Thursday, April 29, 2010

Now Up: "Jezebel"

UP at the American Pop Lit blog is my story, "Jezebel," which I first put out about six years ago in a zeen called "Detroit River Stories"-- my version of Detroit-style garage lit.
Find it at

For comparison, here are links to stories by two of my biggest critics.

1.) LEE KLEIN: A long-time blogger and Iowa workshop grad. Last time I saw Lee he informed me I wasn't a writer. Lee writes solipsistic postmodernism, as shown by "Prequel to 'The Telepathic Beauty.'"

2.) JUSTIN TAYLOR: A member of the HTML Giant herd, Justin is receiving a big push right now from the Murdoch-owned conglom Harper-Perennial. As expected, the story HP has posted, "Tennessee," is standard domesticated literary fiction, what I call narrow realism.

I don't know-- maybe my writing philosophy is clearly inferior to theirs. I believe I'm on the right path. Judge for yourself.


Patrick said...

How is Taylor's piece "standard domesticated literary fiction," when yours reads like the beginning of a bad in-flight novel? That's pretty standard as well, no? Half of it is dialogue (and it's not even good: melodramatic, loaded with exposition, a tell-tale sign of an amateur). Why don't you just write a screenplay? Honestly, I just couldn't follow it. The prose is clumsy and the transitioning is awful. And tell me: why should I care about Richard or Jezebel? They don't strike me as the kind of characters that you'd create given your chest thumping bloviation.

I'll give you that Klein's story is bad, but out of all the html people, you pick on Taylor because of his HarperPerennial deal. Not because his writing is the worst-of-the-worst. That's not to say that the inverse is true, but surely you realize that status (underground/mainstream) is not indicative of quality.

"Tennessee" is not a great story, but in contrast to yours: it is certainly much easier to follow. No flashbacks. No melodrama. And most importantly: it feels like it comes from a place the writer is familiar with. That's enough for me to say that I like it.

So what's your point?

King said...

My intent is to be melodramatic.
Dialogue is a strength of fiction-- of literature period. (See Shakespeare.) My intent was to build momentum through the dream/debate. The story is more complex, and more ambitious, than the standard literary story-- because it has transitions (into the dream and out of it), and because its setting and its debate point to a world outside that of the character. Within the space of a short story, I wanted to give a sense of a social structure, of which the crumbling city of Detroit is part. The setting, and the terms of the dialogue, were my way of carrying this out.
One can question whether or not I pulled it off. I think, though, my direction is sound.
Yes, I wanted to have a strong opening. I also wanted the ending to end with some momentum, even if it's part of the denoument. I also wanted narrative momentum. By my lights I carried this out.
As for identification with the character-- with a short story, the writer doesn't have time to lose himself too much over character. What's developed about character in "The Most Dangerous Game," a melodrama which is also one of the best stories ever written? One has to assume identification with the protagonist. Identification should be created through the situation the protagonist is in.
No, I didn't take sides between points-of-view between Bradford and Jezebel, but tried to give both of them arguments.
Re in-flight novels.
You have a built-in prejudice which sees them as automatically bad-- when they're the only thing keeping the tottering publishing world going-- and paying for advances to the likes of Mr. Taylor. I view the in-flight novel-- whose openings do seem to connect with readers-- as a starting point to build upon.
Do I single out poor Mr. Taylor?
I seem to recall he went after me on the HTML Giant site. Why would I not check to see what kind of art he was creating?
Regarding that art:
How many times do you think the characters and situation in "Tennessee" have been done?
40,000 times?
I've been reading literary stories for a couple decades, and they're always the same.
In this case, the adolescent viewpoint, narrow setting, a meandering pace, stcok characters (like the father), a trivial theme (brother smoking), and a finely wrought ending which sounds nice but goes nowhere and means nothing.
THIS is the future of literature?
Yes, many thousands of well-crafted literary stories like his are being cranked out by well-trained lit-people every year. Very fine creations.
Only one problem: Nobody wants to read them.
Pardon me for looking for an alternative.

King said...

Okay, to be fair, I went back to Justin Taylor's story. Late in the quite long narrative he addresses outside issues, through the grandfather (or is it the father?). By this point, who'd have stuck it out?
I can't recall, first time I read the story, where exactly I checked out.
Was it the paragraph which begins,
"At the next light. . . ."?
"Maybe you think my father. . . ."?
"My father was in high school. . . ."?
I can't imagine a general reader getting through all three of them.
What would propel him to do so?
Where's the hook?
Yes, exposition is hard to do, whatever strategy you use.
What I tried to do is put a thread into my story-- the movement of the character, in the river and out of it.
We all have a tremendous task in acquiring readers-- real readers.
It's a question I puzzle over.
I'll be putting more experiments up on my pop lit blog. I guarantee that they'll take different approaches, and will keep doing so until I hit the right formula.
I'd guess that status is indicative of willingness to experiment, to take risks.

Patrick said...

What is a "real reader," Wenclas?

And do you think that what you're writing "means anything?" Because I would submit to you that it doesn't; not even to you, given how slapdash it is. You said it was written a few years ago. Did you think to edit it? Or are you so invested in your ideas that they haven't changed in the last ten years? Given your penchant for saying the same thing over and over again, it wouldn't surprise me.

Re: in-flight novels,

"You have a built-in prejudice which sees them as automatically bad-- when they're the only thing keeping the tottering publishing world going-- and paying for advances to the likes of Mr. Taylor."

I do? Where? Did you not see the adjective? You're trying to paint me as a literary elitist--I am quite finnicky, I will admit--when what I was saying, in essence, is that you're no Elmore Leonard. And what does their "keeping the tottering publishing world going" have to do with their quality? Just because they sell to the quote "masses" doesn't make them better. Besides, most people who buy those kinds of books don't keep them. That's why the biggest sections of most used book stores are the paperback fiction sections. Read once: throw away.

Is that what you are interested in; writing disposable stories that people will forget not long after reading them? Because if you really think that story is edgy/risky, maybe you should go back to the drawing board. Not writing like a MFA student isn't enough, Wenclas.

King said...

You're so defensive, Patrick, about any dissent to literary things-as-they-are, as well as closed-minded.
I think we agree about "in-flight" novels. We agree that they're fulfilling the minimum requirement for fiction-- that it be read. Again, they're doing at least something right, which most literary stories can't do. They connect with readers. Whether it's a short connection; whether they should do more; they've taken the first step. I don't automatically dismiss that.
Is "Jezebel" slapdash? In fact it's well thought out and well put-together, doing exactly what I wanted it to do. It's certainly more of a piece than the rather more slapdash Justin Taylor example.
Remember Poe's rules-- that there be nothing extraneous, but adhere every piece of the story to achieve the desired effect.
"Masque of the Red Death" has no real character as focus-- the disease is the main character. Yet it's a great story. Why is that?
Jack London's "To Build a Fire" has only the ahard of a character. We know nothing about the man-- there's hardly a backstory at all. Yet it's a story which has well stood the test of time. It's an in-flight story in that it's a good read, yet it's more than that.
"Batman" and "Phantom of the Opera" are melodrama. They also seem to touch deep chords within us.
Dialogue used as exposition?
Stevenon's "Strange Case of dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" does this a lot, yet it's indisputably a masterpiece.
There are rules and then there are rules.
There are rules imposed by the bureaucratic mindset, and then there are rules-- like the ones Poe espoused-- which are intrinsic to the art.
I know which I seek to follow.
I can't see why you dislike my criticism of Harper-Perennial. They hardly need the support. I have nothing against them-- they are what they are.
Much of my "bloviating" which so upsets you is merely recognition of the structures of the world.
The story of modern America is the story of bureaucracy. We're the most bureaucratized society ever? The Soviet Union? Children at bureaucracy compared to what we've wrought.
The literary system is part of this.
I'm a romantic to seek to exist outside it, but I'm not so delusional as to deny it.
In many ways the most significant American novel of the 20th century was James Gould Cozzens' Guard of Honor, because it's perhaps the only one which captured the essence of American power-- mass organization.
This is too large a ubject for writers to even tackle. Yet a thousand years from now, historians will realize the importance; what America was about.
By the way, I'm amused at MFAers.
Writers are screaming abiout Arizona and the need to produce papers.
"Where are your papers?"
Yet they've readily bought the mentality that one needs to have "papers" in order to be a writer.
As always, thanks for your remarks.

Harland said...

Well, you'll probably be happy to learn, then, King, that Jonathan Lethem's just been named a full professor at Pomona College. Not only doesn't he have an MFA, he doesn't even have an undergraduate degree. One of your own on the inside!

King said...

?? Didn't Lethem attend the most infamous Insider nest of them all?
Anyway, I wish him luck. But I feel sorry for his students.

Harland said...

I can't keep track of all the infamy, King. You mean Brown? Harvard? Bennington? Columbia? Princeton? Yale? Dartmouth? Swarthmore? Amherst? Stanford? Penn? Cornell?