top of page

Prose off: Story in The Missouri Review typical of those put forward by bigots Speer Morgan and Evelyn Somers Rogers v. Fleming story

Sunday 1/21/24

Don't you love what you know is about to happen here when you see the phrase "prose off" in the title of one of these entries? You have no doubt, right? There is going to be a mega-pasting in which we see an excerpt of a bad story by a bad writer obliterated by a comparison with an excerpt from a story by the best writer.

We know that the former was put forward by bigots plainly discriminating against that best writer. It's not subjective. It's not, "Well, I could see someone thinking that non-Fleming story was the better of the two." There's no way to measure the gap.

Doing this kind of discrimination against someone is predicated upon a supposition that people won't know. Who will find out? What is that person being plainly discriminated against going to do?

Are they going to have stories that are so much better than what the bigot runs that anyone would know it if they put examples of each side by side? And what? They're going to have a popular blog to do that on? And they're going to have a track record that crushes anyone else's?

These people know the difference in quality of the work. But what they don't count on are any of the other things I just mentioned. I have those things. I uniquely have those things. I am the one person who can do this. And I am the one person who can do this such that there is no one who can say that what happened, and why it happened, wasn't exactly for the reasons I've put out there. If they could, they would, right? But they can't, so they don't.

The other day, we did that prose off with a J. Robert Lennon story from The New Yorker, and my story "The Ghost and the Flame." I'd said that was one of two such prose offs with this story. This is the second.

As I was working on this story, I did the laugh thing. The "Are you kidding me that someone can even do something like this" laugh. And I wrote it. Doesn't matter. I look at it that way, too. It's more than me. But that's also what I am. I'm more than me. I am story. I can take any part of any of these works. We'll take a different part this time around. The takeaway from this side-by-side comparison will be the same for everyone.

For a long time, The Missouri Review was run by two bigots in Speer Morgan as editor in chief, and Evelyn Somers Rogers, as associate editor, who want you to believe that this story, "End Times Cat," by Mark Martin is better than anything I have ever written in my life. Ah. Sounds reasonable.

Here's an excerpt:

Mycelial threads of fur tangled into clumps on the hallway floor. Beyond was an open-plan kitchen, an architectural concept of piercing sophistication to inexpert eyes. Moss lined the seal on a humming fridge. The flickering, mottled compartment held bottles of Guinness and untrustworthy milk, as well as vegetables obscure to me back then and archaic in appearance: fennel, asparagus, and artichokes typically. Books and yellowing papers multiplied on every surface, not excluding the unravelling rugs and upright piano. The cracked and flabby leather sofa sighed when its air-plumped depths sank and swelled to accommodate each new occupant in a musty hug. Dust and dander made my chest tight, and in time—I was always conscious of how sparsely apportioned my time there was—my lungs would creak and shrink and my eyes itch, forcing me to retreat. But the constraint allergens placed upon these visits to the cottage where Marian had been raised, her mother’s home, heightened the desire to be there. On crossing the ragged doormat, I said goodbye to the mundane world—as if moving from mortal lands to an underwater kingdom—and could survive only a short while before being expelled from the native habitat of the woman I loved.

Domestic hygiene meant nothing to Marian’s mum. In contrast, my parents would tidy the house before the gasman read the meter. Not wealthy but comfortable, the Warringtons—Marian’s unmarried mother’s family name was Warrington—could have lived in a barrel without any diminishment in self-assurance.

The cat hurdled the sofa’s arm, knocking a book to the floor. (A second later, I held The Magic Mountain.) The needle skipped on a Bach piano concerto. In the afternoon sun, dust glittered in the air. Daisies on the shaggy lawn beyond the French windows were a scattering of antique coins. The carpet of grass outside came right up to the floorboards within.

The cottage in Oxford, with its shadowy eaves and wild garden, enchanted me. Life here had the confidence to grow shabby and fall into ruin.

And once more we say: Holy fuck are you boring, sir. It's impossible to care about any of this. I'm sure you see how devoid of anything it is. The first word of your story is "mycelial" for no other reason than we have a pretentious, insecure, talentless writer who is working with nothing and this is how such a person tries to cover-up and compensate. I know all of their stupid little tricks. And of course we get a Thomas Mann reference. Hilarious. That gets people like Speer Morgan and Evelyn Somers Rogers going. (And perhaps puts one in mind of, "He started to erect...") That, and that it sucks, it's by someone like them, and they could do it because it's replacement-level writing by a replacement-level writer living a replacement-level existence.

I used to worry when I started putting up examples of all of this bad writing that people would think it wasn't real, like I was doing satire or something, which is one reason I always include the links. Because it's all so bad, isn't it? If you're a normal person, I know that you've probably never heard of The Missouri Review, but within this subculture--which is really all the publishing world is--this is considered one of the "best" fiction venues.

This is what there is: Places like this. And really nothing else, because the places like this are just filled with writing like this, so there isn't anywhere you can go to read a great short story. People don't and can't write great short stories because if they write they're also in this subculture and they're trying to write stories like what you just saw so maybe someday they can be in The Missouri Review in exchange for a few contributor copies. There's no switch these people can flip. You can't just start writing awesome stories. Writing amazing stories is a journey. Takes a lot of time and thousands and thousands of hours of working at it to begin to get close. And being born with actual ability in the first place. But that's only part of it.

Want to see an excerpt from this story of mine?

I love this part. We are right on the threshold of the thrashing. But maybe Fleming is overselling it? He's talking pretty big!

What I love about this is no matter how big the talk might be, the walk is always bigger.

Here we go:

Years ago, a man had returned to this house in which he used to live after having to search to find it. He didn’t think it could ever be a struggle to locate a structure in which one had grown up.

He’d never forgotten his old telephone number, which remained as readily reciteable as the day he memorized it at four-years-old. The names of all of the teachers he’d had in school. What the insides of the houses of his friends had looked like. What their sisters were called and the ones who had developed first. Whose fathers had fought in wars. Advice he’d been given by baseball coaches on sandy fields with vague chalk lines where ground balls never seemed to escape the influence of weeds.

The man’s father had hit him in this house. Hit him often. Daily. Nightly. After school. Before school, if it was early enough. Or late enough. Early and late had a tendency to be the same when the man was a boy.

His mother watched through the bottom of a bottle. Her out-of-body cataracts, the filmy, thickened lowest portions of all of those cylinders, with their color of dazed green. The boy thought of the bottles as if they were her telescopes. She could supply the people at NASA with back-ups.

Each year at Christmas he asked for an actual telescope because he liked to imagine himself living on another planet, and he wanted to get the geography straight in his mind as a means of preparation so he’d be better ready if there was ever a real chance to leave. To be first aboard the rocket ship if possible, or at least in the initial wave of people through the gate, undeterred by the risk. The guinea pig volunteer. It didn’t matter. He wouldn’t have to stay a second longer. That was what mattered. He’d just go. And take her, get the help she needed in a place where maybe everyone got what they needed in time, before time ran out.

Often she was asleep without meaning to be on the couch in her clothes, with her shoes on, unrousable. The place could have burned down around her. She always had her shoes on.

The man who had returned to visit this house in which he’d grown up couldn’t ever remember seeing his mother’s bare feet. That bothered him a lot. Bothered him more than he thought it should have. She was perpetually shod for flight—a flight she was unable to undertake.

He didn’t know if the same thinking that caused his mother to always wear her shoes included a part for him—a recess, or even a somewhat uninfected abscess in which he might shelter. That when the time finally came, when there could be no more of what there was, she’d pull him close with her arm, gather his body to hers, tug the side of his jacket with a grip that wouldn’t tear the fabric but could split a plate of steel in two.

Or were the shoes just shoes and nothing more? Merely another part of something—a habit, or how a person simply ended up—like looking out of the bottom of a bottle as if Venus had passed into the field of view and not just the other side of the couch.

How he hated and loved them. He hated them the most after he realized that his father was not a little like other fathers, from what the boy learned of the world, which was also when he wanted to love them the most. The world being the people he knew. The people he knew being kids his own age. Boys his own age. The girls that he found himself wanting to attack with ferocious grace, though he didn’t understand why—only that if he could he would, and that wouldn’t be right, so he kept his distance lest he do anyone any harm. But especially girls he wanted to impel with his manner to stop being girls who cared about foolish things so that they could protect those who needed it when the time came.  

He loved his mother more because of what he wished she was. The boy tried to believe—was desperate to believe—that she didn’t want to be that way. Without control. No freedom, when any freedom, no matter what form it took, was better than none at all.

But she existed as if she was so bereft of choices in her own life that she couldn’t help him with his. Wouldn’t intervene. Was unable to say, “We’ll go, you and I, and it will be okay.”

He hoped the ceaseless wearing of the shoes also meant that this particular conversation in its low tones of urgency could happen at any time, including when he most needed it to. It never did, which still didn’t kill his hope completely. After all, there were never any bare feet.

For twenty years, Evelyn Somers Rogers was offered stories by me at the level of the writing you just saw. Each completely different from the last. Twenty years. Think about that. You're dealing with an envious succubus.

I was just out of college, and she let me be her little book review whore after I got in touch. I could write reviews for The Missouri Review. I wrote on Laurel and Hardy, Beethoven, Delacroix, Napoleon, Rimbaud. Sounds like me, right? That's how I was straight off, immediately after leaving school.

But then I started doing what I did. Achieving thousands of times over. Not only honestly, but against all odds and many people wishing to keep the gates of the community closed so that their fellow no-talents could have the run of the joint inside. No one hooked me up. No one asked me in. Anywhere. Ever. No one opened a locked door for me. I went through miles and miles of serried ranks for every last thing. And as I got the things I still get in the same position--but worse, on account of all that I have achieved--those people envied and hated me more. And I kept going.

And this life-long failure, in Evelyn Somers Rogers, who has never achieved anything of note, and never written anything of note, and once bragged to me--God it was so pathetic--about how she'd once had fiction in The Georgia Review in the 1990s, and then later wrote me an email blaming her failed writing career on husband's lack of financial earning power, was never going to let me in on her watch.

She couldn't. It cost her too much personally. She had to have this control and keep me out. Pure envy. What else do you think it was? What is a clearer case for someone's bigotry than this?

And for twenty years I was so polite. Think about that, too. Have you ever politely taken horrible, blatantly discriminatory treatment against you for two decades while being polite and professional and friendly? How many people do you think could do that? And I did it. Twenty years. I knuckled that forehead. It was beyond demeaning. As I fully knew what was happening and why with this bigot and her bigot boss.

Because Speer Morgan--who peaked, as such, in like 1978--wasn't any better. Same thing, same reasons. Speer Morgan has no talent. He's an old man now, but in a real sense he was an old man all along, with his lifeless fiction--like this cadaver on a slab in word form--and that ant hill of a peak around the time the Rolling Stones put out Some Girls.

That guy was looking at me. This person from outside the system. This threat to the system who totally invalidates the system. Who didn't write bad stories that no one could give a fuck about and weren't meant to be read by anyone. Who knew all of these things in all of these areas. Was an expert on all the things. Who published constantly. All different kinds of publishing in all different kinds of venues.

Now, do you think people like this, being what they are, and what they aren't, and what they never could be, were going to let my fiction run in their pages?

Evelyn Somers Rogers is no longer at The Missouri Review, after all of these years. This is a recent development. Is it because of things I've said in these pages? I don't know. But she still features here because that story you see above, that we all know is terrible, is typical and it was what was going in instead all of that time. For twenty goddamn years. That is how long I let it play out. This wasn't some "You turned this one thing down and now I'm gonna get you!" type of deal, though in reality, once is enough, because every single person who looks at one of these works by one of these people next to anything by me can see that there is no comparison between them.

When I got you, I got you bang to rights. I don't say it otherwise. Every now and again, Evelyn Somers Rogers would publish something. Not in places you've heard of. And I mean every now and again. I was always watching. And you know where most of these places were based? In the state of Missouri. Because they were people she knew. Whom she rubbed elbows with at gatherings. People hooking her up. These were favors.

And now we're here. For all to see and all to know. And insofar as these people will ever be known for anything, it is this.

Now, was that really the best way to go? Was it that important to you to discriminate against someone who did you no harm? Who did knuckle that forehead and write those book reviews? So it was like he put in time with you, when he didn't need to. Who offered you the best work there was for 1/5 of a century? For essentially what would have been no remuneration? For the smallest of stakes, you were generously offered one amazing work after another, every one as good as the one excerpted above. And you hated and envied him that much, that you weren't ever going to take so much as one? And anyone is supposed to believe that it was because none of it was good enough?

You are that sick, in who and what you are, that contaminated by the feelings of doubt that haunt you, and the unavoidable--even for you--knowledge of your own lack of ability, the paucity of what you offer, that you needed to behave that way?

Wasn't worth it.


Commenting has been turned off.
bottom of page