Month: October 2016

Consider the Lobster. Please Start Here.

The essays in Consider the Lobster span around thirteen years, and offer thought on the adult film industry celebrating itself, the 2000 primary campaign of John McCain, the sad decline and increasing indefensibility of John Updike’s novelistic output, and a 62-page review of and commentary on an American English usage dictionary. One of the best benchmarks I’ve found for excellent writing is its ability to make me give a shit about something I have not and do not give many shits about -like John McCain’s unsuccessful bid for the Republican nomination in 2000. All of the writing in here clears that benchmark easily, although I must confess that I’m probably going to be way more into a protracted monologue on Bryan A. Garner’s usage dictionary than most.

Wallace’s nonfiction has always been a favorite of mine -even throughout the years where I was dismissive of his fiction, I always had, at the very least, grudging respect and tractable positivity about essays like “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again” (not in this collection, but the first piece of his that I’d read). The sometimes-cascading footnotes require a lot less mental work for me when found in nonfiction, a reality that reflects solely upon myself and the conventions that I’ve grown accustomed to, but still, customs that many share and do have an effect on the experience of reading. As such, familiarizing oneself with Wallace’s voice via his nonfiction is probably the best way to work your way into his body of work. And if you don’t like this shit, man, you are gonna hate Infinite Jest.

Recommendation: Read it. This is the best starting place I can think of, and if you’ve read other Wallace but haven’t got to Lobster yet, you’ll love it.

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Kenzaburō Ōe: Hiroshima Notes

Kenzaburō Ōe published these essays over a short span during and after the twentieth anniversary of the atomic bomb attack on Hiroshima. This is not pleasant reading, and if you are not yet familiar with the specifics of that attack, if you don’t know what keloid scarring is or about the elevated leukemia rates persisting through generations, you will. And while the book starts off very slow -almost in the vein of a report on municipal feuding as various groups gathered in Hiroshima bring very different political ideologies to the table- things really pick up about forty pages in. We are introduced to a number of survivors and victims, men and women who will keep cropping up throughout the essays. Ōe builds a remarkable continuity that rewards a close reading of the first few essays, so don’t rush, and don’t skim.

Ōe’s writing in 1965 would not be out of place today, published as creative nonfiction. He weaves himself into the story, detailing his own perceived cowardice as a child as a juxtaposition against the very different forms of Japanese heroism found in soldiers loyal to the Emperor and those survivors of the bombing who strive for treatment and for peace. His place in these narratives is never self-aggrandizing -he doesn’t even make his cowardice a focal point, choosing instead to use it as a framing device to talk about something bigger and outside himself. The stories of the survivors and the stories of the dead are what matter here.

So why read this? Why slog through some challenging reading that starts off pretty dull and stays that way for a while? Why read about all this depressing shit? Moral arguments aside, Ōe’s writing is amazing. The way his narratives develop is a damn masterclass, and even in translation the prose alone is moving. But beyond the merely aesthetic, Ōe is a chronicler of some very important shit, a chronicler of the lives of those who lived near the epicenter of the most deadly technology ever unleashed on human beings by other human beings. This is not something we ought to be ignorant about.

Recommendation: Read it. Annotate it. Spread the word.

Steven King’s “Guns,” Jon Ronson’s “The Elephant in the Room,” and Amazon Prime Reading

Amazon is now offering Prime Reading to those of us who have capitulated to a Prime membership. It’s quite the collection of free reading material. This is a different beast than their Kindle Unlimited program (an additional subscription that buys access to many, many more books). While I wouldn’t recommend getting Prime specifically for this service, it’s certainly worth glancing at if you already have a subscription.

The two most notable reads I’ve come across are Steven King’s “Guns” and Jon Ronson’s “The Elephant in the Room”. Both are longform essays (25 and 48 pages respectively) by major authors, and while this isn’t a form in which I’d previously encountered King’s writing, I am pleasantly surprised by how good he is at it. “Guns” is an informed and reasonable attack on the state of our public discourse on the things, not the things themselves. King owns a few of them, and his nuanced position (we need more and better regulation, but widespread bans and buybacks generally don’t work) is sure to piss off people on both sides. He is blunt and direct, employing an extremely personal mode of address and judicious profanity. Not only is this piece thought-provoking and very well done, it’s as fun to read as any screed that involves the death of a roomful of six-year-olds can claim to be.

Ronson’s piece is a timely bit of work on Donald Trump’s courting of and influence by the Alt-Right movement, specifically dealing with the Republican nominee’s connection to Alex Jones of InfoWars and others like him. While the immediacy and importance of the topic at hand will likely diminish in a few months, (and let’s not spend too much time thinking about the alternative) “”The Elephant in the Room” is a well-written and thoughtful bit of journalism, well worth the read regardless of our national timeline if you are a fan of Ronson’s work. And as for our national timeline, Prime Reading and Amazon’s Digital Singles are one more aspect of digital publishing that might be of value to writers and readers. It’s a distinctly different animal than traditional longform publication, and only time will tell whether or not it’s a force for good.

Recommendation: Check these two out and scan the offerings for anything else of worth. Let me know what you find, and let me know what you think about Prime Reading and its ilk.

Flooded Kickstarter Needs Your Support!

http://kck.st/2dGtO32

Q&A with Victoria Griffin, Creator of Flooded: A Creative Anthology of Brain Injuries

 

The following is an interview with the woman behind this anthology project -I hope you find it as compelling as I have.

What is Flooded?

Flooded will be a creative anthology of fiction and creative nonfiction devoted to brain injuries. It will be approximately 80,000 words and will include work of all styles and genres. The anthology is not merely meant to showcase memoirs or personal stories—though they will undoubtedly play a role. Brain injuries take many forms and are often difficult to describe. That’s why the anthology will use multiple genres to explore the experience of brain injuries and concussions, ultimately unifying to create an expansive, truthful representation of  brain injuries.  

 

What inspired the anthology?

In January of this year, I took a hit to the head during softball practice. I immediately felt drunk, but the next morning I had difficulty speaking and walking. My trainer assured me the symptoms would be gone within two weeks, after which the doctor assured me they would be gone within three. After four months, two ER visits, a drug overdose (caused by a neurologist who was supposed to help me), and a desperate struggle to graduate without being able to read or perform basic, everyday functions, I finally recovered. On the surface, the concussion cost me my senior season of softball and four months of my life. But in reality, it left scars so deep, they are difficult to describe—which is what prompted me to write about the experience. When I realized there was no publication solely dedicated to brain injuries, I began to truly consider how concussion awareness is approached—with facts and statistics—and how inadequate that is.

 

What was it like to be concussed?

A brain injury is difficult to describe. I feel like I could write a thousand pages and never capture the experience. I can tell you that my mom said I sounded like a four-year-old, and my dad said my eyes were always dull and lifeless. I don’t remember the first two weeks at all, and after that I would “ lose”  gradually decreasing sections of time—a few days at first, then a day, then hours,
and eventually minutes. When I finally gained enough strength to walk around the apartment, I would get stuck on the stairs and have to call for help. A sound as small as footsteps would send me into sensory overload attacks—which I came to call flooding—during which I would involuntarily curl into a ball and be unable to move, speak, or breathe. Have you ever been near to drowning? Each time an attack happened, I felt like I was drowning. Getting air was more difficult than pressing through the heaviest backsquat I’ve ever attempted. And each attack lasted hours. Still, all I’ve really described is the physical. Can I explain to you what it feels like to lose your mental capabilities? To lose your language? To not be able to understand words spoken to you? To feel paranoia so strong you can’t look anyone in the eye? To lose your emotions, so that all you feel are the artificial sadness and fear induced by the injury and medication? Why fiction and creative nonfiction? As I said, I can’t explain to you what it was like to have a concussion, not like this. I can’t tell you what it was like, but I can show you. I can write a story that makes you feel the fear of being alone when a flooding attack happens and wondering if you’ll get help before you stop breathing. I can write a story that makes you feel the overwhelming depression of losing the entirety of your identity. I can write a story that makes you laugh at the silliness of staring at a light for ten minutes because you believed it wasn’t there. By compiling an anthology of fiction and creative nonfiction, we can use multiple genres, styles, and tones to truly convey the experience of a brain injury. Because it’s not what it looks like or how many people it happens to that matters. It’s how it feels and how it impacts the lives of human beings. Anton Chekhov is attributed with saying, “ Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”  Simply telling people about concussions and brain injuries is not sufficient to nurture awareness and understanding. We need to show them.

 

What could someone who has never experienced a brain injury gain from reading Flooded?

The anthology is not simply for survivors. While it will certainly be an outlet for them to express their personal realities, they are actually the group of people who (as readers) need the anthology the least. When I realized I was concussed, my first reaction was to try to hide it because I knew I would be benched. What if I had read an anthology like Flooded? What if I had known what could happen to me? I was lucky. I walked away from my brain injury with no permanent damage, and my poor decision early on did not negatively affect the outcome. But it could have. And for many, it does. Reading an anthology like Flooded may help others to make better decisions in such a situation. If you have not experienced a brain injury, you might in the future. Or a family member or close friend might, and they will not be able to tell you what they’re going through, not until it’s over. What if you had the opportunity to gain insight into their struggles? I know my friends and family would have leapt at the thought of learning anything about what was happening inside my body and mind. Concussions don’t just happen to athletes. They happen after a fall or a car accident. They are a part of life that needs to be addressed in literature. At the very least, gaining empathy for another’s pain and struggles makes you a better, more understanding person. Who doesn’t need that in their life? How did your concussion change your life? The concussion completely altered the course of my life, directly and indirectly. Because of  it, I wound up discovering a new passion—freelance editing. But the most significant result of the injury is its impact on my perspective and my worldview. I now have a much deeper understanding of the sorts of challenges some people face every single day—those who struggle with depression, anxiety, and learning disorders. I also have an incredibly deep-rooted appreciation for the people in my life. We all know that extreme situations bring out the best and the worst in people. I saw people behave in ways I never would have expected. I saw true cruelty, to a degree I didn’t believe people to be capable of, not from strangers but from people who had been in my life for years. But I also saw extreme compassion and sacrifice. I saw a few friends and family members put their lives on hold to make sure I made it through. From driving across the country to staying with me when I was afraid of what might happen during the night, I can never repay those amazing people, but I will spend the rest of my life trying. And now, I consider of every person in my life, would they be the one to make sure I kept breathing when an attack hit? Or would they be the one to step over me and leave me alone?
When and how can writers submit pieces for inclusion?

Submissions will be accepted via Submittable beginning November 15. The submission window will close February 28. Following the Kickstarter, detailed submission instructions will be available at victoriagriffin.net. All submissions will be read blind—without any identifying information—so that race, gender, and background play no part in the selection process. Who can submit? Absolutely anyone can submit. There is no requirement to have experienced, or even seen, a brain injury. If a writer takes the time to research brain injuries and concussion in order to write a piece that accurately represents the experience, we have already educated one person on the realities of brain injuries. As previously mentioned, all submissions will be read blind so publication history is not a factor. Seasoned veterans and unpublished writers are both welcome to submit and will receive the same consideration. The work speaks for itself!

 

What challenges do you expect to face in creating the anthology?

Of course, raising sufficient funds to create the anthology is the first challenge. Spreading the word about the project and gathering interest is a trying process, but the incredible amount of support the project has already received from writers, athletes, and the online community  makes me incredibly optimistic. The next challenge will be selecting pieces to fill the anthology. I published my first piece my junior year of high school, and I have six years’ worth of experience with literary journals, magazines, and anthologies. The amount of talent in the literary community is astounding, and when combined with a topic that elicits deep emotionality, I have no doubt the quality of submissions will be superb—and will make choosing 80,000 words of fiction and creative nonfiction a difficult task. Perhaps the greatest challenge I anticipate is the promotional aspect of the project. Once the anthology is complete, we will need to shout it from the rooftops and get the work into the hands of readers. I have experience promoting my own work, but this is a whole new level. That’s why I’ve allocated a promotional budget to be used for services such as a professional blog tour, cover reveal, and promotional plan. While I foresee challenges in promotion, I believe that the quality of the work and the significance of the work will ultimately entice readers.

 

How does Kickstarter work?

Kickstarter is an all-or-nothing crowdfunding platform, which means we set a budget, and if we are a dollar short of that goal, we get nothing. For that reason, the budget I have set is the bare minimum we need to create the anthology. I have also set a target budget, which is the amount it would take to give the anthology the treatment I believe it deserves and, most importantly, to pay contributors an amount that is fair to their work and their talent. Keep in mind that the actual project budget is only 74% of the total budget. The other 26% goes to Kickstarter fees and rewards fulfillment.

 

What do backers receive in return for supporting Flooded?

Rewards! By supporting Flooded, you become a part of our family, and that does not come without its perks. Your reward will depend on your pledge amount. Examples of rewards are inclusion in thank-you sections on victoriagriffin.net and in the print anthology, a special “ behind the scenes”  eBook, 25% off editing services, a custom journal, and of course, the FloodedAnthology itself. Dedicated contributors even have an opportunity to receive a “ perfect copy,” delivered three months before regular distribution and signed by every single U.S. contributor—an offer that will never be available again.

http://kck.st/2dGtO32

 

That’s a lot of money! Where is it going?
Other than Kickstarter fees and rewards fulfillment, the budget will cover cover art and design, interior layout, Submittable fees, editing and proofreading, promotion, and of course, contributor payments and copies. A breakdown of the minimum and target budgets are below. [Include budget images.] How can I help?Spread the word! Share a link to the Kickstarter page on social media. Tell your friends and family. Help us to turn this project into a movement. And of course, you can visit the Kickstarter page yourself, and pledge to support the project! We would love to have you as part of the Flooded family.

 

Recommendation: Pledge some money, folks! And signal boost the shit out of this thing. Tell you friends and family, especially if you feel passionately about the importance of a better public conversation around concussions and other brain injuries. http://kck.st/2dGtO32

Brief Interviews with Hideous Men

David Foster Wallace is best known for Infinite Jest, but secondarily for his magazine and nonfiction writing. This collection of short stories is neither but is certainly worth the read, especially if you enjoyed his most popular novel. There is a reoccurring format here in which many stories (all of which share their title with the book) are presented as transcriptions of interviews with a variety of distasteful males. The interviewer’s questions are omitted, and both specific questions and the larger structure must be inferred only from the answers given, a technique that was also well-employed in Infinite Jest. In this story collection, standing on their own, these “interviews” are even better -hilarious and fucked up little vignettes that you don’t want to come to the end of.

The other stories here are thematically linked, even if their structure is radically different -although DFW does really gravity to the kinds of postmodern structures that depart radically from those employed in conventional narratives, so expect stories in the form of essay questions, lots of fourth-wall busting, and other assorted hand-waving. While sometimes irritated by the author’s drive for architectural novelty, I can’t help but admire his implementation. These stories are very, very good, and they stick well in the brain. And as to the thematic links, we find the staples of DFW: horrible people behaving badly while still somehow (sometimes) sympathetic, obsessively wrought recursions, B-list sexual deviancy, depression, and alienation.

Most of this book was written after Wallace had received a fair bit of critical success and approval, and it’s tempting to dismiss some of the more obsessively backflipping stuff as show-off literary masturbation -and I have to confess to being extremely dismissive of his work for a few years for this exact reason- it’s going to be a loss. This book is good, and it’s fucked up in the kind of ways that lead to productive thinking about upsetting shit, and it’s an example of a very difficult form of writing done very well. It might not be for everyone, and if it isn’t for you, you’ll know pretty quick.

Recommendation: Read it! Or at least try.

Notes from Underground

Notes from Underground represents my transition from the novellas and stories of the heavy-hitter Russians to their longer and more involved work. The first section of Notes is a rebellion against the ideas of utopia and rationalism that were surging in popularity at the time, at least among the Russian intelligentsia. The Underground Man sees rationalism as a force that denies agency, and the strivings toward a utopia as another fall into determinism. An understanding of this part of the text informs one’s reading of the second, more narrative section. But this understanding is going to require at least a perfunctory knowledge of the dominant ideological currents in that time and place, so a few minutes of research is a good and worthwhile thing.

The character of the Underground Man is often read as some kind of existential hero, but this reading seems problematic to me. Dostoevsky is very much aware of the pitiful nature of his narrator and the purposelessness of his railings. While the Underground Man offers plenty of valid criticisms, he does not offer any kind of meaningful alternative, and there is no nobility in his self-imposed suffering, no matter how much he wishes there to be, or wishes to present things as such. He is sometimes brilliant, but also hopelessly dramatic and megalomaniac to the point of solipsism. Any argument for the Underground Man as an existential hero crumbles as soon as we come to the end of the book and follow his interactions with Liza.

But criticism of the character is not a condemnation of the book -some of my favorite heroes are antiheroes. The Underground Man is the perfect narrative device in that he allows Dostoevsky to critiques certain ideological foolishness with vitriolic ardor without getting his hands dirty, then expose and destroy the same agent of vitriol and everything that agent represents, all without damaging the original case made by the Underground Man. Add to this Dostoevsky’s underlauded black humor and the narrative urgency that he seems to be able to conjure out of nothing and you’ve got a damn good read, if you’re willing to put the time and and do a little Googling.

 

Recommendation: Read it, and look shit up!