Friday, October 29, 2010

Welcome Willows Wept readers!

I don't update this blog very often (too busy), but if you want to read more of my fiction, please check out the links on my publications page. Enjoy!

Monday, October 18, 2010

Van der Graaf Generator

Because I can. Oh, yes. This does rock.

Monday, September 6, 2010

New work

At long last, some new fiction. My short story "Starlings" can be found in the September issue of Toasted Cheese.

Also, I now live in Tokyo until the beginning of 2011. I feel...different. In a good way.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Bad Faith and Bad Music

Thought I'd pass this along. Normally, I find that essays which mention (for instance) Lady Gaga and Existentialism in the same paragraph are total garbage, but this New York Times piece by Tufts philosopher Nancy Bauer is both rational and cogent.

Here, Professor Bauer takes on the dichotomy present in modern pop-culture "feminism" - as exemplified in this case by Lady Gaga - which proffers the notion that self-objectification can be empowering. Instead of the usual baby-boomer hand-wringing, Bauer provides a very useful analyis via Sarte and Simone de Beauvoir. It is refreshingly bereft of incantatory po-mo gibberish.

Monday, April 19, 2010

In defense of purple prose

What’s wrong with purple prose? Usually, the issue is that it is “more than is necessary.” This can be a problem if it destroys narrative or thematic accuracy, if it obfuscates. But in other circumstances, it’s necessary to create the kind of antic giddiness – I would even say a nervous energy - which certain kinds of storytelling require. The notion that everything should be pared to a necessary minimum is a valuable conceit, but not universally valuable. We often under-appreciate that its intended effect is quite specific – to make reading an analytical experience as much as possible. But even in essays, there is a difference between analytical form and rhetorical form, and they have different formal demands.

Modernist literature discovered the power of the verb, and how rooting a narrative in carefully highlighted actions could create a “transparent” relationship to language – i.e., the reader ideally ceases to be aware of “text” and becomes wholly absorbed in narrative. We often forget that this is, historically, quite anomalous. Up until the end of the Victorian era, the reader’s awareness that there was a “text” – a creature unto itself with its own characteristics and desires - was an essential part of the storytelling process. As the reader of any Victorian novel knows, the author was expected to indulge in all kinds of discursions, ruminations, asides, and seeming non sequiturs, often piling up haystacks of adjectives, similes, and elaborate images in the process.

At the root of this modern animosity of M.F.A. students to “purple” prose, is, I think, an unacknowledged discomfort with raw, unmitigated emotion, with losing one’s moorings in impressions and subjectivity. There is also a certain politically-correct aversion to anything that seems coercive or intimidating.

For such writers, the cause could also be more personal – perhaps at a delicate, formative stage of their literary careers they were raked over the coals in a writing workshop for a heartfelt attempt at lyricism that fell flat with its audience. If the experience is humiliating enough, it could send the sensitive young writer into the safe haven of Raymond Carver-land forever, with all its requisite cynicism towards others who surrender to the seductions of the Muse.

A fantastic example of the virtues of Purple can be found in this famous excerpt from Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451:

It was a pleasure to burn.

It was a special pleasure to see things eaten, to see things blackened and changed. With the brass nozzle in his fists, with this great python spitting its venomous kerosene upon the world, the blood pounded in his head, and his hands were the hands of some amazing conductor playing all the symphonies of blazing and burning to bring down the tatters and charcoal ruins of history. With his symbolic helmet numbered 451 on his stolid head, and his eyes all orange flame with the thought of what came next, he flicked the igniter and the house jumped up in a gorging fire that burned the evening sky red and yellow and black.

I’ve you’ve been to the University of Iowa, this paragraph is a nightmare. Passive voice, in the very first sentence! And repeated in the second! And then we have “to see things eaten” followed by “to see things blackened and changed.” Well…which is it? But then it gets worse. A “great python spitting its venomous kerosene upon the world?” Pythons aren’t venomous. And holding a python is nothing like conducting an orchestra. “To bring down the tatters and charcoal ruins of history?” Oh please, this man has no restraint at all!

Anyone trying to write like this in a college workshop would be mocked and derided. In a graduate class, it would be worse – the pity for the author and his unquestioned incompetence would leave the room suffocating in silent torment. What can you even say about such dreck? I mean, we’re all adults here, aren’t we?

And yet…I think the paragraph is beautiful, absolutely perfect in every way. With its repetitions, its broad, destructive brush-strokes, its collisions of discordant images, its unmitigated sadism, it captures the terrifying giddiness of state violence under a fascist regime. Hemingway never did that, nor did Carver. Sure, they could put you “in the moment” and take you from one instant to the next with visceral realism. But Bradbury is attempting something else – he is describing a timeless event, something that is happening everywhere, at all times. He is invoking the mythic. This is not a time for tidy, polite rules about passive voice and killing your darlings.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Million Writers Award Notable Story

Well, this certainly makes for a great start to the springtime. It seems that my story That Which Dreams Does Not Sleep, published last year in Thieves Jargon, is one among a long list of "Notable Stories of 2009" from the Story South Million Writer's Award. Huzzah! Many thanks to Jargon editor Dan Scannell for the nomination, and thanks to the judges for putting me on the list. I've been following the Million Writers Award for several years now, fervently hoping to see my work make the grade someday and discovering many other new and wonderful authors in the process. Who knew that a story about flying human genitals would be the one to put me there?

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Recommended reading

I don't do this nearly as often as I should - time for a new year's resolution, perhaps? - but since I'm here and you're there, I might as well point you towards an absolutely wondrous example of what "flash" fiction can accomplish at its best. Sharing space with me in the December 2009 edition of decomP magazine is a piece by Dylan Nice called "Some Distance."

With very finely crafted, understated phrases that fall into place like brush-strokes, Nice builds a world, inhabits it with characters that have depth and experience conflict, gives them a history and a belief system, and moves them towards a resolution both luminous and sad; and he does it all with a touch so light you don't know its happening until the last few paragraphs. It's a very controlled, mature piece, the likes of which you just don't see too often. Many writers try for this kind of effect, of course; but more often than not the result is a kind of monotonous deadpan. Not so here. Notice, for example, how much mileage Nice gets out the careful placement of the word "mountain" - a crucial part of the narrative, withheld until the end of the fourth paragraph.

Excellent work - well worth the time to read and re-read.