On today's menu:
1. Earlier this summer, The Millions released its much-anticipated Most-Anticipated Books Preview (Second Half of 2014 Version). In that list, you'll certainly find some anticipation-worthy names: Richard Ford, David Mitchell, Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro, Haruki Murakami, Denis Johnson, Laura van den Berg, and on and on the list goes. One name not mentioned by The Millions: John Warner. This is a shame because I, for one, am really looking forward to the release of his short story collection, Tough Day for the Army (which, admittedly, I overlooked in both of my short story roundup blog posts). At Inside Higher Ed, Warner describes the stories in his book:
They are about the attempt to achieve grace in a world seemingly without it. I think they’re funny when they’re not sad, and sometimes they’re both at once. They’re as honest and true as I can make them and I’ve been working on some of them for fifteen years. There’s a story about what might’ve happened if Jesus’ first job had been minor league hockey player instead of carpenter. There’s another about a farmer couple who plant a crop of poets when the beans fail. Another features a talking monkey. One is called “My Dog and Me,” which is about my dog, but not about me.Tough Day for the Army will be published on September 15. I can't wait.
2. "Not quite right for us."
"Just too brittle."
"Too negative for us."
If you're a writer who's been submitting stories to periodicals for any length of time, this is the background chorus of your life. Polite, but ultimately devastating, rejections from editors who may or may not have read your well-honed masterpiece of fiction while eating a tuna salad sandwich at their desk, distracted by deadlines and that funny video on their Facebook feed which shows a rancher playing a trombone to call his cows home. We've all gotten the "Thanks, but no thanks" notes on our work. One of my new favorite blogs, Literary Rejections on Display, collects turn-downs suffered by some now-famous writers. Those three rejections I mentioned earlier? Those were sent from Vogue, Redbook and Ladies' Home Journal to Joan Didion in 1965, rejecting one of her short stories. She also got this note from an editor at Good Housekeeping: "Marvelously written, very real, and so utterly depressing that I’m going to sit under a cloud of angst and gloom all afternoon…I’m sorry we are seldom inclined to give our readers this bad a time."
3. Here are a couple of cool literary maps for you: The Writers' Retreat by the always-witty Grant Snider (ranging from Aspiration Tower to the Cave of Reclusive Genius--and Procrastination Patio, which is where I spend the majority of my time); and, at Electric Literature, a Map of the City Where Every Novel Takes Place (Bullet Park is there, as is Bleak House, Mill on the Floss and Cold Mountain)--the map doesn't cover every novel, of course, but it does include literary locations from over 600 books from the history of English Literature. Go ahead, get lost.
4. The Story Prize blog is always required reading for anyone interested in the craft of the short story, but I really enjoyed these two recent posts by Elizabeth McCracken and David Guterson.
McCracken discusses how and why she returned to writing short stories after more than twenty years:
It’s been 21 years since I last published a collection of short stories. More than two decades: last century, last millennium even. Around the time I was writing stories for that long-ago book, my friend Bruce Holbert told me that he’d heard that a short story was like a passionate love affair, and a novel a long marriage. I’m a pessimist and a complainer, so I translated this into terms I understood: A short story was a blow to the solar plexus, a novel like a long lingering illness I might never recover from.
Once I started writing novels, I discovered something: Novels are easier than stories, perhaps in the way that a long marriage is easier than a series of passionate love affairs. A novel, a good one, is forgiving. You can misstep, digress, dither. You can take time off. Things that bother you are not a reason to break up, as a reader or a writer. You think, True enough, I didn’t anticipate this long flashback that takes place in a terrible house in a dull town, but I’ve grown to love this novel: It can bore me a little if it wants to. As a reader, I not only forgive digressions, I love them. As a writer, I hope I’m not alone in that.
So years ago, maybe 20, I decided I was done with short stories and would only write novels. To return to my own metaphor: You’re less likely to get punched in the solar plexus if you’re lying in bed with a lingering illness.
Yet here we are in the 21st century, and I’ve published another collection of short stories. What happened: I wrote two novels that I threw out.
Here's Guterson on what he'd do if he weren't a writer:
Every morning before going off to my work as a jack of all trades I would read for at least an hour. I would not have a television, but I would like to be able to get on the Web. I would not travel very much, mostly because I wouldn’t be able to afford it but also because it can be such a headache. It’s nice to imagine that I would play a musical instrument, but that is wishful thinking. I would sing, though. I would watch YouTube musical performances and sing along. I would watch YouTube comedy skits, too. I would have no lights on in the house for long periods. There is a scene in one of the movies about Scrooge where he has every light off in his house and is sitting by a fire with a poker doing nothing but ruminating. We as viewers are supposed to find this depressing and fundamentally the wrong way to live, but to me it looks good. Sitting in a quiet, gently lit place while the rest of the world is dark appeals to me, as does listening to music closely.
5. James Joyce's Ulysses, the video game: "As a user of 'In Ulysses' walks along a virtual Sandymount Strand, the book will be read to them--they will hear Stephen's thoughts as they are written--but these thoughts will then be illustrated around the user in real-time using textual annotations, images and links. A user can stop walking (therefore stopping Stephen walking) and explore these illustrations, gaining insight into the book and adding to the enjoyment of it."
6. Reader's Digest says these are the 23 Contemporary Writers We Should Have Read By Now. I'm embarrassed to report I've only read two of them (though many of the others are in my To-Be-Read pile).
7. At The Millions, Nick Ripatrazone goes deep-sea diving into "The Saddest Poem Ever Written."
Márgarét, áre you gríevingIn case you haven't already recognized it, that's from Gerard Manley Hopkins' "Spring and Fall." Ripatrazone's thoughtful analysis is well worth reading, even if it makes you a little sad.
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
8. Speaking of emotionally-wrenching words, Mike Anderson Campbell's "My Father's Last Story" is must-reading. And when I say "must-reading," I mean you MUST READ it. And then, if you're like me, you'll immediately email it to loved ones. Here's how Campbell begins his essay at Litragger:
I was in the hospital the other week waiting for my father to die. That sounds unfeeling, but it’s just accurate. My father was diagnosed with lung cancer last September. As the cancer spread to the tissue surrounding his lungs and heart, fluid built up. This fluid hindered the beating of his heart, which made it more difficult for blood to reach his kidneys, which meant toxins gradually built up in his blood. We spent one day in the hospital waiting for the doctors to decide if there was anything they could do (there wasn’t; the fluid around his heart was in exactly the wrong spot to be drained). We spent another day in the hospital waiting for my father to die.The "what then?" turns out to be a bedside reading of David Ebenbach's short story, "We'll Finish When We're Done," which is about a barber giving a haircut. You must read it. Did I already mention that?
My father was conscious until the last two hours or so of his life. My understanding of how things should go, gleaned from stories I’d read and watched, was that this was my last chance to reconcile with my father, to say all those things that had gone unsaid. But my father and I had a very good relationship. I always enjoyed spending time with him. He was supportive and loving. So I had very little to say in the way of unfinished business, and I know I am very lucky in that. I told my father I didn’t regret anything about our relationship, that I loved him and would miss him terribly, but that he had done very well and we had nothing to resolve. He said that made things easier.
That took about two minutes. What then?
9. I'll end with this essay at The Millions about opening sentences. Jonathan Russell Clark has obviously been spending a little time in my head because I could have written these very words:
I tend to prefer opening sentences that get right to the point, so I’m just going to state right off the bat that this essay intends to analyze a handful of opening sentences from classic to recent novels and examine their effects. Opening sentences have long fascinated me, so much so that I’ve even made a point to memorize the beginnings of most of the books I read. This is what I do with my time. If possible, I love opening sentences even more than epigraphs. If I were ever a contestant on Jeopardy!, and “Opening Sentences” popped up in one of the blue boxes, I would destroy that category.
Like any reader, when I pick up a book, I open it and check out the first words. I’m not looking for anything specific. Actually, what I love about opening sentences is the complete lack of rules, how each writer gets to decide how best to guide a reader into their narrative. A writer, after all, is the instructor for the experience of their own work, and the opening sentence––after the book design, title, and epigraph––is among the reader’s first impressions. Opening sentences are not to be written lightly.