Thursday, August 30, 2018

The Best Rejection I Ever Got

This morning I set out to write a post to sum up a conversation Matt and I had this week about why the most unusual character in a given universe is obligated to be the narrator of the story. Why not tell the story of the Death Star from the perspective of a random Imperial officer, for instance? But as I wrote I got hopelessly tangled, and I do not have the concentration to untangle it all today.

Tomorrow I leave for a weekend away, and as soon as I return I'm leaving again for a week away. The destinations are different, and I have two fully equipped sets of anxiety about the trips. Yay.

So instead I'll tell a story I meant to tell some weeks back. One of my planned tripartite film essays is about Last Tango in Paris, a film I don't particularly love but which gave me an incredible epiphany when I was about 20. There's this wonderful film site, Bright Wall/Dark Room, which publishes long, thoughtful, specific, intelligent essays about film and media. The site put out a call a while ago for a themed issue on "Body." This is the precise theme around which I had loosely assembled my ideas for the Last Tango essay; it was the focus of my epiphany.

I was pretty slammed at the time, but I didn't want to miss the opportunity to match a tripartite essay with a market and themed issue that coincided with it. So I emailed the editor to say hi, I'm Kat, I write weirdo essays about film, I really want to work with you, I have this idea but no time to execute it, how strict is your deadline for this themed issue? I included links to the tripartite essays I'd previously published, in the hope that the editor would see how neatly my work matched with his site.

He wrote me back promptly, and I hope I'm not misinterpreting his email to say he seemed as excited about working with me as I was about working with him. However, he said, the deadline is moot. After he and the other editors at BW/DR found out about Bertolucci's treatment of Maria Schneider during the filming of Last Tango, they decided never to feature an essay about that film on the site. They didn't want to break that rule even for a promising and/or feminist essay. He said he was sorry about it, but would love to see other work from me in the future.

I was overcome. What a refreshing, ethical, transparent, reasonable rejection. What a splendid perspective! What a fantastic team of editors. Whatta mag.


I legitimately bounced up and down in my chair. And I wrote back as effusively as possible to say thank you all for being goddamn human beings and of COURSE I'm not upset to get turned down for that reason. And let me figure out a way to work with you soon.

The following month I pitched another idea, which the editor showed interest in, and which I have since failed to write timely. Way to go, Kat; sabotage a relationship before it's a relationship. I really do mean to write it, but my discipline bucket is totally empty at the moment.

Two of the books I reviewed at the beginning of August seem to have taken all the air out of me. I've blogged about them before, but I'm still kinda blaming them for my inertia during these last couple of weeks. I haven't read any books this week, and I think it's because of the page count of those others. Also, I was disappointed in both books (in very different quantities), and usually it takes me a bit to get going again on reading after a couple of books I don't like.

Plus, as I told a client in the process of explaining why I completely failed to meet a self-imposed deadline this week, I conducted a handful of interviews this month that I wasn't expecting to, upping my workload. I think I've mentioned this before, so forgive me, but I don't understand why I've started getting requests to interview authors (sometimes completely out of the blue). My mentor Chris was entirely right to say that doing an interview series would help me a lot in terms of contact with authors and general circulation in the literary world, but I don't think interviewing is a particularly strong skill of mine. I'm grateful for the work and the confidence, and I'm also a bit baffled. Does it seem like I'm good at interviewing? Does this appearance of competence merely come from being a good reader?

As literally everything else successful this year has come, for me?

Out in the world:

I reviewed a book by Dawn Raffel with fascinating implications - The Strange Case of Dr. Couney - for the Mantle. I'm planning to work with them some more in the future. Very nice editor and wonderfully thoughtful site. The book is well worth checking out, and if it seems like it might even be a little interesting to you, grab it.

For this month's Books I Hate, I interviewed Kelcey Parker Ervick, the author of one of the finest hybrid texts I've ever read. She was lovely enough that the parenthetical part of the interview was really the primary one.

I reviewed a novel, Summer Cannibals, for the Arts Fuse. I liked the book, but my reviewer side had to be honest about its flaws. I'm looking forward to more work from this author - she writes extremely well.

And I reviewed a pretty difficult memoir, A Certain Loneliness, for River Teeth. I'm excited about appearing in River Teeth, where I've tried my essays a bunch to no avail, and I'm pleased to be able to give this book some attention. As with the other two books above, it's a flawed piece of work, but well worth reading. This book, like Dr. Couney, has more important qualities than whether it's perfectly crafted or not.

Thursday, August 23, 2018

Mostly About Stuff I Wrote

Well, this has not been an especially fun week. Which is a shame, because some really good stuff of mine got published.

For BUST (yay!), I wrote about Mara Altman's well-meaning and intellectually diligent but fundamentally problematic essay collection, Gross Anatomy. In fairness: although her collection veered away from feminism in some critical ways, she seemed to veer back toward it in the short interview with her that was tucked into the galley. Part of me wishes I'd given her more credit for what was in that interview, but a) space did not permit and b) what's in the book is in the book, and I'm reviewing the book. It failed to break the link between women's value and their physical attractiveness, and I'm not letting it off the hook for that.

An article I wrote months ago, about the tandem video game practices of my husband and me, finally appeared on Crixeo. Editorially, it was great to work with them, and they paid me well and rapidly, but the accompanying picture and layout of the article were sort of disappointing (as was the lag time - although I've finally figured out that weeks or months of lag time is par for the course, it's still irritating). Nevertheless, I'm grateful for the chance to write publicly about how Matt and I play together. I've heard that other friends of ours with the same configuration (husband works in video games, wife doesn't but is familiar with nerd culture) do the same thing.

Only one book review this week, and it's a good one: of an anthology about 1990s culture, Come as You Are. It's up at Barrelhouse, where I've been submitting my work since the mid-2000s. If I weren't so distracted by my un-fun week, I'd be over the moon.

Finally, I wrote my first piece for Popscure, a listicle + analysis of five 1970s movies. I stole the "hijinks ensue" bit from a blog post I read years ago somewhere on the internet. If I could remember where I found it, I'd either credit the post's author or remove the bit, but I can't remember. If I stole it from you, please contact me and I'll make it right. The actual article observes something I noticed after I watched Rollerball for the first time (having previously seen Logan's Run approximately 267 times and the other films in varying quantities). I'm looking forward to a similar article being written in 30 years or so about Arrival, The Martian, et al. Not that I think 1970s fashion will ever be bested.

It wasn't a good week because I suspect that a pitch of mine got...let's say repurposed, after an editor I've pitched many, many times rejected it months ago, and then published a curiously similar article by a staff writer this week. My own article appeared at a different outlet, back in June, so there's a paper trail. And it could be a coincidence. But I doubt it, which makes the world feel cold and petty.

Plus, my concentration has been really unreliable lately, which has given all my work a slapdash feel to me, even if it doesn't seem that way to others. There's roofing work happening at my place, which is a terrible, scary thing if you work at home and are sensitive to noise. And the gods overseeing weather, the mail, and the very practice of sleep have all deserted me recently.

The good news is that I planned August unusually well. I did okay with deadlines, and I don't have any other books to read or review urgently this month, just edits and check-ups on stuff I've already filed and pitches to push through. I have a practical task which should take me the rest of August to complete, but I'm not very stressed about it. Hence, I have these last two weeks of the month, this and next, to laze around and worry about what comes next.

Oh, well, okay then

What comes next is a bunch of cool stuff in September. Interesting reviews and good essays. But also volunteer work at CSUN, which will get me out of the apartment, which is good for me like flossing is good for me. And a handful of books for October and November that look pretty good, even though many of them are short stories.

I've determined for good and all across this year that I just don't like reading short stories. I just don't! I have tried hard to enjoy them but I do not enjoy them and that's all there is to it. So many books seeking reviewers (instead of books that are already assigned) are story collections, so I wind up reading them a lot, and I'm as fair to them as I can be in terms of craft and characterization and whatnot. But the truth is, I do not enjoy them. I do not, Sam-I-Am. But hey, maybe they're like flossing, too.

Friday, August 17, 2018

This is My 500th Post on This Blog

click to embiggen these 500 chickens; credit

I don't know how that happened, except one bite at a time. It amazes me that I've been keeping this blog for seven years, when it still feels...supplemental, I guess, like an appendix to my old anonymous blog. I would write anything in that blog, anything that came into my head or heart, at very great length. This one has such a different texture. I miss the freedom, but it's better that I no longer have an outlet for that level of self-indulgence.

So, happy 500th post to me. In celebration, I'm going to...write a blog post about writing.

#ShareYourRejections has been moving around writer-Twitter this week, and although mostly, people seem to be getting succor and relief from hearing how much rejection you face as a writer (truckloads), even or especially as a good writer, the people reacting ungenerously to it are doing so in predictable but still bothersome ways. I feel like this is expressive of Twitter generally: there's a pattern to how a topic moves through the Twitterverse, and I continue to hope people will break out of it, and they don't. I'm still learning how to use Twitter, and because I've never been very good at following patterns, I'm pretty sure I get it wrong a good part of the time. It feels simultaneously more confining and more dangerous than Facebook. I'm trying not to use either one too much, but what is too much?

I've read the two major books I needed to read for this month's work, and I feel so relieved. I'm lying to myself that it's still early August when it is clearly not, but the fact that I got both books read and at least one of them reviewed before August 20 feels like a major accomplishment. I'm allowing it to feel that way even if I have to pretend it's earlier in August than it is.

One book was the third in a 1,400-page trilogy, all of which I had to read, and the other was a 500-page Icelandic book that, oddly enough, is also a compiled trilogy. They both have skewed approaches to Christianity and creation, and they have a similar attitude toward WWII (as the primary wound of the 20th century). I'm thinking seriously of writing an article that compares them, although it's sheer chance that I noticed they have anything in common. Comparing them to each other mentally has been an interesting way to read them both, and I'd like to share that - although it's not perfectly fair to either, since they have totally different provenances and intents and moods and nationalities and etc. Dunno. I might wind up with nothing more to say about either once I've reviewed them both.

Contra last week's post, this week was not wall-to-wall promotion, because the two most significant bylines got bumped to next week. Which is probably fine; two reviews I didn't have definite dates for are live this week, so there's plenty to read (see below). Generally I try not to announce things that are happening or changing until they're irrevocably happening, because I have wound up with egg on my face too many times, having to walk back big announcements (or even medium-sized intentions). It's a unique species of embarrassment, and one that makes my skin crawl. So I play things close to the vest unless I am too excited or too certain not to.

On that note, I'm going wandering at the end of August. I signed up for an opportunity to spend time with wild horses outside of Bakersfield, got in on the waitlist, still can't believe it's happening, trying not to lean on it too hard as something to look forward to because it seems too beautiful and unlikely. After that I'm driving north to spend some fairly idle time in Portland and outside of it; I think I have more friends in Portland than in LA at this point, so I hope to see (or meet) as many of them as possible. In hindsight, I didn't plan my freelancing around my July vacation especially well, and I hope to avoid that mistake this time. September is looking okay, only two books I haven't read, but October is heavy.

However, the date of the very last ARC on my desk is November 13. I have nothing for later in November or for December. I've been asking around for titles, and I keep getting sent books that are already out, instead. I'm thinking I might take this as a signal to use that time in a different way, whether I write more tripartite essays, work on interviews, make progress on the Casablanca novel, look for residencies to apply for...I don't know. Maybe something will change in September.

Out in the world:

I reviewed Kristi Coulter's Nothing Good Can Come From This for the Chicago Review of Books. Kristi and I have gradually developed a friendship across 2018, but I wrote this review before I lost objectivity (if I did lose it; if I ever had it). We have a lot of acquaintances, followers, and friends in common, so you may already have read this book. But if you haven't, I hope you do.

I reviewed This Mournable Body, by Zimbabwean author Tsitsi Dangarembga, for the Masters Review. I'm surprised at how widely reviewed this book has been, because I found it almost impenetrable. It'll go well on syllabi.

I reviewed Vanessa Blakeslee's short story collection Perfect Conditions, and then interviewed Vanessa herself, both for sinkhole. Vanessa was every inch a pro, both within her stories and when we exchanged emails about the interview. She writes exactly the kind of prose I've failed at repeatedly.

I reviewed SELF-Ish, by Chloe Schwenke, for the Los Angeles Review. I was genuinely sorry to write a mixed review, because Schwenke's story is important and difficult and necessary. But she needed more guidance than she got in turning that story into a memoir.

Next week: two fun articles, one sourpuss book-related piece. See you then, for my 501st post.

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

53% New Footage

Here's a few things I want to tell you.

1) Next week I am going to have a different byline every single day. A couple of them are pretty big deals to me. But it's going to be a lot of promotion all at once, so if you follow me on social media, gird your loins.

1A) I realized in writing the above that byline = the line where you say who it's by. That pop you heard was my mind being blown.

2) I posted the below on Facebook the other day, and it was popular + about my writing life, so I'm reprinting it here.

On Saturday, my husband spent two hours sitting with me in front of my Excel spreadsheets, website, and "book reviews" document folder, calculating how much work I've done since December as a book reviewer. The point of this exercise was to help me figure out, using DATA and MATH, how to keep myself from transforming into a little ball of stress and split ends.

This came out of a conversation we had last night when he admitted he was a bit worried about me and the stress I've been demonstrating re: my freelance work. I realized in the course of our conversation that he was asking me to put together a budget - not for money, but for time. I knelt next to his chair with epiphanic glee, telling him that of COURSE I can't manage my stress about freelancing, because I can't budget worth a damn! So he agreed to help me figure it out.

The results of our data-gathering were shocking. I've written 49 reviews in the past eight months. Forty-nine. That is so many. I knew it was a lot, but I could not have put a number that high to my idea of "a lot." In that same timeframe, I've published 14 non-book-review essays. Also a lot. (I begin to understand why I've made only middling progress on my book.) I assigned a difficulty number to every review I've written and have yet to write, and averaged out how much difficulty each month held for me. For example, even though I wrote half as many reviews in April as in May, April was a more stressful month, because the difficulty number was higher. SO helpful, and something I never would have considered doing, because my mind just doesn't work that way.

We discovered that, as of August 4, I am full up for the month in terms of work assignments. If someone asks me to write something else in August I will have to say no. I have eight reviews to write, plus two articles, plus placement of an interview, plus a 140,000-word book to copy-edit, plus pitches for October books, plus (probably) edits on the reviews I've filed that haven't been looked at by editors yet. Plus other things too fiddly and tentative to put in this summary.

In sum, I married an amazing dude, my stress is not imaginary, and numbers can be helpful instead of not.

3) I wrote something about James Gunn that, so far, has brought me a lot of heartache and not a lot of happiness. Oh, well. Here's the piece, but because it was a hot take, I missed something a few people have brought up to me: I could/should have added that no one ought to get fired unfairly, but for now, equal opportunity unfairness is better than the alternative. I'm not comfortable with anyone at all getting unfair treatment, but philosophically, I don't think that life will ever be fair. People asking for Gunn's reinstatement seem to think it can be, and I simply don't. What I was trying to draw out is that instead of living charmed lives, maybe white men are closer to living normal, sometimes-unfair lives.

A friend pointed out the uncomfortable political dimension of Disney kowtowing to a right-wing nut, which is important commentary, but which is not where I belong as a writer.

4) Other stuff out in the world:

I reviewed Hunting Party, a book written in French by Agn├ęs Desarthe and translated by Christiana Hills, for the Kenyon Review. This is one of the most prestigious publications I've landed in as of yet. I never, ever could've placed a short story with the KR; I know my limits and I'm simply not that good a writer. Placing a review there has plopped me back into a circular line of questioning I've been running around a lot in the past six months: am I an unusually good critic, or is there a dearth of people willing/able to write book reviews? The mean side of my brain says it's the latter, that a smaller pool means that even a little fish will get noticed. But I can't pin all of the (middling) success I've had this year on that assumption. There's just been too much. Anyway, this book is really lovely, worth putting on a syllabus, and I'm proud and pleased to have placed the review at the KR.

That's actually it for this week. But next week, hoo boy. My tracker says six articles, reviews, or interviews. Might end up being seven or eight.