First Saturday Report: July

Writing & Submitting:
It is taking longer than I’d planned to finish the new project, but that might not be a bad thing. Diligence and fear playing off each other. What a flop if I get it wrong, if I’m not honest, fair, and even.

I’m also working on the follow-up essay to the one that appeared in issue one of Vautrin.

Reading:
Finished reading Alexs D. Pate’s Multi Culti Boho Sideshow. It’s out of print, so, if you’re looking for a copy, try Abebooks.com

Read Erika T. Wurth’s Buckskin Cocaine. This was published by Astrophil Press, which is run by an old grad school acquaintance, Duncan Barlow. Wurth’s book is excellent. I was especially taken by the capper story, Olivia James. It is a very graceful story about the sacrifices that all artistically driven people make in order to pursue their passion, but it was particularly poignant about the sacrifices that marginalized and impoverished people—especially women—have to make not only to continue to pursue their art, but to avoid the pitfalls and traps of poverty.

Ocean Vuong’s collection of poems, Night Sky with Exit Wounds. I also picked up, but haven’t starting reading, his novel On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous. There were some fantastic poems in Night Sky. We’ll see how the it goes.

Podcast:
Coming soon will be a short conversation with Todd Robins about his new literary journal Vautrin. Later this month I’ll be recording a live show with the poet Chandra EA Di Piazza and musician Rhea Sewell.

I hope you all enjoyed the Problematic Badass Female Tropes series. I’m looking forward to Jenn finishing up her Toxic Masculinity tropes essays so we can talk about those.

Listening:
This section feels like it’s a broken record (ba-dum, bang crash). I’m pretty locked in to listening to the playlist I created for the novel project, and simply plopping that in here again wouldn’t work. Then I realized, I’ve been listening to podcasts for years and never talked about those here. My go-to standard is Marc Maron’s WTF. He’s like my spiritual older brother.

There are others that cycle through as reliably good. Douglas Rushkoff’s Team Human podcast, companion to his most recent book of the same name is excellent, especially if you’re interested in fighting against the dehumanization of this age, and big data’s attempt to predict and codify our behavior though algorithms in order to sell us things we don’t yet know we want—or even need.

The You Are Not So SmartPodcast is another one that I go to frequently. In fact, their most recent episode was disturbing and eye-opening. It looked at the concept of Pluralistic Ignorance, which is a situation where a majority of people privately reject a social norm, but go along with it anyway because they incorrectly assume they are in the minority. What’s especially interesting about this episode of YANSS is that they look at pluralistic ignorance through the lens of Jonestown mass suicide, and how even when someone speaks up against a norm that the majority of people would like to reject, the norm can still win out through what is called false enforcement. I feel like among Trump supporters and the Republican Party we’re witnessing false enforcement on a massive scale, fueled by Fox News, and propped up by people like Mitch McConnell.

There’s the always important Savage Lovecast by Dan Savage.

There are lots of other, but I’ll save them for a later report.

Watching:
Not much has caught my eye, although I may have watched the last Avengers movie. Lately, I’ve been watching old episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Random Thoughts:
I always struggle with the success of other writers. There’s some jealousy involved, some happiness, confusion, frustration, anger, and hopelessness.

Part of it is that I don’t know how we should define talent anymore. So many times I wander through the aisles in bookstores, pick up books with titles that catch my eye, read the first few paragraphs . . . and I’m disappointed. It’s rare that anything really sparks my interest. I have an entire bookcase at home dedicated to unread novels I’ve purchased. Some of them have been unread for over a decade, and there are other unread books, the non-fiction ones, scattered around the apartment on other bookcases. Some of these unread novels were gifts, some were picked up when I attended an author reading, some were recommended by trusted friends and fellow writers, and some, I think, must have been picked up with good intentions, or at least while I was in some kind of generous fugue state (why did I have a copy of Riptide Ultra-glide by Tim Dorsey sitting on my shelf for five years?). I go through the unread ones every now and then, read those first paragraphs again and . . . put them back on the shelf. Pretty much when I go into bookstores anymore, I’m looking to buy a book by someone I actually know, or have at least met and talked to about writing. What I find on the bookshelves in bookstores is . . . or feels . . . homogenized. The praise in the blurbs seems overblown, and when I have managed to read the book, sycophantic. The best example would be Ben Lerner’s Leaving The Atocha Station. Overall, it was a fine book, I enjoyed it, but the blurbs lead me to believe that I would be reading something transformative, or deeply moving, and it wasn’t. It was a solid first novel by a poet, but it could have been written by anyone, really. Most of the books I find are capably written, competent, but wholly lacking in any daring or risk. The writer’s imagination seems devoted to the creation of an exact simulacrum of the real world, and their skill with the craft of writing is focused on what I call “invisible prose” where the language is just evocative enough to engage a reader’s imagination in relation to the story, but not so evocative to make the reader marvel at the beauty our language can evoke.

Since everyone is working in “invisible prose” it might be best to offer examples of some writers who don’t. Here are some exceptions I’ve recently come across: Lindsay Drager in her book The Archive of Alternate Endings. Sharanya Manivannan in her story collection The High Priestess Never Marries. Heather Tucker in The Clay Girl.

Of those three, only one was published by one of the Big Five publishers (Penguin Random House, Simon & Schuster, Macmillan, Harpercollins, or Hachette), and that one was published by Harpercollins India, a division that has a very different editorial vision and aesthetic than Harpercollins, USA.

And that leads me to another part that is the source of all that angst. Some people are generous and simply call it a “workshop aesthetic” as if all writing workshops were guilty of creating the same blandness. I’m not so generous and will unapologetically point the finger where I think it needs to be pointed: it’s the Iowa Writers Workshop aesthetic. The style that comes out of there isn’t just “invisible,” it’s inoffensive and unchallenging. The people who argue against there being an Iowa aesthetic all went to the IWW, or accepted by the IWW worshipers and are hesitant to rock the boat because there’s no way to make it in publishing as a literary writer unless you play by Iowa’s unspoken, perhaps even unacknowledged, rules.

The only other way to have a life in books seems to be to come up with an easy-to-reproduce formula of some sort based on the “annual model upgrade” system created by the auto industry in the 1950s which has lead to the only real difference between a 2016 model and 2017 model being the shape of a headlight or tail light. This is what popular fiction is now. Get a recurring character, and write a new novel about that character every year and maybe you might have something. Maybe. If it can be made into a TV series.

Ok, so, I’m bitter. I can admit it. In the last decade, when I’ve gotten a rejection letter from an agent that wasn’t a form rejection, I’ve been told they think I’m talented, but not right for their list—which, of course, makes me question whether anyone has a good understanding of talent anymore, and whether I actually have any real talent or if I just got lucky the one time.

This is why I struggle with the success of other writers. When I was younger, I generally just disliked the writer simply for having a success, but except in certain cases (you know who you are Dan Brown), most writers are diligent, careful, and concerned about that awful, misunderstood, sneered at word—“craft.” Even ones with serialized characters and annual novel cycles. For a while, I was even angry directly at agents and editors, but I’ve come to have a gentler opinion of them as well.

I struggle with the success of other writers because I feel like we don’t talk enough about two or three things: 1) Luck. 2) the presence of identifiable formulas in so-called “literary fiction” that are just as restrictive and prone to abuse as formulas in genre fiction, and 3) the presence of pluralistic ignorance in the publishing world, especially in regards to the influence of the IWW and its adjacent programs.

Think about it for a while.

About Jason Quinn Malott

I am the author of "The Evolution of Shadows" (Unbridled Books, 2009), host of The Outrider Podcast, and the one-time publisher and editor of the now defunct not-for-profit indie 'zine called The Project for a New Mythology. I have a BA in creative writing from Kansas State University and an MFA in writing and poetics from Naropa University's Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics. View all posts by Jason Quinn Malott

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