Though I thoroughly enjoy reading them, I’ve come to realize that short stories—that form beloved by fiction writers—just aren’t for me. Years ago, before I knew much about structuring short fiction, I wrote vignettes/flash-fiction/list stories (i.e., stories under 2,000 words) without knowing that was what those forms were called. I liked the associations and abstractions I could play around with in those forms. Now, after years of trying to make my short fiction fit into a traditional story format, and suffering through workshops in which others tried to make my scenic/descriptive/abstract stories conform to that traditional format, I’ve decided to shed the idea that these alternate forms are somehow not “real” fiction and I’m once again experimenting again with list stories and vignettes. And, I have to say, it’s so much GD-fun.
I’ve got the beginnings of a few vignette-y pieces on my desktop and while they marinate, I started looking around at the current crop of short-short fiction journals. Poets and Writers lists journals that accept flash fiction, but I’ve also been checking out journals and website devoted to flash fiction entirely.
Among my favorite discoveries so far are Flashquake, a quarterly with the mission: “Words are meant to enlighten and to inspire.” and Six Sentences, which is exactly what it sounds like. There is also 3a.m., Vestal (“the longest running flash fiction magazine in the world”), and Freight Stories. I haven’t yet had a chance to delve fully into Double Room Journal, but am compelled by the fact that it’s both prose poetry and flash fiction, (the form that comes most naturally to me).
But my favorite by far was been Wigleaf, recommended to me by friend/novelist/writing teacher Susannah Felts, who has impeccable taste in pretty much everything. Read this one by Ellen Birkett Morris or this one by Delaney Nolan and you’ll be hooked too, regardless of your feelings on the short story versus flash fiction format.
Much like a caterer for a zombie luncheon, I’ve had brains on the brain this last week, and right now I am messing with your mind. As your mind assembles these letters into words, combine words into phrases, and then subsequently process those phrases and sentences in conjunction with each other your brain begins to form a model that is similar to the one I’ve created in my mind. My suggestions have an effect on you; the internal voice you are reading this in will suddenly change when I tell you to read it in my sultry deep Barry White bass… can’t get enough? Research has shown that reading actually rewires your brain, using several different areas originally designed for other tasks to translate a series of symbols into language. While this process may come with a trade-off, i.e. if you read more you might not be able to recognize faces, other research has shown that, because reading uses so many different areas, it actually strengthens the connections in your brain.
So, what should you read for a strong and healthy brain? Why fiction of course! A recent article by Annie Murphy Paul in the New York Times called “Your Brain on Ficiton”, delves into research that shows that fiction, because it mimics real-life situations, can actually help us understand the “complexities of social life.” A good short story or novel functions along the lines of a flight simulator, running us through interactions and events that our brains conjure and process thereby training us on what to do and what not to do in a particular situation. Fiction in this respect functions as a form of meditation or dream, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. in his opening to Bagombo Snuff Box likened the reading of short stories to “a bunch of Buddhist cat naps.”
Which is exactly why my blog is completely unhealthy for you but completely addicting… can’t get enough? You see, where reading off the page or the act of reading fiction involves the concentrated effort of mental processes, reading off the internet, especially hyperlinked text, actually shatters focus. Items read off the internet are comprehended only at a superficial level, the information we glean off the internet is primarily transferred to the short term memory and very little of it passes into long term memory, in other words, in one ear and out the other. Nicholar Carr, author of The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, asserts that the internet “is, in a metaphorical sense, a reversal of the early trajectory of civilization: We are evolving from cultivators of personal knowledge into hunters and gatherers in the electronic data forest. In the process, we seem fated to sacrifice much of what makes our minds so interesting.” This also may explain why no one was able to select a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction this year.
On the bright side, though our brains may be devolving into their primate origins because of the internet, it was announced last week that baboons can read, or at least recognize real words amongst fake words. My hope is that future experiments with baboons will involve typewriters, or at the very least Microsoft Word, in order to test the infinite monkey theorem. The idea, if you’re not familiar with it, is akin to Jorge Luis Borges’ story “The Library of Babel” in which ream after ream of pages typed by monkeys will ultimately produce the great works of literature through sheer probability of letter combinations. Some “real world” experiments have already been conducted in the last few years, but the results show that those primates writing books are not quite there yet when it comes to producing “a classic”.
Lately, I’ve been waking from dreams in which Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia sweetly whispers in my ear: “Hey baby, avant-garde artistes such as respondents remain entirely free to épater les bourgeois; they are merely deprived of the additional satisfaction of having the bourgeoisie taxed to pay for it. It is preposterous to equate the denial of taxpayer subsidy with measures ‘aimed at the suppression of dangerous ideas.’ That’s right, épater les bourgeois, I know French baby. ”
Okay, so I haven’t really been dreaming that… Well, maybe a little.
With the Supreme Court in session I’ve found myself listening to excerpts and reading transcripts of the cases on health care reform and life without parole for juvenile convicts. The sheer eloquence of the Justices and the counselors trying the cases is captivating. There is an auditory eros in hearing the English language, in an age where it’s butchered by every means imaginable, used so perfectly in rhetorical debates where there is no vehemence or mudslinging, only philosophical thought put into play. It’s almost like being front row to the dialogues of Plato, listening to Socrates as he sounds out his party’s beliefs.
I’ve been getting an additional fix online at the Oyez Project of the Chicago-Kent College of Law, a multimedia archive of the Supreme Court since October 1955. It is fascinating to listen to the arguments posed over the last half-century and find how many have some import to freedom of speech and obscenity. There have been countless novels that have been deemed obscene, many of which are now considered canonical. While Banned Books Week isn’t until the last week of September, it doesn’t hurt to be reminded how perilously close we’ve come to being deprived of important works of literature.
On a related note, back in February Barney Rosset passed away. His Grove Press introduced the American readers to authors ranging from Samuel Becket and Octavio Paz to Tom Stoppard and Henry Miller, and published unexpurgated copies of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Tropic of Cancer, and Naked Lunch. Rosset and Grove Press battled in the Supreme Court for the right to publish works deemed obscene in cases like Grove Press, Inc. v. Gerstein, (decided in Miller v California) and Grove Press v Maryland State Board of Censors. His literary magazine the Evergreen Review published works by the likes of Nabokov, Bukowski, Sontag and Malcolm X, and, to bring things full circle, it even carried a controversial piece by Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas.
Who knows? Maybe tonight I’ll dream of Justice Douglas propping up his feet to read one of Grove Press’ editions of the Marquis de Sade, and hollering at me, “Restriction of free thought and free speech is the most dangerous of all subversions. It is the one un-American act that could most easily defeat us.”
The Chicagoan is a new media company/publication (which—full disclosure—I’m an editor for) generating buzz for an innovative approach to funding and long-form storytelling.
I’ve been thrilled to contribute to this publication (with many talented others; check the masthead here), because the mission is so very rad. In the 1920s, The Chicagoan was launched to compete with the New Yorker et al, in the arts/culture coverage of a city then commonly called “Porkopolis.” But, the insular society stories the mag published weren’t compelling to either the general public or Chicago socialites and it didn’t last long. (The issues were collected in a book, “The Chicagoan: A Lost History of the Jazz Age” by cultural historian Neil Harris in 2008.)
After meeting with Harris, JC Gabel, the publisher and editor behind the now-defunct arts and culture mag Stop Smiling, decided to resurrect the original Chicagoan with a new mission “to document the arts, culture, innovators and history of Chicago and the greater Midwest through long-form storytelling.”
In that, Issue 1 succeeds. Don’t take my (biased) word for it: Janet Potter at The Millions calls the stories about a beat cop and the documentary film The Interrupters “complicated, antireductive pieces.” John Dugan at the Economist says the magazine “feels elegant and built-to-last.” And, as Robert Feder put it in a Time Out Chicago article, it’s a “sumptuous 194-page magazine that carries a dazzling array of articles, artwork and photographs, zero advertising and a cover price of $19.95. A line beneath the nameplate describes its mission as nothing less than ‘documenting the arts, culture, innovators and history of Chicago and the Greater Midwest.’”
Issue # 1, released at the end of February, resembles a book more than a magazine in length and quality, and has been admired for being “heavy on design” - it's a limited-edition and sold only in independent bookstores, online, and in pop-up stores. The 194 pages include profiles about Indiana outsider artist Peter Anton, Blackbird chef-turned-social-justice-food-advocate Tara Lane, short fiction from Joe Meno, and much more. Perhaps most notably, there’s a 25,000-word retrospective of Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, “The Original Frenemies,” excerpted at Slate.com.
Gabel noted the singularity of the length of these stories. “I’m pretty proud of all the stories, because I don’t think they could have appeared anywhere else in the city in any other periodicals at that length….Some of these things have been covered before, but they get a mention or a blurb — not a six-page feature.”
But the word counts, coupled with the fact that ads aren’t funding the project, means that even though 500 copies were sold in an hour, funding is the big issue. Gabel noted: “The next issue is still being lined up—but will likely come from deep-pocketed donors with an interest in promoting Chicago as a cultural centre.”
What’s that? Twenty bucks for a publication is a lot of money? You’ve gotten used to reading articles for free? I know. I know. Me too. But the thing is, it wasn’t always this way. People used to understand that in order to read great stories, you had to pay for them. Can I tell you what a pleasure it’s been for me as an editor to sink into a long, poignant story about burning a farm in Kansas? Or Ling Ma’s odd, intimate profile of Pitchfork founder Mike Reed, instead of charticles and listicles? This is work that reminds me why I am called to storytelling.
In the last few years, we’ve gotten away from that idea; that you’re supposed to pay for writers to do solid storytelling and I don’t know about you, but my experience as a reader has suffered; (the aforementioned charticles, copious typos, boredom). We’re even further away from the idea that the Midwest deserves a publication focusing on long-form essays and stories (think The Atlantic, Harpers), enjoyed by the east coast. I hope that we, as a culture, are starting to realize that good storytelling - the kind that transports you and changes your thinking - requires talented writers who are paid a fair wage for their work. But if we don’t, we’re going to end up with only content like this. And this. Or this. And no one wants that. (Right?)
So, if you also support the idea of telling stories of Chicago and the Midwest well and fully, vote with your dollar and buy a copy of the mag. And/or, help fund the project and tell your wealthy, culturally-savvy friends to do the same. But if you’re trying to nab Issue #1 - and help ensure there’s an Issue #2 - you might want to hustle: Bookstores are having trouble keeping it in stock and, as The Millions notes, “getting your hands on the issue became the coup du jour for hipsters and literati alike.”
Palestinian poet Ghassan Zaqtan, whose collection Like a Straw Bird It Follows Me Yale University Press is releasing this month, has still not received a visa to travel to the United States for a two-week-long book tour, which was supposed to begin yesterday. The poetry of Fady Joudah, Zaqtan’s translator who was to help Zaqtan kick off his tour, appears in the latest issue of TQO.
Come out to the Teaching Artist Showcase and Multi-University Student Open Mic at Experimental Station this Wednesday, April 11, from 7-8:30 PM. Sandi Wisenberg will be reading from her novel manuscript and will be joined by Northwestern graduate student Matt Carmichael, fiction writer Bayo Ojikutu and Bayo’s students. The event is free of charge.
This week life finds me in the South of France, not the Côte d'Azur made popular by its film festivals, movie stars, beaches, Grimaldi Princes, or F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night, but in Provence. The wine, food, and art of Van Gogh, Cezanne, Matisse and Picasso tend to overshadow the literary aspects of this part of France, but like its painters, the literary guns are just as mighty.
Marseille is the second largest city in France, a Mediterranean metropolis with enough history and intrigue to make it the setting of works from Charles Dicken’s Little Dorrit to Peter Child’s Marseille Taxi. Here too, you will find a strange monument memorializing Arthur Rimbaud who died here upon his return from Africa. If swashbuckling is more your thing, take a boat from Marseille’s Vieux Port to the setting of Alexander Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo, the Chateau d’If.
Thirty minutes to the north of Marseille is Aix-en-Provence, the city that gave birth not only to Paul Cezanne, but to his best friend Emile Zola. Zola wrote not only the infamous “J’Accuse” article of the Dreyfus Affair, but over thirty novels, twenty of which comprised the epic story of the Rougon-Macquart family, and here you thought the A Song of Ice and Fire saga was long. Aix is also home to the Cite du Livre, the city of books, an innovative library and research center whose archives contain the papers of Nobel Prize winner Albert Camus, amongst others.
Further afield, in Arles, where Van Gogh painted some of his most famous works, another Nobel Prize winner in literature, Frédéric Mistral, used his prize money to set up a museum dedicated to the preservation of the local culture, just as his work had preserved the local language, L’Occitan, in poems like Mirèio.
The last stop on my itinerary is Avignon, the home of the Papacy from 1309 to 1376. Here Petrarch wrote his Canzoniere and the philosopher and economist John Stuart Mill lived the last years of his life in a house overlooking the cemetery where his wife was buried.
It isn’t hard to see how this part of France is so inspirational to painters, poets, and writers. The landscape is inspiring, the history rife with events and characters, and the food and wine delicious. The lesson learned, as Peter Mayle says in Toujours Provence, is “Why not make a daily pleasure out a daily necessity?”
Our reaction when platforms like Facebook change is similar to how we handle the other ways in which the Internet changes our lives. There are striking similarities to the Five Stages of Grief, first introduced by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in her 1969 book, On Death and Dying. We scream, we deal, we forget. Repeat.
As a writer, I enjoy reading other writers bemoan the Internet and social media’s effect on fiction, our attention spans, and our very souls. Writers are the slow-moving train wrecks of Internet contrarians. We write within it and against it and about it by using it.
Last week, a Great American Novelist famously said that Twitter is “unspeakably irritating.” Franzen’s aversion to social media is clear, but other writers often admit to both admiration and fear. Gary Shteyngart—who has led me to believe that the future of the Internet is largely based on how closely we read his novel Super Sad Love Story—wrote a haunting piece about how his mobile device merged his online and offline lives.
The best article I’ve read about technology and literature in recent times is an in-depth review by Zadie Smith, of The Social Network and the book You Are Not a Gadget. There, she writes,
When a human being becomes a set of data on a website like Facebook, he or she is reduced. Everything shrinks. Individual character. Friendships. Language. Sensibility. In a way it’s a transcendent experience: we lose our bodies, our messy feelings, our desires, our fears.
Surely, this must have some effect on the way we understand the stories we read, as well our own life narratives. The common thread with both is news. News about our friends. News about the world. With respect to the latter, what effect has the web had on traditional journalism?
Enter John R. MacArthur, publisher of Harper’s Magazine and altogether upset with Team Internet and its ideological underpinnings and its effects on writing at large. He likes his offline life exactly where it is.
Devotees of the Internet like to say that the Web is a bottom-up phenomenon that wondrously bypasses the traditional gatekeepers in publishing and politics who allegedly snuff out true debate. But much of what I see is unedited, incoherent babble indicative of a herd mentality, not a true desire for self-government or fairness.
Partly due to MacArthur’s guidance, Harper’s is notorious for its mostly gated content, as in you have to pay for it (though I do miss Wyatt Mason’s free, excellent, and now extinct blog). MacArthur argues that this is necessary for a very simple reason: money. Online advertising can’t support a magazine, magazines can’t afford to pay their writers, writing is instead grown on dystopic-sounding content farms, the quality of Thought diminishes. Good content, he argues, does not wish to be free.
In a cutting reply in The Atlantic, Alexis Madrigal writes that MacArthur doesn’t understand the finances of a web-based magazine because MacArthur doesn’t publish a web-based magazine, and therefore doesn’t understand how online advertising works.
Why do advertisers buy across platforms? Because that’s how people read now. More visibility for a website means more visibility for a magazine and vice versa. People flip back and forth between Vulture and NY Mag, from Mother Jones’ infographics to Mother Jones’ great speedup package, from Jeff Goldberg’s interview on TheAtlantic.com with President Obama to Jim Fallows’ Atlantic cover story dissecting the same man. Ideas don’t exist because of print magazines. (Though they often find a beautiful, comfortable home inside them.)
He then offers to slap him with a white glove.
Why them fighting words? Putting aside Madrigal’s penchant for Tweetable sentences (times are tough), the two writers disagree on two fundamental points. The first is that the quality of writing is enhanced by compensation. The second is our reading comprehension is affected by the tool we use to read it.
As far as getting paid, Madrigal claims he’s in it for the glory, for the story, for the power of the written word—though he admits an admiration for the value MacArthur places on writers and writing. This kind of value is specific to the 20th century. The kind we typically reserve for Didion and Fitzgerald.
MacArthur’s insistence on paper as the best transport for intellectual thought is also a 20th century idea. To his credit, I do a majority of my serious reading on paper and will reach for my white glove you if you ever call a novel a #longreads. But I’m also totally game to read vitriolic articles about the death of print on my phone or tablet.
With the advent of new media storytelling, we use multiple platforms not only to consume, but also to create stories. Madrigal echoes this sentiment, asserting that stories and narrative will be told through words but also through charts, infographics, and endless data sets. This data comes from progressive governments, from private companies, and—somewhat alarmingly—from Facebook and Twitter. People will read these narratives however they can, however they choose.
Both writers touch upon the question I’m most interested in: What is our generation’s dominant narrative? Is it told by prose writers, or by the bulk of online content we spew through our social networks every day?
Paul Ford wrote about the modern-day narratives spawned by the Internet and about why we’re all so upset.
These disparate threads of human existence alternately fascinate and horrify that part of the media world that grew up on topic sentences and strong conclusions.
According to Ford, the Internet needs no coherent beginning and end. We are multifaceted, we trend, we don’t change our minds so much as reserve the right to be as many different people as we’d like. And we never die. Our Facebook profiles live on as digital gravestones—our stories never end. Our grandchildren will understand our lives in a way we’ll never understand our grandparents.
Do we even need writers?
Well, yes. Of course we need writers, and we will until we stop telling stories. Though it might be hard to believe, publishing houses and newspapers are still conduits for writers to earn a living. Yes, the same institutions are simultaneously tasked with collecting “Likes” and followers and fans and comments and chasing the latest algorithmically-derived definitions of “engagement.” But we’ll be okay. As Paul Ford wrote: “No one joined Facebook in the hope of destroying the publishing industry.”
Actually, just last week, Facebook’s 29-year-old co-founder just bought a century-old magazine in order to reinvent it.
Dahlia Lithwick summarizes a recent U.S. Supreme Court argument regarding the nobly named Stolen Valor Act, which criminalizes lying about receiving a military medal. The article wonderfully discusses what else the Justices worry people lie about: mostly fibs to get jobs or dates.
The argument also includes an interesting exchange about the literary value of a lie. Chief Justice Roberts asks, “What is the First Amendment value in a pure lie?” “There is the value of personal autonomy,” answers the defendant’s lawyer. "What does that mean?" asks Roberts. “Well, when we create our own persona, we're often making up things about ourselves that we want people to think about us, and that can be valuable. Samuel Clemens creating Mark Twain.”
Of course, the writing world has had its share of lies. And the liars certainly have found value in their works. James Frey’s Million Little Pieces was an Oprah darling as a memoir chronicling overcoming addiction before it was found to be “semi-fictional.” The controversy didn’t stop Frey’s following works, including the fully fictional Bright Shiny Morning, from being bestsellers.
And just this week, Lizzie Widdicombe gives plagiarist Quentin Rowan a portrait/free ad in the New Yorker. The Paris Review published not one, but two, plagiarized stories of Rowan’s -- one copied from a 1913 sea captain’s memoir, the other a mélange of three writers, Janet Hobhouse, Stephen Wright, and a splash of Graham Greene. Rowan was set to publish a spy novel cobbled together from a myriad of sources before being undone by message boarder sleuths.
But Widdicombe is unpersuasive when she suggests that the “making of a plagiarist can be hard to distinguish from the making of a writer. Joan Didion has described learning to write by typing Hemingway’s fiction; Hunter S. Thompson did the same with The Great Gatsby.” Those are nice tales and all, but they describe exercises in learning to write, not submissions. Aleksandar Hemon has tasked his students here at NU with breaking down an author’s strategies and composing a similar story. Much can be learned by analyzing, copying, even “stealing” from other authors.
But a plagiarist is not hard to distinguish from a writer, and neither is the making of one. Certainly not the kind of plagiarism Rowan engaged in. Perhaps Widdicombe felt sympathetic to Rowan, or unnerved realizing she was giving a huge boost to sales of Rowan’s upcoming memoir. Sometimes lying pays. Maybe a fib is no big deal -- maybe it’s even worthwhile for literary purposes. It certainly is valuable as career enhancement if you can get away with it for at least a little while.
As I’ve alluded to in previous posts, the literary nightlife in Chicago is a rather girthy beast. There are independent bookstores like The Book Cellar and Quimby’s in which Chicago’s readers can support independent businesses and local authors (or perhaps relive the glory days of spending hours browsing in real life, brick and mortar bookstores). There are reading series like Danny’s Tavern and Reading Under the Influence which afford attendees liquor-lubricated literary evenings.
Just keeping tabs on all there is to do and see in this city can become too much to handle, which is why I’d like to direct your attention to one specific website. Whether you’re a Chicago literary newcomer or someone who has already run the Windy City’s literary gambit, this website will be helpful: Literarychicago.com.
Literary Chicago posts reviews of readings and events (with irregular consistency), but that’s not necessarily its most valuable function. I am, instead, highlighting the comprehensive list of links organized on the website’s left hand side. This content is split into three sections—the first of which is links to other websites which cover Chicago’s literary scene. This alone makes Literary Chicago worth visiting. The second set of links is a list of ongoing reading series—not all of which were created equal. If you are interested in finding a new literary event to attend, I highly suggest clicking through this list. You can get a feeling each reading’s ethos by its website. The last section provides links to Chicago’s independent literary magazines (including TQO).
In short—if you’re interested in Chicago’s current literary culture, take a few moments and click around LiteraryChicago.com.