Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Allegra Hyde: "Act Like an Author, Think Like a Painter"

In the 45th in a series of posts on 2016 books entered for The Story Prize, Allegra Hyde, author of Of This New World (University of Iowa Press), explores some visual art principles that serve writers well.



I studied painting before I turned to fiction. At the time, writing seemed simpler—it required no bulky canvases, no expensive brushes—and, perhaps because I discovered writing could be unwieldy in its own way, I never left certain techniques of painting behind. Any artistic endeavor is an exercise in awareness. In early painting classes, one is pushed to truly “see,” to strip away conditioned perceptions so as to more accurately represent the surrounding world. Isn’t this what we aim for as writers? Here are several principles of visual art translated for literary purposes:

1. Give Weight to Negative Space. When drawing or painting, the territory around a subject can be as interesting and active as the subject itself. Likewise, in writing, it is useful to remember that a story’s setting does not have to merely exist as a backdrop. The “negative space” of a story can be brought into focus for a more dynamic narrative.

2. Green is Difficult. The human eye is most sensitive to green frequencies. We have evolved to parse the many shades present in nature—olive, emerald, yellowy-lime—which means using green paint straight from the tube will look artificial. A parallel problem in writing is the challenge of describing a subject such as love. Fictional representations often come off as cliché, because most people are deeply attuned to the many shades of human intimacy. Getting love right in a story, like the color green in a painting, means being as specific as possible and honoring the need for a custom “mix.”

3. Underpainting Can Be Important. Old masters like Johannes Vermeer often used monochromatic underpaintings as a guiding framework the way some writers use outlines. Having a base scaffolding upon which to build allows both painters and writers to transition from broad gestures to successively detailed layers. Underpaintings don’t have to be completely hidden, however. Vermeer liked the way exposed portions of his ultramarine sketches would vibrate, visually, against the warmer tones of subsequent layers. Writers might consider what it could mean to juxtapose a base narrative of a particular genre or style against surprising variations in tone.
Verneer's The Art of Painting


4. Copying Masters Makes You Better. Visit any major art museum and you’ll see visitors with sketchbooks, copying Caravaggio’s shadowy ensembles or O’Keefe’s floral close-ups. Sometimes it takes the act of replication to reveal the secret mechanics of a painting: how the composition hangs together, the interplay of light and dark. As writers, we can also inhabit the work of literary masters. Conscientiously copying out passages from The Bluest Eye or Pale Fire can teach us about pacing, syntax, style, and techniques that may have otherwise remained invisible. Then we can use these techniques in our own efforts.

5. Be Patient. Sometimes you have to wait for paint to dry before you continue working on a canvas. Likewise, writers may have to let a manuscript sit for days, weeks, years, in a desk drawer before returning to it for further revision. That’s just part of the process.

6. Don’t Inhale Paint Thinner. This is general life advice.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Mari Reiza Pulls the Strings

In the 44th in a series of posts on 2016 books entered for The Story Prize, Mari Reiza, author of Inconceivable Tales, lists some books she wishes she'd written and reminds herself that she is a writer.



Why do you write?
There are so many reasons FOR it, I feel the question should almost be reversed: Why wouldn’t I? Writing keeps me away from spending money, ensures I remain fit and sane, and saves me on therapy. It gives me a freedom I could not find anywhere else. Above all, when I write, I pull the strings, and I can make anything happen. Please tell me any other way I can achieve that and I’m willing to give it a go.

Name something you read that made you want to be a writer.
I was captivated by poetry from when I was a child and my mother came home with Gloria Fuertes’ books. I re-read The Iliad a few years ago during a beach holiday, and I did not want to come back from where it had taken me, not even to the comfort of my sunbed. When stories have captivated me, whether it’s because the author is putting my own feelings into words so well it helps me understand them, or because he or she has made up a world so far from mine that it’s making me reconsider everything, I have always felt that I would one day write my own.

Is there a book by another author you wish you’d written?
Dirty and proud
Written On The Body (J. Winterson) because I can feel but not write love like that. Animals (E. J. Unsworth) because I’m dirty in that way and proud of it; being a good girl is overrated if you ask me. Quicksand (S. Toltz) because how can one have so many funny lines in one’s brain. A Man Lies Dreaming (L. Tidhar) because of the mastery of how to cope with pain. The Robber Bride (M. Atwood) and The Heart Broke In (J. Meek) for the wickedness of some of their characters. The Blind Assassin (Atwood again!) for the imagery. Straight White Male (J. Niven) because sometimes I really want to be a lad. The Country of Ice Cream Star (S. Newman) because it’s EPIC and she has invented a new language. Dept. Of Speculation (J. Offill) because it sometimes can feel so close to home. Happy Are the Happy (Y. Reza) because I would like to understand whether I am happy. Traveling Sprinkler (N. Baker) because it’s like talking to a mate. Idiopathy (S. Byers) because the cow scene is great. May We Be Forgiven (A. M. Homes)… those rubber gloves, blue? (Happy Thanksgiving!) The Infatuations (J. Maria) for the perfect murder… Irma Voth (M. Toews)...
Coping with pain

Where does a story begin for you?
It depends on the book. But an image or a character more than a plot or a concept. And sometimes, I must admit, I can easily get lost in great lines and beautiful language even if I don’t understand in the slightest what the hell is going on. Great! I confessed.

Describe a physical, mental, or spiritual practice that helps put you in a suitable state of mind to write.
A room with a view and a background of books. I have my writer business card taped to my table to remind myself that I AM A WRITER. One glass of wine can help first round of creation, but editing always sober.  Otherwise, I force my hand, tell her if she doesn’t write I will cut her off. I drag myself through the minefield that’s my schedule as if I was carrying a military operation. Mean sergeant of myself, I am.

What do you do when you get stuck?
Get out of the room into the terrace and scream. Sometimes it’s not enough and I need to call it a day. Sometimes my brain does not work or life has upset me too much and there is nothing I can do but say, "Basta! Until tomorrow."

How do you know when a story you’re in the process of writing is or isn’t working?
When I re-read it even in a good mood and I say, "God, this is crap!"

Describe an unfinished story that you want to go back to but haven’t quite figured out yet.
My family saga. It is a monster. It’s an unfathomable monster. Where do I start? How do I do it justice? How judgmental can I be? Am I too close? Am I too detached? Why did I not ask my granny more questions before she left us. I guess she would not have answered them anyway. She was clever!

Discuss a local bookstore or library that is important to you.
Libraries have saved my life too many times. But I owe The Library of Congress, and I know this sounds posh but it’s totally accidental, more than most. And that’s another story I haven’t dared write… Phew! So much work ahead.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Charley Henley on How Boredom Can Spur Creativity

In the 43rd in a series of posts on 2016 books entered for The Story Prize, Charley Henley, author of The Deep Code (China Grove Press), talks about working in a food processing plant and spending a night in the drunk tank.



When I was an undergraduate at the University of Montana I worked for a couple of summers at this Birdseye corn processing plant in Waseca, Minnesota. The job paid $4.50 an hour, but it was a hundred hours a week. So, sixty of those hours were at $6.75. A lot of money in those days. And I was very happy to get it. Like many industrial operations, the corn plant was basically a long winding conveyor belt that took raw product dumped off the truck and turned it into processed packages of cobs and cut corn. These were boxed and stacked in a warehouse freezer reminiscent of the last images of Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark. I worked every position along the conveyor. I worked the muddy huskers, full of dead critters and corn smut. I worked in the hypnotic drone of the cob select stations. And I worked on the sanitation crews, where we fought a never-ending battle against mold with chlorine and nitric acid. My favorite job in the whole place was running the blanchers, two gargantuan machines that parboiled the fresh cobs. But to me they looked like a pair of warp engines off a trap freighter, taking the spinward run out to Ceres and the asteroid fields.
Corn, corn, and more corn

All down the sides of the blanchers there were these heavy valves, and it was my job to regulate the temperatures in the machines, loosening and tightening the valves with an industrial wrench. Then I had to record everything in a log book. It was loud as hell in that plant. And we wore ear muffs, flex coveralls, and thick rubber gloves. It left us isolated. Sensory deprived. We’d go twelve, fourteen hours a day. Week after week. Nothing to do but rattle around in your own brain. There was this other guy who I took turns with, working the blanchers. I don’t remember his name now. Or who started it. But in the margins of the log book, we began to write a story. Back and forth. One sentence at a time. It was about a drug runner and a soldier of fortune down in Central America named Nick Danger – no relation to Carlos. And I suppose it was probably pretty stupid, right? But Nick Danger got me through those hours of monotony. He’ll never appear in hardback, of course. But, I’d like to think that the Birdseye Company is meticulous in their record keeping. I’d like to think that ensconced somewhere in some bunker beneath a corn field in Minnesota, there’s Nick Danger. He’s still on the phone at Guatel, screaming at his man in Miami, who has hung him out to dry.

I spent a night in the Tuscaloosa County lockup one time. Stumbling out of Egan’s, I’d gotten picked up for walking drunk. And I remember waking up in the wee hours of the morning, surrounded by all the other drunks. My head on this jailhouse Bible. It was really nice of them, I think, to give us a Bible. Anything, really. Something to read in the sheer boredom of the pink walls. I don’t recommend spending a night in jail. But the truth is, I got a story out of that night called "Satellite Mother." And unlike The Adventures of Nick Danger, this one got published. It’s out there in the world for anyone to read. That’s about all an author can ask of a story. So, in the whole mix of this grand thing, I do not think that I would want to have spent that night any other way. It has become one of the best nights of my life. Though it was absolutely the most boring. This is the thing: Boredom is your friend. Without boredom, you will never write. Do not be afraid of the boredom. Earlier that night in Egan’s, I had not been bored. But I was not writing in Egan’s. I was running away from writing.

The other day my son told me that I should’ve been a truck driver. He may be right about that. I used to ride the Greyhound a lot. I’ve ridden cross country more times than I can count. The monotony of it can drive you mad, especially in the dead winter across North Dakota. My head would struggle at first against the boredom. But after the first day, I’d fall into the zone. Voices would rise out of the engine, the pavement. Images streaked across the fields. Today I have a job that I love. I teach creative writing and literature to undergraduates, many of whom are as amazed by the power of literature as I am. I’m very lucky to be able to do what I do. But I can imagine other jobs. Out on the road, I always come up with the solutions I need to these fictional problems and puzzles. Perhaps, if I were a long-haul trucker, I would write them down in the sleeping compartment of my rig after a long day’s drive. But if I were a child today, I do not think that I would want to be a truck driver. Instead, I would hope to become an asteroid miner. Imagine the wonderful boredom of it. Alone for weeks in the inky blackness of deep space. Nothing but a set of log books that no one will ever read.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Louise Ermelino on the Mystery of Becoming a Writer

In the 42nd in a series of posts on 2016 books entered for The Story Prize, Louise Ermelino, author of Malafemmena (Sarabande Books), ponders how she got to where she is.



I don’t know why I write. I grew up in a blue collar neighborhood with a strong oral tradition, but writing?? I had no idea it was a profession. Art was not a big part of my world and while the nun in grammar school who taught music would take us to the opera and the ballet once a year, we remained a bunch of ungrateful urchins.

I did write a novel when I was ten years old, about a Russian girl who wanted to be a ballerina but her father disapproved so she would dance secretly in the barn. Where did that come from? The only thing I knew about Russia (besides the ballerina association) was that we prayed for its conversion at the end of every Mass.

No one paid any attention to my writing at home and certainly no one read my Russian novel… I like to say I was raised with benign neglect which I view as a great blessing. But my father did buy me a pink Smith Corona portable typewriter (which is what I wrote the novel on).

Cher: Keeping books?
Did I ask for it? Did he think it would give me a head start on a secretarial job? He also taught me how to balance a checkbook and do accounts. Did he think I might be a bookkeeper like Cher in Moonstruck? 

If I had any thoughts early on of being a writer, they were stamped down when I was put into the dumb English class at Syracuse University, although I did write a Herman Hesse rip off short story for a German class. I just don’t know. But I know why I write now: because I love to tell a story; I love to see a blank page fill up with words; I love to hold a finished book in my hands; and this last book for Sarabande, Malafemmena, made me fall in love again with short stories.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Melissa Yancy: In Praise of "Bobcat" and the Unruly Story

In the 41st in a series of posts on 2016 books entered for The Story Prize, Melissa Yancy, author of Dog Years (University of Pittsburgh Press), uses a favorite story to argue for a maximalist approach.


Coco Chanel is often cited with an iconic piece of advice on the art of getting dressed: Before you leave the house, look in the mirror and remove one accessory. Chanel’s less is always more perspective has been applied to home décor and other matters of personal taste, and seems apt for writing, too. Yet I’m going to offer the opposite advice here: Before you’ve finished the story, cram another thing in.

A writing instructor once called me a “putter-inner” instead of a “taker-outer,” a perhaps inelegant but memorable description of my tendency to hoard. Readers have described my short stories as being “like novels,” which could be complimentary, suggesting a desire for the characters to live on, or a criticism, implying that I’ve failed at the density or compression the short form requires. But the remark accurately reflects that I often cram a lot of furniture and curios into a tiny room or hang many baubles on a very delicate wrist (which sounds dangerous, indeed).

I have often resisted this natural tendency, longing instead for leaner, finer structures, characters whose backstories make no appearance, every word serving—as many essayists on the art of the short story have prescribed—the totality of the story, the harmonious whole. And then I will read a story like Rebecca Lee’s “Bobcat” and be reminded of the giddying virtues of the tightly-packed short story, its textures and density like a bohemian enclave where rugs are tossed over other rugs, and crookedly framed photographs compete for space on the wall.

On its surface, “Bobcat” is a dinner party story, one of the best little scaffolds on which to hang a story: there will be a beginning, a middle and an end. How simple, how clear. There will be guests, food will presumably be served. So much is already decided. And yet, in the hands of a weaver like Lee, layer after layer emerges; in a fitting little wink, the story begins with a failed terrine. This story, the opening announces, will be like a lumpy meatloaf, all manner of odd bits folded in (but “meant to evince a perfect melding of disparate entities”).

There is a lot going on here. The narrator, our pregnant hostess, is threatened by a female character in her husband’s recent novel, and her husband’s intimate relationship with his book editor, who will be in attendance; the editor is distracted because she’s waiting to receive a book proposal for Salman Rushdie’s memoir about the fatwa. The other couple at the party, the so-called “Donner-Blitzens” have recently had a baby of their own, but the husband is having an affair with a paralegal, a fact our hostess knows because she works with him at a law firm where they are defending a Hmong immigrant who failed to allow his wife treatment for her fatal heart condition on religious grounds. Lizbet, the hostess’s childhood friend who has written the “thinking woman’s DaVinci Code” provides moral support, and brings another layered food item—the trifle, that unlike the terrine, is perfect. And finally, there is the guest of bobcat fame, who published a memoir about losing her arm in a bobcat attack on a mountain trek in Nepal. Poems are quoted, there is feminist backstory, conversations about marriage, cannibalism, Hmong religion, a Course in Miracles, all coming together—or not—much like the terrine. There are recurring images of meat, lambs for the slaughter, bellies and beasts. Did I mention how funny the story is?

Although the story braids many elements, repeated reading shows how each image, detail or aside reinforces the central questions of marriage, motherhood, and spousal savagery. It would be a very fine story without this strange addition of the bobcat, and the crucial conversation, late in the dinner, when it becomes unclear if the bobcat is mere metaphor, if the life-threatening attack was a literal event. The bobcat in the story is like the beauty mole on Cindy Crawford, the imperfect detail that actually serves to elevate what would otherwise be too perfect, too symmetrical. It’s impossible to reduce it, to explain why the element of the bobcat works. All of Lee’s stories in the collection are surprising, densely packed with detail, but “Bobcat” is the must read, the finest expression of her style. When I find myself leaning too much toward the symmetrical, the neat, I have only to think of the bobcat to get myself back on course.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Randa Jarrar and the Lonely Voice

In the 40th in a series of posts on 2016 books entered for The Story Prize, Randa Jarrar, author of Him, Me, Muhammad Ali (Sarabande Books), discusses who she writes for and why.



One of my favorite short story writers was also my professor in graduate school a decade ago. Peter Ho Davies assigned us Frank O’Connor’s introduction to The Lonely Voice and Gogol’s “The Overcoat” in his form and theory class. Though I’d been obsessed with short stories my entire life, these texts helped me draw a personal poetics.

My first published book was a novel. Novels are allowed to be—even encouraged to be—messy and baggy. Short stories are controlled, sexy; every sentence counts. And in the story we find the little “man,” and her appeals to be treated fairly—to be seen as one’s sister, instead of the misfit, the outcast who, because she’s relegated to the fringes of society, seems destined to stay there, or to stay outside of society and therefore not privy to its perks, to fair and kind treatment. That is what the short story means to be too; the short story is like the little man; its aim is to make an appeal, on behalf of the misfit.

The short story humanizes those whom larger society would prefer to bury, to keep on the fringes. The short story is a revolution. This is not to say that the short story has to be gentle, to murmur, “Leave me alone! Why do you insult me?” the way Gogol’s Akaky Akakievich does, but it can also shout it, scream it. When I write about queers, fatties, Arab-Americans, Muslims, I’m writing characters that have been systematically ignored, or maligned, or misrepresented, in larger society and in the narratives it tells. My main goal is to craft a good story—the way I measure a good story is not just through language, and on a sentence by sentence level, but also through verisimilitude- does this story sound true? I want to tell these characters’ loneliness, and hopefully, to move someone—a reader who’s chosen to swallow the lie that larger society tells about my characters—to move them to empathy.

I lied. I write more for the characters and the people like them than I do for the ignorant; I write for the fatties and the queers and the Arabs, etc., and if those inside the circle are moved by the way I write about those outside of it, that’s just a bonus.

Every writer I love does this, in some way, and I grasp something different from every writer I love. I love Lydia Davis for her sentences, for teaching me how much I can do in a small space. I love Katherine Mansfield for the opposite—I re-read “Prelude” every year. It’s a 17,000 word story. Bolaño taught me how much riffing a novelist can still do in a short story. I love Sam Lipsyte and Sherman Alexie for teaching me what humor can do in a short story. I love Percival Everett for his seriously playful concepts. Angela Carter is a magician who taught me you can tell a dozen stories with the same cast and setting and general set-up. So did Jamaica Kincaid, who, along with Margurite Duras, taught me that it was okay to be obsessed with my own story. Joyce and Babel taught me how to write about place and childhood and the two of those things, together. Babel threw war into the mix. James Baldwin is a prophet. Borges and Kafka taught me how to write dreams. Alice Munro taught me to always re-think where I end a story, and that female friendship is a topic worthy of literature.

Him, Me, Muhammad Ali is a love letter to loners and to short stories. It’s a book populated with marginalized characters, all yearning for pleasure, for safety, for sisterhood, for a place, both in the landscape of their lives and that of the contemporary short story.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

April Ayers Lawson on Why She Writes

In the 39th in a series of posts on 2016 books entered for The Story Prize, April Ayers Lawson, author of Virgin and Other Stories (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), explores what motivates her.



Over the years I have often asked myself why I write, and to be honest in answering this question publicly is hard because it means admitting I Don’t Know. But I have theories and the two that together form an answer are as follows.

The first—which will probably sound terribly unromantic—is that I write out of compulsion. As a kid I began to feel the urge to make stuff, which first manifested with visual art and inventions, and when I was in my late twenties this compulsion to make things turned almost completely to writing. When I go for a while without making stuff, there’s the feeling that I should be, and sometimes a feeling of pressure in my head, of disorder, and of not being able to think clearly enough. I do still draw, but it’s mostly doodling complicated abstracts—on the corners of papers, on lesson plans for teaching, on envelopes, on disposable restaurant menus meant for kids to color on, whatever is around. In the sense I work on them until something clicks, until they feel complete and I feel right in response to them, you could call them mandalas. Sometimes I don’t even know I’m doing it until I’ve already started. Each mark I put down requires for the sake of balance another, and so on, and I’ve figured out that the way a story grows for me is a lot like this. That the stories are types of mandalas. I suspect the basic urge to be at least in part fueled by inner restlessness, anxiety, and an excess of emotion. Also, I’ve noticed that the sense of compulsion waxes and wanes; that I go through phases of feeling it intensely and then barely at all for months.

The second is that I use writing to get in touch with a place that would otherwise be out of reach. It’s not usually easy to get to. When I’m in that place, what comes out onto the page surprises me even as it seems inevitable. And when for some reason I don’t write for a while, I sometimes in my mind see the image of a blocked window—like the air and light that’s supposed to be getting in isn’t getting in and one part of me is saying to another, Why are you keeping this window that’s supposed to be open closed? Why are you cutting off the life?

Monday, November 21, 2016

Sara Majka on Starting to Write Again

In the 38th in a series of posts on 2016 books entered for The Story Prize, Sara Majka, author of Cities I’ve Never Lived In (A Public Space/Graywolf Press), discusses the importance of having time to fail.


Around this time last year, I had a baby, and though I’ve tried to read and write since then, mostly the year passed without writing. So lately I’ve been thinking about how to start writing again, and I feel tentative about it and also have that sense that so often happens—that I’ve lost the ability to write, that I’ll try and find that I won’t be able to do it anymore.

I remember once reading that if you’re stuck in your work, then it’s best to read, read something good, and soon enough, you’ll find yourself writing again. This advice seems more geared for the short time block, but I do think reading may be the most important step. When I’m not reading, my acceptance of sloppiness of thought grows—things can start seeming fine enough. Another thing that I’ve done in the past is to journal. I wrote in diaries when I was young, and it used to be a way to return to basics to start again, but I find that I do it less and less. I’m not sure why.
Pram in the hallway

I also think about my ex-husband, who was a mathematician, saying how when you’re a young mathematician, it’s best to put a lot of time into your work, so that many projects are laid out for you for the future. That reminds me of the time when I was a fellow at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. I was a fellow for seven months and nothing I wrote was very good, but I did produce a lot of it. I had stacks of printed pages on my desk. I don’t think I ever even reread that work, but its usefulness was that—during the time I spent writing it—I was actively creating an imaginary world, one I could return to later and write from. I imagine it as sort of pushing out space in my head—excavating it, or tunneling as one might tunnel mines, or laying down the tracks. It takes a lot of time, but those months of inner time could be used for years to come.

With the baby now, I don’t have that time anymore. I feel unsure how to get started again. In the past I would lie around and read, read for long hours, read lazily, read because there was nothing else to do, and slowly begin to pick at writing until I found that metronome of working again. I would then write badly until I’d written so much that a little bit could be salvaged from it, and then that little bit could grow into its own thing. One of the hardest parts about writing when you’re pressed for time is that it’s the least efficient thing in the world—I think of our electrical grid as I write this, where such a small amount of the electricity that’s created actually goes into lighting the bulb that I am writing this by.

Now that the baby is older, I could find time to write, but it would be hard to find time for all that failed writing. For me writing begins in earnest when I allow myself nothingness: allow that nothing will come out of it, that I’m moving toward nothing, that I’m gaining nothing—when I’m in full embrace of its futility, which is a way of saying when I’m able to release control. It’s a daunting practice, but certainly the most daunting part is the beginning, when you know that not today, not tomorrow, not even the day after that will you be able to write anything good.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Kevin Hardcastle Says: Nobody Will Really Believe You Can Pull This off

In the 37th in a series of posts on 2016 books entered for The Story Prize, Kevin Hardcastle, author of Debris (Biblioasis), discusses writing as an act of defiance.


I wanted to write for a living since I was a kid, for as long as I knew what it was. I’ve been focused on it for so long that sometimes it’s worthwhile to step back from it and think on how it looks from the outside. Most writers know the range of the reactions they get when they tell someone that is what they’re trying to do for a living. Sometimes it’s a genuine interest, sometimes just the good ol’ blank stare. That kind of thing is old news to most of us, even to writing students and emerging writers. There’s a feeling that you are tapped into something that doesn’t have to be understood by everyone, whether in the motivation to write or in the actual nuts and bolts of the writing process.

There are many of us who have seen their writing reduced to a hobby or affectation in the eyes of people on the outside, and I think any good writer has found a way to plough through in spite of those who might tell you to give it up and get a real job (of course, most of us do have real jobs as well). The act of writing and all of the work that goes into it can be a valuable act of defiance, and there is something profound to that. What I’m interested in, and what I’d say to young writers, or myself as a kid, is that the doubts and disbelief will not stop with those folks who don’t write, or who think it’s not a realistic path. In fact, the further along you get the more you run into those folks, or some publishing machinery, that will try to tell you that you have certain limits, and that your aims as a writer might be impossible.

I’m still relatively new to publishing, as far as books go. My first collection of stories came out last year, and my novel will be out next year. As there were a lot of educational moments in trying to get published in journals over the years, and going through that process of rejection, perseverance, and, sometimes success, there are similar things that you learn as you navigate the publication of your books. Nobody wanted my books at first. Hell, I was essentially told that none of what I wrote was recognizable as Canadian Literature by people who are in charge of what gets published in this country. But, I felt that there was something valuable being said in my work that wasn’t being said in what we accepted as good writing in Canada, and I battled on. Eventually, I started getting support, reader by reader and story by story. I finally found the right editor (John Metcalf), and publisher (Biblioasis), and the first book did pretty well. I got my little indie tours and good reviews and the book was up for a few prizes, and won the Trillium Book Award.

Head banger: Keep on trying
At this stage, the people who place limits on you come from all over the place. Publishers start telling you what your writing is worth, and what you should write next. Agents have their own ideas about what they can sell, and how much more salable you could be. Even your peers, with books of their own, who’ve been through the wars, will tell you there is only so far you can go. That nobody will care about your book really, or that only so many will. You will not be able to do this for a living. You will not get further than being a writer who publishes some books in Canada and has a little bit of traction in that world. All of these people, anyone other than you, are to be defied and defeated much like a parent or teacher who told you to drop the imaginings and go to trade school. 

Up in Canada, we have a robust community of writers and publishers, and a history of protectionism that both solidified this community, and insulated it from a certain level of competition or ambition. My aim as a writer is to make a living at this, and to get my books into places where they have a history of reading those kind of books, and to potentially break into other markets where the writing might find readers we didn’t know were there. I’m trying to get into Cormac McCarthy, Daniel Woodrell, Donald Ray Pollock territory, and find the readers that go for those books in the U.S., and worldwide. If the Canadian market is, in itself, something that tells you that your writing will only do so much, the way that you are looked at for reaching beyond that is like you’ve told somebody you’re going to land on Mars. Nonetheless, that is where I’m trying to go.

I’ve been lucky to have found some peers who are very good writers, however different they are from each other in their work. And, the reason they are good, to some extent, is because they couldn’t give a damn what other writers are telling them their limits are, and because they are not letting it impact the aims of their work. Better yet, we are all very competitive with each other, and want to absolute destroy each other on the page, to have our writing be the best, to stand out. That is a good thing, though writers are often too precious and sensitive to behave like that. We want to be the best on the page, but are friends in real life and support the successes we all have, especially when new ground has been broken. That lifts all boats, and it is the reason I have hope for an interesting future in my country’s literature.

So, I would tell any young writer, or anyone being told what they can’t do with their writing, to keep bashing your head into that wall until something gives. You might’ve had that moment in your early writing days when you guessed that nobody, nobody, thought that you could do this but you. And when you start to prove them wrong, that is a beautiful thing. Take that with you when the stakes get higher, and aim for whatever thing you are told you can’t do. The fear of this, in Canadian Literature, is something that has discouraged many good writers and turned others into some facsimile of themselves. You might well aim high and miss, but I bet you’ll land higher than you would’ve otherwise. It must be said that I know the reality of what might happen with my writing, as do the writers I like and respect for their ambitions. I have no designs on fame and riches. But I do think that, if you write honestly and tap into something that you know has purpose, that resonates with other people, you may just be that one who breaks through and gets to do this for a living. So, with my feet firmly on the dirt, I believe that those aims are worth having. And you should too. You should believe that in your blood and bones, especially when nobody else does.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Maureen Millea Smith on the Lasting Influence of Libraries

In the 36th in a series of posts on 2016 books entered for The Story Prize, Maureen Millea Smith Oldshue, author of The Enigma of Iris Murphy (Livingston Press), on how her path to being a writer started in a library.


When I was a grade school aged child in Omaha, my father would take my siblings and me to the Old Main Library on Saturdays where Miss Adeline Proux of the Children’s Room would help us pick out books. On average my father took three children at a time on these trips. If we did not go on Saturday he would take us there on Wednesday evening, going first to the Fontenelle Park duck pond to feed stale bread to the waterfowl, and then onto the library. My mother would be at home, often blessedly alone, cooking dinner.

My parents lost two children. My younger brother was born with Down syndrome, and died at four months of age from pneumonia. Six years later my older sister, who was eleven, died of glomerulonephritis. The library routine was part of their pattern of keeping their five remaining children busy and engaged. Ice skating, gymnastics, summer school, piano lessons, baseball, my parents found things for us to do. We soldiered on.

The visits to the library were wonderful for me. Reading was my solace in a time of upheaval; it still is. Miss Proulx and her staff gave extraordinary readers’ advice. I became a fiction addict and a student of the story. The public library nursed my soul. Novels that depicted the inner workings of a character’s mind taught me about humanity. Books educated me to the mysteries that exist beyond Nebraska.
The old Omaha Public Library building

In college, I became an English major because I liked to read and I liked to write essays. When I received a hideous score on the LSAT in 1980, I felt doomed. In my day, all English majors said they were going to law school; parents liked those words.

After my LSAT debacle, I remembered what a librarian named Margaret Marrs had told me when I was a page at the Omaha Public Library:

“You should go to the University of Iowa and get your MLS. You would be a great librarian.”

When I told my advisor at the University of Wyoming, Professor Janice Harris, that I would like to be a librarian, she also believed that it would be a fine path for me. My mother was appalled when she heard about library school, certain, I am sure, that I would live a life of dire poverty, unmarried, in a hovel. Upon arriving in Iowa City I dutifully took my courses and learned all about cataloguing and reference, library boards and intellectual freedom, and met the man who would become my husband.

What became my private obsession at the University of Iowa was the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Studying library science became my cover for wanting to become a writer. I knew more than anything else, even then, that I wanted to write fiction. I understood that if my mother ever learned that I wanted to be a writer she would jump into the family Ford and drive Interstate 80 to Iowa City to set me straight. Mom catalogued writers under “starving artists” and “adult children who live with their parents forever.” I kept this dream under wraps.

My husband’s career took me to Ohio where I would work seven years in the Fiction & Young Adult Department for the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County. Later we moved to the Twin Cities where I would go to night school for an MFA in creative writing at Hamline University. In the age of memoir, I was dedicated to fiction.

My characters open their worlds to me. They are more than me. They make me excavate the facts of their lives. They demand do-overs, re-writes, renovation, compression, and revision when it comes to their stories. They surprise me endlessly, turning my plotlines into dust. Whenever I open my laptop and begin to read a current story or chapter aloud, that incantatory process of getting back into a character’s life, I leave mine behind. Most of the time this is good.

Once though, when I was having what human resource professionals love to call “work/life stress/balance issues,” I said to a particular character,

“What if today I just wrote about me?”

Silence came over that corner of my bedroom.

My cat looked up from her place on the bed, warily.

“But I have the better story,” he said back to me.

My characters are not my imaginary friends.

I sighed, wept a little, and got on with his life.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Paula Whyman's Six Steps to Conquering Your Fear of Sex Scenes

In the 35th in a series of posts on 2016 books entered for The Story Prize, Paula Whyman, author of You May See a Stranger (TriQuarterly Books), offers some advice on writing about S-E-X.


Even writers who feel competent at creating just about any kind of scene can be stymied by sex scenes. I’m often asked how I approached these scenes in my story collection. The answer is, the same way I approach any scene. I have in the past compared writing sex with writing about bowling. That is, you don’t need to describe what the bowling ball looks like unless there’s something unusual about it. You don’t need to describe every action, only the defining moments.

Here are my guidelines:

1. Relax.
Too often, writers approach a sex scene like a tornado is threatening: Red alert! Sex scene approaching! Normal writing style must cease now! The result is that we wake ourselves from the dream state in which we usually do our best work, and then we write something plodding, labored, or squirm-inducing, and by doing that we throw the reader out of the story as well. My advice? Calm down. Stop heavy breathing, and just breathe. Tell yourself these are only words, like all the other words.

2. Ask yourself: Is the scene necessary?
Practicing: Dressed rehearsal
Every scene in a story should pass this test. What work is the scene doing in your story? Does it advance the plot? Does it illuminate character? (Extra credit if it does both.) Maybe we need to know that something happened, but we don’t need to actually see it happen. Much of the time, it’s not necessary for your characters to bare all. Let the romantic couple disappear behind a closed door, 1950s-movie style. The reader can imagine what went on. Trust your reader.

3. Remember character—forget yourself.
So you do need the scene; something important is conveyed there. It can be easy to forget in one’s anxiety about writing a sex scene that your character’s actions still must be consistent and true. Remember to filter the events through your protagonist’s perceptions. What would she do in this situation? What would she notice about herself and about the other character/s in the scene? Choose your details carefully and sparingly. We don’t need to know and see everything. Don’t show the reader what he already knows or can presume; describe what’s unexpected or unusual. For instance, in my book, there’s a scene in which the female protagonist is in bed with a man who shoves her hair into her mouth and then asks her a question. She can’t answer, because her hair is in her mouth. Soon, she reveals that he came, and she didn’t, pretty much in those words. There is no abstract description of her physical state, and minimal description of the act itself. The brevity is appropriate to the act. From the few details that are provided, the reader can imagine what this encounter was like for the protagonist.

4. Avoid overzealous overearnest overwriting.
Stay away from awkward metaphors, abstraction, or description that’s too clinical in its word choice and detail. Speaking of words…try to choose the right word for the moment, as you would in any scene. There are, for instance, any number of slang terms for sex organs, and if you find you must use one of these words (note that many a convincing—and hot—sex scene has been written without any reference to a specific “private part”), there will probably only be one word that works without causing the reader to flinch. The right word depends on the situation and the character, so try it different ways. Go to a quiet place and read it aloud to yourself, like you would any scene…but maybe not when you’re at the office.

5. You can’t be serious.
Sex in real life is often funny. If you think about the mechanics in any objective detail, the whole thing seems weird and awkward. In real life, people bang glasses when they kiss or someone gets an accidental elbow in the eye or a knee in the groin. I’m not suggesting you put a humorous sex scene in your story if it doesn’t fit the tone. I am saying that the tone in your story should be consistent. There’s no need to suddenly go somber just because your characters have landed in bed. If the characters are funny with their clothes on, they’re still going to be funny—funnier, even—naked.

6. Show your work.
Choose one or two trusted readers and ask them to be honest about whether there is anything that throws them out of the story. Listen, and revise accordingly.

Now, off to the bowling alley!

Monday, November 14, 2016

Brian Booker on Taking Characters for a Ride

In the 34th in a series of posts on 2016 books entered for The Story Prize, Brian Booker, author of Are You Here for What I'm Here For? (Bellevue Literary Press), lays out an effective story strategy: putting your characters in a car.


Sometimes when my story draft is running low on gas, I try to persuade my character to get in a car and go. My characters find themselves getting picked up and taken for a ride, or being asked for one, or taking a wrong turn in middle of the night.

A car trip gives intention (conscious or otherwise) a trajectory in the world, and the world has many ways of interfering with it. It does so with gruesome fatedness in Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” which has plenty of suspense even though the opening paragraph announces where the story is headed: The Misfit, escape from the Federal Pen, headed to Florida (where the family is also headed). It’s a masterpiece of pacing: The path from beginning to end is not a straight line, and in order to stay the fated course, the family must go off course, which they do “outside of Toombsboro,” when the grandmother “recalled an old plantation that she had visited in this neighborhood once when she was a young lady.” It’s a particular type of lostness, both in place and in time, in which the discrepancy between the map (the grandmother’s memory/desire) and the terrain (the dirt road down which the family’s car races in a swirl of pink dust) generates a dislocated worry before driving the story into the promised horror. It’s hard to imagine that working so neatly in the age of GPS.
Road trip: Setting events in motion

Especially in America, the car is a metonym for the body and ego. It’s an escape pod that ushers you through an indifferent or hostile landscape, a mechanical being that, like the body, can falter and fail and die without warning. In Annie Proulx’s folktale “The Half-Skinned Steer,” the octogenarian businessman Mero is driving his Cadillac (he’s afraid to fly) from Massachusetts back to the Wyoming ranch whose depredations he fled sixty years earlier. The plot is designed to funnel old Mero into the traps set by memory and the high desert landscape, where the smallest mistakes have the direst consequence, until he finds himself alone and unsheltered in terra malcognita, “the cliffs rearing at the moon, the snow smoking off the prairie like steam.” The car is a little world, but the world outside is bigger.

The interest of car trips has something to do with the ontologically ambiguous position of the person in transit, who is here but not really here, who is on her way somewhere else.  In Joy Williams’ story “The Little Winter,” from her collection Escapes, a terminally-ill woman named Gloria travels to visit her old friend Jean and Jean’s daughter Gwendal. Gwendal, who is disconcertingly precocious, offers to write Gloria’s biography; she asks if Gloria will kidnap her. Gloria accepts the offer, picking up the girl in the middle of the night. Not until the two have set off on a strange kind of road trip to nowhere, staying in motels like stations in a bardo, do we realize the extent to which Gloria’s mind is unraveling—either that or Gwendal is a demonic figure, an emissary from Death riding shotgun.

There are different shades of kidnapping; car stories can generate suspense from the unstable balance of power between driver and passenger. If a good craft tip is to have your character pick up the person they shouldn’t, another is to have the wrong character get behind the wheel.  That’s what happens in the last section of Edward P. Jones’ story “The Sunday Following Mother’s Day.” Madeleine hasn’t seen her father for thirty years since he went to prison for murder. He shows up at her door as she’s preparing to go visit her son at the state asylum. The father offers to go with her, to drive Madeleine to the asylum in his car. She doesn’t need or want his help, but as if in a kind of dream, she consents. Wrong driver, wrong car—that’s what swerves the story onto its marvelously uncanny track.

I am glad that soon cars will be smart and drive themselves. They won’t kill us as much, or let us kill each other and the planet so easily, which is good. They will buffer us from the consequences of our erratic emotions and feeble attention. But something will have been lost for fiction, just as it was when the cell phone made it harder to get characters incommunicado, and thus to get them out of their depth or beyond the pale, at least geographically speaking.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Robert Oldshue on the Probable Improbable in Fiction

In the 33rd in a series of posts on 2016 books entered for The Story Prize, Robert Oldshue, author of November Storm (University of Iowa Press), contemplates Aristotle's Poetics and America's politics.


After many years of quoting Aristotle’s Poetics, I decided, one weekend, to read it. I’m writing a novel in which a character acts in a way that he, probably, can’t, and, after two hundred some pages, I was worried. I wanted to reassure myself that Aristotle had classified dramatic action as Probable, Improbable, and Impossible and had decided, when he was finished, that the best plots made the Impossible seem Possible.

Here’s what he actually said:
It is Homer who has chiefly taught other poets the art of telling lies skillfully. The secret of it lies in a fallacy, For, assuming that if one thing is or becomes, a second is or becomes... the mind, knowing the second to be true, falsely infers the truth of the first. There is an example of this in the Bath Scene of the Odyssey. 
Accordingly, the poet should prefer probable impossibilities to improbable possibilities.

        — Aristotle, Poetics, XXIV
My first surprise, of course, was that politicians study Homer.  Proving an idea, not by proving it, but by proving the next idea and claiming that both have been proven is, for candidates, standard procedure. My second surprise was that Aristotle’s much quoted statement is, most often, quoted wrong. Specifically, he was telling writers how to distract the audience from a plot’s failings, he wasn’t telling them how to identify a plot that’s workable.

Can Aristotle’s classification be expanded?

Consider Donald Trump’s plan to build a wall with Mexico and to have the Mexicans pay for it. If, when you heard it, you thought it an attempt to make the Impossible seem Probable, you dismissed it and him. “He’s a nut,” you said and moved on. Similarly, if you thought Hillary Clinton’s speeches long on details and short on vision, you worried that she was making the Probable look, merely, Probable, which, as a strategy, was safe, but wouldn’t fire up her base. To engage people, Clinton’s staff advised her to make more promises and Trump’s staff advised him to make fewer.

If that example’s too painful, consider a magic show.

As with fiction, the audience is told that it will be tricked and, in order to be entertained, they agree. If the magician, then, says that the trick will be to pour the water in a pitcher into an empty glass until the glass is full, the audience, faced with the Probable Probable, will get up and leave. If the magician says, instead, that his or her heart, still beating, will be removed and, then, replaced by an assistant, the audience, faced with someone who thinks the Impossible is, not only, Possible, but Probable, will get up and, in this case, run. The audience doesn’t know if the magician with follow through on this promise, but it doesn’t want to find out.

Now, imagine that the magician says that the trick will be to make a small animal or bird appear from an appropriately sized hat or to name a card that someone across the room is holding or to, somehow, name the holder.

The audience knows, as it did, that it’s a trick, but the audience, now, is neither bored nor frightened. If, in addition, the magician finds a way to reassure them, early on, that he or she is skilled and respects their time and attention, they’re as engaged as they would be if someone told them a story about a whale that attacked a whaling ship or a man who made a fortune so he could buy a long, lost love. Neither Moby Dick nor the Great Gatsby have plots that are Probable, but neither are their plots Impossible. They are Improbable. They can, with the help of a Melville or a Fitzgerald, glimmer with that attention-grabbing mix of stability and instability created when a writer or a politician makes the Improbable seem Probable and, in so doing, makes a reader, or a voter, believe.

So where does this leave me?

In my novel, a schizophrenic occasionally says and does things that are sane. Is my plot Probable? No. But is it Impossible? No. It’s Improbable, and, with work, can be made Probable. Rather than abandoning my plot, I need to embrace it. I’m exactly where a novelist or a politician (or Aristotle’s poet) should be.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Christine Sneed on Personal and Narrative Spaces

In the 32nd in a series of posts on 2016 books entered for The Story Prize, Christine Sneed, author of The Virginity of Famous Men (Bloomsbury USA), compares the governing logic of stories with the messier logic of existence.


In the last few years, I’ve become more interested in finding solitude and silence, two things I spent much of my childhood and early adulthood trying to escape. Now, in my forties, I look back at these years and shake my head. Little did I know at twenty-five how fondly I would view, at forty-five, the quiet suburb where I grew up and where my parents still reside. For the last ten years, I’ve lived on the far northern fringes of Chicago, across the street from an emergency room and an elementary school. Tranquility and a low decibel level are difficult to find much of the time, even late at night.

My partner copes with these conditions better than I do, in part because more than twenty years of daily meditation have equipped him with a certain trait that I have found elusive: He is able to live peaceably with the frequent uproar outside our home, and more importantly, with the unoccupied spaces within him.

We all have these spaces, I think. They are vacancies where an absence of rote activity resides, and in myself, I find these empty rooms unsettling because from them the truest opportunity for self-knowledge could emerge, but only if I’m not peering at my computer or phone.
Empty room

One reason I think self-knowledge is often painful is because it requires an unsentimental reckoning with one’s flaws. In the short stories I write, the pivotal moments usually center on the point-of-view characters’ dawning awareness of their faults, and consequently, how these flaws have dictated the choices they’ve made. If there are no flaws, there are no trouble-inciting choices, and therefore no drama or conflict to describe and navigate and potentially overcome.

In a story, I try to identify my characters’ problems within the first few pages, and by the final page, to offer some kind of resolution. In the non-fictional, physical world, however, I never seem capable of confronting an emotional situation as coolly and logically as I do on the page, and perhaps this is one reason why I keep writing.

Something else that I have begun to understand after years of teaching and writing fiction is that although our bodies experience the passing of months and years in a linear, chronological fashion, our minds do not—they are sophisticated but capricious time machines, zapping us back and forth through the years, often at inconvenient moments. This phenomenon might explain why some of us spend innumerable hours talking to therapists about our experiences growing up in families whose members were better at fighting than loving each other, about residual but still-powerful disappointments or triumphs, whether related to love, work, or friendships.

The governing logic of a story is in its narrative structure, but the governing logic of a life is that there might not be any logic, other than in the most elemental sense: We are born, we live for a time, and one day, we cease to exist in any comprehensible manner.

Those quiet spaces within us—they are, as I’ve come to think of them, where the story comes from—the story of who we are, but also, the stories we are writing or hoping one day to write.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Alexander Weinstein's Letter To Himself as a Young Writer

In the 31st in a series of posts on 2016 books entered for The Story Prize, Alexander Weinstein, author of Children of the New World (Picador), shares some wisdom.


Dear Alexander,

How’s third grade? Happy to hear you’ve discovered creative writing! I wanted to share something you’ve yet to learn about your writing: Your work is going to be rejected. A lot. I’m here from the future to tell you that the number of rejections you’ll have by the time you’re thirty-five will reach well into the hundreds. Your first acceptance? It won’t come until after ninety-four rejections. And there’s only one consolation I can offer you: This is par for the course in the writing life.

What you’ll wish, of course, is that the first story you ever write will be published. As a third-grader, just now discovering writing, you think all it takes is to simply finish a book and send it to the publishing houses. They’ll then send you a huge check, the book becomes a New York Times best seller, and you retire from all other work in order to devote your time to writing. Alas, it never works this way—not for you, not for anyone.

Instead, prepare for the following:

You’ll graduate college with an undergraduate degree in creative writing—a degree which you’ll find is mostly good for restaurant work. You’ll toil in kitchens, landscaping jobs, and underpaid interning for years, where no one seems to care about your writing whatsoever. You’ll become a father, the duties of which include many important things, like changing diapers, preparing food, singing lullabies, loving well—but doesn’t include writing.
Writer-in-training


Over the years as a struggling writer, you’ll regularly wonder if you were truly meant to be a writer or if it was just a hopeless delusion you’ve foolishly nurtured. The dark nights of the soul, inherent in the artistic process, won’t be pleasurable. The stereotypical and often romanticized Life-of-The-Struggling-Writer, while seemingly idyllic in novels, won’t feel romantic or idyllic. Yes, there are always cafés, bars, and coffee shops where you can write, but it won’t feel like Paris. Instead, you’ll learn how to survive on day-old-bagels and thrift store clothes, and in the process you’ll learn to be a loving father, a dedicated partner, a devoted friend, and many other things which will make you a better human, and in turn, a better writer—but won’t necessarily get you published.

All of this is part of the job. Your only duty as a writer during the dark years: to keep writing.

For here’s something you cannot yet know: As you struggle through all the rejections of the early years, you’ll discover that the rejections will make you a stronger writer. Years later, you’ll revisit your early stories which were turned down for publication, and you’ll thank god they were never published. You’ll learn to write stories not to impress other people, or for fame, or because you want publication—but because there’s no way for you not to write. And as soon as you let go of your need for publication, you’ll find your stories unfolding in unexpected ways; they’ll surprise you by revealing things about your own heart that you never knew.

You’ll go to grad school, where you’ll learn how to teach—and you’ll discover that you love it. You’ll make friends there who will become your readers and editors for many years to come. You’ll stay up late, drinking wine and enjoying their company. All of this is good for your writing. And you’ll work on your stories for a long, long time. If we count the start of your writing life as this moment in third grade when you’re first dreaming of publication, it’ll take you over thirty years of steady dedication before your first collection is published. Don’t worry—it’s all worth it—this is what it means to be a writer. The truth is: for you, life ultimately feels better when you write.

As for the secrets of how to make it as a writer, they’re simple: Keep writing, read authors you love, edit like mad, open doors for other writers whenever you can, quiet the inner critic, be compassionate to yourself through all the challenges of the writing life, and be thankful for the stories that come knocking at your door. When you hear them waiting outside, open the door wide, welcome them in.

Friday, November 4, 2016

Greg Jackson Asks: Does Literature Have a Political Responsibility?

In the 30th in a series of posts on 2016 books entered for The Story Prize, Greg Jackson, author of Prodigals (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), explores the relationship between implicitly and explicitly political writing.



When this past summer Aleksandar Hemon explained his decision not to sign a letter by 450 prominent writers denouncing Donald Trump’s candidacy, he noted how rare it is these days for literary authors to make political news and how few books published—or published to acclaim—in the past decade of U.S. fiction endeavor to address the culture, climate, or explicit actions that have defined our political era of terminal partisanship, terminal vacuity, and interminable war. Of course an argument can be made that all literature, in what sphere of human life it illuminates and what human qualities it dignifies or indicts, takes a political stand. Very little art aspires to moral dispassion, and that which does ends up making one of the most strident moral claims of all, since art’s value, when it is good, so deeply refutes our culture’s presiding schemata of worth that its deepest political message will always be its very existence and endurance, the category of value and sanctity it keeps alive—and unrepentant art-for-art’s-sake most of all.

Must we be in the business of judging who is the more political writer between Don DeLillo and Alice Munro, Grace Paley and Ann Beattie, to take Hemon’s point? There is a difference between a book’s being political and its taking politics as its subject, and today the decided preference is for eschewing the subject itself in favor of the tacit understanding that to write fiction from a place of moral feeling is tantamount to expressing a politics. The personal is political—no less when the personal is fictional—and indeed we have had no great shortage of books dealing with our recent wars, the legacy of racial injustice, the marginalization of women, the trials and ordeals of immigrants, our divisions across lines of class and geography, our insults to the environment, the iniquities of high finance, and the terms of political belief in private life.
Author Aleksander Hemon

I say this, and still I agree with Hemon, on balance, because it is my sense that within the generous, humanistic notion that literature committed to the moral struggle of the individual soul can be just as political as the social panoramas we owe to Conrad, Tolstoy, Eliot, and Stendhal lives a contemporary belief that political art is distasteful. I feel it myself, a faint apprehension, aversion, or fatigue when I encounter the term. In an interview with Hemon for On the Media Bob Garfield remarked, “One could make the argument that if you want a formula for writing a crappy novel make it explicitly political. Society may be served by political fiction, but I’m not sure fiction is served by it.”

But again, what does “explicitly political” mean? Does it mean politics as a subject or politics as an agenda? I doubt any serious reader or writer of fiction thinks the rigors and joys of literature cooperate with partisan advocacy, or that some cod-liver-oil class of fiction exists that serves society but not art itself. Hemon clarifies his position: Writers respond to the political era, he says, “not to correct or to pontificate but rather to create a space to understand what happened to us . . . Fiction allows for conversations that cannot quite be had in public space defined by the media or social media.” And when you look at the celebrated fiction of the last decade—this is Hemon’s point—you get little, if any, sense of the nation’s political life in this period. Among the community of writers, as demonstrated by the anti Trump letter, a political consensus (and a consensus that writers have a political responsibility) obtains. Among its books, this consciousness and passion seem strangely absent. The letter Hemon wrote in response seems to call out a bad faith, a desire to use the prestige of one’s artistic career to take a political stand but not to use one’s art to elaborate and animate the point.

Explanations of course abound. Writers write what they know and find interesting; readers read for pleasure; publishers publish what they believe will sell. The fervency of online opinion meanwhile makes the expression of moral nuance and complexity more thankless than ever these days. And yet we need fiction that engages our politics, since what art does address it consigns to the realm of familiar, abbreviated, and public truth. For all that may be stacked against this effort I see mainly literature’s failure to rise to the challenge. The best political fiction—Paley, Sebald, Faulkner, Bolaño, Eisenberg, Saunders—after all knits its message foremost and most deeply in the spirit of the work itself, in its mischief, good humor, humility, and grace. It is a mistake to believe that political art must be off putting, dead on arrival, preachy, or lame. On the contrary none has succeeded while indulging the temptation to righteousness or sanctimony, and great political art exists all the same.

The absence of politics from this era’s literature—if the premise holds—to my mind reflects a growing loss of faith in the power of art itself, its potential not only to evoke, inspire, and represent, but its more fundamental capacity to transcend the cramped emotional and intellectual spaces in which the prejudices of the moment take shape. Political art does not advance a politics so much as it helps us understand ourselves politically, and it reminds us in its sensibility of the true scope of political, and human, possibility. There is a yawning gulf between moralism and moral discourse. One insists on a morality, one helps us discover our moral selves. No one wants to be told what to think. No one wants to be judged. We are in danger in this country, and on the left no less than the right, of mistaking the expression of a point of view for commitment to its values. And from there the line quickly blurs between what is truly ennobled and what is merely personally, politically, or professionally convenient.

Art stakes both its value and its status as art on a certain marginality. What is immediately well liked and widely popular has probably forgone saying anything that is hard to hear. What merely repeats the agreements of the present, or helps us float away from their compromises and snares, by definition does not move us forward. Have we grown timid or complacent? Or is the premise faulty? I wonder whether writers are taking the risks they once did, whether the risk-takers are being punished or rewarded, and why; and I wonder about the absence of politics in our literature that Hemon noted, whether it exists, in fact, and what it says about the taste of readers, writers, publishers, and editors. What I am fairly sure of is this: Art reaches its ideal when it allows privacies to whisper to one another in public, when it gives society a place to announce the evolving truth of conscience, and a vessel by which to ferry this truth past the dismal hazards of censure, ridicule, posturing, and fashionable thought. We have been fortunate in the U.S. mostly to avoid the suppression of the speech so common the world over, but explicit repression is not the only means of disempowering speech, as we know. The first step is to stop taking its power seriously enough.