Monday, November 16, 2015 turns ONE! Who's ready for Terrible Twos?

I'm excited to announce this month marks the one year anniversary of, a weekly review of recently published internet fiction (flash and short) that details the conceptual and craft decisions that make the story in question worth reading. I'm proud to say that the site has featured works of fiction and prose ranging from SF/F to psychological to surrealist to erotica, mainstream, magic realism, humor, and even not-narrative/anti-narrative forms, which is to say we've run the gamut in terms of what authors (of all ages, nationalities, and walks of life) are doing. Basically, the only constraint on what we write about has been that it must be written in English, and I would honestly dispense with that restriction too, if it were feasible. 

Over one year and 108 individual fiction reviews (I was doing several per week initially, before relaxing to one/week), we've featured internet fiction from both obscure online zines to big-league journals in both mainstream and speculative fiction, including Paper Darts, Passages North, Word Riot, Nightmare, Lightspeed, Monkeybicycle, and scores of others.

Now that I've fallen into a stride in terms of what I'm doing with this project, I want to push the website to become something more in its second year. To this end, I hope to publish regular (monthly?) postmortem/post-publication analyses of individuals' writing processes, featuring high-profile short stories along with candid explanations of what it was like (from author's standpoint) to write this story, and why they even wrote it in the first place. This regular feature, which will hopefully have a witty name or theme or something, will be in Q&A form, and I want to make this feature special by asking questions that actually matter, and talk about the nitty-gritty of fiction writing rather than heady conceptual stuff that benefits no one (let's face it). 

Here are some of the questions I will likely ask my authors:

  • Do you eat during/after your writing session? Are bagels part of the equation? What about coffee? And for that matter: psychotropic agents?
  • What is the initial "trigger" (thought/feeling/idea/image) that prompted this entire story? What about this initial inspiration led you to create an entire story from this prompt?
  • What's you're favorite sentence in the entire story? Tell us how it happened. Spare no details of the sentence's evolution.
So that's what I have in mind for questions. Stay tuned to to see this feature, whatever it's called, whenever it finally emerges.


Saturday, October 11, 2014

The Prettiest Pedophile: A Belated Review of "Tampa" by Alissa Nutting

To begin, let's agree on four points: 
  1. The cover of Tampa, Alissa Nutting's debut novel, is a vagina. 
  2. That's one of the reasons you bought this book. 
  3. As proud as you are to have a trade paperback novel with a vagina on the cover, when you read this book on the train, you're careful to fold back the cover so no one discovers you're reading a novel with a vagina on the cover. Not that there's anything wrong with vaginas.
  4. When I say You I mean I.
Tampa, from the author of the short story collection Unclean Jobs for Women and Girls (I haven't read it) is the story of a wildly attractive 26-year-old nymphomaniac who teaches middle school. Not by accident, either. She can only get off, and get off she does quite frequently over the course of the book, when she is fantasizing or actualizing a sexual scenario with an innocent, barely pubescent middle school boy, for reasons she explains quite thoroughly in the book. She is a pedophile. Actually, a hebophile is more accurate (hebophilia, Wikipedia informs me, is a sexual attraction to a person in early adolescence, in the early part of the transition to physical/sexual maturity).

For the record, with or without its explicit cover, I thought this was a great read, one of my favorite novels of the last few years. And no, the hebophiliac erotica that pervades this work is not the reason for my fascination with Nutting's story.

Debra Lafave, Inspiration for Celeste Price in Tampa
The novel is more than a little bit reminiscent--and presumably inspired by--the 2005 case of sexual predator school teacher Debra Lafave, the so-called "hot pedophile" (quoth the internet) arrested for four sexual encounters with, you guessed it, a 14-year-old student. Ms. Lafave (her former married name) cut a deal with Florida prosecutors and served house arrest and probation instead of up to 30 years jail  time if the case had gone to a full trial.

Naturally, the Lafave case comes up quite a bit in the course of the many print and online discussions of Nutting's novel, which was released in 2013 to a great deal of fanfare and predictable levels of controversy and uncalled-for Nabakov comparisons. I'd say Tampa bears far more resemblance to American Psycho than it does to 20th century classic Lolita. Either way, the real-life comparisons do a disservice to the novel, which I believe is far more significant and important a work than its many critics believe. I'll get to why in a few moments.

The reviews of this book are decidedly mixed. As of this writing, the trade paperback of the novel has about 3.5 stars on Amazon, based on 216 ratings. A significant number call the book excellent, a few middling, and a great number offer quite scathing reviews, not only for the taboo/arguably reprehensible subject. 

Professional reviews have not been entirely kind, either. A Guardian review calls it "barren" and "unedifying." The Tampa Bay Times ("Winner of Ten Pulitzer Prizes") calls it "dirty and dull." Amazon reviews blast it for its lack of character depth--Celeste Prize is called "not a character but a caricature." People are generally quite pleased with the quality of writing--Nutting's a consummate stylist, her metaphors absolutely spot-on, her protagonist's narration both witty and ruthless, a testament to the character's/author's fierce intelligence. 

However, I believe most readers go into this novel looking for a fictionalized portrayal of the Debra Lafave case (and there are certainly enough similarities to warrant that expectation). But I argue that readers should not look at Tampa as a documentarian exploration of the mind of a sociopathic pedophile but rather a send up, a satire, of a very sick modern culture that simultaneously encourages sexual fantasies of the sort that give Ms. Price her power while discouraging the actualization of said fantasies. Society makes Ms. Price an object to be desired (a conception she works hard to cultivate) but also a forbidden fantasy. 

Isn't there a Motley Crue song about this?

I feel that people who criticize Nutting for failing to capture the complexity of the child molester may also fault Jonathan Swift for failing to capture the complex mentality of the baby-eater (see: "A Modest Proposal"). In my view, Nutting's novel is to our over-sexualizing-yet-violently-represed culture what Bret Easton Ellis's American Psycho is to 80s greed and unbridled capitalism. The real character here is the surrounding culture, not the admittedly flat protagonist. Is Celeste Price a caricature? Absolutely, and that's completely appropriate for a story like this. 

Perhaps if this novel were told from a different point of view--maybe a close or middle-distance third-person narrator?--we would have a better sense of the socio-cultural context that makes Tampa in the end a very insightful novel. 

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Notes on S P R A W L

I want to talk about S P R A W L, a fascinating work of innovative prose by Danielle Dutton, an instructor at the Jack Kerouac School (where I studied). I don't actually know Ms. Dutton, but I heard her at a reading and was immediately enamored with her funny, eccentric, surprising sentences. It is rare that I enjoy a prose reading; for some reason, it's easier for me to listen to poetry being read aloud. But whatever it was Ms. Dutton was reading commanded my attention more than anything else being read that evening.

So I bought her book, years later, and read it.

What is S P R A W L? A lot of things, I guess. A commentary on suburbia, on marriage, on the structures and norms of domestic life. S P R A W L could be called a monograph, a story, a novella, or simply a really long paragraph. It could be called fiction, or more likely, a work of innovative (experimental? whatever that means) prose.

If this book has a plot, I don't know what it is. Plotlessness is a complaint often lodged against particularly complex or heady books (David Foster Wallace's novels come readily to mind). The single-paragraph story--it's really just one long paragraph--is a seeming hodgepodge of first-person impressions. The narrator, a suburban woman, cooks dinner and dances around the sidewalk and writes (imaginary, unsent?) letters to her neighbors. The book is a series of fragments that, pieced together, don't seem to adhere to any larger plot structure.

So if it doesn't have a plot, is it a story? Sure, why not. It is, after all, a narrative (all prose works, and arguably poems, too, possess a narrative through-line, even without a superstructure like we associate with most fiction). This book, like much so-called innovative or experimental (whatever that is) fiction doesn't operate so much as a whole but as a collection of individually crafted, independent sentences.

My tentative thesis: if traditional fiction operates on the level of the book, the chapter, or the paragraph, innovative prose pieces operate at the level of the sentence.

For Ms. Dutton, each sentence should be read and swallowed and digested separately from its neighboring sentences; the author crafts her sentences with such wit and lapidary intensity that the parts overwhelm the whole. Why would you want to see the forest when its individual trees are already so spectacular?

An example, chosen at random:

In the morning, over coffee and eggs, I'm exhorted to be an individual. In the afternoon we wash our cars. The cat climbs in and out of empty boxes in the hall. I sleep with the window open and imagine. (98)
Four sentences, each portraying a different scene, a different set of impressions and concerns. The whole book is like this, really; an assemblage of disparate life-segments, memories in the making. Even though this book is written in the present tense, it seems to operate the way memory does: in fragments and non sequiturs.

I want to try writing sentences the way Ms. Dutton does. Here are mine:

My wife points out that older cats are less likely to be adopted than kittens. I drink my coffee and pick crust from my eyes. On the train to work I try to get inside the head of a shoe fetishist; does anyone fetishize flats or must they have heels? The secret to weight loss is portion control, everybody says. 
That was tough. My sentences kept slipping into one another.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Things as Signs, Things as Things

In 2010, I took part in one of Naropa University's Summer Writing Programs. That summer, one of the program's visiting faculty members was Vanessa Place, an author, publisher, defense attorney, and practitioner of conceptual poetics. But before I finish that thought--

What is conceptual poetry?

The best definition I've heard is simply this: conceptualism treats language as an object, not simply a collection of signs denoting other objects. In other words, a traditional reading would view "A" as an indefinite article, indicating a singular noun will soon follow. But conceptualism may view "A" as a material object, a thing rather than symbol. "A" is as much a teepee with a crossbeam as it is a signifier.

That's not the entire definition of conceptualism, but this idea of the "physicality" of letters and language is what fascinates me.

Back to that thought about Vanessa Place. At Naropa, she read a piece entitled "you." It goes like this:

you you you you you you you you you you you you you you you you you you

I may have miscounted the number of you's, and there may or may not be punctuation in there, but that's the piece as I remember it from three years ago. Ms. Place read the piece in a slow, monotonous way that sort of dulled the word over the course of the reading. At first, the word "you" performed its duty as a personal pronoun--interrogative, perhaps, or accusatory--but the repetition blunted the word's significance until by the end it was just a repetitive sound. Meaningless.

Someone on Twitter accused Vanessa Place of killing poetry. My own take is this: she is reminding us of language's artificiality, its constructed-ness.

I'm interested in prose writing that uses language as more than simply a tool of conveyance. I'm interested in language that also functions as an object (take a letterpress printing class; you'll see what I mean). That's why some of my writing over the last few years has explored language as a set of graphic objects--things that can be moved, manipulated, juxtaposed, and generally arranged in ways we associate with visual art. The Backroom Diaspora, for instance, includes numerous font types, overlapping letters, paragraphs at 90 degree angles to other paragraphs, pictures, and color gradations creating the effect of appearing and vanishing language. Not only was the book a lot of fun to write/assemble, it relied on these visual considerations. It wouldn't work any other way.

More recently, I published a piece called Honest Expression for a Tranquil Now! on Scribd. (You can read/download it here.) Once again, the piece features overlapping words/narratives and other graphic elements. I published it on Scribd because I couldn't get it published in any lit mags.

There are plenty of reasons a piece may be rejected by a lit journal. Maybe it doesn't meet the needs or aesthetics of the editors, maybe the journal doesn't have the resources to format and print such an unusual piece, or maybe the piece just sucks. (It could be the last one; I think the story's pretty good, but I'm not a reliable judge of my own writing.)

Another possible explanation for the piece's rejection may be that some writers/editors are anti-weird formatting. One author I respect blogged that good writing doesn't need graphic/formal variations. The text should be strong enough to stand on its own.

I disagree with that idea, and if you read either of the two pieces I mention, you'll see why. Certain things become possible when an author experiments with text-placement, font selections, colors and shading and overlapping and other strategies. This is not to say all authors should write and format works like Mark Danielewski does. There's no substitute for good storytelling, and if an author uses fancy graphic elements to spruce up a mediocre piece, the reader will know.

Still, I think there's a place for such visual experimentation--when appropriate to the story. If I continue to play with such formal elements, I'm pretty sure it won't "kill" storytelling. I'm pretty sure the worst that will happen is I'll see more rejection emails in my inbox, and I get those either way.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Selected Commentary on Marie Calloway's what purpose did i serve in your life

Just finished Marie Calloway's what purpose did i serve in your life. Her book, like the stories of which it's comprised, has generated a lot of controversy. Sometimes the conversation about the book is more interesting than the book itself. I've collected snippets of talk from various blogs, lit magazines, Amazon reviews, and discussion boards. 

Here are a few favorites:  

"The most touching chapter involves a gentle British man easing Marie into prostitution."

"Marie has written the book we all want to read in this era of internet stalking and reality TV."

"Marie Calloway is being given Publishing Deals for Hardly doing Shit" 

"Much in the same way that the girl on her knees getting facefucked is running the entire show, Marie applies the rules of BDSM to the author-reader relationship"

"perfectly suited for the contemporary attention span."

"Calloway’s novel contains a number of image macros ripped from her publicly shared gdoc diaries. These contain facebook chats, criticisms pasted over nudes of herself, and cyber-sex re-pastes. When reading, one may feel like part of a wound gaping about Calloway’s body."

"The nastiest most fucked up sex of your life will not occur with random strangers, no matter how hard you try. It will occur with people that you love and trust, who expose the darkest weird shit of their souls."

"Unadorned depictions of rough (+ occasionally vanilla) scenes of intercourse proved the least interesting"

"Would like to read about her experience as a biography that is continuous and not as broken up."

"No one cares about her ‘talent,’ …What people care about is youth. And I sincerely hope that Marie Calloway is strong enough to withstand the next five years of people telling her that she’s ‘talented’ when what they mean is ‘young.’"

"The Poor Girl has so Much Self-Loathing! And the Naïveté! Is this where an American Sx Education gets you?"

"People saw what they wanted to see in the blankness, which, to mix metaphors, was primarily a reflection of themselves. So no one was really interested in writing about Marie Calloway." 

"There is no real arc or moment of growth or revelation at the end." 

"The Book is a Blip, my Friends, a Can of Beer, a 25 Minute Porn set in a Blank Apartment featuring Blank Actors Zero Passion Obscured Genitals and downLoadable for Free off the Web"

"the Pics are Shitty Quality and Black and White" 

"Personally, I don’t find any of these qualities to be particularly problematic"

I'll let this stand on its own, rather than offering my own review/opinion piece. The last thing we need is another one of those.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

The Novel Has Arrived. And Its Free.

My novel, The Backroom Diaspora, is now available online as a PDF. It's free, and I hope people will read it. It's a fun read, I think, and it's basically about porn.  

I'm interested in the tension between literature and technology. I believe the form and vernacular of digital media can be applied to the novel in a way that doesn't just dress up the story to look contemporary but reshapes the narrative on a fundamental level. The Backroom Diaspora is a novel-blog hybrid, with textual/graphic play in the tradition of Mark Danielewski and Marie Calloway. At its core, my novel is an addiction story, but instead of focusing on addiction in the usual sense, it explores its characters’ relationship to the most abused substance of the digital age: information. 

I'll admit, the word "blog" is off-putting to many readers. As formal techniques, blog posts, instant messages, and other modern epistolary forms have been overused. With that said, I think my book approaches these forms in a different way. I promise this: the book is not what you expect. Okay, that's all I'll say about it. Hope you'll read it. 

Like I said, there's porn.

Friday, July 5, 2013

If Anyone is Reading This

I started this blog as a place to promote my writing, my writerly identity, and to provide links to various online journals that have published my work or work by other authors whom I like. Like any good blog, it's a fundamentally narcissistic endeavor.

I have three followers and they're all Google accounts I own. Someone needs to come like or follow or comment on my blog.

Do I really want to commit the time necessary to keep a blog and build up a following, or will this be both the first and last post I ever do on what--let's face it--doesn't usually offer much of a return on investment, so to speak.

My writing is available in the publications section above. Check it out, if you want.

As far as blogging goes--this is exhausting. Maybe I'll try Twitter. But probably not.