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Prose off: "Tang" by Jalina Mhyana as selected by Megan Sexton in Five Points v. a new Fleming story

Tuesday 12/12/23

Five Points is a literary journal we've spoken about before, based in the English department of Georgia State University. Its editor is Megan Sexton, who is both a bigot and an indoor scarf person (Query: Is it possible to be someone who wears a scarf indoors and not be oriented to affectation?), the former, of course, being the greater transgression.

What Megan Sexton does is look out for those like her, with no ability, who are in-the-mold system people. She likes the people she includes in her journal to be the right color, gender, and check all of the relevant boxes as far as background goes and the MFA-machined/ Bunker Hill Creative Writing 101 approach to fiction. Best to have a sufficiently foreign sounding name, too, as a general rule.

If you're going to be an American straight white male, you need to be one from academia whose writing is like some punishment for anyone who is made to try and get through it. For instance, a Brock Clarke. These people love to hook up Brock Clarke, because reading Brock Clarke's prose is like scraping a sharp pebble across yours gums.

There is no one who actually wants to partake of it, but you'll see a Megan Sexton automatically include whatever he writes in their journal. It's a fait accompli, because he's so bad at what he does, he is a system person, and he's like them. A member of this subculture recognizes that Brock Clarke's is a subculture-supported name. And then that's all it takes. Such a person could piss on the page and that would be their piece and it'd be included. (To be fair: the piss-piece would be an improvement, because it'd be less predictable.)

Megan Sexton likes to reach out to people like her, and ask them if she may publish something of theirs. Whatever that ends up being is, without exception, awful, and by someone in this mold that she insists upon. Oh, by the way: This is supposed to be one of the very best places. Funny how we keep saying that, right?

I know that Brock Clarke is in the new issue of Five Points, but what I don't know yet is what story I'm going to use as an opponent, if you will, in this post, simply because I haven't done that thing I do where I go to the venue and click on the first thing I see. Invariably, it will suck. I don't search for what sucks. I merely need to go. Which says a lot in and of itself, doesn't it?

I can guarantee you that it will suck and it will not be by an athletic-looking white male from outside of their system. Because, again, we're dealing with a bigot in Megan Sexton. There is nothing I could give her that she would run because of what I represent to her. Or even reply to, because of what I represent to her. What I am. What she isn't. What none of these people are. And because I can do what none of them are able to. And because I am not gifted things. Because I'm not awful at writing. Because I'm not a member of a subculture of broken freaks. Because my work runs where it runs. And--this is key--it has ran where it has ran without any help, a single favor trade, a single introduction, anyone saying, "He's just like I am," or any of the bullshit that allows these people to publish what they do publish, and has done so every single time despite many people working in concert to suppress this other person. Because I'm as legit as anyone could ever be. Because I produce like I do. And it's not a matter of the right kind of story or anything like that, because I have endless kinds, in an endless variety of voices, styles, forms, and they all beat the bag out of whatever any of these people do.

Michael Griffith, a writer (but, again, obviously not really) and editor of the Cincinnati Review, and a buddy of Brock Clarke who is always ready and willing to hook him up at his journal, once described his method of publication to me, and it's worth mentioning here. He had a pet phrase for it which he put in an email to me: "The path of least resistance." In other words, what he counts on in order to be published is a crony who just slaps in his slop. And you know what we can do--and will do--with everything someone like that has published? Explain and factually document the relationship that resulted in the publication. It's not hard. It's never hard.

But back to Five Points.

Shall I do that thing where I say, "But who knows? Maybe the excerpt from someone else that you're about to see here from Five Points will be amazing, a brilliant, inspired piece of art, nay, even of genius!"

Okay. Consider it done.

So who gets to be led to the slaughter?

This is the beginning of a story--so, this is what is meant to hook you, and draw you in, and keep you reading--called "Tang," by Jalina Mhyana.

She came into focus on the surface of Ilford Pearl photographic paper —a modern Ophelia startled to life in the developing bath; first her nose, then the eyes, saturated and floating just above the skin of hydroquinone solution and oblivion. I’m saving her, I thought, rendering her immortal. I submerged the paper, agitated it a little, then let it float to the top, shameless, her nude body undulating in the diffuse red light. Shadows gathered around the model’s pencil-light outline, a mounting storm of gray tones gaining substance; stains evanescing, giving way to limbs, features, mood. In college I set up darkrooms in closets, bathrooms, and attic crawl spaces. I had to kneel down to fit beneath the eaves, my head snug against the slanted ceiling as images coalesced in the tray. Before the second image was ready for the stop bath, my legs were already so numb I imagined they didn’t exist anymore. Again and again I sacrificed my own body to birth theirs, giving up my legs as theirs appeared. At this stage the photographs stare up at me from the tray. They reek of urine and vinegar, as they always do, as if they came to life in a caul of their own piss. Even now I associate cigarettes with that tang on my fingertips—each drag piqued with citrus and ammonia as though I’m still running a wet hand along their two-dimensional bodies.

I feel like you didn't think that was awesome. Did you?

Who do you think would want to read that? Can you imagine anyone liking that? Can you conceive of someone wanting 4000 more words of it? A book of it? A career's output of it?

Do you think this person writing what you see here has any interest in readers? Do you think she's considering readers at all? Do you think she's thinking in terms of creating something of value, that adds to lives? Do you think she's trying to provide anything that is entertaining? Do you think anyone would find that entertaining? Interesting?

You check out by the word "Ilford," don't you? That's when you're done. Then we hit the dash, the reference to Ophelia--how many people do you think are going to get that without the text helping us infer the meaning?--and then the forced phrase, "startled to life." Then we get a semi-colon in the first sentence, and the word "hydroquinone." It is there becaue of its length and obscurity. Not because its use is called for by a story.

You can have mystery in your writing. Open-endedness. You may leave lots of room for interpretation. For the people out there to say, "This is what I think it means" and to then be countered by someone else saying, "Well, in my view, what it means is..."

That's not what's happening here with this darkroom nonsense. This is an attempt to say, "Can't you see that I'm writing? Don't you see how smart I am? Please? I used these things for validation, because I know I have no actual ability. Please validate me?"

One of these system people comes along and they itemize what they see. "Oh, words jammed in there that no one knows. Check. Semi-colon in the first sentence...check. Reference to a literary text...check."

This isn't reading. It's about quotas. Quotas of suck.

She's not trying to write. She's not trying to convey. Connect. Compel. She's not trying to create a life experience. She's trying to justify this bullshit title that she's given herself of "writer." This isn't a writer. This is an insecure, entitled person, who is like these other people, with no ability, and plenty of fear and narcissism. She doesn't give a fuck about readers or who might be reading this. It isn't for readers.

Think about that: Writing that is not meant to be read by readers. A tidy summary of the products of their system. It's for her. And for the likes of Megan Sexton. People like these people so they can think, "She's like I am."

That's it. That's how it works.

According to Megan Sexton--in theory, anyway--that's better than anything I have thus far written in my life.

Yeah...I don't think anyone believes that. I don't think anyone believes it's possible to believe. Megan Sexton doesn't believe it.

But you know what Megan Sexton believes? That I'm not like her. And that is going to be all she cares about it.

This is how a bigot operates.

Meanwhile, this is from the story that I wrote Saturday. It's the fourth short story I've written this month. To go along with the three features. All the things that have been published. I'll have to round them up. The story is called "The Keepers."

Do you think you’d find that people were open to having a being that lived in their closet and existed nowhere else if it meant them well?

That is, it couldn’t come out, and they were unable to show it to anyone. The being would disappear until they were alone again because it was just for them.

This being might take a number of forms, depending on the individual. You made a selection. It could be like a hawk or a human only seven inches tall, but whatever it was, you’d understand what it said. It’d be friendly and desirous of seeing you at your best and unbiased and sensitive and mindful to how you were feeling. A being of empathy and tact.

You’d open your closet to select a shirt for the day or put your shoes away at night, and in doing so encounter the life-form that lived there, bight-eyed and reliable, perhaps reclining on a tiny bed or couch bolted to the wall—which it had installed on its own without troubling you, after securing permission—and happy to converse.

The being would be contented, upbeat, but not in some over-glad manner when you were down. It’d pick up on your mood. Commiserate commensurately. Lend the willing ear. Offer advice at the right times. Solid, well-reasoned input and support. No projection.

You’d be its keeper because it lived in your closet. There was just one condition of care for you to honor: If the being went beyond the scope of that space, it’d die. But it was always there for you every time you opened the door.

That didn’t mean there were no potential side effects. Sometimes you were liable to find yourself thinking, “All I do is provide a closet, which everyone has anyway, and I get back so much more,” and you’d feel guilty.

“Are you certain there’s nothing else you want?” you would ask the being as it lay on its side in bed, facing you, having stopped reading the miniature book with which it was nearly done. “Some food? Drink? How about a winter coat? Do you want to go shopping?”

Then you would recall that it couldn’t leave, so you’d amend your offer by saying, “I can get you a coat on my own and if it doesn’t fit I’ll return it and buy another. Anything you like.”

The being would reassure you: “I’m fine. I’m more than fine. This is what I want. I have everything I need.”

“You’re not bored?” you’d ask. “You don’t want to be with others who are...similarly situated?

“I promise you,” the being would say. “Now tell me: How was your day? Seems like your date went well if you’re just getting home now.”

You could pull up a chair to your closet and sit and talk and laugh all night. Or if something terrible had happened you’d cry without shame or embarrassment.

Certain amenities might be provided. You’d ask the being if it wanted a nightlight. A soft hand towel for a nice blanket. Small, thoughtful gestures that still counted for a lot, which you’d learned is how small, thoughtful gestures work.

The being who lived in the closet could never let you down. Anytime the day was going poorly, or you were cold and wet and feeling lonely out in the rain, or you had no one to talk to, you could count on going home, opening your closet door, and finding someone. They were only a being in a closet. That was the catch. It started and ended there. They could be no more, and no less. But a constant is a constant.

And a constant to the good may be a miracle. Or at least a triumph of manufacturing.

What if they looked at you with too much awareness in their eyes, though? If their level of understanding made you feel weaker than you already did? Or their selflessness created guilt and doubts within you that grew throughout the day and especially in bed at night?

Perhaps you thought about a fire and what would happen then. You couldn’t rescue the being, because it’d just die anyway.

But was it better to let it burn? You’d be the de facto death-selector, allowing that you had the opportunity to make a choice about what you might save from the burning building. If people had time to take a cat, you’d likely have time to take a being.

Were there last-measure provisions in place for beings who lived in closets? Did they have a tiny packet befitting their own tiny size that contained suicide capsules in the event of a blaze?

You wouldn’t ask. Because in one sense, you preferred to know that there was something that might hurt this creature, that it wasn’t just you who received, or was capable of receiving, pain. Of being overruled by it. Stopped. Diminished. Altered. Disassembled, even as your shoes and clothes still fit.

Don't you just love a prose off? Gets it all out there in the open, doesn't it? Makes it as plain as it can be the difference in quality. How would you even summarize the difference in quality?

But right, "Tang." Definitely better than anything I've ever written.

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