SPECIAL POST: Amazing News in the Time of Coronavirus

In Which I Share Some AMAZING NEWS!

Hello! I’m not reviewing any books this week, but I do have some AMAZING news to share instead. I’m thrilled to say that my novelette, “The Demon-Slayers” has been published in the latest issue of “The Society of Misfit Stories.” This is the first piece of fiction I’ve ever been paid for, and I’m so excited to share it with you!

Here’s an excerpt (content warning, suicide):

Azamat was dead. I heard it from his older sister, Mariyam. She rode to my dwelling in the outskirts of Verniy and told me.

I shook my head and said I was sorry. Then I asked how he had died, and my voice trembled when I asked it.

Mariyam stared at the weapon-rack I had put against the near wall.

I couldn’t not know, and so I looked at her closely, trying to figure it out. It seemed like she’d been crying, but she’d had enough composure to do her black hair in its usual long braid. I didn’t know what to make of that.

“How did he die?” I asked again.

“He killed himself.”

It was the beginning of winter. Damnit, everything felt too cold for it to be the beginning of winter.

“Why?” I managed to get out.

Mariyam shook her head. She didn’t know, she said. She had returned home yesterday evening to find her brother slumped in a chair with a slit throat and his knife on the floor, blood on its broad blade.

I shuddered. “Surely you must know why,” I said. “He must have had a reason—”

“Please don’t ask me anymore.”

He must have had a reason.

I nodded and had her sit on the carpet. I flinched. She was carrying Azamat’s dombra, long-necked and two-stringed and inlaid with beautiful gold damask.

Mariyam followed my gaze and slowly held the wooden instrument out to me. “Here.”

“You don’t mean to give me his dombra,” I said.

She nodded.

It had meant everything to her brother. She would probably regret giving it up later.

“He’d want you to have it,” she said.

I didn’t want it. Everything was so cold I was convinced Azamat’s instrument was a shell of ice that would shatter if I touched it. There would be nothing left of him, then.

I wrapped my fingers around the dombra’s neck. It didn’t shatter. “Thank you.”

Mariyam smiled feebly. “I thought that it would help,” she said.

“It does,” I lied. I set it against the far wall where I wouldn’t have to see it.

I turned back to Mariyam. “How are you faring?” I asked. How are you faring. What a nonsensical question to ask. Her red shapan was rumpled, as if she’d slept in the robe overnight, and there was a forlorn look in her dark eyes that hurt to look at. “My god, Mariyam, it must be horrible for you.”

She nodded but didn’t say anything else.

“Do you want anything?” I asked. “I have food and koumiss. We could have a feast in his memory.”

She shook her head. “Just koumiss.”

I gave her a small wooden bowl of the white mare’s milk. She drank it so quickly that some of it dripped onto the embroidered front of her shapan.

“I can help you bury him if you haven’t yet,” I said. I didn’t want to, but Mariyam shouldn’t have to do it alone.

“I did it yesterday. I couldn’t bear looking at his slit throat.”

His slit throat. I nodded.

“Are we still going to kill the demon?” she asked after a pause.

I blinked. “So soon after Azamat—”

“I’m not ready to think about him. Killing the demon will give me something else to do.”

I thought of the shriveled orange leaves littering the dirt streets outside, of the tiny ice shards flowing in the Vesnovka river, and of the flocks of pale cranes that were flying away from the first chill of Kazakhstan’s winter. I thought of Azamat’s laughter, and of last spring, how we’d sat under that thick-trunked apple-tree outside my house feeling warm and sharp from living. He had been strumming the dombra, then. He had played it so well, even though he’d been tipsy on four bowls of koumiss. He had once said that apart from having a friend like me, music was why he was so happy in spite of his troubles.

I found myself staring at the dombra, and maybe I was about to cry, but I stayed that way for minutes on end, and no tears came.

“Please, Balta,” Mariyam said. “The demon shouldn’t be too difficult to slay.”

I looked at the expression on her face. I felt sick. “Okay. Just—just give me some time. A day or so. I need to make preparations.”

“Thank you,” Mariyam said.

When she departed, there was still grief on her face, but the forlorn look had left her eyes. That was really all I had wanted. It gave me some sort of hope that my own sorrow could pass, too.

Click here to read the rest!

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Portis, Miller, and Palahniuk

In Which I Review Charles Portis’s “True Grit,” Arthur Miller’s “Incident at Vichy,” and Chuck Palahniuk’s “Consider This”

Hello! Happy August. I hope you’re vaccinated or are getting vaccinated, and that you’ve been able to read and enjoy the summer some.

If you’re looking for reading material, I’ve reviewed three more books that might give you some ideas…

True Grit, by Charles Portis

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“‘I will inform them myself,’ said I. ‘Who is the best marshal they have?’ The sheriff thought on it for a minute. He said, ‘I would have to weigh that proposition. There is near about two hundred of them [….] The meanest one is Rooster Cogburn. He is a pitiless man, double-tough, and fear don’t enter into this thinking. He loves to pull a cork. Now L.T. Quinn, he brings his prisoners in alive. He may let one get by now and then but he believes even the worst of men is entitled to a fair shake. Also the court does not pay any fees for dead men. Quinn is a good peace officer and a lay preacher to boot. He will not plant evidence or abuse a prisoner. He is straight as a string. Yes, I will say Quinn is about the best they have.’ I said, ‘Where can I find this Rooster?'”

This book, which inspired the movies, is about a fourteen-year-old girl named Mattie who wants to avenge her father’s murder in the Wild West. So she enlists the help of Rooster Cogburn, a one-eyed marshal with dubious morals.

What made the book good was the dialogue. All the characters were very witty and could hold their own, and entertain the reader at the same time. Meanwhile, Portis was usually able to get away with this without coming off like he was forcing his characters to be witty for the sake of showing off to the reader. That made the dialogue work, in my opinion.

The plot was interesting, too, but an important part of it felt illogical and sexist (I won’t spoil it, though–you’ll have to see for yourself whether you agree). This didn’t ruin the book, but it did make the story less impactful than it could have been.

Basically, if this book didn’t have any dialogue, it would not be worth reading. Fortunately for us, it does.

“Incident at Vichy,” by Arthur Miller

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“Many times I used to ask my friends– if you love your country why is it necessary to hate other countries? To be a good German why must you despise everything that is not German? Until I realized the answer. They do these things not because they are German but because they are nothing. It is the hallmark of the age– the less you exist the more important it is to make a clear impression.”

This play by Arthur Miller is about a group of people in Vichy France in 1942. They’re prisoners of the Nazi collaborators and they don’t know why. This set-up lets Arthur Miller examine ideas like collective guilt, the psychology of groups and individuals, idealism and nihilism, and so on.

The play was thought-provoking. It reminded me of Sartre’s “The Condemned of Altona,” except Miller’s play was much shorter and asked more questions than it answered. It also seemed to have more psychological depth when examining the nature of guilt.

In contrast to another play (Miller’s tragic “Death of a Salesman”), “Vichy” felt fresher. “Salesman’s” characters had to adhere to Miller’s pre-ordained tragic plot-formula. “Vichy’s” characters didn’t adhere to a formula, which meant that Miller didn’t have to contrive everyone’s actions to fit into it. “Vichy’s” characters were being explored, which gave them more room to act like real humans, whereas if Miller had let “Salesman’s” characters act too human, they wouldn’t have fit well into the play’s tragic formula.

So even though “Salesman” is more lauded than “Vichy” (Pulitzer Prize, etc.), and more emotionally-engaging (personal opinion), I would still argue that “Vichy’s” characters are more realistic than “Salesman’s.”

Anyway, I would recommend it.

Consider This: Moments in My Writing Life After Which Everything Was Different, by Chuck Palahniuk

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“This is another reason to bother collecting stories. Because our existence is a constant flow of the impossible, the implausible, the coincidental. And what we see on television and in films must always be diluted to make it ‘believable.’ We’re trained to live in constant denial of the miraculous. And it’s only by telling our stories that we get any sense of how extraordinary human existence actually can be.”

This is a book of writing advice. It read a lot like, “remember to use verbs instead of adjectives! And remember to do XYZ!”, and a lot of it felt obvious or were things I already did in my writing. Even so, they were good reminders. Also, it was interesting to read them because Palahniuk brought a new perspective to why these different things were important to do.

Palahniuk also included memoir-like sections about his crazy fans, how he learned to write, and how his experiences shaped his views on the craft. These sections were filled with anecdotes like, “I did XYZ and it worked for me so much in writing Story ABC.” Even if people give you writing techniques, it helps for them to also give you real anecdotes that explain how such techniques worked for them.

Overall, everything wasn’t different after I finished reading this book, but it enriched things a little bit. In terms of substance, Consider This felt more useful than Cortázar’s book on writing, less useful than Stephen King’s book, and equally useful as Vargas Llosa’s.

So I would recommend it.

Until next week!

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Woolf

In which I review Virginia Woolf’s “A Room of One’s Own.”

Hello! Happy June! If you’re in America, happy Memorial Day! I’ve read one book this week, and am reading several others as you read this…

A Room of One’s Own, by Virginia Woolf

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“I told you in the course of this paper that Shakespeare had a sister; but do not look for her in Sir Sidney Lee’s life of the poet. She died young– alas, she never wrote a word [….] Now my belief is that this poet who never wrote a word and was buried at the crossroads still lives. She lives in you and in me, and in many other women who are not here tonight, for they are washing up the dishes and putting the children to bed. But she lives; for great poets do not die; they are continuing presences; they need only the opportunity to walk among us in the flesh.”

Virginia Woolf wrote this back in 1929, basically saying that to make a mark on the world, women writers need a steady income and a room of their own in which to work. It’s a hallmark of feminism and empowerment.

I found it to be much less empowering than I thought it would be.

Yes, she prophesied that the female Shakespeare would be able to emerge in 100 years’ time (and considering the fact that it’s now 2021, her coming is close upon us). Yes, the general ideas of the book were great.

However, parts of the book were overly-pessimistic. For instance, Woolf heavily implies that because men discouraged them, there were no great women composers back in her time.

This completely ignores the fact that female greats existed even before her time. Some examples: Dora Pejačević (the first Croatian woman to write a symphony and one of the most important 20th century female composers) and Louise Farrenc (read even more about her amazingness here).

Woolf didn’t have Google. She was stuck researching from books written by sexist men, so she probably wouldn’t have known much about female composers in other countries. Maybe she was also just focusing on composers in England. Even so, it’s worth reading A Room of One’s Own knowing in advance that in spite of the patriarchy, some women were able to accomplish more than Woolf seemed to imply.

Overall, this book was short, interesting, and well-written, so I would still say to read it if you have the time.

Also, if you’ve already read it, what did you think?

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Faqiri

Hi everyone, I’m going to write very briefly today because of school. However, I did want to tell you some great news and to introduce you to a great writer.

First the great news: I wrote a novelette about a year ago that has just been accepted for publication. It’s the first time I’m being paid for my fiction. I’m very excited to share more details with you when the story comes out in September 2021.

Now, here’s the great writer:

“The Doleful Village”, by Amin Faqiri, Translated by Iraj Bashiri

“It was at dusk when Dadkhoda and his son entered my room. I was lighting the lantern. Dadkhoda sat down. His son, too, sprawled himself on the floor beside the father. I put more air in the lantern. It caused the kerosene to overflow and the lantern to be set aflame. Dadkhoda said, ‘You should have given the lantern more time to warm up.'”

I read this story about two days ago and still can’t stop thinking about it. The plot doesn’t matter as much as the way the events are arranged and juxtaposed to make an impact. To get that aspect across I’d need to spoil the story. I won’t do that.

I’ll tell you some things about it though. It’s about a man who tells another man about his family. The family has a bull that dies, and the village believes that the man’s wife put a jinx on the bull for it to die. In the present, the family’s young kid wants to go to school.

See? Nothing’s interesting about it, but there are connections between the events that make them all gain in meaning. At the end, it has a huge impact.

The best thing you can do is to read the story. It’s free. Here it is.

I tried to find more stories by this writer on Amazon but I can’t seem to find any, which is unfortunate. I’d love to hear if anybody knows where they might be available.

That’s all for now. Stay healthy and hopeful!

I Read, Without Sleep

During a break from work, I took out a book from the library yesterday, and finished reading it today. The only problem is I went to bed late and wound up waking up early. As a result, I only got 5 hours of sleep, about the same amount as the book’s writer got while he was serving his literary apprenticeship…

No Mentor But Myself by Jack London

“And without the strong central thread of a working philosophy, how can you make order out of chaos? How can your foresight and insight be clear? How can you have a quantitative and qualitative perception of the relative importance of every scrap of knowledge you possess? And without all this how can you possibly be yourself? How can you have something fresh for the jaded ear of the world? The only way of gaining this philosophy is by seeking it, by drawing the materials which go to compose it from the knowledge and culture of the world.”

This book is very short (192 pages). Well, I guess it isn’t that short, but it felt short. It’s a collection of essays and correspondences written by Jack London about writing (from his start in 1899 onwards). It’s interesting to read, but if you’ve ever read Martin Eden most of it is similar.

Even if you have read Martin Eden, there’s another point of interest about No Mentor But Myself. You see London’s style develop. He goes from spewing out so many adjectives that the reader can’t possibly take him seriously (“Not only has he gone down into the soil, into the womb of the passionate earth, yearning for motherhood, for sustenance of nations; but he has gone down into the heart of its people, simple, elemental, prone to the ruder amenities of existence”) to refining his style so it loses some adjectives and gains its power (“Then the book [Sinclair’s The Jungle] was published, and here it is, a story of human destruction, of poor broken cogs in the remorseless grind of the industrial machine”).

I used to think that great writers came fully-fledged into the world, like Athena bursting forth from the forehead of Zeus. This book has proven otherwise. At its beginning, London is a horrendous writer. At its end, he’s amazing.

The secret? Hard work: “I worked many a long month nineteen hours a day, without sleep.” (He died young though, partially because of the burnout, so don’t try this at home).

Overall, No Mentor But Myself is a great introduction to London as a writer (in terms of his thoughts on writing). This book inspired me to start on his collection of correspondences. Maybe it will inspire you to greatness (but not to burnout).

Hopefully, I’ll be back with more book reviews and thoughts soon. If not, know that it’s because I’m working–hopefully less than nineteen hours a day.

Comedy in Tragedy and Yellows in Blues

Happy almost New Year! I hope you’re all enjoying the last few days of 2019!

I recently read this essay online (the Lehigh University link) about comedy in Eugene O’Neill’s tragic play, “Long Day’s Journey into Night.”

The paper’s writer says that a lot of people focus on the pathos of the play–which I won’t spoil because you should read it for yourself–but don’t consider the role of comedy.

In “Long Day’s Journey”, the paper’s writer asserts that comedy serves to humanize the characters. This makes them, and their reactions to their tragic situation, more convincing and compelling.

This idea reminded me of how painters, in painting a picture, use a lot of colors. That sounds obvious. But they use them in such a way as to promote contrast. For instance, there’s a yellowish layer in Winslow Homer’s 1880 painting, “Boys in a Dory.”

It seems counterintuitive to use yellow in painting a nautical scene. However, when combined with the painting’s blue hues, the yellow serves as a contrast that gives the painting a new dimension and makes it more convincing and compelling.

Similarly, comedy serves to contrast with the tragedy in O’Neill’s play. This contrast gives the characters more nuance and makes them more realistic, which increases the compelling nature of their tragic situation.

In writing, comedy doesn’t just have to be comic relief–it can also play a key role in giving extra dimension to a work and deepening its power.

I hope I gave some insight into this technique. It sounds fascinating, and I’d love to hear your thoughts on it.

John Irving’s Bears

It’s great to be back! I have been super-busy with classes and so I couldn’t post much. I will post more now because there is a break.

There’s an interesting Guardian article that’s about to celebrate its 10-year anniversary come 2020. Here’s the link:

https://www.google.com/amp/s/amp.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2010/jan/11/fiction-johnirving

The reason this article is so interesting is that it raises a question about the merits of “self-ripping-off” across a writer’s body of work.

The writer says that the author John Irving repeats elements from his work from book to book (there’s always a bear for instance) even if it doesn’t seem relevant to the story being told.

I’ve only read one book by Irving so I can’t speak to the relevancy of bears, but the author of the article does raise a question that seems relevant to writers in general:

Do these recurring themes have a wider point? Are they a sign of mischief? A checklist for trainspotter fans? Or simply a tic, a mark of laziness?

Is ripping off one’s own work laziness?

I say, not necessarily.

Pushkin wrote a lot about duels, for instance, but compare his short story “The Shot” with his novel-in-verse Eugene Onegin, and you’ll see that although both had duels, the duels weren’t contrived into the story because Pushkin lacked originality. The duels were needed to tell the stories, and Pushkin had something new to say about each duel.

The author of the article makes a similar point: authors can “find more mileage” out of familiar elements by bringing a new perspective to them.

As I write more short stories that share similar ideas, I ask myself if I’m ripping myself off. I think about John Irving’s bears, and how it does not matter whether John Irving includes bears in all of his stories as long as he needs them to tell the story. Finally, I decide that it does not matter if I repeat elements across my work, as long as I say something new about them.

I hope you enjoyed my thoughts. If you’ve ever read Irving, let me know. In the meantime, happy holidays!

I Read, and Make Up For The Past With Works Of Timeless Wisdom

I reviewed only one book last time. To make up for it, I’m reviewing three books of timeless wisdom, one of which is 700+ pages (no, it’s not the Dictionary).

I’ll review them in size-order, from smallest to largest. To even things out a bit, the smallest one will have a ridiculously long quote, while the largest one will feature a ridiculously puny quote.

1. F. Scott Fitzgerald on Writing by Ernest Heming-F. Scott Fitzgerald, of course

“The history of my life is the history of the struggle between an overwhelming urge to write and a combination of circumstances bent on keeping me from it.

When I lived in St. Paul and was about twelve I wrote all through every class in school in the back of my geography book and first year Latin and on the margins of themes and declensions and mathematics problems. Two years later a family congress decided that the only way to force me to study was to send me to boarding school. This was a mistake. It took my mind off my writing [….]

But in school I went off on a new tack. I saw a musical comedy called The Quaker Girl, and from that day forth my desk bulged with Gilbert & Sullivan librettos and dozens of notebooks containing the germs of dozens of musical comedies.

Near the end of my last year at school I came across a new musical-comedy score lying on top of the piano [….] and the title furnished the information that it had been presented by the Triangle Club of Princeton University.

That was enough for me. From then on the university question was settled. I was bound for Princeton.

I spent my entire Freshman year writing an operetta for the Triangle Club. To do this I failed in algebra, trigonometry, coordinate geometry and hygiene. But the Triangle Club accepted my show, and by tutoring all through a stuffy August I managed to come back a Sophomore and act in it as a chorus girl. A little after this came a hiatus. My health broke down [….] Almost my final memory before I left was of writing a last lyric on that year’s Triangle production while in bed in the infirmary with a high fever.

The next year, 1916—17, found me back in college, but by this time I had decided that poetry was the only thing worth while, so […] I spent the spring doing sonnets, ballads and rondels into the small hours. I had read somewhere that every great poet had written great poetry before he was twenty-one. I had only a year and, besides, war was impending. I must publish a book of startling verse before I was engulfed.

By autumn I was in an infantry officers’ training camp at Fort Leavenworth, with poetry in the discard and a brand-new ambition—I was writing an immortal novel. Every evening, concealing my pad behind Small Problems for Infantry, I wrote paragraph after paragraph on a somewhat edited history of me and my imagination. The outline of twenty-two chapters, four of them in verse, was made, two chapters were completed; and then I was detected and the game was up. I could write no more during study period.

This was a distinct complication. I had only three months to live—in those days all infantry officers thought they had only three months to live—and I had left no mark on the world. But such consuming ambition was not to be thwarted by a mere war. Every Saturday at one o’clock when the week’s work was over I hurried to the Officers’ Club, and there, in a corner of a roomful of smoke, conversation and rattling newspapers, I wrote a one-hundred-and-twenty-thousand-word novel on the consecutive week-ends of three months. There was no revising; there was no time for it. As I finished each chapter I sent it to a typist in Princeton.

Meanwhile I lived in its smeary pencil pages. The drills, marches and Small Problems for Infantry were a shadowy dream. My whole heart was concentrated upon my book.

I went to my regiment happy. I had written a novel. The war could now go on [….] and then the publishers wrote me that though The Romantic Egotist was the most original manuscript they had received for years they couldn’t publish it. It was crude and reached no conclusion [….]

I was absolutely unfitted to be a reporter.

Instead I became an advertising man at ninety dollars a month, writing the slogans that while away the weary hours in rural trolley cars. After hours I wrote stories—from March to June. There were nineteen altogether; the quickest written in an hour and a half, the slowest in three days. No one bought them, no one sent personal letters. I had one hundred and twenty-two rejection slips pinned in a frieze about my room. I wrote movies. I wrote song lyrics. I wrote complicated advertising schemes. I wrote poems. I wrote sketches. I wrote jokes. Near the end of June I sold one story for thirty dollars.

On the Fourth of July, utterly disgusted with myself and all the editors, I went home to St. Paul and informed family and friends that I had given up my position and had come home to write a novel. They nodded politely, changed the subject and spoke of me very gently. But this time I knew what I was doing. I had a novel to write at last, and all through two hot months I wrote and revised and compiled and boiled down. On September fifteen This Side of Paradise was accepted by special delivery.

In the next two months I wrote eight stories and sold nine. The ninth was accepted by the same magazine that had rejected it four months before [….] Then my novel came out. Then I got married. Now I spend my time wondering how it all happened.

In the words of the immortal Julius Caesar: ‘That’s all there is; there isn’t any more.’ “

I hope you enjoyed this ridiculously-long excerpt from this ridiculously-short book.

That’s what this book is–excerpts from Fitz’s letters, memoirs, etc. about how he became a writer, as well as his thoughts on writing. I just quoted the best part of the book up there for you, but the rest of it is pretty good, too. Also, apparently there’s a series of these books– I once read Ernest Hemingway on Writing, for instance.

I think these books are cool. Instead of spending months ferreting out wisdom from old musty archives, here you have a readily consumable sampling of essential wisdom.

2. A Hand to Guide Me: Legends and Leaders Celebrate The People Who Shaped Their Lives Compiled by Denzel Washington

“These days our streets are a hundred times more dangerous than they were when I was growing up in Mount Vernon, New York, in the 1960s. And our worries don’t end on the streets. Today’s children are assaulted with such a constant barrage of negative influences it’s a wonder anyone amounts to anything. But we do, don’t we? We manage. We redouble our efforts and refocus our priorities and find a way to light a positive path for our children. We rise above the world we’ve inherited, and we aim to go our parents, our teachers, our coaches, our role models one better. And our aim is true because we keep hitting our marks, time and time again.”

Although this book features stories from people like Muhammad Ali and Toni Morrison, I found the most valuable wisdom came from people who were not such household names. For instance, Antwone Fisher, a screenwriter who grew up in Cleveland Ohio, talked about how every day he’d walk through a mall that contained plaques with the names of famous people who grew up in that part of Ohio, such as that of Jesse Owens. “If they can make it big, so can I,” Fisher thought every time he walked through the mall. And he did, when he wrote the screenplay for “Antwone Fisher.”

I love the idea that anybody can become amazing if they have the determination to reach their maximum potential.

Other stories tell of people who have been inspired by their parents, their teachers, or their coaches. Bob Woodward didn’t think he would ever get to the bottom of the Watergate affair until he expressed his doubt to the owner of the Washington Post who replied, “Never? Don’t tell me never!” Then he did, and helped change history.

In sum, this heartwarming book is a good read for anybody, whether you’re a parent, a teacher, a coach, or even a student. Maybe you’ll be inspired to become amazing, too.

3. Telling Stories Compiled by Joyce Carol Oates

“In the end, we can depend only upon our own judgment and self-definition guided by our intuition in writing as in our lives.”

Disclaimer: Oates is my professor and I read this book for class, so I have to hope that my review is not biased.

Now, to business.

The book is over 700 pages long. I read it in 3 days. It basically taught me the difference between good fiction and great fiction.

There are 121-ish stories in this book and only four or so are great. The rest are really good. This is my opinion, of course. I doubt anybody else reading it would have the same thoughts.

Highlights for me included Ernest Hemingway’s “Indian Camp” (great), William Faulkner’s “That Evening Sun” (great), Richard Ford’s “Communist” (great), William Carlos Williams’ “The Use of Force” (great), Tom Wayman’s “Violence” (great), Pinckney Benedict’s “The Sutton Pie Safe” (really good), Robert Taylor Junior’s “Mourning” (really good), and Russell Banks’s “Just Don’t Touch Anything” (really good).

Anyway, the great stories tend to produce a definite effect on the reader (Faulkner, Wayman) or contain fascinating depths (Hemingway, Williams, Ford). The really good stories seem like they will for sure do this, but then may not necessarily follow through all the way. That’s just my highly-subjective opinion. The greatest thing about this book (even greater than Faulkner or Hemingway, etc.) is that there are so many stories, you’re bound to find some that speak to you as being “great.”

I hope you enjoyed my reviews. I’ll be back soon with more thoughts and reviews. One thing I’ve learned from consuming all this wisdom: it’s awfully fun to read many books at once.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Fiction

Let me start by being overly-simplistic and saying that writing fiction isn’t that demanding. All you need to do is tell a story.

You can write the prettiest description of a landscape ever, but it’s much more interesting if you write about the struggles of the people (or animals) in that landscape.

Which sounds more interesting? A description of the Alaskan wilderness, or a tale about a domesticated dog named Buck who is sold to Alaskan traders, escapes, and becomes king of the aforementioned wilderness? Likely, the latter is more interesting, partially because it’s written by Jack London, but mostly because it tells a story.

It also has a character readers can root for in the form of Buck, who undergoes trials and tribulations in the form of escaping captivity, and ultimately grows because of the journey he has taken.

A good story takes readers on a journey.

Don’t be afraid to use description in your piece, but make sure that it’s used to serve the overall story. For instance, Jack London does include a description of the Alaskan wilderness, but he does this so that non-Alaskan readers could get a sense of the peril that Buck would have to face when drawing the traders’ sled through the snow. In London’s case, description helps make readers invested in Buck’s journey, and thus, in the story itself.
When you write your own fiction, consider how the protagonist changes from the events in your story. Take your readers on a journey.

Tell us a story.

After Columbus Day, I Ponder the Phenomenon of Super-Descriptive Prose

Beautiful prose does not make for a great story on its own. This is a personal stance of mine that I have recently been thinking a lot about.

You can see this argument elaborated on in this old-ish article from the Atlantic.

I wanted to further examine the reason why many books have very descriptive passages.

Perhaps it is because of MFA programs. A lot of professors may like the same thing and thus their students seek to emulate what their professors like without considering what effect they are going for. These writings go on to get published. Other readers read them and then go on to imitate their writing styles.

Or perhaps it is the critics’ fault. BR Meyers makes a good point about this in the article linked above:

“[Annie Proulx’s] writing, like that of so many other novelists today, is touted as ‘evocative” and “compelling.’ The reason these vague attributes have become the literary catchwords of our time, even more popular than ‘raw’ and ‘angry’ were in the 1950s, is that they allow critics to praise a writer’s prose without considering its effect on the reader. It is easier to call writing like Proulx’s lyrically evocative or poetically compelling than to figure out what it evokes, or what it compels the reader to think and feel.

If all of your prose has the same beautiful quality, there is no variety in tone, and readers may be unable to fully reckon with what you intend for them to feel. Readers may include critics, who, overwhelmed by the prose, label it “striking” without analyzing what true effect it produces, if any. Thus, writers get lauded by critics and their books sell and win prizes, and everyone is (seemingly) happy.

Another reason for the proliferation of imagery may be the proliferation of technology. Writers now have to compete with TV and videogames. Perhaps the use of consistently vivid imagery is an attempt to keep the reader off his or her phone.

I am not saying that imagery is bad. I love imagery (one of my favorite books is Thomas Wolfe’s imagery-laden Look Homeward, Angel) but not if it’s the defining feature of a book. I personally believe books should prioritize their stories. Maybe if we writers were to implement this idea in our own prose, our stories will be empowered by beautiful language, instead of merely defined by it.

This is a very interesting subject for me, so I would love to hear your thoughts. Also, due to midterms next week, I will not post again for a short while. I will miss you all!