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Prose off: J. Robert Lennon's "The Loop" from The New Yorker v. Fleming story

Friday 1/19/24

I have much to get to with the bigoted and talentless J. Robert Lennon, a professor at Cornell who is the editor of the literary journal Epoch, including an amusing account in which he ran to the people at American Short Fiction who hooked him up--bigot extraordinaires as we've seen again and again--saying in effect, "Fleming is on to us!" I have proof of that, too. It's funny the things I know, isn't it?

I was sitting here today working on a great story, and I thought, you know, let's expose some people further, and who better to do that with than the bigot-frauds at The New Yorker in fiction editors like Deborah Treisman, David Wallace, Willing Davidson, and Cressida Leyshon, and of course David Remnick presiding there above them all.

Then it occurred to me that I could use one of J. Robert Lennon's bad and boring stories as the Glass Joe of the undertaking, and it'd all make for a nice prose off. I figured, hey, we're bound to get a reference early on in Lennon's example of sputtered-out, inconsequential, stakes-free prose to academia, and he certainly obliged with the very first story of his I looked up, getting in said reference in the first sentence no less with word number five.

Such a person never has any imagination. It's all just the fictionalization of their own little, meaningless world.

What follows is the first three paragraphs of Lennon's "The Loop," as published in The New Yorker. Do I need to do that thing where I say that you're supposed to think--as if anyone could--that this is better than anything I've ever done, and not as clear an example of bigotry as you can get?

I ask, of course, simply by way of reminder. Because that's their premise--or was before I started openly saying the truth--which obviously isn't what they believe, because it's not what anyone could believe.

This is how bigotry works. These are bigots. The problem is that I'm not like them. Thus, the barring of the way. And also that what I do makes a mockery of what they put forward, when it comes time for anyone to look at this v. that. They don't like that it's that much of a qualitative ass-kicking. And from the person who is completely unlike them at that. In good ways. And who knows all the different things, and does all of the different things, each at the very highest level.

But here we go:

Divorced, fired from adjunct teaching after a botched attempt to unionize, and her only child lost to college, Bev had, for the first time in decades, more freedom than she knew what to do with. The empty house, hers alone, disgusted her: she sold it, against her daughter’s wishes, and moved to a two-bedroom apartment in a new building downtown. Between the house money and the monthly support payments from her ex—he was fucking his assistant and had signed these things away with the heedless joy of a rabbit sprung from a trap—she’d been given the opportunity to think carefully about what to do with the rest of her life. This quickly came to seem like torture. So she volunteered for Movin’ On Up.

This was the charity she’d donated her ex-husband’s study desk to—a nonprofit whose volunteers drove a big yellow truck around town, collecting the castoffs of the well-to-do and delivering them to people in need. After her move, settled into her newly purposeless life, she realized that she actually missed the moving—she was good at it, enjoyed the physical effort, the strategic Tetrising of bureaus and bookshelves and chairs and lamps, the packing and unpacking. She recalled the energetic good cheer of the Movin’ On Up crew, understood that she envied them, and gave the organization a call. Turned out they needed a driver. Could she do it?

Yes, she could. She reported for duty in the parking lot of a storage facility on the edge of town, where the Movers (as they called themselves) stored mattresses, bed frames, sofas, and dining tables in donated lockers the size of rest-stop bathroom stalls. She was assigned a couple of big strong kids—teen-agers from the high school, looking for something besides football to put on their college applications—and given a clipboard of addresses to visit. Every other Saturday she drove a rotating duo of student athletes around town, and supervised as they hauled heavy objects out of the basements and attics of the rich and up narrow staircases into the third-floor walkups of the poor. The donors were generally cheerful, embracing the opportunity to feel magnanimous while being relieved, by strangers, of a burdensome chore. They occasionally tried to tip the teens, who had been trained to refuse but probably did not when Bev was out of earshot.

God, you are boring, man. Who cares about any of this? You have a nothing story going nowhere.

If I told you these three paragraphs were written by a first-time writer taking Creative Writing 101 at Bunker Hill Community College, would you not have believed me? No one would have batted an eye. Would have been, "Yep, that tracks."

Read the rest of it if you wish--it's all so much nothing. And "Tetrising." People who work with nothing will strain hard to produce things like this in the hopes that the reader will go, "You're so creative! I never would have put it that way!" but it always makes them look like the fools they are. You got nothing, sir. You have no ability. You have no real stories to tell or that need telling.

Look at how unmemorable the language is, too. You want to ask, "Are you even trying?" but the truth is, this is the best someone like J. Robert Lennon can do.

It's kind of sad, isn't it?

And then The New Yorker hooks him up. Because that's all this is. It's all it ever is.

I like these prose offs because I can say everything I just said, and people like this know what's coming. A J. Robert Lennon isn't thinking, "I bet my story is better! I'm feeling pretty confident!" Something like this sucks for someone like that. There's no counterargument they can mount or anyone can mount on their behalf. Deborah Treisman isn't thinking, "Fleming can't write a story that good." They know there will be no comparison.

This is dragging everything into the light, out of the back rooms of machinations, for everyone to see. Cronyism and bullshit don't protect you here. No one bothering to ever actually take a good look at these stories doesn't protect you. The tote-bagging of American fiction and letters does not protect you. Apathy doesn't protect you. Darkness doesn't protect you. Obsequiousness undertaken so that the person doing the ass-tonguing might get things they want doesn't protect you. There isn't anything here to protect you from the truth.

We're out in the open. It's work against work. Nothing else. These people need it to be about everything else...but the actual work. Because if it's about the work, they're screwed.

You can't do what I'm doing here if it's maybe going to be close. Or if it's subjective. This gap is so great, that not only can you not measure the gap, but subjectivity has been taken out of the mix. It's like there's dry and there's wet. It isn't up for debate. This isn't another shitty writer out of the same tube of shitty writers, with another shitty story like all of the other shitty stories, where no one can really tell because it's all the same shit.

I think I'm going to do two prose offs with parts of this particular story, which is called "The Ghost and the Flame." It'll be a part of The Ghost Grew Legs: Stories of the Dead for the More or Less Living, the most radical overhauling of what a ghost story can be in all of literature. There has never been ghost stories like these. Not in form, approach, content, effect, utility.

Ready? Here we go:

He hadn’t known the nurse and the principal to ever work together. They seemed separate in their respective positions of authority, and like they’d prefer to keep it that way, unless the nurse wanted a raise or the principal had a heart attack.

On that day, though, they were linked in purpose, working as one on a shared mission. The nurse called his name from the side of the teacher’s desk, having first bent down to whisper in the teacher’s ear.

The nurse had the softer voice, more suitable for summoning. The principal, meanwhile, standing in the doorway, motioned to the boy with his arm, moving it slowly, like he was signaling to a dog he didn’t want to scare away.

The principal’s face wore the expression of a man in pain who is trying not to show it, because the suffering is not primarily his, but instead a hurt born of the awareness of something the world so often is. Even the world for children.

The boy rose, and in that single frame of time’s eternal sweep, with both of his feet on the ground, and before he had taken a single step, all of the eyes upon him, he had a thought that he would remember every day for the rest of his life.

“You still have your legs,” he told himself.

Outside of the classroom in the empty hallway, the three proceeded as if they were an ad hoc convoy protecting a ship that had yet to come into view, struggling to maintain the same pace, as if that was important.  

The boy decided to shut his eyes and open them again before doing what was next. To make sure of where he was.

He conducted the procedure, keeping his head still, a thorough closing and opening.

Yes, he was at school. Yes, he was with these two people. The hallway was real. Today was real. He didn’t need to close his eyes a second time. It wouldn’t help.

“Is it my mom?” the boy asked, continuing in what passed for a forward direction between the nurse and the principal towards what the boy anticipated would be the principal’s office, but he could also envision the walk ending in the room where the nurse sometimes asked him about the cuts on his arms, which he dared not tell her he made with his penknife.

He couldn’t wait, so the boy stopped his feet from moving and said one word.


He had to know.

The hallway would do for a response, the principal decided. The time needed to come. The “where” wouldn’t matter in the end. It’d be the last thing the boy took from this day.

The boy never forgot the quiet. How a space in which there was normally so much noise, a space he associated with volume, could possess the absence of sound. That was a thing. It wasn’t a non-thing. That quiet existed as an entity, just as the boy did.

He felt as if the classrooms up and down the hall were mausoleums at the cemetery, but with bodies that would exit through their now resolutely closed doors in less than a quarter of an hour. Not that much different than the dead coming back to life save in the most crucial of regards.

The silence was the same, only there was more of it, and no wind, nor birds.  

“It’s your father,” the principal said.

The nurse gave the principal a look, as if the principal’s words hadn’t been completely accurate or were lacking in thoroughness. Or else that he had failed to take the correct initial approach, but she also couldn’t fault him for having to start somewhere.

‘There’s been an accident,” he continued.

That was his word for it. The boy knew he was lying, but that the lie was no mark against the man. Outset-words were different than in-the-thick-of-it words.  

It was exactly then, without the principal needing to say any more—or the nurse anything at all—that the boy understood his mother had shot his father—because there was nothing else it could be, or done any other way—given that she loved him very much, though that love had also come to an end now that they wouldn’t know each other anymore. She’d be leaving, and he wouldn’t be staying either. He couldn’t take her to the other planets after all.

And as the boy screamed in the hallway, such that some of the resolutely closed mausoleum doors were opened on keening hinges that had never before betrayed a sound, and concerned teachers in the world of the living stuck out their heads to determine if intercession was required, all he could think was how he had failed her.

Thus had been the day—the morning—of the break. The final, externally evident portion of the fissure that had long been a part of him and always would be. It seemed impossible to believe that there were still three whole hours before the start of the afternoon.

Look at that. Anyone want to even try and pretend there's any comparison? The only thing that's more obvious than what has long been going on here and why is the difference in quality between these two works.

And, hey, Mr. "It's only three dollars, Fleming, pay me to get off on automatically form rejecting you as the bigot that I am even as we both know what I'm all about and what I'm doing here" Lennon: I feel like that probably wasn't worth it. What do you think? But we'll get deeper into how you operate soon. Something for you to look forward to.


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