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Prose off: Typically terrible Jamel Brinkley story in American Short Fiction v. Fleming story, single paragraph edition

Tuesday 3/19/24

Let's just get to the pasting, shall we? We don't need an exordium.


This is from Jamel Brinkley's "Wolf and Rhonda" from American Short Fiction:


“The reunion happened in the party room of the Tavern on Bruckner. Balloons floated to the low ceiling above the heads of St. Paul’s Class of 1991. The elderly priest sat in a corner, nodding helplessly at his lap. Old rap songs from twenty years ago, when they were in high school, played from the wall-mounted speakers. The frosted white cake would have stripes of pineapple filling between its layers. It was always this way at their reunions. Maritza Lopez was again wearing her formal, brightly colored dress. She had organized these gatherings from the start and treated them like reenactments for her quinceañera. Wolf admired her consistency, the sheer force of her determination.”


Do you see--and do you hear--how every sentence has the exact same rhythm? The same rote subject-verb start? No variation. What's here? Where the imagination? Where's the buoyancy? Where's the life? It's monochromatic. Flat. There's no topography of language nor emotion. This is more an exercise for a beginning typist--just type along, class--than it is writing.


Brinkley checks boxes that bigots like Adeena Reitberger, Rebecca Markovits, and Nate Brown want him to check. There's nothing here. There never is with his work, which is always the same. Like Junot Diaz, he's someone who cannot, and will never, invent a single thing. But he's connected, and these people--remember fossil-termagant Wendy Lesser at The Threepenny Review?--see what boxes are checked, know that this is the person their ilk are favoring, and step into line to do their bit by publishing and awarding work that sucks. There is no attempt in this writing not to be terrible at writing.


But okay, let's play along, let's do fantasy-time. That's amazing prose. Wow. Brilliance. Genius. But, I'm slow, so while I have no doubt that that's brilliant writing, could you maybe help me out, if you're someone like Adeena Reitberger, Rebecca Markovits, and Nate Brown, and tell me why? Just spell it out for me. Be super clear. Is it the sentence "The reunion happened in the party room of the Tavern of Bruckner." Is that the genius part? Is that the thing that others can't do that only someone this talented can? Tell me. Please.


Now someone can say, "But Fleming, you're focusing on one paragraph!" It's all this way. Every single paragraph by this talentless fraud is this way. And you could say, "But Fleming, all of it adds up to a story of great substance! It's just a piece of a whole." It isn't. None of it adds up to jack shit. It's just an entitled guy without ability who's hooked up trying to hit a word count. He doesn't have a single actual story to tell. There isn't a scintilla of value in this fraud's writing. But there are people lying for him.


Now we come to my part. Just a paragraph, but there is more life and value in this paragraph than there is in every single thing ever published by American Short Fiction added together. If someone asked, "What makes it good?" the hands in the classroom would all shoot up because we'd all have things to say. Different things, from person to person. Sincere things. You think if any one of these people that this system puts forward wrote something like this, that I could come on here and use it as my opponent in a prose off? Hell no. But none of them can write something like this. And this is but a part of a story that as a whole adds up to so much more. But these bigots won't let you see it, because of how much better it is than what they run by the people they favor.


What Sue does not know is that I’m able to summon something of the experience of my own middle school days like I’m living a part of them right then and there, disrupting the pulse-beat of time so that this passage occurring outside of time might also be included. I’m sure the tides can keep themselves on schedule—they’re professionals, after all. I have thoughts like, “I remember that early morning advance to the bus stop when I popped my collar to be a cool guy like it was just last Tuesday.” The sensation of the immediacy of that memory—rather than embarrassment over the memory itself—makes me never want to share it with anyone. It’s just mine for me. A friend’s sheltered secret, though I’m being the friend to myself.


The tide part is so new it was done before I last stood up. That's a great fucking line. You'd never see the likes of it in anything by these people.





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