How it happened here


First, he built the wall. You can’t never tell with The Don what he might do. He likes to keep his competition guessing, and he thinks everyone who ain’t The Don is competition. We saw trucks full of sand and water and stone. They must have emptied out the state of Oklahoma to find that many strong men. And they dug a moat and built a wall. It set there in the desert like the tail of a humongous alligator. That’s the first clue we had that he was serious about building it. There was the wall. Signs went up saying “ACTIVE SNIPER ZONE: DO NOT ENTER.” The shooting was fairly regular for a while. Continue reading

ArtSunday: LIterature

“Stuck dead”; the adventures of Ben, DDD: Developmentally Disabled Detective

Ben was nobody’s fool.

KnifeI’m a detectuv. I know what that is ‘cause I saw it on TV. I don’t have my own TV but I do have a tape recorder. I’m talkin’ into it right now. I have to be careful ‘cause Tonia gave it to me and if it breaks she can’t give me another one. See, she’s dead. Stuck dead. By the hand of God, Carmel said. Sumbody stabbed Tonia with a knife — a little knife like the one she used to cut up apples.

Tonia liked me. She used to tell me I have up syndrome, though I know I have Down syndrome. I hardly ever feel down but when my mom died I learned that dead is sumthin’ that makes me sad. Continue reading

Jim Booth guest commentary over at Southern Creatives

If you’ve been paying attention you know that our boy Jim Booth recently published a novel. And that it’s really good. And that it presents us with the opportunity to consider fame and substance at war over the soul of an artist.

He has now authored a guest essay on “Southern Rock Stardom, Postmodernism, and the Persistence of Memory” over at Melinda McGuire’s outstanding Southern lit-focused site, concluding, appropriately enough that:

Here in the South, rock stars respect memory as all good Southerners do and, after all their wanderings, come back home where memory matters, Thomas Wolfe and postmodernism be damned.

Hear, hear. Give it a read.

ArtSunday: Are we seeing more character development in genre fiction?

Not long ago a good friend asked me if I’d take a look at this novel he was working on. He felt it was one of the best things he’d written, but was getting no bites from publishers. He was committed to making it work, and he wondered if I had ideas about what might be missing. So I read it.

The novel set out to be a genre piece – sort of a mystery story with a little bit of thriller thrown in at the end – but I could see why nobody wanted it. Truth was, the plot and action didn’t crackle like a successful genre novel, and while it had some very promising characters, none of them were sufficiently developed to stand the book as a “literary” work.

He was caught in the no-man’s land of contemporary publishing, and as our friend Jim Booth has suggested, that’s no place to be in 2012. My observation was that, the perversions of the publishing industry notwithstanding, what this particular novel wanted was to be more literary.

If you don’t follow what I mean by my opposed usage of the terms “genre” and “literary,” here’s the short version. Genre literature encompasses things like murder mysteries, adventure thrillers, horror, science fiction, fantasy, romance, etc. They’re driven by plot, and the characters tend to be static, not really evolving or growing a great deal during the course of the narrative.

Literary fiction is more or less the opposite. It’s all about character development, and in some cases you can read hundreds of pages without anything noteworthy actually happening in the way of plot. And we find ourselves in a place economically where not only are publishers not generally interested in manuscripts that are caught in-between, the culture of writing itself is divvied into opposed camps. I think back to my creative writing program. At the risk of over-simplifying to illustrate the point, the lit types regarded the genre types as little better than $5 whores working the docks while the genre types sneered at the self-indulgent navel gazing of the “serious” writers. The mutual contempt was palpable.

Hopefully not all writing programs are like mine was in this respect, but the general tendency I describe will serve us for this conversation.

What I told my friend, then, is that there wasn’t enough in the way of action to sustain a true genre novel, but if he spent some time fleshing out the characters – especially a couple of the female protagonists – he might have something with significant literary depth to interest potential literary publishers.

He has now conducted a major revision and I’ll be diving into the manuscript right after I finish Christopher Moore’s Bite Me: A Love Story.

I found myself thinking back on the literary/genre discussion recently as I read Mark Todd’s Strange Attractors: A Story About Roswell. This book sets out to be a science fiction tale that, as the title might suggest, reimagines what went down in the New Mexico desert back in 1947. Todd follows an unusual path getting to Roswell, to be sure, and in the process forces us to think more closely than we might like about the implications of certain kinds of biotechnical research being conducted in the here and now. I won’t spoil the twist – instead, I’ll encourage you to read it for yourself. (Be patient – the first part of the book was driving me nuts because I couldn’t get a grip on what had happened, but then the wheels caught, as it were, and from that point on it got more and more interesting.)

In other words, Strange Attractors is a successful genre novel, mining the increasingly untenable terrain of science fiction. Intriguing premise (doubly so, given that it engages with real-world events), solid continuity of scientific plausibility, a narrative strategy that keeps you driving in the direction of revelation, unanticipated twists, etc. (One of the things I didn’t see coming was especially gratifying in that it explicitly violated some of the conventions of genre and forced me to question how formulaic sf can be. Loved that.)

But. I found myself repeatedly noticing, as I read, that much of what was most compelling wasn’t baked into the plot, per se. Yes, the mystery pulls you forward, but you find yourself diving ever deeper into the two main characters: research scientist Morgan Johanssen, who is unwittingly a critical pivot in human history (if you know the language of Chaos and Complexity theories, she is an archetypal strange attractor) and the odd alien ingenue, Gamma Ori. As with my friend’s novel-in-progress, I found myself drawn more to character than is perhaps common for genre lit.

All of which set me to thinking. The truth is that the genre novels I enjoy the most tend to have the most interesting characters. Neal Stephenson comes immediately to mind (not for REAMDE, of course – that’s a roadtrip into the heart of pure thrillerdom), but for the assortment of Waterhouses and Shaftoes (and the Baroque Cycle‘s divine Eliza) in CryptonomiconQuicksilverThe Confusion and The System of the World. Then there’s the cast around which the remarkable Anathem revolves. These novels are unarguably genre – very much plot-centered and not even remotely averse to bursts of intense action – but the characters are far from static. As the books unfold, the characters grow and our understanding of them deepens. Not only that, when you consider the conjoined saga of the Waterhouse and Shaftoe families, which spans centuries, we’re past character development and into the intricate evolution of bloodlines.

William Gibson, my other genre hero, also enjoys getting inside a character’s head (especially if it’s a female protagonist) and he does so in ways that extract all kinds of resonance from the dynamic between personality and material culture (a la Cayce’s phobia of labels, logos, trademarks and other trappings of consumer brands), which is as quirky a hook as you’re likely to encounter in the world of mainstream genre fiction.

Maybe I’m imagining things. Or maybe not. For sure, none of the works I’m talking about here are Salingeresque in their character obsession. And as I admit earlier, the literary/genre divide is abstracted to make a point. I mean, it’s not like nothing exciting happens in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian.

Still, I have hated for years the kinds of sniping I saw in grad school and the ways in which those kinds of ideological rivalries balkanized literature. That the publishing and marketing landscape reinforces this artificial stratification of literature only exacerbates the problem. I mean, I’m not sure that Twain thought of what he was doing in these terms. He probably imagined that a good story and interesting characters sort of naturally went hand in hand.

In any case, don’t take this as an attempt to pronounce anything conclusive about The State of Literature at the Present Time®. Rather, consider it more something that I think I’m noticing and that I like, if in fact it’s really happening. Also, as always, take it as an invitation to comment and enlighten me if I’m missing something.

The incompleteness of the soul: an insider's non-review of Completeness of the Soul: The Life and Opinions of Jay Breeze, Rock Star

I’ve been thinking about Completeness of the Soul: The Life and Opinions of Jay Breeze, Rock Star, the third novel from my friend and fellow scrogue Jim Booth. I finished reading it a few days ago, but for me it’s been a slightly disjointed experience because I’ve seen most of it in its pieces before: chapters like “Fins” and “The Balcony Scene” have been previously published as standalone short stories and there are sections (the “Rock Star Handbook”) that Jim originally developed as an offering for an SMS entertainment company in which I was a  partner. So I’ve been familiar for years with the component elements, but this was my first encounter with the unified book in context.

After several days of reflection, I find myself musing on things that many readers and reviewers might not have twigged on. Continue reading

Book Review: Completeness of the Soul: The Life and Opinions of Jay Breeze, Rock Star

Inside baseball alert! This is a review of Completeness of the Soul: The Life and Opinions of Jay Breeze, Rock Star (Queen’s Ferry Press) by Jim Booth. Jim is a blogger here at Scholars & Rogues, and I know and like him. And that puts me, and maybe you if you are a reader of high quality fiction, in slightly awkward positions, because his new book is superb. It would be much easier for us both if it sucked, because I could either take a pass on the review or make points with my soul by feeding it into the Otherwise blender. But I can’t, because it’s really, really good.

Here’s why.

There is a Picasso painting titled “La Femme,” which portrays a nude woman from the back, four black paint strokes on a white canvas. It sounds simple, but the longer you stare it, the more you realize that you could never do that, never get those lines exactly right. Continue reading

Review: Ann Beattie's Mrs. Nixon

When I think of useful literary devices, Pat Nixon is not the first thing that comes to mind. To be honest, I don’t have one single thing that comes to mind when I think “Pat Nixon” other than, of course, her husband. I know nothing about her.

I don’t know that Ann Beattie knows much about her, either—but she manages to imagine a lot. In doing so, she transforms the former first lady into an extremely useful literary device that allows Beattie to mediate on the nature of writing (and fiction writing in particular). Mrs. Nixon: A Novelist Imagines a Life is one of the most wonderfully bizarre writing books I’ve ever read.  Continue reading

The economics of being-looked-at-ness: S&R interviews Teresa Milbrodt

Teresa Milbrodt is earning a good bit of acclaim lately, and her new short story collection, Bearded Women: Stories, should only amplify her reputation. Fiction Editor Dr. Jim Booth will have a review of the book in the coming days, and in the meantime we were able to persuade the gracious but extremely busy Milbrodt to field a few questions.

Scholars & Rogues: Bearded Women presents the reader with such a wonderful menagerie of freaks – there’s a gorgon, a set of conjoined twins, a giantess, a three-legged man, a woman with a parasitic twin, a woman with four ears, a Cyclops, women with beards, and the list goes on. I know this is a wide-open question, but can you explain for our readers where all these characters came from?

Milbrodt: I have always been fascinated by people who look different or those who don’t fit in. Continue reading

And now, some shameless promotion: Uncanny Valley launches and you need a copy

Some months back I submitted a long “poem” to a new publication called Uncanny Valley. (I quote-mark the word “poem” for reasons that are quickly evident to the reader. It’s part poem, but it’s also comprised of elements that are’t poetry at all – snips of drama script, blog entries, actual e-mail exchanges, photographs, newspaper clippings, playbills, and so on.) I was stunned when it was accepted – honestly, I never figured something that long and experimental had a chance anywhere.

But UV is different. Very different. They set themselves a mission to provide a forum for the unconventional. As the editors explain, “Other magazines make the words they publish fit their format. We make our format fit the words.”

Now, a few months later, Issue 0001 has dropped. My copy arrived in the mail today, and I can’t tell you how honored I am to be included in something this damned cool. Continue reading

Short fiction satisfies quickly, succinctly

by Zack Witzel

Succinct. Compact. Crisp.

A successful short story can captivate. It can console. It can discomfort. And all in just one sitting.

In short fiction, writers must force themselves to choose each word carefully. The balance of a story can depend on every noun, verb and adjective.

Short stories and novels share many aspects, yes. Both, on a base level, tell a fictional narrative. Both showcase a writer’s talents. Both require a command of language.

But several things certainly differentiate the two genres.
Continue reading

Why do you want to be a storyteller?

“Why do you want to be a storyteller?” I asked my freshmen.

It was the second time I had asked. The first time had been on the second day of class, an eternity earlier, during the last week of August.

Then, most of them looked at me quizzically. A couple of them looked downright bored. They weren’t here to be storytellers, they told me; they were here to be journalists and public relations executives and television reporters and magazine writers.

“That’s not storytelling?” I asked. Continue reading

Undercity Gotham Continues at The Daedalnexus

Alex sat on the steps of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and waited for Kawashira-san and his soldiers to show up. The Met was more or less in its original form, saved via a concerted effort by the people of New York to rescue one of the city’s few remaining landmarks. It had been covered in a thick protective coating that made the limestone look like bone-colored wax. Anything less and the Indiana limestone would have melted away long ago….

Part 2 of Undercity Gotham

Introducing Undercity Gotham – Part 1

Writing fiction is a bitch when you’re starting out. You come up with what you hope is a new idea that will draw people in, you develop the characters and setting, figure out the rough plot, and then find that you started writing your story in the wrong tense, or you started too early in the story and need to jump ahead to the climax, or that it’s 8,000 words too long for publication in the magazines and e-zines that might otherwise publish it. Even if you overcome all those problems, you find that everyone in the world is trying to get published too and that the editors are too swamped to do more than tell you that they don’t want your story for some reason.

I’ve had most of those problems over the last decade of writing fiction, but I’ve decided to try and bypass the last one by self-publishing my first few story or three. And finally, more than 10 years after starting to write my first short story, and having it grow to the length of a novella, I’ve self-published it over at my own website. It’s over 10,000 words long so I’m publishing it in three parts over the next few days, and it’s somewhat violent toward the end – consider yourself warned.

If you’re so inclined, check it out, and if you like it, let your friends know about it too. Thanks.

Undercity Gotham – Part 1