog, you know that this post always follows the same format, but this year I want to add a preface.

2005 was the worst year of my life. The. Worst. I would not wish my 2005 on anyone, not child molesters nor dogfight breeders nor E.L. James nor anyone else, ever. Simple math will tell you how many years have passed between then and now; 2015 has special significance to me, because it feels, finally, as if I have well and truly left 2005 behind. Its horribleness still informs how I live, because debt lasts a hell of a lot longer than you think it will and some wounds between people cannot be healed. But I hope a lot of today's informing has to do with wisdom, rather than bitterness or plain old suffering. Few of 2005's shockwaves are still rattling my life, and those noises are small. It is a year that still matters to me, but this year it's closer than ever to mattering in a good way.

So. Let's get down to business.

Every year, I post last year's New Year's resolutions with a short analysis of how well I think I succeeded at them, and then I post this year's. So, here are last year's (in greater detail here):

1. Remember how good accomplishment feels. Pretty significant fail. I still like eating goat cheese out of the wrapper on the couch in front of MST3K. I didn't remember this feeling very well at all. I'm in danger of disciplinary action, honestly.

2. Watch less MST3K. Oh my God, such a fail. I watched more than last year. Matt does not understand this resolution, because he cares less than anyone I've ever met whether his/our habits are "normal." I'm trying to come around, but I think I watch too much MST and that's all there is to it. Oh, well, maybe another year.

3. Fucking revise Highbinder already. Yay, success. But I don't think I really learned the lesson that was in this resolution, i.e. don't procrastinate something for a year just because you're unsure or frustrated. I hope to not do that in the future, but I suspect it'll be case-by-case.

4. Go on at least one adventure. Fail. :( The opportunity didn't present itself. Early in the year, I didn't know anyone I felt comfortable enough to ask to go on an adventure with me; later in the year, the timing never felt right; and money was a big problem this year. I hope I can go on an adventure in 2015, but now that I'm back to office work, outlook not so good.

5. Adjust expectations about writing projects. Success. I was blocked a lot this year, but I learned to avoid meltdowns, relax about being blocked, and know that the work would start again if I did the right things. I also learned to talk less about being blocked, because the more I agonized publicly, the less motivated I felt to get back to work.

6. Balance more toward writing than submitting. Success, I think. I don't have statistics, but it felt like I wrote a fuck of a lot this year and submitted only some.

7. Get better at setting boundaries. Success? I wasn't tested much on boundaries this year, and when I was, I think I did okay. A few times I had the opportunity to put into practice a resolution from 2013 about friendships. I phrased it as "roll with the punches better" and didn't go into much more detail, but in my mind it was about detaching from how people treat me, just being more chill about whether people are as committed to friendships with me as I am to them. It was about behavior (theirs) and disappointment (mine). Is this too vague? The point is, I had a LOT of uncertainty this year about whether other people gave a damn about me, per how they acted (or didn't), and I was able to let go of it pretty well. This issue seems like it's a cousin to boundaries, which is why I'm talking about it at all.

8. Re: school, slow and steady wins the race. Probably the most successful resolution on this list. I could have pushed things a lot harder this fall to get going on a graduate degree, and I didn't, and I'm so grateful I followed this guideline. I'm not sure how it's going to apply in the coming year, as there's a lot of frustration about this specific issue going into the spring semester, but for 2014, it worked out.

2015's resolutions came hard to me. I wanted to give myself a pass this year because of the 2005 thing, i.e. make the single resolution "Enjoy the fact that 2015 is not 2005" and let it go at that. But everyone can use a little improvement, and anyway my resolutions are generally things to think about rather than firm rules for change.

1. Your life is messy. Stop trying to neaten it for explanation or consumption. In general, I like to organize and be organized, but much about the way I live resists organization, so letting the proverbial papers scatter together instead of sitting in neat stacks may help me worry less about who I am and how I come across.

This blog is a great example of this problem. I try hard to make this blog as much about writing as I can, to keep it from sprawling all over like my anonymous blog did. Single-topic blogs get more readers than general-focus blogs unless the person is already famous, and I'm always hoping to add more readers. But the posts that are just about my life are no less popular than the ones specifically about writing (sometimes more so), and I think that means loosening the reins a bit will not hurt me. (My vision for this blog doesn't seem to be coming true, anyway, three years in.)

2. Cut back on complaint by 30%. In my early 20s, I got so sick of hearing myself complain that I stopped cold turkey. Just shut off my mouth when a complaint began to come out of it, even if it weirded people out that I stopped speaking midsentence. I discovered in quitting that constant complaint really is a tiresome way to go through life - I was far better off without it, not to mention more attractive to other humans - but over the past decade it's crept back in, and now I complain on a daily basis. I surround my complaints with apologies, but I still speak them, and I need to take them back a notch.

3. Make a serious start on the wikibook. 20,000 words at least. Preferably a decent draft of the first half, most preferably plotting and character sketches done on the second half.

4. Cook. For stretches of months at a time, since we moved to California, I've just bought pre-prepared meals from Trader Joe's and Fresh & Easy instead of planning a menu and buying groceries. Then I'll stop and actually cook for six months, and then I'll get tired of it and go back to pre-prepared. This sucks. A lot. (Budget-wise, the two options are pretty much the same.) I like cooking, with occasional loving and hating of it, and if I plan well enough, it doesn't have to be a strain on my personal resources, even though it feels like it will be when I'm in a phase of not cooking.

5. Stop constantly reviewing yourself. I spend so much time reading my own blog posts, looking at my own Facebook page, rereading my own critiques on other people's work, etc. So much time. I honestly don't know what I'm hoping to accomplish, but I'm pretty sure it's not just narcissism. I think it has something to do with making sure I come off well, making sure I appear consistent (yeesh, see #1), checking that I didn't miss anything, or looking for stuff I previously said or did that can loop in to whatever I'm saying or doing now - so if I repeat myself, it's intentional. 90% of this is wasted time and effort.

6. Read more poetry. The library doesn't have as ready a selection of poetry as it does fiction, but that's no excuse.

7. Maybe throw a party. I haven't hosted a, ever in my adult life? I think? And in high school I didn't have a single birthday party, because my friends were too scattered in different social groups for me to feel good about inviting them all to a single place. I don't give a damn about that anymore (people will talk to each other if you get them together, I find), and I have a passel of interesting friends in L.A., so I want to have a party, but practical concerns have kept me from having one. I hope that changes this year.

Happy New Year, all. Triumph is ahead, along with tragedy - inevitably - but I hope you have more of the former than the latter. Oh, and remember, this is the year Marty McFly travels into the future/past to save us from Biff Tannen's version of Hill Valley. My advice to Marty for 2015 is not to let greed influence his actions. But I don't think he'll listen.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

There's Gotta Be a 420 Joke in Here Somewhere

At the end of last week, I drafted 90% of a thoughtful post about a problem with the theme of fathers and sons in narrative art. One of those theoretical, "let's make believe I know what I'm talking about" kinds of posts, which I really like writing but which I have no idea if people like reading, or if they have any basis in actual discourse. By the time I was finished thinking about the theme and revising the post, I sort of hated my opinions about it, along with what I'd written. I think my brain is momentarily tired of being tested against the cruel light of what genuine experts know about these kinds of topics. Perhaps I'll like the post a lot better once the holidays are over, but in the meantime I'm just going to share something else.

Meanwhile just skirting the subject of what's happening this week

The final exercise I did in my workshop class this semester was after a writer named Lou Beach, who wrote a whole book of stories of under 420 characters each. (This used to be the data limit for Facebook posts. Good times, eh?) I wrote several, and I was pretty happy with what I came up with, so here are a few.

Never have I ever, she prompted. Never have I ever. I would have been happy to hear that little loop of R and V and soft H from her mouth for days, but she wanted a new truth from mine. Gossip, maybe. Tim told me last night that he. Did you hear that he. Kissed you, I answered. 
Why is Esther the only thing on my mind at this moment? Not my kids or my husband or my sainted mother, but Esther. Nothing under me but sky and flame, and the debris of 126 other passengers in a screaming lipstick tube. No parachute. No flotation device. My body moves at terminal velocity and my mind hovers on a stupid stuffed horse I bought my sister when we were both eleven. 
The fall made me dizzy, but trying to get up and failing, like a downed drunk, was worse. Engines muttering and a sharp bitter smell around me. Stay still. Keep breathing. I've got a kit for when this happens, even so far from home. It's a seizure, I tell myself, I've been telling myself for several minutes, until I realize it's just that I've fallen in love with the girl at the gas pump next to mine. 

Naturally these all pale in comparison with Beach's own work and with the greatest and famousest six-word story, but I really had fun writing them. Try a few of your own. 420 characters, not 420 words. MS Word doesn't keep track of characters automatically, but I estimate that 80 words is a good upper limit to keep in mind at first. What can you say in that amount of space?