No Elves Allowed

I had a conversation with a friend from my MFA program today. We’re both reading slightly different stream-of-consciousness novels and wondering how everyone started re-writing Mrs. Dalloway. I feel like so much of what I read in the program is derivative of something else – Hemingway, Faulkner, Pynchon, Woolf (although, funnily enough, not Proust or Tolstoy). Everyone’s writing realistic fiction, trying to frame events that we’ve all experienced first- or at most, second-hand with a voice that makes them sound relevant and urgent and more important than anything in real life.

The whole “voice” question comes up all the time in our studies, and in things related to our studies. In the magazine I edit, I had one editor question the “voice” of a first-person essay because she didn’t think that the author’s “voice” matched the actual story of her own experience. Seriously, that’s fucked up.

And it occurred to me that when I’m reading genre fiction, I almost never worry about voice. For that matter, I don’t worry about a whole lot of the conventions of “literary” fiction, because all that matters when you’re reading a genre story is the story. This is why books like Twilight and 50 Shades of Grey sell bazillions of copies, even though everyone in the world acknowledges that they’re barely literate rubbish: people like the stories they tell.

I haven’t read either of the books above, because I like my story to come passably well-written as well as thought-provoking, so I end up reading really good sci-fi, fantasy, horror, and magical realism authors, and I always end up thinking “I would love to write like this.”

Did I mention I’m getting my MFA? And you’d think that, since I’m in a program specifically meant to make me into a better writer, I’d have a chance to hone and perfect that, right? The problem is that there are good mentors in our program – mentors who are attentive readers, willing to give really in-depth, line-edit feedback to my writing. There are also mentors who really like experimental writing and genre fiction. There is precious little overlap.

Many of the mentors claim that they don’t “understand” the conventions of genre fiction, but I’m not sure that they’re any different than the “conventions” of any other kind of fiction. Tell a good story. Have compelling characters. Build some tension. Does it matter exactly how vampires work? No. Everyone who’s ever written a successful vampire book has made up their own rules, but as long as those rules are consistent within themselves, no one minds. Does it matter whether your fairies (or, if you insist, faeries) are good or evil? Nope. Whether robots are our friends or enemies (or both)? Not a bit. Whether the aliens can pass for human? Nah.

What I’ve always loved about genre fiction is the way it explores what it means to be human by juxtaposing humans with other things and thinking about those differences. I’m not convinced that humans are the strongest, smartest, most compassionate species in the galaxy (which is how we’re always portrayed, which, as a trope, embarrasses me) but I like thinking about what makes me human as opposed to robot or vampire or elf queen. Because when I think about what makes people human, I get to think of all people at the same time. All races, all genders, all religions, all classes and nationalities. They’re all included.

Maybe I’d have liked Hemingway if there’d been more spaceships and fewer guys fishing. Maybe Faulkner would have appealed more to me if there’d been less racial tension and more species tension. Maybe I’d like Woolf more if there were fewer first-world problems, and more multiverse problems.

Therein Lies the Tale

Once again, I’ve been having a lot of discussions with people about what’s important in writing. As an editor in chief, I’m not the first person to read anything that comes to our journal. First, we have assistant editors who look things over and vote them up or down. Then we have editors who look at things and recommend them to be published. Then I look everything over and give it a yes or no. Well, actually, I give it a yes. I’ve only said “no” once, and I was outvoted.

Sometimes, I look at things that have been submitted and I fall in love with the story they’re telling, but other editors on the staff don’t like them because they’re not technically dazzling or have a shining, crystalline story structure or…honestly, sometimes I have no idea why the other editors hate them.

Then I read a piece in The Atlantic, and it all became clear. The journal for which I am EIC is affiliated with an MFA program, and all of the editors, myself included, are current or former students of that MFA program. We’ve been drilled by Rick Moody about varying our sentence structure. We’ve been inspired by Susan Orlean to carefully balance fact and judgement. We’ve been told by everyone who’s ever written anything to “find our voice.” (I would have made that a hotlink, but when I googled  “find your voice,” I got 1.1 billion results. Billion. With a B.)

So what do we do with those stories that are less than technically perfect, but where the writer is telling us something we haven’t heard before? Some experience they’ve had that is so surprising, so inspiring, so thought-provoking, that you find yourself thinking about it and referring to it long after you’ve finished reading it? I would like to think that our egos as writers are enough in check to be generous to that writer. As generous as the New Yorker editor obviously was to that writing student, but I have to be honest.

Every one of us is human. We are all, at various times, jealous, petty, nitpicky, prejudiced, or fearful, and we don’t always have control over those emotions any more than we have control over when our bosses are going to put a whole bunch of work on our desks and say “this has to be done by the end of the day.”

I finished reading David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest this past week, and it took me a couple of days to distill my thoughts and feelings about it. In the end, I ended up writing a 13-page annotation, complete with subsidized time section headings and footnotes. I mentioned on Facebook that I had finished it, but that I didn’t know anyone else who had read it so I had no one to talk about it with.

What followed was a thread in which those of my friends who had read it weighed in briefly, and those who hadn’t gave me their reasons for not having read it, and the adjective that I heard the most often was “pretentious.” I wasn’t sure what that meant, vis-a-vis Infinite Jest, because it’s not the story of how rich people know more, are better looking and deserve more than everyone else. Nor is it a mundane story told using unnecessarily large words. It does demand a certain amount of attention, but so does Anna Karenina, an even longer book that I’ve never heard called pretentious, although it does contain a lot about the privilege of rich people and unnecessarily large words.

At heart, Infinite Jest is about the gross and frightening appetites of human beings. For love, for approval, for honor, for money, for an undefinable happiness that they cannot construct for themselves, but must purchase new each day in a different form, while not throwing out yesterday’s happiness. I don’t suppose that’s a new story, but it’s told in a way that is off-putting to a lot of people, and (as I’ve learned in the biography of DFW that I’m currently reading) Wallace had a great deal of trouble during his lifetime getting people to recognize the worth of his writing.

Maybe that’s it. The more uncomfortable a subject makes people, the more they’re going to look for something else about the story that bothers them. The voice doesn’t sound “genuine,” the sentence structure doesn’t vary, there are too many or not enough commas, they don’t know the difference between “there” and “their.” It keeps them from having to say “I don’t understand or relate to this material,” or “this portrays people like myself in an unflattering light,” or “I disagree with this person’s worldview.”

More Than You Can Imagine

Right now, I’m watching The Matrix. Remember The Matrix? Remember Keanu Reeves, turning in a typically obtuse performance that works because the rest of the movie just kind of spins around him? I still like this movie, regardless of whether or not it stands up, especially in light of the two sequels.

There’s a line toward the beginning that I hear in quite a few movies, and every time I hear it, it makes me flinch. Trinity is taking Neo in to see Morpheus, and she exhorts him to “Tell the truth. He knows more than you can imagine.”

Now, given the mental opacity Keanu Reeves displays (although that could just be amazing acting on his part, because I’ve also heard that he’s both very smart and a decent human being), it’s not hard to think that his imagination isn’t quite enough to come up with something as radical as, say, Oreos consisting of vanilla cookies with chocolate frosting between them. So perhaps telling Neo that something is more than he can imagine is not just true, but sort of obvious.

But there’s me. And a ton of people like me. I imagine a million things more fanciful than this every minute of every day. Granted, I haven’t been able to get my ideas the wider audience I personally think they deserve, but that does not mean that my imagination is at all lacking. Frankly, I feel that telling people that they lack imagination is the first step toward turning them into better consumers. If you can’t think for yourself, you’ll buy whatever someone else is selling you.

Don’t buy what someone else is selling you. Think of something better, then go out and make it for yourself.

Film #1: The Square

The Square (Al Midan) tracked five Egyptian revolutionaries from immediately before the fall of Hosni Mubarek until December of 2012.

Overall rating: 2 out of 4

Early in the film, we are introduced to five different people – real Egyptians, really involved in the struggle for a truly democratic government. One was a woman whose occupation and/or qualifications weren’t clear (we were only ever given her name, and only once). One was an actor whose father appeared to also be involved in Egyptian media (although not 100% certain it was his father, although there was a strong resemblance). One was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. One appeared to be a student, although again, his occupation wasn’t given. One was a soldier who did nothing but toe the party line.

The film followed these people from the day that Mubarek stepped down and many Egyptians thought their revolution was over, to the realization that, although Mubarek was gone, they had not achieved their aims of democracy and freedom. The military took over and began issuing orders to the civilian population, restricting their freedoms and occasionally clashing with them, then, when elections were finally held, many people felt that the results of those elections weren’t indicative of the actual wishes of the people.

The filmmakers literally risked their lives, as much of the footage was taken from sites where the military was attacking civilians. Several of the subjects of the film were wounded in the 2 years of filming during various encounters with the military. The action was certainly dramatic.

The film really fell down because there was no cohesive narrative to tie it all together. We began at a very high point – the deposition of Mubarek, when all the subjects celebrated their first victory and felt that the country had come together to achieve something great. Over the next two hours, though, we went from the emotionally high point of Mubarek’s defeat to the realization that the military leaders were lying to the people and curtailing their freedoms, then to the realization that the revolution had lost its coherent center, then to the point where the Muslim Brotherhood took advantage of the political chaos created by the revolution to step in and seize power. By the end of the film, the people we were following seemed confused and defeated.

I feel that, even in a documentary where you’re filming things that are actually happening and where you may need to film a great deal before you can get a sense of what the “what” really is, you have to have some kind of narrative. Humans, as my own research keep saying, love a pattern. Sadly, war is precisely a breakdown of established patterns, so filming and making sense of warlike events is a special talent. One that, I’m afraid, this director is still perfecting.

Great for understanding what’s going on in Egypt. Certainly thought-provoking for me personally as I equate a lot of what Egyptians are fighting for with a lot of what the Occupy movement is fighting for. We’ll see how it stands up to tomorrow’s offering about Occupy Wall Street.

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to My Fair Lady

As a writer, I’m always examining how I react to things. Why does ZeFrank’s Chillout Song make me cry? Why do I think that Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is brilliant, even though it’s littered with footnotes, which I normally despise?

A couple of days ago, I watched My Fair Lady, the capper to an orgy of movies that included The Ghost and Mrs. Muir and Blithe Spirit. The last time I’d watched My Fair Lady, I was a teenager watching it with my father, who thinks it one of the best movies ever.

As I watched it, I realized that most of the musical numbers irritated me. There are 23 musical numbers, including the overture and the finale. Of those, I like The Rain in Spain, and nothing else.

Every other number was either boring or offensive, because to me, the characters themselves were offensive. BUT WAIT! That’s the most important feeling in the world to me. When something bothers me, I feel the need to pick it apart and think about why I feel offended.

On the surface, My Fair Lady has a lot in common with one of my favorite movies ever – A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum. There are dirty old men, young men in love, a lovely young woman, relationships scorned by society. So why is one patently offensive and one a hilarious good time?

What I finally worked out is that in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, everyone is perfectly above board about who and what they are – a discontented husband, a horny teenager, a pimp, a narcissist military jerk, a self-serving trickster – in My Fair Lady, everyone is pretending to be something they’re not. Henry Higgins pretends to be a civilized social scientist. Eliza Doolittle pretends to be an independent-thinking young entrepreneur. Albert Doolittle pretends that being shiftless and lazy is what everyone secretly wants, so no one should look down on him for it. The conceit that Henry Higgins, who shows concern for no one but himself and whose only mode of interaction is bullying and badgering, is actually a swell guy, beloved by his household staff and his good pal Colonel Pickering is ridiculous. Do these people not see what an utter jerk he is? The idea that Eliza Doolittle is such a milquetoast that after six months of abuse at the hands of a domineering monster she would mourn the fact that he doesn’t love her is incredible. Sitting through the scene where Eliza Doolittle’s father Alfred comes to Professor Higgins demanding money, in essence pimping out his own daughter – an act that Higgins supports by giving him the money while Colonel Pickering offered the barest token resistance – was almost physically painful it its awfulness.

Every time I watch AFTHOTWTTF (even shortening it to an acronym is long and awkward), I glory it my favorite song – Everybody Ought to Have a Maid.

Here are four men dancing around and singing about how much fun it is to sexually take advantage of women in no economic position to fend off their advances. While that’s certainly reprehensible, the accompanying video shows no sexual exploitation or objectification of women, but instead makes the men themselves the objects of fun, making the song more about the impossible desires of dirty old men. And nobody in this film is pretending anything different.

Contrast this with the song “With a Little Bit of Luck” from My Fair Lady (I won’t link to it because I hate the song). This song is three men dancing around and a street in London and playing strange pranks on the people they encounter while singing about how “with a little bit of luck,” they’ll be able to evade responsibility, cheat on their spouses, stay intoxicated and con money out of people. And, just to underscore the point, by the end of the picture he’s been rewarded with financial success.

In Forum, everyone gets a happy ending, but at least in that movie, I could believe it. The military jerk gets the twin courtesans, the horny teenager gets the pretty virgin next door, the mother and father get a renewed lease on love, and the trickster gets his freedom. At the end of My Fair Lady Henry Higgins and Eliza Doolittle get each other, but it’s hard to believe either one would be happy about it. The father is made middle class but resents it, the boy who was in love with Eliza Doolittle gets absolutely nothing.

What have we learned here? I guess that I’ll happily sing and dance with my children to any song in Forum, but if I ever let my kid watch My Fair Lady, there’ll be a huge amount of editorializing going with it.

Wait…I’m the BOSS?

There’s a certain cachet that comes with power. Just ask all those ugly rich guys who’re combing supermodels out of their badly-groomed eyebrows.

I am still a writer who struggles to submit work to literary and commercial magazines, so I was amazed when I realized that I’m not just a struggling writer. I’m the editor in chief of a respected literary journal. I had a staff of 18 people, all of whom were excited about the fact that they were real editors working on a real literary journal. This issue,there’ll be even more of them.

Until I got to the residency this time, I didn’t feel like the boss of all the editors of a literary journal. I was too busy making phone calls, correcting punctuation, sending emails, wrestling with the web interface, approving color combinations, signing contracts, etc. I got to the residency, and suddenly, everyone knows who I am. Everyone’s saying “hello” to me in the halls and wanting to sit next to me in lectures. The new kids just signing up to work for the journal wave to me and say hello with that same shy smile that people give to low-level celebrities – a local tv newscaster or a city councillor.

I’m excited about working on Lunch Ticket. I’m excited about the great literature we’re putting out, I’m excited that I’m the one who gets to make the decisions, I’m excited that I get to work with a lot of smart, dynamic people. But it wasn’t until I stepped into the room yesterday for the debriefing and orientation that I realized that I’m the boss. I’m the head of a literary journal.

Whoa.

Eye to the Keyhole

After the grind of yesterday, I decided to skip the one lecture I was going to attend this morning. I slept in, then showed up for the critique workshop from 1 to 4.

Grant Faulkner of Nanowrimo asked me if I would prepare a pep talk about giving good feedback. I’m excited because I feel like in the last year, between the critique group I belong to in San Francisco, my grad school responsibilities, workshops I’ve taken and working for Lunch Ticket, all I do anymore is give other people feedback on their writing.

I’ve noticed a particular thing about my criticism. I like doing my critiquing face to face, because I like being able to have a conversation – letting the person whose work I’m taking apart ask me questions and get their answers in real time. I make meticulous notes on their paper or electronic copy, but I need to talk to them about it as well.

You see, when I make my notes about a written work, I’m thinking about one thing: you (the writer) want to sell your work, and you’re asking me to tell you what will make it more saleable. I think about what would keep me, as an editor of a fiction publication, from accepting the piece of writing I’m looking at. I normally read something four times. The first time, I make no notes at all. The second time, I make notes on the text itself – big things like pieces of text that should be deleted or moved, to tiny things like misspellings and incorrect punctuation. The third time, I make general notes about the piece as a whole. The fourth time, I make more general notes about things that, after many readings, still bother me.

What that means is that if you only look at my written comments, it’s easy to think that I don’t like what’s been written. That’s why I always want to have the conversation. I think that it’s important to say what did work – things that I especially liked or thought were well-done. I don’t normally mark them on the page, only because I personally use other people’s markups of my work to do corrections, so I like to have only those things I need to fix on the page.

It also happens that every time I start talking about a work, new things come up as I have the conversation. New things I might notice as I’m talking, new thoughts in response to the author’s comments, etc.

For as much as being with people is stressful to me, I have found that for things as important as literature, there’s no other way to do certain things.