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Compete with me

Tuesday 6/20/23

Compete. With. Me.

On a level playing field.

Imagine if it came to that in an industry determined not to let it?

Want to compare some stories? I like when we compare. Does a lot of the work and reveals the inarguable truth.

Here's a story called "A Certain King" by Jennifer Atkins in Granta. Go ahead. Look at it. Creative Writing 101. How boring is that? Soporifically so, like a sustained yawn. How basic? How pointless?

That's the best writing in the world, huh? Because that is what is supposed to be in Granta, right? That's the lie you're supposed to believe.

It sucks. And anyone who looks at that knows it sucks.

You can ask yourself the same rhetorical questions as above with this story called "Sanctuary" by Elisa Gonzalez in The Paris Review. And this story called "The Soccer Balls of Mr. Kurz" by Michelle Mari in The New Yorker.

Because they suck, too.

Who on earth is any of this really for? Just so these twisted, untalented people in their little world can feel good about themselves? Or the right ones in their caste system.

What is the value? Where is the value as art? As entertainment? As anything that you might need in your life or that adds to it in any way?

How about "The Potatoes" by Acie Clark from American Short Fiction, selected, of course, by Adeena Reitberger and Rebecca Markovits. "Selected." That's a funny verb here, given how all of this really works.

And for laughs, isn't this a huge, huge surprise that Laura van den Berg--as bland and boring a writer as one can be, with connections up the proverbial wazoo, who defines systematic publishing mediocrity, and who is nonthreatening by dint of that MFA program approved mediocrity, and who writes with less soul than would a piece of plastic--has another story in the new issue of American Short Fiction, which was taken simply because she had it, she is exactly what I just said, that was the name at the top, and this is how the system works. It's always about other things, and never the work, save that the better the work, the more they will wish to keep that person out.

Let's look at a few lines, which could be the lines from any story Laura van den Berg has ever written or will ever write. It's like looking at something still-born and glazed-over with a patina of just going through the most perfunctory of grad school creative writing gestures, rather than something with a drop of life or vitality. Or even any sincerity at all.

"That winter, I lived in a one-room artist’s studio on Catskill Avenue in an industrial building across the street from a twenty-four-hour laundromat called the Big Bubble. I arrived late one night in January, in a light flurry of snow. I steered my car—the backseat packed tight with all my worldly possessions—into the large, unlit parking area. When I got out and started to walk around to the trunk, I was hit by the feeling that I was on the precipice of a vast pit. I stuck one foot out, felt a brief stutter in space and time. I took a step back and switched on the tiny flashlight attached to my key chain and found that I was standing on the edge of a large crater, the surface as dark and smooth as an oil slick."

Utterly soulless. Every single line she writes is like those lines. The same every time. The same as they will always be. There will never be anything more; and there really couldn't be anything less.

We know, of course, how people transition. We read about it every day now.

You know what, though? It's like Laura van den Berg the person transitioned into an MFA story. Like she's an actual MFA story with all of that lifelessness, that lack of imagination, that tone, that sentence length, that "voice," those hallmarks, that walks around. She traded in being human to be an MFA story. She sure as hell doesn't write with any evidence of anything human.

How simple would it be for AI to write a Laura van den Berg story in a fraction of a single second? And it'd be better, too. Dump that data into the machine, and Laura van den Berg could be replaced as a writer in less time than it took to snap your fingers the once, if anyone actually wanted to read writing like this, which no one truly does, and which people like these people could not care less about, because that's not why they're here, and that's not why they're doing anything they're doing.

And those frauds at the Guggenheim said, "You know what, Laura, you're talentless and highly connected, so let's work out a backroom deal and we'll give you forty grand, and at the same time, we'll give your husband Paul Yoon, who is also talentless and highly connected, forty grand on the same day. Because we are so comfortable as the obviously corrupt and fraudulent committee that we are, and so arrogant in playing our part in the perpetuation of systematic bullshit, that yeah, sure, we'll make like husband and wife with no ability between them just happened to deserve a Guggenheim each in the same year, and let's pump eighty grand into a house already awash in money where no one has ever achieved anything or been rewarded because of the quality of their work. If there's anything else we can do to help give you more things you don't deserve, please let us know. Happy to have a word with the Genius Grant people."

Everyone who reads those stories and who reads what is below from "Fall and Spring"--and it's just an excerpt--knows that the latter smokes the others. And it's not close.

The full story will be going into The Solution to the World's Problems: Surprising Tales of Relentless Joy. Call it truth in titular advertising.

This is why they don't want there to be a level playing field. Because they'd have no shot against work at this level.


Her mother looks especially pretty. It’s not the makeup exactly, although she’s taken greater care than usual, despite being fastidious to begin with. Her eyes are brighter. Braver. They’re eyes that seem like they’re ready to convey strength. Today, nothing else even need exist. She’s put the past on hold. Swallowed it whole.

Soon, there will be one less person with any awareness of a past shared—to varying degrees—by three different individuals in many conflicting ways. It had seemed so big to the girl, like there’d always be people in the world who could tell the tale, which was also a part of the story of who she was.

For the first time she realizes that someday none of these people will remain and it'll be as if that past never existed. It would come down to the universe’s word versus the galaxy’s, as to what was what, or something like that. The day versus the night. The mountain versus the plain.

The words of whomever, or whatever, that took the stand would count for just as much as the words of anything or anyone else, regardless of motive, memory, character, or conviction, because who could say otherwise?

There was no forever keeper of the truth. It was almost a miracle that anyone ever even managed to be alive, never mind pass anything on to enough interested parties that they’d do the same, and so forth. The line of exchange was bound to burn out fast.

Eventually, there’s no one to ask about something that nobody knows in a world where no one truly owns anything. Not even what happened to them. For a time, yes. But ultimately? Ultimately is very different than just about anything else there is.

She’d still want something to know, though. Even if it was the air. Or the hollow of a cave somewhere. Just so that it existed, pressed into the record of things that really had happened.

The girl struggles against whatever her mother is doing or representing. Standing for. She doesn’t want to relinquish her stance. Admiration for one parent—albeit the kind flecked with confusion and wonder—is already gaining ground on the disgust that's so important for her to maintain.

Took her a long time to manufacture that disgust. Years of her life. She needed it. She needs it now. It’s served her capably—if situationally—as the forced, protective response to the haunting, self-rending, doubt-inducing betrayal of a parent who says, "You were what I wanted least of all, can't you tell?" in such a way that they never even needed words.

It was enough to come this far as moral support, she thinks, wishing she believed in her own logic, and hoping belief will follow in time as just one of those things that gets there in the end. But she knows her disgust is faltering and she’s falling away, so she tightens her grip.

There's a park across the street. She noticed it as they drove up to the parking lot. It's spring. Life has started. For some forms of life, anyway. The sun is out. No rain. She has her book. She can sit in the park and read for as long as it takes. And if she changes her mind, all she has to do is cross the street again before it's too late.

She tells herself that she won't, but she also doesn’t know where she’d have gone if it hadn’t been a sunny day, and concludes in the same kernel of a second that "Spring" is a perfect term, like “Fall.” They both describe the prevailing actions of their seasons.

What else does that? Does life? Does death? Does mom? Does dad? Does child? Does heart? Does happiness? Does wish? Does hope? No. It’s pretty much just fall and spring.

"Suit yourself," her mother says, with neither disappointment nor judgment. It's her way of getting herself to leave the vehicle and cross the parking lot. The closing words to the assembly of two, followed by the exodus.

You don’t drive to what is some form of hell to stretch your legs. Either get out and be where you’re supposed to be, or stay in the car and keep rolling.

"Where are you gonna go?" her mother asks, ever the parent and tender of the nest for whom a goodbye makes ready a return.

"Over there," the child says, pointing to the park on the other side of the road.

She believes her mother would say, "I understand" if she could. Not that she doesn't understand. But the saying of the words is much different than only thinking them.

The girl turns with her book. The pivot that marks a decision as having been made. Begins to walk away first in order to help her mother go, because she wants her to be there for him, though she wouldn’t admit it to God if her life depended on it. Someone else’s life. But not her own.

She almost adds, “See you soon,” over her shoulder, but stops herself. She listens to her mother’s feet on the pavement of the parking lot, slowing her own pace so as to better hear each footstep that isn’t hers until she can’t hear any more.

The park is lovely. All of the fresh plantings. Admirable upkeep. She’s surprised that she doesn’t see a team of gardeners going about their duties, considering the floral munificence. The sharp relief of every last blade of the lawn.

A boy runs in an elongating circle around his mother sitting on the grass, and then tumbles down, but is happy.

When a child falls, they have that moment where they decide, “Should I cry, or is this okay?”

But this boy knows he’s fine. He knows how contented he is. He understands this is what he wants to be doing right now. He knows that even the falling is fun. Maybe it’s the best part.

She waves at the toddler. She doesn't usually do that. In fact, she's pretty sure she hasn’t before, or at least that she can remember. She doesn’t believe she’ll forget this time. It’s like a memory she’s always had, even though it just got made.

The little boy returns the gesture and she allows herself to sit on the grass as if he’s given her permission not to have to stand. She’s free to descend. To let go. To come down. To join in.

She looks up at the hospital, arms outstretched behind her back, the grass under her palms. It's an imposing building, she thinks. The way it rises and rises. But it's not as if it's tall enough to make for a part of the skyline if you were further away, coming in across a harbor that isn’t there on a ship you wouldn’t have needed.

All of those windows. Any one of them could be the window of his room. She does her best to look at each like it were the window in question, with all that is happening, or going to happen, on the other side.

That's how she's there, if only for a moment. Does it count? It has to count for something she decides to try and believe, even though no one else would look at it that way if they just saw the words and didn’t know the people.

And boom—patter. Footsteps. Faster and faster. The child is up and running again—if he ever really stopped—doing his circles around his mother, but in the opposite direction this time.

The sound of his laughter makes it easier to read. A welcome background, but not so that she’s trying to understand someone else’s speech. Like when you’re reading and people are having a conversation near you in a foreign language, though she isn’t getting very far in her book.

The same sentence is the same sentence is the same sentence. Even when, strangely, they’re not.

That’s a funny thing, sometimes, about sentences. About days. About seasons. Years. People.

The boy is so happy on this particular sunny day. She wonders if he and his mother come to this park often. The child seems well at home here, like he understands that this grass is meant for falling and it never hurts you. It's part of the game. The same as the running. And the day itself. What it means to be outside on a beautiful spring day.

She stands again. She isn’t sure how long she’s lasted or what time is, was, or can be. If it’s even real. If it ever really heals you or if you do. If it’s a joke. If it’s up to you. If it’s up to the universe. If a person and the universe are ever partners in anything, whether they know it or not, or whether the person does.

She looks to the boy. He’s running but watching. Stealing a look, but every look there ever was rightfully belongs to him just now. Not later. They’ll be gone by then. He’ll get them back, though. Maybe. The point is, right now they’re his.

There’s a flash of understanding and the sweetest form of remonstrance across his face, because it knows only of innocent inquiry, of not wanting someone to cost themselves something, and nothing of passed judgment.

A look of, “Hey, where are you going? You just got here! The grass is extra fine today. Don’t miss it!”

She waves again but already those same fingers passing back and forth through air don’t mean what they had. She can’t expect the boy to understand, though he might. He seems like he’s that kind of kid. But he’s too busy running one of his circles, and she thinks aren’t we all, though this child has still mastered what he has mastered.

The woman looks up at the windows as she walks towards the street again. Some of them are so high it’s as if they’re behind her somehow. They’ve thrown themselves back over her body. Willed themselves there. Pushed her forward or tried to pull her in reverse. Or just had their intentions misinterpreted as they were merely going about their day, because everyone and everything has to.

_ _ _

There is no one who can honestly say or who honestly believes writing like that writing from me is not far beyond the writing of those other stories, because that is impossible to honestly say or to honestly believe that that is true.

So what's happening here? It's not the writing. It's not the track record. The guy has been in virtually everything even with an industry against him. It's nothing I've done to anyone. It has always been obvious in my professional conduct, and in these pages, the person I am. A good person of honor and character.

Someone could say, "But you said these things on the blog!"

I did. After twenty years of mounted, unavoidable evidence for what was happening. Twenty years of taking it. Twenty years of playing along and not vocally objecting to being repeatedly raped at the level of my life, my career, my soul. Which is exactly what they wanted. My cooperation in my own effacement, abuse, and degradation.

Then I stopped. And I said the truth. Because there was no other option if I was to ever move forward. And someone had to.

So what does that leave us with? Bigotry and incompetence. Because there isn't anyone who thinks that shit from those places is close to what I just put up here, or what I create every damn day of my life.


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