Saturday, August 02, 2008

I Felt So Symbolic Yesterday

AS I MIGHT HAVE LET SLIP 19 or 20 times recently, I'm actively looking for places where I can get my short story masterpieces published, so I went to a Manhattan Barnes & Nobles with my brother last weekend and jotted down the names and addresses of about 5 or 6 literary reviews that I found on the racks. Then I searched online and found some more possibilities.

Now, all these periodicals make a big show out of asking contributing writers to read a few of their issues to get a sense of the kinds of pieces they're looking for before submitting their stuff. This strikes me as a funny trend. Hopefully it's just a trend, but maybe the writing business has always operated this way. I guess I'll find out soon enough. I just sent one of my stories to 8 different magazines. Either I'll be proven wrong or the joke will be on everyone else.

Outside of the perfectly acceptable restriction of accepting only well-written, good-quality fiction, I can't figure out why writing standards should change from venue to venue, from place to place. I can totally appreciate a regional bias, where a literary review based in, say, Georgia or Texas might favor a Southern flavor, as well as understand that some magazines will have a bent toward genres like horror and science fiction. Yet as a practical matter, I fail to see how reading the back issues of any magazine would help me write better

It seems absurd to me that these journals are encouraging writers, unconsciously or not, to submit work that conforms to some vague arbitrary, prefab notion of what constitutes an effective short story. And of course it's even more dangerous for writers to tailor their stories toward these artificially consigned expectations, and thereby to ultimately compromise their individual visions. I mean, what else does a writer have at the end of the day, or even during the very early morning hours, but a unique way of sculpting his own limited perspective and experience into something more universal?

Anyway, I've gotten used to seeing these sorts of artistic manifestos in the small press literary reviews. In all honesty, I have no intention of reading any of them other than to find out where to send my stuff to. Maybe that's narrow-minded on my part, I'm just telling you how it is. When I want to read a short story, it's probably going to be something by Poe or Chekhov or Salinger or another one of the masters, as opposed to working my way methodically through the contents of This Journal or That Review in order to find out what's popular or what sells.

By far the most stunningly pointless example of balderdash, and as succinct a definition of utter claptrap as to be found on the Internet pertaining to any subject, belongs to Junot Díaz, fiction editor of the Boston Review. By way of explaining what kind of fiction he's looking for, Diaz, a Pulitzer Prize winning novelist and M.I.T. English professor by the way, offers the following helpful guidelines:
“I’m looking for fiction that resembles the Thirty-Mile Woman from Toni Morrison’s Beloved: ‘She is a friend of my mind. She gather me, man. The pieces I am, she gather them and give them back to me in all the right order.’ Or as Takashi Murakami puts it: ‘We want to see the newest things. That is because we want to see the future, even if only momentarily. It is the moment in which, even if we don’t completely understand what we have glimpsed, we are nonetheless touched by it. This is what we have come to call art.’ I’m looking for fiction in which a heart struggles against itself, in which the messy unmanageable complexity of the world is revealed. Sentences that are so sharp they cut the eye.”
Nobody in real life talks like that, of course, and rest assured no one outside of academia would possibly be pretentious enough to even hazard a guess as to what any of it might mean. But I will admit it's said in a tone so convincing that few would dare suggest it's unadulterated nonsense masequerading as academic brilliance. Doesn't this kind of collective agreement on what constitutes an appropriate worldview suggest insularity to the point of incestuousness? No wonder fiction and poetry are all but dead in this country. Fiction is about seeing the future? I thought that was science fiction. I don't know, a lot of pretty good fiction I've read is about coming to terms with one's past before being able to move on. Call me old-fashioned, but I'll go with the last line in The Great Gatsby on this one, Junot: "So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past." Poke yourself in the eye with that one, amigo.

Conspicuous by its absence from what the Review is looking for is that essential yet overlooked element in modern fiction: the story itself. Instead of all these pretensions to literary greatness, how about something like: "Hey, if you think you can tell a good story in an interesting way that holds readers' attention and makes them want to find out what happens next, we're willing to read your work." It seems to me that if an editor is looking for fiction that resembles a character in someone else's work, it becomes oddly exclusionary for everyone else who that doesn't apply to, to say nothing of what it means for those writers who literally resemble no one else. The whole Boston Review credo somehow smacks of the Social Realism strictures in the old Soviet Union in that it too is a limiting approach that breeds imitation, not originality.

So to cleanse the palate, and as a necessary tonic, perhaps even a high colonic, in the selfless spirit of art for art's sake, I present the first installment of Barry Ward's Very Bad Poetry Corner -- the literary equivalent of a very sharp stick in the eye.

Black Dream Signs

black dream signs, sharing a time of ice and sun,
prefiguring the emptiness of your smile,
and the lazy lope of the tired ones.
options dwindle to a point in space,

hands raised and heads lowered,
all is lost, change is naught,
a slide down and away from the light.
the lips of Jesus on a coin turned face down in the dirt,
footsteps echo softly, then fade.
the wind blows absently and without purpose.
the problem lies greatly in my failure to view myself as unique,
and a weary feeling that my effort is meaningless,
beforehand decreed,
and worst of all acted out in a cloudy vacuum without witnesses.
my eyes incapable of seeing new and fresh,
jaundiced by a resentment that the World & I turned out like we did,
and a vague deadness of the senses pervades all I see & touch & feel,
and all I see are death & lies.
all the gods are dead, the ordinary saints have failed us.
my heroes are unborn, your villains are god-like.
we don't believe our eyes or our dreams.
the sun has the moon's light and it is dark.
the gods have killed the heroes and the dreamers are dead.
the sky itself is falling, the sun is dying too.
the poets are mocked, the slayers sexy.
the drowning Christ cries for the morning.
night flashes its lightning smile and laughs thunder,
morning whimpers then hisses at the sun.
the black priest pulls the shade and curses the light of the moon.

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