The Atrophied American Imagination
Copyright © by Dan
I have written in the past of the effects of the Lowest Common Denominator on assorted aspects of modern life, but perhaps the most damning exhibition of its deleterious nature comes in contemporary published literature. It is part of an overall arch in American life that seems to want to dull true creativity, and even worse, the little bit of imagination required from art’s audiences. And, I don’t just mean in poetry. Prose is even a more glaring example of the LCD’s and atrophied American imagination’s effects. That is because prose is far easier to write than poetry, at all corresponding levels of its essence. Contemporary prose is larded with formulaic workshop writing. The stories are crammed with clichés, trite endings, a desire to use bare bones A to B to C plotting, and have every image or metaphor explained to the nth degree. It is the age of the lazy reader, the lazier writer, and literary agents, editors, publishers, and literary critics who are usually somehow wannabe writers, themselves, there is a desire to never challenge the bad writing, and a desire to make good writing generic pabulum. The wannabe writers want to ‘stay in the system’, so will never take a chance on writers whose excellence and daring manifests theirs as the pulp it is.
In the last year or so I have been sending around assorted fictive pieces
by me and my wife, Jessica, and the pattern is sickeningly rote. Literary agents
will reject submissions with the same predictable form letters, manifesting
they’ve not even read the work. There will be an apology for rejection and the
form letter- usually due to the ‘massive’ amounts of submissions received,
an appeal to the fact that writing’s quality is ‘subjective’- although
they may state it’s been given serious attention, and is of good quality but
just ‘not right’, or they are not given to enthusiasm, and another agent may
think differently, yet they wish you ‘all success’ in the future. Magazine
editors, especially those online, are even worse. They are failed writers, with
few exceptions, and their standard for publication is as fuzzily
‘subjective’ as the agents. They post and/or publish merely what they
‘like’- not what is of quality. While this is their wont and right, it is
why so much of contemporary writing is terrible, for no one wants to kybosh
their ‘name’ in the system by getting on someone’s ‘bad side’ by being
honest about the poor quality of the writing. Yet, there is clearly a difference
between the quality of writing, and its likeability, or mass appeal. Steven
Spielberg, the filmmaker, is a good example of someone whose ‘art’ appeals
to the masses, because it is trite, feel-good, and predictable, just as
contemporary fiction is. But, while many people like such art, few, if any, will
ever ‘love’ it, for the love of an art depends upon the depth of which it
penetrates the mind and hooks mnemonically within. Bad art is virtually
incapable of such. In short, LCD writing can be liked, but it is ephemeral.
Worse, though, are the deluded souls that ‘edit’ these online journals, who sometimes are very snippy in their condescending rejections, or are so full of themselves that they think they can actually ‘help’ you by suggesting ways to genericize your writing, so that it can be as banal as the crap they post. Some months ago I sent off a story of mine called Just Past The Bookstore to an online zine called The Fifth Street Review. It is one of tens of thousands of rather generic online mags, and I sent the story there for no other reason than I stumbled across it while sending around stories online. I saw that my story fit the guidelines for submission, so sent it. In a brief skim I saw the tales that it posted were generally horrid, but I’d long ago given up caring what other bad works of art my stuff ‘played with’, for if I hadn’t there would be absolutely no outlet, save Cosmoetica, for me to post my writings. A few weeks, perhaps a month or two after my initial submission, I received an email back from one of the editors, a typical college-aged MFA wannabe, and failed writer, with her ‘suggestions’ on how to improve the tale. Needless to say, she wanted to be told the most obvious things, strip the story of its uniquity, and ensconce it in the generic writing she apparently ‘likes’. I emailed her back this reply, with comments included. I will also annotate the email further. Her rejection is indented in red, my reply is indented in black, and my annotations are not indented, and in black. Her in text edit suggestions are black and bold, while the rest of the story is in blue, as she had it in the actual email:
-------- Original Message --------
Re: short story submission to Fifth Street Review
Tue, 19 Apr 2005 18:24:09 -0500
Fifth Street Review-Margarita email@example.com
Adrian Wisnicki firstname.lastname@example.org
I tend not to reply to
rejections, and, to be frank, it's probably best to never comment on why you
reject something. This is because while you may have the best of intentions
there is always the danger of letting out your shortcomings more than being of
any assistance. I had a few morons I took to task over idiotic rejections and
snide remarks they sent in this essay http://www.cosmoetica.com/B184-DES128.htm.
But, since you seem to be genuine, I will thank you for your remarks, and show
you your errors. Interpolated within:
Note that there is no defensiveness, nor snippiness, merely the straightforward confidence of a superior critical eye.
Street Review-Margarita wrote:
Thank you for submitting to The Fifth Street Review. Adrian, our
Chief Editor, and I, have now had a chance to look at your story and I’m sorry
to say that we will not be accepting it for publication at this time. That
said, I want you to know I really liked the story.
Your characters are interesting and the subject of delivering sodas isn’t something I’ve read about before. I read the whole piece at one sitting--there are parts of it that are quite well written--and wanted to keep reading, to learn more about this world. So the story definitely drew me in. It’s different from a lot of the stuff out there, and that gives you a great launching point. The piece deserves some more work. To that end, I’ve made a number of suggestions below, and also directly in-text, in the hopes of helping you along the way to making it a stronger piece.
You make a common error of feeling that detail, or knowing every little fart a character can make, is good storytelling. Detail alone is just detail. The piece, however, is not about soda delivery.
Note the critical cliché the girl indulges- wanting to ‘learn more about this world’. This is PC shorthand for saying that she wants an emotive response to the piece.
As you go through my edits, you may feel as though I’ve eviscerated the heart of your story. I want to explain what I’ve done, and my reasoning: Essentially, I’ve suggested jumpstarting the beginning and cutting away unnecessary tangents, to get us to the good stuff right away, rather than dragging a reader through nice, but unnecessary, details. You’ve got a lot of stuff going on here—maybe too much. Reading about Clem’s goodness and prestige is nice, as is the stuff about baseball and war, but none of it is different or exciting. You want to get to the heart of the story that nobody has told before: the lives of the people delivering sodas.
How is a detail nice? It is either relevant or not. If she thinks it’s unnecessary, ok, but watch her flounder. Look at her last sentence. This is PC for emotional suckling. And the idea that a story must be ever ‘new’ is silly. It merely needs to be excellent. A great love story resists triteness by its telling, not by its not being a love story.
I do like the idea of your giving us an insight into the various characters on the route, but, to be blunt, Izaguirre and Mullins just weren’t memorable. Howie is definitely memorable. If you keep this angle, then give us more characters like him, or, another thought, focus just on Howie instead. Use him as a pivot point if you will, as you tell us more about delivering sodas. Or—and here’s a radical suggestion—cut Howie out. Give him his own entire story. He’s interesting enough to deserve it. Then write another entirely separate story about delivering soda.
Izaguirre is a human background prop. His effect on the speaker, that he would even be mentioned, is his worth, and says something of the speaker to mention him- if I gave him a hideous scar would he be more alluring? Why is Howie interesting? His character, of all of them, is the most familiar to readers, certainly of a Raymond Carver or Robert Olen Butler. Alone, he'd just be a cliché. That he is in the speaker's life, and livens their doldrums, is what makes him worth mention by the speaker.
Note how often the word ‘like’ has been used. My point is well taken- that Howie is comic relief, and a typical drunken loser of the sort that populates contemporary fiction. Although based upon a real person, he shares great truck with Carverian characters. It’s obvious the editrix has not read that much in contemporary fiction, lest why suggest highlighting the weakest character- although I call Howie weak simply because he’s used to push the plot along, and relief the main characters, not because he does not, in small ways, rise above the clichés. He is human, but there are sad wights like him out there.
I don’t know anything about this, and many readers won’t,
either. That means you’ve got a curious audience already. But
don’t automatically use jargon like ‘receiver,’ as we don’t know what
that means, and you’ll lose us. For example, when you have Clem and your
main character going back and forth into the boat (what is that, by the way?), I
got lost. What were they doing? Why? Flesh it out. Walk us
through a Coca-Cola delivery guy’s day, his routine, etc. (You started
to do this initially, but didn’t continue.) How did your main character end up
working for the company? How did Clem get started in the business?
Tell us about their other coworkers, etc., etc. In other words, you’ve
piqued my interest, bravo!, but now show us more of this world.
A store receiver is not too difficult to figure out, as is a U-boat's purpose, since most people who shop at stores have seen products loaded on such, as the two men do, even if the name is new. What they are doing is not hard to discern, since I describe them loading the soda on it. But, you ask why? That's their job. Need I explain why a dentist fills cavities? I don't speak down to readers. As for the day, that continues thru the tale. Really, read it. They go to stores, load up soda to bring in the store, get it checked in, then repeat, then drive to the next door. What did you miss? How does anyone get into any business they are not in love with? This is stuff easily filled in, and not even worth mentioning. If the speaker's father, on his deathbed, said, 'Son, I want you to work a dead end job delivering soda that will rot people's teeth and expand their waistlines'- wd that interest you more? Seriously. Look at the sorts of generic, Stepford Wives-like, queries you find important, rather than the real human things that interest this deliveryman enough to soliloquy to a presumed stranger- the reader. You want to know of their other co-workers, but I've told you of the people they meet. These guys drive a route together, a rather solitary, or dual, pursuit.
Also think about character voice. While Howie’s voice is consistent, the main character and Clem’s seem to waver and blend into each other. You need to give these men individual voices, so we can hear each character speaking, rather than having to meet them through authorial introductions. Much of what you tell us could come through in dialogue, shortening and tightening the story.
Really look- Clem is a cool cucumber, while the narrator is rather volatile. By that, do you mean, because the speaker is black I should have him 'Yo' and 'Dawg' and do things only black people do and say? The dialogue related is that seen as important to the speaker- but the piece is a monologue.
This is exactly what the editrix means. She wants to be able to tell characters apart by stereotypes, not by character traits, as I do in the tale. It never fails to amaze me how PC writers indulge in the very stereotypes they claim to hate.
Resist being melodramatic. For example, why tell
us that Howie is raging, when you can show us with his voice?
Being a monologue from a limited POV means that the character has his own voice, and this is why he uses excess words. If you really listen to people speak naturally they do not speak in perfectly parsed sentences, and they repeat things. The speaker is speaking to the reader, not writing the tale- and he's obviously a working class fellow, not a writing program graduate. I'll show some of your cuts that neuter this, and make the speaker generic. If you read the best of Carver he, like this, does the Whitmanian thing, of using a seemingly sloppy and excess voice to limn the character not only in what is described, but how.
It is important to note that the editor has failed to even see that there is a difference between an omniscient and non-omniscient narrator. And my point of painting character via how a speaker says something, as well as what he does, is something virtually absent from contemporary published writing, and in the instances it is used the characters and dialogue are so banal as to make the technique superfluous.
So to sum up:
Consider making the story two
this doesn’t appeal, keep your original angle of telling us about characters
on your route, but with more interesting, Howie-like individuals. Start
with a stronger beginning and also rework the ending to pack more punch.
I could drop a Mike Hammer mystery, or have some sexual tension, but that's not the purpose of the tale, nor is it something that would interest this particular individual.
Suggestion one is plain dumb, for it would make a complex, rich tale into two simpler tales, and one with a minor character as its lead. While Howie is not an outright stereotype, he is certainly familiar. Note, she is suggesting to make the tale more banal. Also, starting the tale as I do puts the reader at ease with the normal rhythms of speech of the narrator, and introduces the other important character. After claiming I had melodrama in the tale, she then suggests a melodramatic opening that would not give any sense of the tale. that can work in some instances, but given this tale’s nature it would be contrived.
Or, if none of the above sound
good, consider eliminating all characters except Howie, Clem and your main
character. Then tell us about delivering soda, and use Howie as a focus,
maybe with Clem revisiting the store each day over the course of a week and
meeting him, etc.
those are my suggestions. I hope they prove helpful. Also, please
consider resubmitting to us if you revise, as I’d be very interested to see
where you take the story from here!
Fifth Street Review
third point is all textbook workshop suggestions. Genericism, banality, and
repetition are what she wants. On to the actual tale.
I’ve known Clem Devine for about three years now. I’ve been his assistant on the Millbrook route for all but three months of that time and enjoy the man’s company immensely [cut].
As I said- this is a real person talking, not a proofreader.
It’s not that Clem’s the smartest guy I’ve ever known, or even the
most personable. It’s just that he’s, well, one of a kind. One has to enjoy
one’s partner when you’re deliverymen, like we are, for the Coca
Cola company--actually, their distributor in the local area. It’s
a pretty good living and the vagaries of the larger economy barely disturb us. I
suspect that in several hundred years, when mankind has gone crawling out to the
stars, there will be men like Clem and me still toting soda out to places beyond
Alpha Centauri. [I really like this line. I think it could be
used as a starting point for the story, if you open with ‘You’d be
surprised, probably, but delivering soda can net a man a pretty good living
…’ and then go from there to ‘the vagaries of the local economy …’]
Not a bad suggestion were it an omniscient speaking, but it is not. I, as a poet, might indeed say that to open, but from a guy like the speaker it's far too contrived, and would sound false, and make the speaker seem pretentious. Here, it appears almost naturally- the sort of poetry people sometimes stream from their subconscious. To open like that is something that bad white bread short story writers like John Updike or the worst of Alice Adams do. They lack a feel for real people and characters- a Carver or Hamill have that feel.
Note her very emphasis on LIKE! My other points are well made.
While I just turned thirty three weeks ago, today, Clem has been with the
company nearly as long as I’ve been alive—twenty-seven years next Tuesday.
All the people on the route know
and [cut] like Clem, and I’ve benefited by
knowing him. His known-ness sort of has an effect on others, making me less
threatening. Especially considering
we drive through some of the richer parts of town, to the Randall’s
stores, and the like. Mostly white suburbs, and those folks still look a bit
askance at young black men, even if we are wearing our uniforms, and have a
perfectly legitimate reason to be in the neighborhood. But, old Clem is trusted
like a eunuch in a whorehouse [cliché,
can you come up with another simile?],
and of a fairer hue, so he’s helped ingratiate me to not only the assorted
customers at the stores, but also the management of the various operations. A
little payola don’t hurt none, either.
[This beginning lags. I’d suggest you either rework it, or start at another point in the story, like the one I mentioned above.]
I cannot argue that you may not be interested in this person's observations, but that's an aesthetic preference, and that really is not valid in crit. You also use, throughout, a term like 'like', which has nothing to do with objective excellence. I like some bad art, but recognize it as bad. Robert Frost does not appeal to me aesthetically, but he's a great poet. There is a difference. Look at some of the small cuts suggested here- this excess verbiage (admittedly) goes to the center of the speaker's character. Look as he tends to go a little overboard in his ideas or reactions and needs to be reigned in by the older, cooler-headed Clem. This is a subtle, subliminal way of sketching character that generic MFA writers are oblivious to. While you might not like the whorehouse reference I'd say it's hardly a cliché, but granting that it might be, again- real folk use clichés. He lapses into them naturally, and does not indulge them.
Look at her edits- it ruins the very colloquial, easy nature of the speaker. My point on clichés is on target, although what the editor suggests is a cliché simply is not.
You have to get
up early, though, 2 am or earlier, and the only day of the week I am off the
whole day is Thursday. Even
on the weekend we usually pull two or three hour runs, and make sure the biggest
chains have their soda, especially on holidays, or during the Super Bowl weekend
[good. I like this detail.] It’s a reliable
living, though. A good gig. I made almost forty grand last year and Clem nearly
sixty. Once he retires in two years I’ll be in line to haul in that stash and
while I look forward to making bigger bucks by taking over I can’t help but
think how much I’ll miss the old man. I mean, he’s nearly sixty and still it
takes longer for him to tire out than me. It’s
like he’s a medical marvel. [cut, unnecessary] Of course, I’m on a strict
diet, myself, put on it by the little woman, and have lost nearly eighty pounds
the last couple of years. But, I still need to shed another sixty or so to get
down to my target weight of two-twenty [cut, unnecessary—takes away from the
focus of the story].
Why do you like that detail? Is it good or not, and why? I am not asking this to be snippy, merely to help you understand where your critical POV is mired. It is not based on looking for the subtle or the unique, but the expected and blasé. Again, given that the tale is a character study, the fact that the speaker is on a diet, and calls his wife by the retro term 'little lady' says something about him. Is it earth-shaking, or critical? Maybe not, but it's the typical way this fellow relates his life, and he feels close enough to the reader to relate it.
My point that this piece is a character study is key. What occurs is not as important as the fact that it does, and what its effects on the speaker will be, especially at tale’s end.
met many characters in the years on the route with Clem. One of my favorites is
the store receiver for Johnson’s
Fresh Produce Mart. His name’s Jose Izaguirre. He’s a bald guy in his
mid 40s, with a mustache and glasses, and a bit of a paunch, which he seems to
be ashamed of. He’s never been late to work, at least in the days that I’ve
dealt with him, and takes a fierce
in enforcing both the start and end of receiving hours- which
are [cut] 5
am to 1 pm, at least for outside vendors like us.
not so much anything that Jose’s ever done that sticks with me as the fact
that he does everything so [cut]
hyperactively. He takes a
[cut] pride in his work, but it’s not a genuine
pride, if you know what I’m driving at, it’s the sort of pride put on for
show that the slaves used to show their massahs. Of course, there are a few
times when we’ve quarreled over where we could store pallets of our
‘juice’ but Jose’s usually accommodating.
guys are our biggest worry. At least they were until Tony the Pepsi
guy retired last spring. He was a real son of a bitch, and hated us- all over
the fact that we were competitors. [Good. Tell us more about this rivalry!]
I just never got that
level of commitment to a job. Something was wrong with that man. Not so with
Jose. Last Easter, for example, he yelled at his own produce manager for taking
up too much space with old watermelon bins and then just moved the smelly old
pile out of the way, as the produce manager squawked and raged. Usually, most
receivers don’t have the balls to stand up for outside vendors- our products
are treated as if they’re poison, even if they’re big sellers, like Coke obviously is.
You suggest cutting 'fierce', but look just a little later, where the speaker contradicts his first opinion on Jose's pride. This is a little slip up that says far more of the speaker than Jose. Again, they don't teach you that in MFA programs, but it works. As for wanting to know more of the Coke-Pepsi rivalry- this is banality at its height. I once wrote a story about a man trying to save the life of the horse of the woman he loved, as it sunk in a sinkhole. The tale is about their pasts and his love, unrequited, for the woman, yet one editor wanted to know the color of the horse. Why? Is knowing that it was chestnut going to add anything to the relationship the tale's about? Again, the speaker probably has personal animosities against some Pepsi guys, but macro-economics is not the point, nor the minutia of their personal rivalry. Perhaps the speaker wd comment more were the Pepsi guys there at the time, but they are not. He is not a particularly deep man, but I try to show that even the routine Joe can have small insights.
Her cut before hyperactivity is especially bad since the speaker is recapitulating the other fellow’s actions in his very wording! And look- she still wants conflict, as if the soda rivalry is more important than the men, who, even this far into the story, are far more well-rounded and real than your typical characters from contemporary novels.
there’s the little bodega near the Bookwise
bookstore. Old man Mullins, who owns the store, is a real hoot- so goddamned
deaf that you have to shout everything to him. Clem, however, has one of those
voices that is just so clarion that [cut] where he can speak to Mullins in a
firm, deliberate tone and everything he says seems to get through. The few days
I’ve handled the route alone, when Clem’s taken a day off for some family
function or the like, it takes me at least ten minutes to convey even the
simplest figures to the old man, just for one lousy vending machine. I sort of
hope his son takes over that store by the time I take over Clem’s route,
otherwise I’m gonna dread going there. [Again, I think all this takes away
from the focus of your story, which is the main character’s relationship to
Clem, and Howie. I’d suggest reworking, shortening and/or cutting.]
Again, you've imbued a story focus that is not there.
Reread her penultimate sentence. She simply does not get it. She is unable to move outside the small realm her years in writing programs have encoded in her brain.
But, just past the bookstore, less than a block away, is Tony’s-
a small chain of supermarkets in the inner city. That store does more business
for us and itself than two of the huge suburban Randall’s
stores do. But, it’s no one in the store that sticks in my mind, rather it’s
this old drunk named Howie that spends his every day hanging in and around the
parking lot. Since we make at least three deliveries a week to the store it
wouldn’t be unusual for us to start to recognize some of the regular customers
after a few months, but Howie is different. He’s always there! On Christmas Eve, on the Fourth Of July, on
Labor Day. When we pull into their lot at 7 am, his old brown ’72 Cadillac with flaming pink interior is always
there. It’s like knowing a cop is always gonna be at a Dunkin’ Donuts. If we make a late stop, on a weekend, at 3 pm
or so, Howie’s in the store, or in the lot, just putzing around, picking up
dried condoms off the ground, or some other bullshit like that. All the kids who
hang around the store, looking to make some tip money helping customers carry
groceries to the lot, know him and they often pay him to head down to the liquor
store and buy them some booze. He always obliges, for a fee, of course. To Howie
that store is the center of his universe. He’ll often come up to Clem and me
as we’re loading a u-boat full of soda to push up the long ramp to the back
door. He doesn’t have much to say, but sure takes his time in saying it. It
can be anything from his supposed service back in Korea, to the latest doings in
pro football, to his opinion of the stock market. Howie claims that the reason
he spends so much time about the store is because he made a killing years ago,
investing in Apple Computers,
but we all know it’s bullshit. I’ve seen his car parked in some liquor store
lots overnight, and seen him sleeping things off. It’s sad, but it’s
characters like him that make someone like you wanna listen to someone like me
go on and on, right?
get tired of the old drunk, sometimes, especially when he relapses into his old
bigoted ways. There was the time he talked about coons, and I was less than two
feet away from him. But, he was so sloshed that anyone else would have said to
ignore the old drunk. I wanted to knock him on his ass, but what would be the
point? It was just ignorance, not hate. After all, he often offered to let me
swig from his bottle. Would he do that if he really hated black people? But, no
matter what, Clem always smiles at him, and anyone else, too. [I’d
suggest cutting this. It makes the story drag, and doesn’t add much.]
Last month, during Lent, Howie comes up to us as
we’re loading up a few u-boats full:
Yet, this is Howie, the character you find to be the most fascinating. This is what most annoys the speaker, and why he probably references him at all.
Of course, the real reason she wants to cut this is because it deals realistically, and not preachily, with racism, and does not view alcoholics as pitiable, in the PC manner.
you guys, how ya doin’?’
bad,’ said Clem, ‘How you doin’, Howie? See you’re enjoyin’ the
spirits today. Ain’t it a little early?’
‘It’s never too early, Clementine. (Clementine was Howie’s nickname for Clem.) [Cut. This is inferred.] A man has to know what the real stuff is.’
The speaker is making an asides- again, he's a regular guy who is speaking regularese, not an English professor. He's trying to be helpful- this is engrained, as his job is as Clem's helper.
I had no
clue as to [cut]
what that meant, and I doubt Clem did, either.
damn straight. There’s never been a Commandment that said a man has to give up
the spirits for Lent. Y’know. You show me where it says that in the Good Book
and I’ll go sober right now. But, there’s a special relationship between man
and the grape. It’s what you call a symbiosis. I seen it in some magazine in
the store. That’s why all them Frogs never get heart problems- they drink wine
every day. American’s don’t. The Frogs- them fuckers know more than we do. I
read all about DeGaulle, and he knew. Ay, what did I tell ya?’ and Howie
pointed at his noggin’.
guess, although I’m not really religious,
Howie. And I never been to France, although I do like French Fries, especially
those big types from Nathan’s.
Hey, hand me three cases of the fruit punch, will ya?’ Clem asked me.
handed them to Clem and he forced them into the boat Howie said, ‘Yea, verily,
the Lord shall smite those who do not believe in the coming of the Lord, thy
God. I learnt that in Sunday School, back when Truman was President. Them’s
were the days, eh Clem?’
guess. I remember them well, Howie. Remember how we all had to hide under our
school desks when the sirens rang. Anyway, that’s the past. Say, I heard a
rumor the Cardinals traded their third basemen- what’shisname. Whaddya reckon
ain’t had a good third sacker since Boyer, back in the 60s. That guy was
smooth, like his brother, on the Yankees.’
now. Rolen’s been pretty damn good, and didn’t one of their third base guys
win an MVP one year, in the 80s or 90s?’
think you’re thinking of Terry Pendleton, Clem. He was with the Cards, but won
an MVP with Atlanta. I think.’ I said.
the Cardinals. Bunch of losers!’ said Howie.
the Cardinals? I can’t believe you’re saying that. Just because they lost
the Series last year to the Red Sox? They still won over a hundred games.’
hundred and five, and the Sox sucked- they just got lucky, finally. They
couldn’t even win their division. How can you be a champion if you can’t
even finish first? I hate all this wildcard bullshit. Three straight years a
wildcard has won the Series, the World Series- that’s terrible. No, that
ain’t the worst. I’ve just had my fill with all this steroids crap. I mean,
what kind of a man pollutes his body with all that poison? It’s a disgrace, I
tell you. Barry Bonds, Jason Giambi. I knew Bonds was a phony. If they can ban
Pete Rose and Shoeless Joe Jackson they should ban that bum from the Hall,
Clem and I looked at each other with astonishment at the silliness, if
not hypocrisy, of a drunk lecturing about drugs [I’d suggest cutting this.
It has more punch if you don’t tell a reader, just let them pick it up on
their own], and the fact that Howie seemed to abandon his greatest passion- the
Saint Louis Cardinals baseball team [cut, unnecessary, inferred].
See again, character development and a limited speaker vs. an omniscient.
Note how her cuts tend to genericize the speech of the main character. The character is relating the tale in an easy manner, and repetition is key. As for the point on drugs, in even twenty years, without that line, the whole digression will seem pointless, for no one will remember why Bonds and Giambi are linked together- for steroid abuse.
be back in a minute Howie. We gotta wheel this up the ramp.’ So, we did, and
when we came back down with an empty boat to fill Howie was cursing with another
old guy who had nothing better to do than hang around a supermarket parking lot.
His name was Josh, and while he was not as big a boozer as Harry he somehow
nursed an unstinting admiration for the more notorious drunk, who was, maybe, a
decade his senior.
Howie,’ said Josh, ‘they got proof that man descended from monkeys. It’s
in this book on evolution what I read at the bookstore. By this Englishman.
Books don’t lie, Howie.’
whaddya think the Bible is, stunad? The Bible is a book. It’s THE
BOOK. That’s what the Bible means in Jewish- The
Book. Right, Clem?’
Howie, you know I never get involved in religious conversations. Besides, you
know a lot more about the world than I do. I’ll take your word on things ’cause
I know nothing about the Jewish language, and I ain’t read the Bible since I
was maybe eight years old, and not even the full way through, when I was trying
to show off for this cute red-haired teenaged girl who was the Sunday School
teacher in my hometown. Mary Jane Pentonville was her name. Wow. I can still see
her now. She was heaven itself.’
blasphemy. No carnal thoughts, now, Clem. This is the Lord’s Day.’
it’s Thursday.’ croaked Josh.
day’s the Lord’s Day, that’s why I drink of his blood, and eat of his
flesh. To keep my body pure with his name. Amen.’
you’re a real theologian, Howie.’ I couldn’t resist.
doesn’t have to be a theologian to take stock of his life. I’ve been thinkin’
about this many years. Ever since I got injured in the war and was unable to
work. It’s the kind of thing that lets a man come face-to-face with his
deepest impulses. Yes, war is the awful face of God.’
were in ’Nam, Howie?’ asked Clem, ‘I thought it was Korea?’
I….um….I was in the service from ’62-’65.’
you serve? I was in the Marines, and did a tour in ’67.’
I never actually went to ’Nam. I was in West Germany. I got injured when the
Stasi tried to pull- well, I can’t go into the details. It’s classified,
y’know. Real important stuff. No one was ever to find out about certain things
that went on under the radar, as they say. Y’know? But….’ he paused to
swig from the bottle in his brown paper bag, ‘it was dangerous stuff. I worked
for the company, after that. You know, The
Company? I saw all the stuff pertaining to Jack Ruby and Sirhan Sirhan.
Yes, I was in the know.’
what happened, Howie?’ asked Josh.
transferred to the Secret Service and was LBJ’s personal bodyguard for three
months, until he bowed out of the re-election campaign in ’68. Then I was
At that I
burst out laughing, as Clem smiled my way, in a failed attempt to keep my
laughter under control.
raged, ‘What are you laughin’ at? I ain’t lying. Fuck you two losers.
Stuck delivering pisswater to a bunch of losers in this place. Where do you get
off looking down at me? I was a hero while you two bums are just bums.’
said, ‘C’mon, How- don’t be like that. Hey, the boat’s full, again,
let’s push it up the ramp.’
answer, eh, Clem? You should tell your boy there to watch his mouth. I was an
important man, once.’
Boy? I thought. He’s gotta be kidding.
sure Howie. He didn’t mean nothin’ by it. You know how these kids are these
days. They got no sense of history. Tell’im you’re sorry, pal.’
sort of pissed that Clem wanted me to apologize to a drunken old liar, but out
of respect for the old man I offered my apologies to Howie.
better. I accept your admission of ignorance. And I’m sorry I got a little
teed off. It’s just a sensitive area, you know. I been sworn to secrecy for
many years. It’s a burden, and burdens can pile up, y’see?’
Despite his claim to the contrary Howie still stewed for the next few
minutes while we went inside and unloaded our two u-boats onto a suddenly
available pallet. As we rushed down the ramp with another empty u-boat Howie and
Josh were now at the far end of the lot. I could still see the red shine of
Howie’s mottled nose in the distance as he was obviously berating Josh over
something or other.
I turned to Clem and asked him
why he put up with such shit from so many people, especially old losers like the
Howies of the world.
‘Well, it’s like this,
Kid.’ Clem always called me Kid, even though we’d been on hundreds of runs
together and knew full well my real name as well as the fact I was now thirty,
‘What good will come into my life if I show up the Howies of the world for the
phonies they are. I mean, yeah, I know he was never in the Secret Service or the
CIA, and probably never even served in the military. But, I know it, he knows
it, you know it. Even a bigger loser like Josh knows it. Howie probably got
disabled in a stupid or funny way, and this crushed whatever spirit he had. He
probably has no real life- certainly no wife, no kids that he’s ever
mentioned, and I’ve had this route for nine years, and in all that time he’s
never mentioned a single relative or friend. So, I become his friend. I’m in
the same place, at about the same time every week, three times a week, and that
gives him some purpose, someone to show off to, let loose a little of the
bullshit that would fall to the ground anyway, or just grow rotten inside him.
Just like hanging in the parking lot gives him purpose, to tell me about his
life- even if it is all bullshit. He serves a purpose, too, for the kids he buys
booze for and everyone’s happy- except maybe the cops if they ever found out
he was the clown getting the booze for the kids. Why mess with that?’
‘I guess. But, he’s just so condescending. I mean, yeah,
delivering soda ain’t the end all and be all, but it’s honest work, it’s
hard work, and when someone feels a good feeling in their throat downing a Sprite,
well, I can at least claim a part of that joy. Y’know? What the fuck can Howie
‘I hear ya, Kid. But, I’ll
just keep smiling at him, nonetheless. What can it hurt?’
We then pushed the final u-boat
full of soda up the ramp and left the invoice with the receiver, and said
goodnight. As we walked down the ramp I wanted to tell Clem that he was more
than just a soda delivery man, and better than someone like Howie, but I doubted
he’d believe me, and that he’d just shrug it all off. So we got in the truck
cab and Clem kicked things into gear. We pulled out of the lot and Howie waved
goodbye to us, sure that he’d see us in two days, for our next delivery, then
smacked Josh on his head as Clem smiled, and I wasn’t too angry over his
smiling at that old fool Howie. Then Clem chuckled, at least till we got just
past the bookstore.
[I’d suggest cutting all of the above.
The end of this story descends into saccharine. It deserves a better,
What is saccharine? The men
in the tale lead a dull and dreary life. They chuckle at two idiots, and then
it's back in the shit. The tale deliberately avoids a Hollywood feel good
ending. No, the two men aren't gunned down by gangstas, but their death is gonna
be slow and filled with thousands of dull days like this- or at least the
speaker's is. Now, had you said the end depressed you, at least that would tell
me you actually understood what was being read, even if I could not help your
reaction. Really, read the last sentence. Should I be less subtle and have Clem
bear the weight of his angst?
I really do appreciate your time and effort, and it is because of this that I am replying. I love criticism that can help a tale or poem, but putting aside the smaller crits you've a) fundamentally not gotten what the story is about, b) not understood the different demands of limited vs. omniscient POVs, c) not grasped what makes good, real conversational tone, and d) I guess, most unbelievably, to me, taken a rather grim, albeit it not in a horror film way, end, and seen it as saccharine.
Again, this is not a tale of mummified Updikean pseudo-intellectuals (And Woody Allen does them far better), but much more in a Carver or Hamill universe. If you think the mummified version better you'll have to convince me that you first understand the tale and the tools of the trade, then make the case. You did neither.
Let me end by stating that this is not a rebuke, nor anything personal, but I hope that in the future you expand the horizons of your reading. Is this the greatest tale ever penned, or the best I've done? No. But it's a damned good tale that paints a very convincing portrait of the kind of fellow people see but look past- ironically, just as you've read the words, but not the story. That needs to change if you, your site, and if the generic, paint-by-numbers pabulum that infests magazine and the Internet is to change for the better.
Criticism needs to be objective, honest, and learned. If you fail in one of those three it's probably best to simply say thanks but no thanks. Take this advice as you will. Anyway, be well, DAN
While I don’t think the tale, as a whole, is necessarily great, the ending sure is. And it is not saccharine in the least. The editrix probably stopped reading. When sending around I’ve felt the ending was probably too subtly dour and would make the whole tale unappealing to most LCD idiots. Such a claim about the end utterly undermines her credibility and ability (such as it was) as an editor. My four points are spot on, and I knew that they knew I had nailed them to the wall. The only question was not if they would reply, but if they’d be nasty. They weren’t nasty, but typically condescending, as the PC are wont to be.
The reply came not from the callow editrix, but from her ‘boss’, who proceeded to none-too-subtly dickwave, even as he addressed not a single of the points I made that utterly refuted the editrix’s comments, for they were irrefutable, and simply attempted to use his résumé as phallus. His reply is in red, indented, my second reply is in black, indented, and my current annotation in black.
-------- Original Message --------
Re: short story submission to Fifth Street Review
Thu, 21 Apr 2005 12:26:51 -0500
The Fifth Street Review wrote:
Dan, Thank you for your email and for offering us such extensive
feedback on our editorial comments. We very much appreciate it and, given the
open and democratic nature of our journal, we are more than happy to give
serious attention to what you have written and will do so.
However, I will note two things. First, many, many writers (established and new) whose work we've rejected have replied to our rejections and, in the majority of cases, have been grateful for the feedback. On the average, for every one person that responds in the negative to our criticism (and, frankly, a lot of these responses tend to be knee-jerk or defensive reactions), there are about 20 people who benefit from our work and often subsequently send us new and much better pieces.
***Read what you just said. I did not respond negatively. I simply showed, by dint of what I wrote and what was misinterpreted, how 4 key elements were wholly not grasped, at a fundamental level, and that your 'case' was wan, at best. I will say, that thankfully you are not among those journals that insist one read what they publish, for that merely leads to further banality and genericism. I do note, however, that you have not responded one whit to my comment on your criticism and its demonstrable flaws. In your crit you claimed A, B, and C, but I showed that those were flawed, as well as your exhibition of a term like 'like' rather than insisting on objective excellence, and yes, there is objectivity in art- for example, the tale's end was hardly upbeat, much less saccharine. I cannot argue anyone's like nor affection, but when you say that an end is 'saccharine' when it is manifestly not, that tells me that you may read words, but not grasp them, nor their purpose. I am grateful for the time and effort, but if I submitted Bartleby the Scrivener and you say that it's just a tale of a dumb guy, there's a limit to any measure of gratitude. And I'll note that I get many knee jerk reactions to pieces I've rejected and/or angry writers/poets who curse, threaten or generally embarrass themselves because I've denuded their work, or arguments. Again, I, in great detail, pointed out your manifest critical flaws, and in any forum I'll be willing to defend my position, tale, and guarantee, even in a hostile crowd, I'll win that debate decisively. As proof, I submit the very lack of even a defense against my critique, nor an acknowledgment of the unquestionable errors beyond subjective preference. For this reason I maintain it's still far better to refrain from comment and simply reject, although I realize for every person like me, that can detail and prove a bad criticism (and that is different from a negative criticism, which if spot-on, is good) there are 999, or far more, that cannot. If you do not realize it, that's what accounts for the 20 people who heed your advice. At email's end I have attached some correspondence from people on my e-list who commented, and I ended with something I did not do in the first email, point out what you actually consider 'good' writing- one of your pieces online. I did not mention that at first because it was not at issue, but some of the very criticisms of my piece are things utterly indulged in the posted piece- stilted dialogue and rife with clichés. You may be a PhD. but there is a fundamental difference between a Functionary intellect and that which is Creationary or Visionary. Mine is a far superior tale to that posted, although you of course are free to like anything you wish. I love old Godzilla films, but Orson Welles they are not.
Dickwaving with me in literature is a fool’s errand, as it would be with Einstein in physics or Picasso in painting. Note how he tries to position any response knee-jerk. Clearly, mine was thought out and definitive. His was the knee-jerk response to my criticism, for he never addressed a single point I made. he simply couldn’t. And my initial point about him taking my response as a negative says it all. The good doctor and his zine were depantsed. This is face-saving at its most elemental.
***I've for years been in writing
groups and know very well when a good crit comes, if positive or negative, and
often in offhanded ways the critic does not realize. There will always be idiots
who damn everything. Just read some of the reviews for Moby-Dick or Whitman.
There will likewise be people who love everything- either for lack of acumen, or
more likely nowadays to just suck up in the hopes of being published- that
chimera valued far more than excellence, for the art they produce is not about
communication- but self-esteem. Just because something is published does not
mean it's good, and there are people, as I've shown with your crit, that are
simply lacking in good ears or other senses that are needed for an art's
communication. And this is not trying to be post-modern and say the tale went
over your head, but, again, how to countenance so many failures in understanding
of technique and subtlety in favor of cliché and manifestness. Dave Eggers is a
horrendous writer, even by workshop standards. Frank McCourt's and Toni
Morrison's work has potential but is poorly edited, and will not last long past
their deaths. Because they are lauded and sell well, does that mean they are
good? Of course not- and their 'name' does nothing to impress where the writing
falters. Lowest Common Denominator thinking infests this culture, and
unfortunately, from what I can see of your site, it does there as well. You need
to have the ability to step outside of yourself and the generic. My god, look at
the poetry you post. It's even worse than the prose. You see, if a Whitman or
Rilke wants to advise you on poetry, or a Carver on short stories, you listen,
but if the advice is unsound and it comes from a source that is 'suspect', esp.,
there's only so much you can invest in it. And that's not to say that an
'expert' is all-knowing. Carver wrote some brilliant short stories, but he also
wrote shit. Whitman wrote great poems but alot of shit in his last years, and
his prose is execrable. But, there's nothing on your site that even reaches the
heights of a Whitman or Carver at their best, and even if it did, how to
reconcile the tale's rather glum but not manic depressive end with being
characterized as 'saccharine'? The problem, you see, is the disconnect between
what you think of as good advice and what it actually is, as I show. Look at how
genericizing your advice was. I showed two techniques that limn character that
you missed- the speaker's slip up with the word pride, and his contradictions,
and his reference to his wife. And, again, I ticked off several other points.
Now, I can turn to you, and say that more than one person on my e-list thought
that your criticisms utterly missed the point of the tale, too. And they have
experience to equal or surpass yours. Just look at the emails below. Are you
wowed by their credentials, or will you look at what they say and weigh? I
And, of all the characters you pick the least interesting, and utterly most familiar- the delusional drunk, as where you would want a new story to begin or focus. How many war stories, Carverian tales, tales of abuse or incest, or of self-help, does this sort of character exist in as a focus? I wisely use him as comic relief for the two doomed blue collar guys. Yet, the drunk character is, by his actions and words, utterly transparent. Ask yourself why you would find such a familiar and see-through character interesting, yet not the far more 3-D and unconventional speaker? It's this kind of trope toward the trite that infests too much in art. On the other hand, of course, there are artistes who try only to be different and fail the way teens with mohawks think they're being different, but are conformists.
Let me conclude with some advice that I've learned. My website (see below) is unfunded, not attached to any arts org, nor is it beholden to anyone or thing literarily, and in a little over 4 years I've gotten over 30 million hits and I estimate a regular readership in the tens of thousands. Yet, how to do that since I've no bells and whistles? Simple- good writing and diversity, whether poetry, fiction, criticism, and not conforming to dominant patterns. I've been threatened with death, libel suits, and copyright infringement by bad poets who did not like I denuded their work. But, I only get more and more readers. Why? Because excellence is different. If you want to read generic prose broken into lines and called poetry, or hipster sites with cool graphics and no content, or rebels without a cause, there are plenty out there, and a million of those sites split the 99% of the online audience clueless to good writing, or uncaring of it, while I get 99% of the remaining 1%, and thus get far more readers. There are maybe a dozen or so well-funded literary sites out there that have a larger readership, yet they advertise in mags and on other sites. Mine is all word of mouth- and why would that be unless I touch a chord and feed a yearning that the million or so other sites online do not? And if you want to learn about poetry and writing, you can do no better than reading my poetry essays.
But, my main point is that there is an audience out there that does not want to be condescended to, does not want to be told that bad is good, even if they cannot put their objections into words, and people who are just waiting for good writing that has depth and does not speak down from on high, to make it. Think the Impressionists and the Salonistas. Which side do you really want to be on? I really hope you choose excellence. There are hundreds of big name authors from the past who are nearly forgotten, because they were not good. Simply publishing is not the aim- it's the effect. Yes, Melville died obscurely and Life Of Pi made Martel rich, but the former perdures because of its excellence.
Now, I hope you really look at the crit I gave you, and actively decide to promote good writing. If you do I'm an email away. But, until you can even attempt to explain why you misread an ending that was not willfully obscure, or why you want to know the most banal things- the color of shoes, etc- rather than that which a character feels they want to impart, such advice will be far nearer that of the generic online zine than that of a master, even if you think it ameliorative. And certainly, given that fact, it is more advisable to refrain from imparting such advice than in sharing it. DAN
We wish you all the best with your writing. Adrian Wisnicki Chief Editor The Fifth Street Review email@example.com
Of course, I
did not outline a theory. Art theories are a dime a dozen, and the fact that the
editor sees a specific point by point rebuttal as an act of theorizing tells all
you need to know about the delimited cookie-cutter mindset he nurses. Notice, he
implies that his opinion is a fact, even though he phrases it as merely only
being a fact that he did not like the work. Why not put his facts to the test in
a debate? Because he knows he’d lose, and probably, in looking at his
editix’s remarks, came across her characterization of the end and saw the
manifest error she made, which meant neither probably even read the story to the
end. Yet, to try and critique without having read leads to such corners being
painted in. They did not even pick up on the fact that the title, and the last
paragraph are manifestly metaphors of the dull and routine life of the
characters- yet the tale is not routine and dull, as they would prefer it to
read were I to follow their suggestions. They would have me write dully, and
banally, as most of the stuff on their website is written, to express such. Note
how she’ would cut the things that are character based, and blue collar, yet
wants to be spoonfed meaningless details by the outer narrative. It will not
surprise you that neither party dared reply- although he did show me his
Here is the email I forwarded to my regular list
From: Dan Schneider
Sent: 20 April 2005 00:32
Subject: Why American Fiction is suffocating
Please, sigh along with me. I'll see if I get the routine FUCK YOU in response. DAN
Here are the two replies I mentioned, among many I received, to the exchange. The first:
-------- Original Message --------
Re: [Fwd: RE: Why American Fiction is suffocating]
Wed, 20 Apr 2005 08:46:36 -0500
Laura A Winton
I have never once found the edits or comments in a
rejection letter to be remotely useful or to show an understanding of what I do.
It usually explains why they rejected the piece and why I should never
re-submit work to them in the future, due to their utter and complete lack of
understanding of what they're reading.
People who take my work never edit it at all. As an editor, I have only once or twice suggested edits to a piece, and in each case, I published the final piece and the author said "yeah, you're right, that does make it better." But it's very rare and should be done with
caution. When I reject a work, I simply explain why the piece didn't meet my particular aesthetic criteria -- usually too linear and mainstream whereas i publish experimental work. I guess I don't subscribe to that old school idea of the editor as someone who re-
crafts your writing and "molds" you. And frankly, most small press editors are ill-equipped for that role anyway!
-------- Original Message --------
[Fwd: [Fwd: RE: Why American Fiction is suffocating]]
Wed, 20 Apr 2005 08:55:47 -0500
Yes. Let's face it- demoticism in the arts is a BAD, BAD thing. The guy CC'd teaches English at Yeshiva U. Look at this above URL from a tale they posted. Look at the early wooden dialogue on a banal topic. The q is- was this the author's original tripe, or the editor's suggestion.
Then, read the tale's end- and she thought my minor whorehouse ref was clichéd?
'When the sun had set yesterday, I would have given anything to receive an apology from my mother. Yet now, today, an apology would not enough. The life my parents tried to offer me, together or apart, was no longer enough. And I curse this cold, cruel world in which I was separated from the reality of my dreams.'
I try to think that this is all some cruel joke- that I'm the gorgeous blond in that old Twilight Zone episode on a world filled with gargoyles. Oy. DAN
The second reply was this. My reply in black, and the original in red:
-------- Original Message --------
RE: Why American Fiction is suffocating
Wed, 20 Apr 2005 10:27:31 +0100
Dan, really worthwhile debate, thanks again, am intrigued what he says in reply.
Indeed he is sincere but
totally misses the point, this is a story that needs someone to understand as
you say limited vs. omniscient POVs. It is a character study,
not Dan Schneider dressing up as deliveryman for a day so he can expound crafted
one liners on the state of nation/capitalism etc. on national TV.
***Thanks, I hope the person takes it as it was written and does not go ballistic, but, frankly I'm right. I mean, esp. about the end. How the hell, of all things is it saccharine? This is the type of inapropos comment bad readers/editors use just to say 'I don't LIKE it' without revealing it's a personal bias. I have a number of tales w dilettantes, and there I go overboard w pretension on the character's parts.
This point is cruelly exposed
by him rushing to accuse you of using a cliché with the whorehouse line.
All people use clichés in their
day to day speech, however well educated they are. In fiction as in life some
are more timely and knowing than others and I especially liked
this line cos you start to imagine the scenes/conversations the protagonist might
have picked it up from. He uses it so naturally as you say... so it's been
around the block. Is it his own "invention" used when he talks to
his friends about old Clem. Or did he get it from certain employees who
might use it with a heavily disguised sneer, or others purely as an over
used but reassuring quip which always gets a laugh when the conversation's
***This is a good point. Men speak of each other sometimes coarsely, but they do so w affection. But, your end queries do not NEED an answer. Does it matter? Perhaps, were the narrator omniscient it wd be worthwhile to tell, but as the speaker, nameless, this is his day, he is speaking to the reader as if a guy along for the shift.
But it seems for our
protagonist (and i feel for most who know him), it works because it's
supposed masculine coarseness hints at fellowship, esteem and
gratitiude while also hinting at the emasculation of the masculine,
for the doors that he opens and who should care to follow.
And would be interested to read the untouched
piece for my own pleasure, not that i can offer advice but from what i've
read, i've enjoyed.
cheers and all the best,
ps. but "Store receiver" difficult to work out???
Why? Has he just graduated?
person is clearly from the description overkill school. Does Clem have a bunion?
If so, why? Is this a political commentary? etc. She is, as I sd, a person
who reads the words, but misses the story. And there are far too many people
like that out there, and in the publishing field. DAN
Not to, to use a cliché, beat a dead horse, but such poor reading and editing are standard issue online and off. The truth is I do not particularly ‘like’ this tale myself. But, I recognize it is an excellent portrait of a life, with a terrific ending. I do not write poems, nor tales, nor even essays like this because I like to write them all. But, things come up- an idea emerges, and I fulfill its wishes. Do I want to have to demonstrate these editors failings? No. But, if this essay can help some good young writers realize that they are not alone, and do not have to genericize words and thought, then it is worth it.
Unfortunately, I realize that even when my stuff is accepted it is accepted because it is liked, not recognized as excellent nor great. pieces, and even books, get posted and published because they are liked, and stay in print because of excellence. In the rare instances that excellence does get into print it is merely happenstance that it coincides with being liked by an agent, editor, publisher, or audience. For example, I recently had a piece accepted online because the story mentioned Lawrence Welk, and the editor like that fact. Having briefly scanned his site I can state that his offerings are no better nor worse, on the whole, than that of The Fifth Street Review, which rejected me because they did not ‘like’ the work. They can rationalize their rejection, but I have shown that’s all it is. That they cannot even admit error is one of the major problems in society as a whole, but especially the arts. Most cannot take criticism. I can, as attendees of my old Uptown Poetry Group can attest. I look for it when needed. But, it has to be good and show you have an understanding of the art and the piece in question. Rejecting bad criticism (be it positive or negative toward the work) is no more a sign of immaturity than giving good negative criticism of a work is. This is not an arguable point. The same was true with the four specific points I made to the editors. That I was specific hamstrung them, for look at the generalities the editor uses. The truth is that all works- great or not, will have things any individual reader will want to change, due to personal biases- or likes, which the editrix repeatedly uses, but a good editor recognizes that bias for what it is, and that they cannot impose their views on another’s work without good reason. A criticism must be sustainable logically and contextually, and a good editor must know when to edit bad writing, and when to leave good writing alone. Too often, nowadays, this is like trying to decode the Rosetta Stone for most editors.
Here is another example of bad editing, from not too much later. I had sent some stories to Outsider Ink, and got this response- hers is in red:
Original Message -----
From: "Dan Schneider"
Subject: More Stupid Editors
Date: Tue, 10 May 2005 15:12:21 -0500
Note how she needs everything explained to her. DAN
Assistant Editor Outsider Ink wrote:
Jessica and Dan:
Thank you for your submissions of 'Unrivaled' and ‘The HandyMan' to Outsider Ink.
Regarding Unrivaled: The
difference in the girls is interesting, and the Missy versus Melissa observation
is good. I like that Caroline always refers to her as Missy in reflection. But
this comes across more like an essay, than a story, and I'm wondering if that
was your aim. That maybe, if written as a story, moving from A to B to C, might
make it easier to read, and understand.
Re The Handyman: It definitely comes across more as a story. There is a flow. Still, it is choppy; it could flow more smoothly. I found myself going back every now and then to figure out what had just happened. I wonder why, if there are 37 past bad acts, no one has uncovered this firm before, and why the police haven't grown wise as well?
I would also have liked to hear more about how this man charms - the Dumb Blond was so hesitant to even mention anything. It would've given more insight into what he was about to go through himself (good ending).
Although it is not what we are currently looking for, I did appreciate the chance to read your work.
Thank you for sharing your story.
The ‘like’, in Ms. Ebbenden’s email, unfortunately is not colloquial shorthand, but the determining factor for most editors. In my wife’s piece the tale was in a quasi-essay format. That the editor could not even tell that it was for sure speaks volumes. And look how she ends her opinion. She wants the tale to read ‘easier’- not ‘better’. There are good writings that are easy and not easy to read, but we get the appeal to simpleness alone. Without putting the story I wrote in this essay, I cannot argue with her first point, although it is not so, but look at her query regarding the 37 acts. Look at how she needs to have something like that explained, rather than dealing with it in the tale. Imagine asking, ‘Why is Captain Ahab a seaman?’
When forwarding it around my wife commented: ‘At least she's honest when she says she wants a typical a-b-c narration. But at least she wasn't snotty about it, so whatever.’, to which I replied: ‘It's still dumbed down nonsense. People who need every last thing explained.’ But, later that day, I got a rejection that was even more ridiculous, from a magazine called Plunge.
-------- Original Message --------
Re: Short Story Submissions
Sun, 15 May 2005 03:56:29 -0700
Thanks again and please submit again in the future.
Dan Schneider writes:
I submit these short stories written by my wife and me. If you choose to use one
or the other please byline with her
name- Jessica Schneider, &/or
> my name- Dan Schneider, & URL- www.cosmoetica.com. Thanks, DAN
> Jess's Story: Her Hands Are Lonely
> Dan's Story: The Preparation
this guy was not a condescending snob the way the editors of The Fifth Street Review
were, but recall what I said about the bad writing I’ve seen even on places
that accept my stuff? I did a little peering about this fellow’s website and
emailed this around, after I saw what sort of tripe he thought was post-worthy:
-------- Original Message --------
Re: PS- even worse
Sun, 15 May 2005 09:00:44 -0500
Now, compare those two with the start of Jess's & my pieces:
Her Hands Are Lonely
There is an old tale about a mother and a manatee, and so it goes: this mother decided it would be a nice day to take her baby to the aquarium. And so she did. The mother carried her baby in a stroller, pushing him as each bright fish that swam by saw the baby’s pointed finger and smile. And this made the mother happy, because he seemed to be enjoying himself, unlike so many other of the babies, who merely slept as their mothers strolled them along, or as the mothers sat on a bench, pushing their strollers back and forth in a motion that pulled the babies into sleep, thumbs in mouths at first, and then falling out as the sleep grew stronger. But such was not the case for Debby and her little man, Loren. Loren stayed attentive the whole time, eying the fish in wonder as to why they had no lids….
The subways of New York have
always gotten a bad rap, in my opinion. Yeah, years ago they were filthy, but
that was before Guiliani became Mayor. Yes, there’s crime, and ignorant kids.
I spent many years looking down on the train floor, seeing patterns in the
dirty, dried, pressed flat gum, but one day, about three years ago, after over
thirty years of taking the train into work, I decided that I had finished with
gum gazing for good. I was over fifty years old, for Christ’s sake. If some
motherfuckin’ lousy little piss ant punk wanted to shiv me over looking in his
direction for an eighth of a second too long, then, by all means, go ahead, you
lousy little piece of shit!
And I was right to do so. It wasn’t one of those life-altering moments like Iwo Jima, or the Tet Offensive, or 9/11, but it was my life and it did change me, so maybe it really was one of those moments, in miniature. Who’s to say that what one man walks by isn’t something that another, even if it’s a thousand years later, won’t find infinitely fascinating? For example, while looking up from the subway floor I discovered that the ads that used to be pasted were no longer what they were. They were alot more vibrant, colorful. Then I noticed, one day, across this big orange- and I mean bright orange pastel color, across this big orange ad for something- I forget what because all that was prominent were the immense breasts of this model in this orange colored ad. Across these big orange colored breasts was this fuckin’ huge brown, translucent cockroach. It was like an amber piece of something or other across these big orange knockers….
In short, anyone who says that subjectivity reigns in the arts is wrong. While this idiot can say he likes the two pieces below, the starts to our pieces are objectively better and more interesting, and less trite. Period. I can tell you, neither of the below pieces improves from this start, but look at the difference and lack of cloyingness in our two starts. DAN
The Everything Return by Benjamin Ryan Bergman
beings cherish the filthy sludge of a winter’s approach,
greenish gray skies, rotting pastures, the everslippery windy hill where
red-blotched greedy faces stare from below. There were so many that could
trot along in the squalid mush, frolic despite the pain of never being warm,
rejoice with a blue-white face and fetid skin wrapped up for months on end.
Kyle Numbsfeld was not one of them. The only thing he had going for him
was a letter. It had come unannounced. Presently it laid there
curiously, an ominous angle with its corner slightly elevated by an untouched
fork. He could tell it was from her but decided to keep his options open
for the time being. There wasn’t a thing to be done and it was cold
as hell outside and when something like this comes up it can make a guy
like Numbsfeld frought with nervous energy. His mind
raced towards a thousand unknown permutations, each one ending in a
gigantic black void of loneliness, bleak and cold….
Herbs by Emma
He slows the car down as he approaches the driveway. Although he fights
it, hope always enters his heart as he nears the house. He sits
there for a moment, hands gripping the steering wheel. He’ll have to go in
eventually. It is already late; he dragged out the time in the office, working
slowly so that he could delay his journey home. That’s the way his life is
now. That’s what has become of him. Of them.
On the way home he stopped to get something to eat. “Take your time,” he told the waitress, just like he tells her every night. “Take your time. There’s no hurry.”….
This is the start of a story online. I'll guarantee you the 2nd sentence
is his idea of a sentence that hooks, and note the moralism in just this section.
Dan Schneider wrote:
Don, here's what I mean about
editors- online or not. Note how what this person is really saying that they
like a formula and Jess's or my tale did not fit that. So, to not reveal their
total lack they try to use a term like moralistic, which I doubt they even know
the definition of. Also, the fellow is de facto admitting, he posts what he
'likes'- not what is good. DAN
In the first
selection you’ll note the raft of clichés. What is this editor thinking?
That’s the point. He’s not- he’s ‘feeling’. Jess’s opening sentence
is the most intriguing of the four, and my opening paragraph already paints a
vivid character, unlike Bergman’s puerile attempt at gloom or Feldshtein’s
off-the-rack tale of a failing relationship. Simply put, without reading a word
more in any of the four tales, Jess’s and my writing is immediately richer,
more interesting, and less banal. While that may not affect a reader’s liking
of it, or not, it is inarguably better. This is not subjective, for clichés are
not really subjective- they are statistically highly recurring images, tropes,
or phrases in familiar settings.
Yet, editors also have a hard time with having to phrase their decisions, because they are not based upon literary criteria, but subjective preferences. Often they’ll use a literary term out of place, or inappropriately, as in this rejection:
-------- Original Message --------
Re: The Effect of Light on Long Ago
Mon, 20 Jun 2005 22:11:20 -0700 (PDT)
Night Train firstname.lastname@example.org
Thanks for submitting "The Effect of Light on Long Ago". I appreciated much of this story but unfortunately we won't be able to use it.
Ezra is a quirky and amusing lead character who colored the narrative with a slightly eccentric perspective. The most entertaining parts to me were his frequent detached musings, his wandering mind. However, I had difficulty suspending my disbelief about the central storyline (him stumbling upon his lost father by happenstance), and I wasn't sure how this resolved - whether Ezra was ever to learn he'd found Gus or not and what this all meant for him.
Ezra's character is difficult to contain, and in places I think he could have used more focus to help refine the action of the story.
Thank you for thinking of Night Train and best luck in all your submissions.
Andrew S. Bodine
The tale is
ostensibly about a drunken fellow whose dissolution is partly caused by,
perhaps, is father’s abandonment as a child. One day, he finds out, by
accident, that a man who fits the description of his father is at an old folks
home/hospital. He visits, and does not believe it is so, although the last image
in the tale is a clue that strongly suggests he is, and is great symbolism. Yet,
the tale’s point is not that a man seeks his father, but the clue’s meaning
throughout the tale- which a reader can take in different ways- although not
infinitely. In short, it’s a very naturalistic tale with an ending where the
reader has more knowledge that the main character. Yet, Bodine says he could not
‘suspend disbelief’ for the fact that a chance event could lead two people
together, even though this occurs all the time in life and literature. The
chance event is a mention of the father figure by another character. This
requires suspending disbelief? There is a perfectly natural unfolding of events.
That term is used almost exclusively for sci fi, horror, and fantasy works,
where unrealistic things occur. The chance event in my tale is not contrived in
the least. What Bodine was actually saying was he didn’t like the tale, for
whatever reasons, but needed to dress up his rejection in a literary sounding
way. Of course, the term is wholly inaptly applied- and I haven’t even gotten
into his reading level, since the tale’s end is hardly fully open. But, look
again how he needs to be spoonfed answers, and needs total resolution, instead
of letting the art of great wordplay work on him. That ‘irresolution’ should
be viewed as a good thing, and get Bodine thinking of higher ideas behind the
tale. But, like too many poor readers he needs to be spoonfed, and any less
causes caterwauling. His advice, like the others, would increase banality,
genericness, and predictability.
While not as condescending as The Fifth Street Review, in some ways this is a worse rejection, for he does not even attempt to explain himself. In short, a brief no is all that should be given when rejecting a piece, unless an explanation is asked for, because too often the editors’ lack is revealed. Like is not excellence, and personal biases are just that, and must be overcome if good writing is to flourish in print and online. I had a great story rejected not long ago that has become an archetype example of editorial incompetence. I mentioned it in an email above. The tale followed a middle-aged American Indian cop who unrequitedly loved a teenaged girl, and one night he comes upon her horse stuck in mud. He attempts to rescue it, but fails, yet finds something with the girl. The editor who rejected it said I needed more details- such as the color of the horse, as if the horse was anything more than setting for the tale! And this is not ‘sour grapes’- a nice catchall term used to dismiss often valid criticism with the true sour grapes, for as I’ve said I can show you bad writing aplenty on sites that have accepted my stuff, proving its acceptance was based merely upon like, as well. And this goes on from the big name magazines like the New Yorker, all the way down to the worst websites. And the show I’m not playing favorites, even people on my email list often fall into the same traps, preferring the simplistic to the multifarious, for no reason save the simplisticness. They want things wrapped in bows, they want no ambiguity, and prefer everything to be explained, and purely plot-driven, rather than a good character study. Even when I point these things out the only rejoinders offered are that they- guess what?- like or dislike the piece, but likewise cannot defend it.
Of course, there are people who are the exact opposite- they not only can defend anything they choose, but do so with vigor. Of course, their defenses are absolutely insane. Such is the case with poetaster Bob Grumman, whose insanity I’ve explored twice before, here and here. BG is probably my favorite online stalker. He’s basically harmless, unlike a nasty Charles Bukowski fan or some deluded online kid who calls himself Trent Mancini, and attempts to spar with me over writing, especially Postmodern dreck. But I get a kick out of tweaking BG, as well as his obsessions over me. Recently I had this email exchange, out of the blue, after I argued a point with a another, nicer Charles Bukowski fan who emailed me, and I briefly mentioned BG. BG thinks that I don’t realize that there are many folk we know in common on our email lists, so I am aware that he gets forwarded my emails regularly. Similarly, many of his friends, and enemies email me with updates when BG irrationally rips me on his blog. Anyway, here’s the latest exchange, with my comment to the Bukowski fan in blue, Grumman’s in red, and mine in black, all indented, save for my later annotations:
-------- Original Message --------
Regarding yet another of your misrepresentations of me
Tue, 26 Jul 2005 14:00:38 -0400
Bob Grumman email@example.com
***Granting this truth-
so? As a poetry reader I feel the exact same way of bad poets like Buk, and have
shown it. I did a couple pieces on a psychotic old poet named Bob Grumman, who
feels poetry is no longer the province of words alone, for words have failed.
I believe no such thing, asshole. I, and many other poets, believe simply in the value of what I call pluraesthetic poetry, for poetry that combines words with other expressive modalities, such as mathematical terms or graphics. Few of us have any problem with solitextual poetry. Many of us, including me, write it ourselves. I don't believe any of us writes it as badly as you write yours, though. Why, by the way, have you never answered the in depth trouncing of your crap I did at my blog? Bob Grumman
To clue in
those unaware of the ongoing obsession BG has with me: last year he emailed me
out of the blue, to denounce my writing. He did several blog entries where he
basically admitted he was incapable of criticizing actual poetry, especially if
great. I then trounced him. This set BG off into delusion and
depression for months. I got some forwarded emails from colleagues of his to
prove this. Then, when someone dug up my piece, months later, at a site he
participates in, BG was embarrassed all over again, and lied that he knew
nothing of my trouncing. As said, I had forwarded emails as proof, and this was
a face-saving measure in front of his friends. He denounced me again, and again
I ripped him. After he accused me of not emailing him the first
time, although I did, and his reactions were proof, I said I’d reply when
time, and did, and that he should keep checking my site. I also knew that emails
were forwarded to him, and my email re: my second destruction got to BG, as
well, as I got further rages forwarded to me. Yet, BG has insisted, to this day,
he never received them. This allows him to brush off my humiliation of him. But,
as this and the next emails prove, when you are insane there is no accounting
for personal behavior, nor maturity.
So, this is why BG retains the façade that I never replied, although I did, he knows it, and I know he knows it. My reply:
-------- Original Message --------
Psycho-Bob rides again!
Tue, 26 Jul 2005 13:46:52 -0500
Bob Grumman firstname.lastname@example.org
How many more solipsistic terms can one fit into an email? I did answer them, and depantsed you severely. Look around. I must say, you're my favorite psychotic, for you are totally delusional! Kind of makes me wish you were a Right Wing Christian, to boot. Now, slip the arm into the straitjacket, and grin! DAN
Note the wit and concentrated sting, as opposed to BG’s lame ‘asshole’. He replied very wanly, and sillily, needing my attention, and trying to get me to react:
-------- Original Message --------
Re: Psycho-Bob rides again!
Tue, 26 Jul 2005 16:31:23 -0400
Bob Grumman email@example.com
You answered once, then ignored my follow-ups--as you now ignore my correction of your misrepresentation of me. Do you know what "solipsism" means, by the way?
As if epithets and solipsisms are an answer. Then the childish ending. Now, I started having fun with him:
-------- Original Message --------
Re: Psycho-Bob rides again!
Tue, 26 Jul 2005 15:36:07 -0500
Bob Grumman firstname.lastname@example.org
Untrue, as I warned you, you beautiful psychotic bastard. Or do you not get enough emails from the folk we share in common? Those cats at New Poetry are really unreliable bastards. I don't believe a word they say about you. Nighty-night Tinkerbell! DAN
BG again plays games, like he earlier wanted me to give him the names of folk on my list that email his stuff about me to him. I play into his hipster posing, and he rages:
-------- Original Message --------
Re: Psycho-Bob rides again!
Tue, 26 Jul 2005 18:23:10 -0400
Bob Grumman email@example.com
of mine gets e.mail from someone linked to you, and forwards me the ones by you
that mention me. Hey, why don't you prove I'm deluded by directing me to where
you deal with the follow-ups at my blog to your crap about me at your website.
Why don't you also quote where I say that "poetry is no longer the province
of words alone, for words have failed"--or anything to that effect? Bob G.
Of course, he never states that directly, but it is in his justifications
for his visual poetry, as well the very intent. As my wife, Jessica, has said,
people like BG would write like a hart Crane or Wallace Stevens or me if they
could. Why would you not want to write greatly, using words, total abstractions,
rather than cop out with visuals. It’s akin to a painting that has text
alongside explaining what the painting means. It’s a de facto admission that
the words fail. It is, therefore, visual art that is vaguely poetic, not poetry
that is visual, for obviously, letters are visual things, so visual poetry is a
redundant phrase. All poetry is visual, but ‘visual poetry’ is merely
vaguely poetic because it lacks words primacy, and the ideas are not abstracted,
but present directly, sensually, and any response to the ‘visual poetry’ is
primarily visual, not language based, therefore it’s not writing, but visual
art, and to not see the difference is a lack of intellect and honesty, for they
know what I have said is true. In this way, BG’s aim to make his ‘visual
poetry’ is a dumbing down of literature that has the same aim as the ‘tell
me every detail’ school of fiction. They do not trust their audience, and
sneer at them. Yes, most readers are not of the highest of orders, but you
should treat then as such, and give them literature to aspire to, not be
spoonfed to. BG, and his ilk, do not believe this. I reply, and BG goes back
into his cave, shivering:
-------- Original Message --------
Re: Psycho-Bob rides again!
Tue, 26 Jul 2005 18:04:53 -0500
Bob Grumman firstname.lastname@example.org
I prefer the ones they fwd from you where you suspect me of being behind every other loser you argue with. Or, to put in in Grummanese, 'Hoogedy-Boogedy- Boo!' DAN
This was too much. Of course, BG is also a hypocrite, as well as liar and psychotic. He complains if I rip him, and he complains if I ignore him. He wants my approval, then he rejects it. And, as for not telling him I’ve ripped him, he even admitted that was not so in an earlier piece. Of course, this does not stop him from ripping me on my blog every so often. Several times in the last year I’ve gotten alerts from others as to his insanity directed at me within his blog. The last one was a few months ago, and of course, he did not tell me of it. Here, he posts on critic William Logan, whom I once tangled with, and is linked within his piece, and gets a typical troglodyte response, which he compares to me, then in his paranoia asserts is me:
16 June 2005: Some halfwit who writes for Vanity Fair called William Logan "the best poetry critic in America." So we discussed Logan a bit at New-Poetry. Paul Lake said, "He writes wonderful zingers, and I like the impulse to write negative reviews about bad poetry, but he seems to look at the whole poetry world through black-colored glasses."
"To that, I responded, "Not the 'whole poetry world,' Paul, just Wilshberia. Nonetheless, I consider him an okay albeit limited critic. Can anyone tell me if anybody who thinks him a poor critic has ever critiqued him (in any kind of depth, I mean)? I also wonder just who the poetry critics in America are supposed to be. Are there more than two or three writing for national publications? How about in the small press? I never hear about anyone who is supposed to be an important critic--aside from the ones writing for the slickstream, whose reputation comes from their positions, not what they say. And what critics are establishing a school of criticism like the idiotically named New Critics? Or the Deconstructionists, etc. I suppose there are the Postmodernists?
"My impression is that nothing much at all has been going on in American Poetry Criticism for twenty years or more but I can't say I know much about it. There are isolated mavericks like Silliman and me, but otherwise just long-spent celebrity-mediocrities like Vendler and Bloom, and journeymen-mediocrities like Logan who are still in their prime. I don't consider myself an innovative critic, by the way--just one trying to understand as much of what's going on in poetry as I can. In fact, I doubt that I'm superior to Logan in any way except range."
There, thanks to New-Poetry, another blog entry done.
Wow, this entry got a response the day after it appeared! A thoughtful one, too:
Response To Blog501 = yo clue less joe
found your terrible shit reserchin some article on language poetry
some angry dude in minnesoda ripped yr lame ass
thats how i found yr fucked down shit
did you ever read that shit no mind 20 - 10 diveded by A right haha
he also rips logan a new asshole and the two of them argue a bit at the end you dickwad
lemme ask ever get laid in yr life
8 - 3 divided by LOSER
Odd how males whose IQ's are below 90 think that males with higher IQ's than that are sexless. I, of course, am, but not all males with the ability to think are.
The "angry dude" in Minnesota, incidentally, is Dan Schneider, whose critical acuman, IQ and writing style strongly resemble my anonymous correspondent's. But his website, Cosmoetica, draws well over a hundred times as many visitors as this blog does, so what can I say?
Yes, my style is to this troglodyte’s what Wallace Stevens’ is to BG’s! There are also, aside from his admissions of celibacy- most likely forced upon him, diatribes against me, and numerous instances of BG’s insanity, such as this praise of a chimp’s painting, this of a really lame visual poem, if one even wants to take such ‘poems’ by their own claimed aesthetics, and this of a banal poem. Read his reason for what makes the poem exceptional, then compare it to other of his rationalizations in my earlier pieces, and his willful misreadings of my poems. He even posts his cv online. But my favorite has to be his utterly superfluous and ever changing personal dictionary of terms that only he knows of. The terms are almost all silly, and have better counterparts in general usage. This sort of insular, solipsism is typical of the truly insane person who thinks they’re a genius, then wails that no one understands them. Yet, it’s my favorite instance of BG’s, for it fully displays his ripened insanity. Note how some of his ‘definitions’ are not even coherent, such as:
3. Lexicalization of Paramorphemes, or punctuation marks and the like.
Or, are wholly circular- i.e.- solipsistic, depending on someone knowing BG’s terms, which are constantly shifting:
4. Infraverbal Fusion combining textemes from two or more words.
Or, are so wan in coinage as to not even be a usable term:
9. Text-Scatter--taking words, parts of words, etc., out of sentences or lines and putting them in various other places on the page.
How about mouth-feed, for ‘eat’? He even warns that this list will change, again, for ‘I'm far from satisfied with most of my names for them.’ He seems to be intent on coining meaningless words, even to his own admission of their failures, in the hopes of securing a notation in some trivia book akin to evolutionist Richard Dawkins’ coinage of memes, as many of his terms end in –eme. Of course, Dawkins also has a great career as a scientist on his resume, one that is quite a bit more impressive than BG’s, above. BG’s endless neologisms and definitions that shift, yet do no better than the serviceable words and terms they replace, show that this act is merely a substitute for genuine creativity, and a tacit acknowledgement of his barrenness in that field, In short, his work is a copout and his dictionary an admission he’s creatively bereft.
It is this desperation for attention that puts BG firmly in the camp with
such refuse writing schools as the Languagists in poetry, and the Postmodernists
in fiction. They all claim that words are not enough- and like BG they imply it,
if not outright state it, and when they do stick with just words, their work is
incoherent, banal, and plain old poorly constructed. The defense of such
travesties is an appeal that a work of art can have many, and often infinite,
meanings. They will phrase their claims in such ways as telling a reader to ‘produce
one's own reading among the polysemous routes that the text offers’.
Polysemous meaning to have multiple meanings, but it sounds more hoidy toidy
when applied to typical Languagist drivel, of the sort I’ve denuded before.
Also, note its definitional kinship to BG’s nonsense.
Languagists also have such aims as to ‘derange’ the language, by
adding gerunds here and there, for no apparent reason save a thing for –ings.
There are also other puerile calls, that are politically and philosophically
based- such as a hatred of authority and love of anarchy, for picking words at
random, and then letting the words, yes the words, demand their own form!
Poets need not apply. There are similar calls to ‘write
what cannot be written, such as a book index serving as a poem. This is very
similar to Rick Moody’s PoMo ‘stories’ called Wilkie Fahnstock,
The Boxed Set, and Surplus Value Books: Catalogue Number 13. there
are also calls that are definitely ‘New Age-ish’: ‘Attempt
writing in a state of mind that seems least congenial,’ and the like. Then
there are calls to use only thin or round letters, and to destroy all
connotation or meaning from a work.
Yet, if art is communication at its highest, wherefore the call to be
solipsistic? This is the manifestation of the masturbatory impulse in art taken
to its extreme- be it BG’s insanity, David Foster Wallace’s incredibly bad
prose, or the Languagists’ doggerel. At least the Languagists can claim Ron
Silliman as their leader, for his surname is the most apt in poetry, as it
defines his work and self. All of these rules that these ‘outlaws’ (in their
minds only) set down only delimit their own writing, rather than free it up.
It’s like poets who have crowed over writing a poem sans the letter F, even if
it says nothing, is ill-wrought, and its only attribute is lacking an F! Yet,
they will crow that it’s an act that subverts capitalism, or some other
nonsense. Some know they are bullshitting, but others really believe. I liken
these ‘poems’ to those weird world records that people are so proud of, such
as shoving the most lima beans up a nose- seventeen, which do nothing to expand
the human endeavor the way a weightlifter or track star’s record does, but is
just an oddity that is an ego-stroke. The same is true in Postmodernism,
Languagism, and the assorted visual poetry of BG and his ilk, as well as the
Dead White Male and PC Elitist Academic poetry. One group says what it says in
silly ways and the other in familiar ways- yet all are banal, children screaming
for attention, even as no reader holds a single image nor line of theirs to
their bosom. They know it, too, for the absurdity of their prohibitions makes
any real connection with others a mere statistical fluke, not an aim.
In effect, the Henry Dargers
of the world have taken over, replete with their bad writing and insular
In effect, the Henry Dargers of the world have taken over, replete with their bad writing and insular insanities.
But, it is not only the artists, as I’ve demonstrated many times, but the editors and publishers who seem to be congenitally unable to recognize, nor even desire to recognize, superior writing, for they would then feel inferior. Putting aside qualitative things, the mere insistence by a good 90% or more of online zines to not have fiction go over two thousand words is a text book case of dumbing down. There simply are topics and tales that need more space. The excuse is always that readers have a short attention span, and this is true, in our MTV Age, but even if reading a 20,000 word piece might cause eyestrain there is an elegant solution. People copy and paste into a word processor, and read it in print. My anti-Iraq war piece got about 7.5 million hits in its first two months online, and it’s about 20,000 words. My JFK-UFO piece is book-length, at about 70,000 words, yet got 1.5 million hits in its first month online, so I know this is false. The key to both piece’s success was, not coincidentally, the high quality of the writing. The claims of short attention spans are therefore a self-fulfilling prophecy, for bad writing encourages someone turning off quickly. It also allows lazy ‘editors’- anyone with a website, to not actually do their job.
Yes, it’s true that online has more bad stuff than in print, but not qualitatively, but quantitatively, for there are a thousand times more online outlets than in print. Yet, there are also more good outlets online, like Cosmoetica, or Hackwriters, in raw numbers than in print, even if the percentage is even lower than in print. This, incidentally, is why online and most print magazines, do not pay for writers’ pieces. There are just too many similar bad sites that are a click away. They all seek to ‘change the world’, which is what all bad artists dream of in their delusions, rather than merely making great art- which has no expiration date; meaning it can be read over and again- a point I made to the Bukowski fan who set off BG’s latest insanity. BG’s mathemaku, and other visual art are one-trick ponies that not only do not offer things in rereading, but offer no reason to reread, for they are not even particularly interesting nor engaging puzzle-grams, along the lines of Canadian poet Wilfred Watson’s works. BG even demonstrates this with his tortured imbuements of the worst sorts of visual art because he is literally incapable of dealing with what is on the page, which I’ve shown and he admits in his ramblings- even if he cannot recognize his admissions.
His ‘visual poetry’ is not even cheating, as the Languagists do- for they use letters and words, but put the burden of communication fully on the reader. BG abandons words altogether, save for his straightforward doggerel, which I’ve also denuded. This very act is his admission that he can do no more with words. It is also akin to the willful marginalization that PC Elitists use to defend their banal doggerel- claiming that no one outside of a certain group- racial, sexual, religious, experiential- is capable of criticizing their insular rants. Both sorts of art are also instances of self-limiting creativity, as are Postmodernism and Languagism, for their rules hamper the free flow of ideas and allowing form to follow function, or vice versa. They therefore become unwittingly conforming non-conformists, like teens with Mohawks who think they are rebelling, even as they are facelessly lost in their own crowd.
It takes more than just a desire to be an artist. One needs talent, and even more so a desire to be a great artist. I have done that with words, but the tool to my success is pattern recognition, which also made me great in mathematics. Yet, math bored me, so I never pursued it. I was mature enough to recognize such a thing. Most people are not. BG, and the others, are not. They are the exact opposite, abstruse to merely be abstruse- but that does not means good nor complex; it’s just weird or silly, like the guy who sucks on his toe fungus.
But it is part and parcel of the atrophying American imagination. Writers who don’t seek to connect, editors who want everything laid out in front of them- death to ambiguity!, critics who prefer to translate bad pieces of writing- telling you what it says, or attempts to- a demonstration of the actual art’s failure to do so alone, rather than evaluate a piece of writing- telling you how it works, or not, and readers who don’t care enough to call these clowns on their stultificating ways. I’ve long said this- the most revolutionary thing in art or life is to be consistently great- an excellence in three things: quality of product, quantity of that quality product, and diversity of that product. Art is not truth, and its aim is not likeability, for, as said, generic writing will be liked a bit, but no one will love it nor be moved by such a thing as BG’s mathemaku’s divisors. No one will say- ah, love that quotient! The real test of writing’s worth often comes down to this question Jessica poses: would someone publish the work if the writer was already dead? I.e.- will the quality of the writer’s corpus stand the test of time that when a writer’s initial fanbase dries up, or dies off, there will still be a readership, or is the publication merely the result of ‘connections’ and sycophancy- the granting of a favor to one who has also done a favor to them?
If not, the answer says it all. Walt Whitman said (paraphrasing) that great art demands great audiences, yet much of modern art has sought to alienate audiences from any desire to engage it- by being insular, dull- think anything by Donald Hall, willfully abstruse, preachy, lazy, ill-wrought, solipsistic, indulgent, and many other ills. Art cannot be wholly transparent and be ‘art’. Nor can it be hermetic, for what is the point? Think Finnegans Wake. And this does not mean simplistically looking to make art that is likeable. How many times does an editor reject a piece and state the reason was that the lead character was not likeable? Yet, Holden Caulfield from The Catcher In The Rye, and Captain Ahab, from Moby-Dick, prove that likeability is not the real issue that hooks a reader; identifiability is- for we can all identify, or empathize, with someone who bitches constantly, or is obsessed. Generally speaking, the best art does not, and should not, connect every dot, but should connect some, enough to allow the emergence of a constellation of connection between artist and audience. In short, art must at least attempt to engage the reader intellectually, sensually, or in just fun ways. If not the American imagination will continue to be just a shovel full of stars tossed randomly to the immortal blacks, where its children will no longer gaze.
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