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Prose off: Lincoln Michel's "Hansel and Gretel's Teeth" v. Fleming's "The Keepers"

Thursday 12/14/23

"The Keepers" is all done. Someone read it and said, "'Keepers' is a work of such genius that if you had nothing else and this was all you had written, you could hang your hat on this story and take these people on no problem. It's amazing."

It is very good. And nothing about it existed a few days ago. You see very few stories in second person that work. They have to feel like they're not in second person to do so. You need to be doing something else.

The story is all-involving from the start. The reader is instantly, actively involved and engaged. They are in on it--a participant. There isn't anyone else writing right now who has a clue how to do that or is capable of thinking in terms of doing that.

Involve a reader, keep a reader.

How about a a prose off? Lincoln Michel is someone we'll just keep hammering. He's as bad a writer as you can be, and, like a Laura van den Berg, he epitomizes what it means to be a system person in publishing. His writing is so terrible, without fail, in every instance of it, that when you share any of that writing, it doesn't even look real. That is, you struggle to believe that there is anyone one who wrote anything as stupid and then someone else who said, "Right, gotta get that into the world."

He has a book deal with a major publishing house. He is the ultimate Brooklyn writer cliche. Looks the part, and, though it's not a verb, twats the part. Twat-ish. In every regard. If there was a Twat Central, here would be the hub within the hub.

This is the start of a recently published short story of his called "Hansel and Gretel's Teeth," which is as one-note as it gets. Think about this: Someone reads shit like this and says, "I should print that in my magazine!" or "Get this man a book deal!"

Hansel and Gretel never fully recovered from the gingerbread house. Yes, there was the psychological trauma of their imprisonment and torture, but there were also their teeth. For weeks, they’d been force-fed gumdrops and marshmallows without ever being allowed to brush. Although their late father had been but a poor woodcutter, he’d always stressed the importance of dental hygiene. The witch hadn’t cared. She’d been planning to eat almost everything except the teeth. Now, their mouths were full of cavities and their tongues swam in swamps of pus and blood.

Hansel and Gretel decided to go to the dentist.

What the receptionist said made Gretel shriek.

“I’m sorry,” the woman said. “That’s our cheapest option. We aren’t tooth fairies. We have a business to run here.”

“But we have health insurance!” Hansel said.

“That only covers your body, not your teeth,” the receptionist said. There was a bowl of lollipops in front of her. The receptionist unwrapped a green one and sucked.

“My teeth are part of my body. See?” Gretel pointed a finger at her inflamed gums.

“Not for the purposes of medical coverage.” The receptionist handed the siblings a couple brochures. “I’d also recommend vision insurance. You can never be too careful with your eyes and teeth. You’ve only got one set of each.”

How do you write something that stupid? Having written something that stupid, how do you then think, "People should see this!"

Can you conceive of me writing something that stupid?

McSweeney's editor Claire Boyle saw some of that shit and said, "Yep! He's one of our kind! What douchebag writing! And he lives in Brooklyn! Slap it in!"

Claire Boyle hates me because I'm not like Lincoln Michel. According to the likes of a Claire Boyle, the likes of what you just read is better than any fiction I've ever written. She hates me so much--because of what I am able to do--that she wouldn't even write me back in years of being offered one outstanding work after another.

By the way: Do you think I like writing these people, or following-up with them, or do you think there is very little that I'd less rather do? Do you think I hate writing them? Of course I do. How polite and professional do you think those letters were or are? As polite and professional as possible, right?

Someone hunting hard for an excuse to blame things on me might have once--before this journal existed--tried something like, "You kept writing them and they didn't like that. You wrote them every two days." Like I was some impulsive wild man who couldn't help myself and went with some manic spam approach.

Nope. Was never like that. Do I have a lot of material? I have more than anyone has ever had, because I am like no artist there has ever been. I also don't go away when I know you're up to no good. Someone else would let someone like these people get away with it. But I know what they're doing and why. Someone else would doubt themselves. Someone else would have bad, MFA-machined work so it'd be easy to say, "Well, what can you do?" But I know exactly what I have and how good it is. And these people know it too. So, yeah, there he is two months later, with another one, and it's amazing. Or asking after the one you got three months back. And there's no wrath. Even the letter is impeccably written.

But even if the above were true, that I was firing something along every day, every week, it shouldn't matter anyway. Someone has masterpieces and they're being generous to offer it to you for basically no remuneration. What would that be like? Sorry for the masterpieces? Sorry for the plethora of masterpieces in totally different styles and forms? Seems like you'd be the one making out there and that was pretty nice of them. And that's your job. And maybe actually do your job rather than playing grab-ass with the Lincoln Michels and Laura van den Bergs of the world.

But it has never been like that.

Over the years, I've written these people like I'm trying to get myself in the dentist chair--we'll use a dentist analogy in keeping with the above garbage--for a root canal. I have dreaded--it makes me nauseous--having to knuckle the forehead, to be as polite as a saint with some moron-bigot who I knew was fucking me, and offer them something like "Fitty" with a smile, a friendly comment about whatever, as I had total understanding and proof of what was happening and what they were all about. But which I did, in the off-chance, the million to one shot, that they'd put aside their hate, their envy, and for once do the right thing because something, a work unlike any other in the world, all but forced them to despite how they are.

Do you know what that's like? How about doing it for ten years with someone? Twenty? Keeping your cool, all while you knew, and they knew, this had nothing to do with the quality of the work, the track record, or conduct. (And we've seen what horrible people these people are. You think they're polite and professional? Look at what goes on behind the scenes. Look at Lorin Stein. You think I'm doing anything like that? You know what I'm doing. I'm hiking in the woods or at a museum or running stairs or FaceTiming my niece in between writing the thousands of words a day. I'm not fucking around. I'm not doing anything to anybody. How polite and professional--or even sane?--have these people looked in the emails that have gone up on here?)

I have done nothing to these people save be affable, upbeat, and humble with them. Often, kind. Well, until they went up on the blog. But they took it here. And they will keep appearing here until this shit stops. Each person who has gone up on this blog, and who will, has the power to stop it. (Well, most. There's nothing Mark Warren can do.)

All I am ever looking to do is move forward. I don't need to like you. I don't need you to like me. It's all about the work. Someone says, "I fucked you hard, man. Again and again. You were doing all of these things and making it look so easy and it got to me. Did some soul searching. I shouldn't have done that. Can we start again?" Okay.

Anyway. I have masterpieces. I have many. And every now and again--every few months, every six months--I'd offer one.

We all know the quality. We all know this guy's track record. We all know how polite and professional he is.

But with a Claire Boyle, she was going to get off--I mean, she loved it, it was like some power-trip orgasm--on not so much as replying to this person completely unlike these other people.

And now, it gets pulled into the light.

This is from "The Keepers," which will be in Become Your Own Superhero: Intrepid Exceptions to Modern Fiction. Nice title, right? Sounds like an event. Like history. Like a big deal.

The body goes slack. You don’t know what to do, so you look around to see if anyone is approaching, but the street is empty.

You look upwards, scanning the front of the buildings across the road, and then back over your shoulder.

There are no lights in any of the windows. The city is so quiet. You question if anyone else really lives there. Or to whom they could be talking. Whether all is whispers, and the number of closet doors that might be open and how many people are sitting in front of them.

You pick up the limp being. You wonder if you should kiss its cheek or hug the small body, but you realize you’d only be doing so out of selfishness, as if either gesture might bring it back to life, just so you could have it again.

Instead, you walk a dozen paces to the sewer grating and drop the former living-form—but not the bag—in the space between the curb and road. You listen, but there is no sound. Neither suggestive splash nor indictable thud.

You don’t know what you’re going to do now, because everyone has something you don’t. Or presumably everyone. No one talks about it much. You’ll have to fake it, you figure. Carry yourself like you are not the keeper of the sadness that you know will always be yours to keep. 

To see the quality of these excerpts is one thing. But to experience the power of these stories in full is something else, and like nothing else.

You want some bonus suck from Lincoln Michel? I really can just pick anything by this guy who is hooked up up and down throughout this industry. This is the start of a story called "Cale and Stardust Battle the Mud Gobblers of Hudson Valley."

Cale squirted a zigzag of avocado paste on his toast as the mud gobbler floated down the river. The mud gobbler was, thankfully, chewing on the other side of the river today. Mud gobbler is what Cale called them, although Stardust preferred dirt whale. “Fucking dirt whale,” Stardust said, walking up to the kitchen window. “I’d like to gut it like a fish!” Stardust’s belly was getting big now, swelling like a whale itself. Cale could hardly imagine the creature swimming inside.

You look at something like that--anything by a guy like this--and you think, "Is he more of a simpleton or charlatan?" By the way: that goes on for another 7500 words.

The way it works--the only way it works--is the people of the publishing system, with their arms locked in a big circle, chant, "Hook him up! Hook him up! Hook him up!" and make an opening to welcome such a person within that circle of bullshit.

That is the system. And there is no one--because it would have been done long, long ago--who can be like, "Fleming you cad! That is amazing writing by that person! It's amazing because it does this, and what's happening in this sentence here..."

You want to try doing that? Anyone? Anyone want to step up? I'll put you on the blog. You can have your say in front of everybody. Defend any of this shit. Go for it.

Of course no one is going to do that because no one can. It's that bad.


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