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Prose off: Yet another terrible story in American Short Fiction v. Fleming story

Saturday 2/24/24

How about a prose off to start this Saturday morning? We'll return again to American Short Fiction, and a story called "Bodies of Water" by Denise Heyl McEvoy. I'm going to put the beginning up here, and I want you to ask yourself who could possibly wish to read this? Who could possibly find this interesting? Maybe what you should do, too, is click on the link I included above, because I understand thinking that something this bad couldn't actually be published. I don't want someone to think that I tried to write the worst thing there is and then attributed it to a place like this. Let me remind you again: According to American Short Fiction editors Adeena Reitberger, Rebecca Markovits, and Nate Brown, what you are about to see is better than anything I've ever written in my life. Which no one believes, of course, no one could believe, and which they don't believe.

But here's what they do believe and decided upon long ago: "This man Fleming's work is so much better than anything we've ever ran, that if we include it, everything else will look ridiculous and pathetic. This guy's art puts all of the stories in our pages to shame. So we're going to discriminate against him as blatant as that may be, but who is going to know? And we'll try and get away with it."

This is seriously how a story starts. And this is how it goes. Nothing happens, nothing changes. An entire story of this meaningless minutiae.

You're not missing anything. I'm not holding back on you. Go read the whole thing if you want. I'm just laying this all out there. I'm putting it on the table in the sunlight.

I get it. It's hard to believe that shit that is as bad as the shit I share here is actually published, is published in "the best" places, and anyone's supposed to pretend that I've never written anything at so lofty a level. There is nothing that is less possible to believe. You cannot do it. Never mind that a drunken toad with its ass dipped in ink can write better than these people.

This is why no one reads. This is why there's no literature. Because it's just people in this system of idiocy, bullshit, inbreeding, writing things like this, publishing things like this, awarding things like this, giving book deals to things like this, Guggenheims, MacArthur grants, Pulitzers. They write like this, they teach others to write like this, and everyone in the system needs to be like them, doing what they are.

Here we go:

6:32 a.m.

There is an agitation in the Morgans’ swimming pool. The water becomes abruptly more aware, as if nudged from drowsing.

The September sun is edging over the horizon. A flurry of crows crosses the brightening sky. Their squabbling rings out in the morning quiet of this Palm Springs suburb.

The ripples in the pool abate quickly. There isn’t a breath of wind yet, and the pump remains off at this hour. The water lies inert, held down by gravity, walled in by layers of concrete. It appears tranquil but is not. It probes the rows of tile at the waterline. It investigates the grout that holds them in place. It presses against the pebbled coating that covers the bottom and sides of the basin. Its search for fissures is relentless. There are none to discover.

8:00 a.m.

The pool equipment clicks on. The pump begins pushing the water through pipes and valves, affording it a small measure of relief. Movement staves off stagnation, but water cannot initiate motion. It must rely on gravity and weather, or on living things and the machines they develop to do their bidding.

The water flows from the pool, to the pump, to the filter. It travels up to the solar panels on the roof of the house, down to the salt cell, and back out to the pool. The circumscribed migration is enough to prevent these 30,000 gallons of chemically treated liquid from turning green or emitting a foul smell, which is not to say that it’s sufficient.

Thrilling stuff as always from these people. You're supposed to like that? I know that's a simple question, but I'm asking it honestly: Is someone really supposed to like that? What could they possibly like about that? Imagine a conversation with someone who tells you it's awesome. That's an impossible conversation to have. If you ask, "What did you think was awesome about it?" they can't say, "How the pool equipment clicked on. Because it was off, and then it was on. And I thought that was brilliant."

No one could say that to you. That's why no one says, "I'll stand up to Fleming! I'll write something that gets into exactly why that story was amazing and shows how wrong he is!"

You can't do it. Go for it. Do it. I'm waiting. Bring it. Let's go. Step into the light for all to see, and let's do this. But you can't, can you? None of you people in this system can do it. Not a single one of you would dare to try. Because you know it's true. And you'd go up on here looking like a fool.

What could be more boring than this? How is this a story? How is this anything? It's more the absence of a something than a something.

Imagine if I came on here and I said that I wrote the above, and it was amazing, and these people at American Short Fiction wouldn't usher it to the printed page, and how could they not publish such awesome work, etc.

You'd be like, "You are crazy, brother man--that sucked ass. It was so bad. Why would you expect anyone to let it through and why on earth do you think it's amazing?"


And yet, there it is.

I'm not going to go through this in all of its nothingness--we all know how much it sucks--but a flurry of crows crossing the sky? A flurry of crows? Really?

See how they always try to do this, "Look, I'm being creative, see how I'm forcing this word choice? See how contrived it is? I'm a very creative writer!" thing? But it's not just flurry of crows, which is inept enough. The flurry crosses. Is that what flurries do? Or do flurries fall? Which isn't crossing.

How can you be so bad at this? How can you be so bad at this and then get anyone to put it forward? And this is supposed to be one of the best places in the world. Notice how often I say that? And notice how every time at each of these places the work sucks? It's not a case of "Oh, it could be better, but for what it is, it's fine." No. It sucks. How else are you going to put it? It's riveting? It's brilliant? It's gripping?

Sucks is sucks. There's no avoiding that. There isn't a case to be made for listing boring ass shit about a pool as a brilliant story.

And now we're at that point in the prose off right before we get more proof of the discriminatory motives of people like Adeena Reitberger, Rebecca Markovits, and Nate Brown. That's the work. But I should add it's not just the work. The work comes from someone whose achievements dwarf those of the people put forward in American Short Fiction, for whom anything they have is just some bullshit handout or hooking up, and never, ever, ever, has anything to do with their ability and what they have to offer.

But then you have this guy who has published thousands of works in just about every venue. The guy who is the leading expert in the world, and ever, on so many different things, which is backed up by his body of work and all of the parts of it. The guy who just wrote 500 stories. The guy who is responsible for the single longest work in history with this very journal, when so much as writing a single awful sentence is like this great moral victory for these people because they "wrote" for the first time in seventeen months and took a victory lap say that they'd done this on Facebook so they could be cheered and tongued by all of their Facebook friends who are exactly like them.

And this guy has done what he's done with virtually everyone in an industry against him from the start. With no support. Near total resistance. A very, very, very small fraction of his work--even with the thousands of publications--has come out. He's never had an actual chance. Guy gets fiction in Harper's, with a story that is no better and no worse than 1000 other stories he has sitting here, talks on NPR, writes a feature for Rolling Stone, writes an op-ed for the highest circulation newspaper in the country--a week--and these people hate him more than ever. They hate him more all the time with what he does. And because he's an actual good person who doesn't play their twisted games and isn't one of them. He doesn't look like them, sound like them, come from where they come from, self-medicate like them, isn't weak like them, and suck like them. There is only an effort to suppress this person. Not because of anything he's done wrong, and not because he's not an infinitely better writer than all of these people. But because he is.

You know what would happen if you were one of these people and you had published like one terrible thing in somewhere I've been in and you had four inchoate pages of a Creative Writing 101-type story that went nowhere? These people--Markovits, Reitberger, and Brown--would love to have you in American Short Fiction with those four pages.

Remember our recent hypothetical Q&A? Have another look at that. Yes, it was funny, but it couldn't have been more accurate. That's the mentality right there. That's what is happening.

But we're here for a prose off. This is from something of mine from this past week. I feel like this is probably not going to be on the same level as "Bodies of Water." Ready? It's the start of a story about the last thought of a dying 101-year-old man. Something has to be the last thought, right? What might it be for someone like that?

Remember what you said that other time on the forest side of the football field that hadn’t been mowed since the year before when I told you my dick wasn’t going to suck itself? Gurgle, gurgle, gurgle. Ha ha. Then I didn’t even stick around to graduate and it was off to war. How I miss those boys. Seems like forever I’ve thought of them as the people I know best. Came to be both strange and regular for me to think of you sitting in chemistry class back…somewhere else. While I…wasn’t. Decidedly wasn’t. But also, perhaps, a little bit. Tried to see you every time the chance came to shut my eyes and do my best with everything I had—or what remained—to forget the day that had just happened which I could wake up into again as it was still happening. Unending days, like school, once. You at your desk alongside the wall, sixth period, smell of spring coming in through the window opened a crack by…Mr. Ponticher…that’s right…to disperse the fumes and stop us all from dying. Little did I know war has a similar odor. Only bigger. And there’s no spring. Mr. Ponticher and his mysterious mixtures. “A tincture of this, a tincture of that, and voila.” Explosion. Flames. Smell of sulfur. I didn’t ask to where you’d gone or with whom after I got back. Need to at least pretend you don’t want to live in the past. Whip up a family. Nothing’s more important, whether a person believes it or not.

I mean...well, what can you even say?

Reading may be this experience unlike anything else. I don't mean "It's great to curl up with a good book." I mean something beyond that. You see me doing it. This is more than writing. It's more than "that's a great story." A story like "Fitty" can change the world. It's just one I'm naming. When reading is at its best--when writing is at its best--reading doesn't feel like you're reading writing. And so very few people have ever done anything like that, even for a time or two.

I'm just going to keep lighting you up and embarrassing you. Everyone I have to. I'm awake when you're asleep, I don't stop, there is no bottom to my well, any of my wells, and even when I do less in a week than I ever do--like with this past week, but I'd go back and have a read of the entries in this journal over the course of those seven days--I do more than any of these people will do in their lives, and that's before we get into the quality. You can stop it. It's very simple: Stop the discrimination. Make it right. "I know you've been upset, we admit that things became something they shouldn't have on our end, would you be open to blah blah blah."

Otherwise, I'm going to be the person who ends you. Not your life, obviously. But in terms of how anyone might ever think when they see your name. I don't know when. But I will. Things are building. I am deep in this fight. And this body of work is unlike anything the world has ever known. You will be known for this and nothing else. If you're Rebecca Markovits, what do you think you're going to be known for? Publishing masterpieces like "Bodies of Water"? Some J. Robert Lennon ineptitude?

I'd try and make it right rather than keep being embarrassed and hope this thing that is not going to go away goes away. Because it won't, and you are so guilty as charged. You know it. You obviously know I know it. You know that more and more people are finding out. A reason your behavior has never been called out as a problem before is because you've killed off reading and no one reads and no one cares about you. Plus, the only people here and who are writing and working as editors--just about--are the exact same kind of person doing the same kind of thing and acting the same way with the same make-up.

You got rid of everyone who might write something good because it was all about locking arms in a circle. No one who wasn't one of these people was going to endure banging their head against a wall. They would just quit. They did quit. They have quit. What were they going to do? Take on a system because they were that strong and, more importantly, had unique work that the world truly needed, and nothing would stop them from getting that work to the world as they created more and more of it? There was no one like that. It's these people in this system, and me. This system is just these sick people playing over here by themselves in this bunker buried way, way, way down at the furthest portion of the margin of society. And it's their rules in this place. Their prejudices, their pettiness, their caprices, their agendas, their insecurities, their envy streaks. Unchecked. Because it's just them.

People who get whatever published in American Short Fiction, The Paris Review, The New Yorker, or get a gig writing for New York Magazine or The New York Times Book Review or The Atlantic do so because they're hooked up. It's never because of their work. We've made that so far beyond obvious on here. It's not a time or two at this point, with some random examples. Everyone in this system needs this system to be what it is to have things like what I just mentioned, because their work would never merit them getting anything. So who among them would object? Why do you think Motorollah is in Granta? Because it's a stunning piece of work?

If you were offered a billion dollars, could you write something that laughably bad today? You couldn't if you tried, right? No matter how much motivation you had. That person had that story there for these other reasons. So if you didn't have anyone wanting to hook you up for those other reasons--being the same kind of freak, whatever it is--what would you do? You might try for a bit, but you'd get nowhere, and you'd quit. All that remains is these people doing what I just described. And me. Who else was there to say anything? Who else had the work to say anything? Who else had the track record? Look, I have a book of stories from places that make these people dish out panegyric after panegyric and crawl over each other's backs to get to put out with their press. Places that garner automatic publication for that book, no matter how bad the stories might be. You have a book with a story from Harper's in it, yeah, some major is going to put it out just because of that, or, worst case scenario, it falls to Graywolf. I have a book of stories in Cheer Pack stuffed full of stories from places like that. I've had it sitting here for six years. And these stories are masterpieces. You want to read one? Let's stick the first one in here. You can read it in full. It's called "First Responder." I've written like twenty stories in 2024. None of them are worse than those stories in that book.

So what do you think is happening? It's this thing that could happen with no one else. Has never happened. There's no similar case to this. Wait until we do an Everything wrong with publishing entry with Sarah Gorham at Sarabande. You want to talk envy, pettiness, corruption, and discrimination? And this is a low-level place. Wait until you see what she said to me. I've been saving this one. That book is unlike anything ever brought to her in her life, both in terms of the pedigree of these stories--their publication history--and their quality. I never should have been there offering it to her. I only was, because of what we all know is happening here.

And if you wanted to be like, "Well, he's this bad guy, that's what it is," then where are these editors with proof of what he did to them? Where is any of that? You have this very record which is about three million words long now. I think we all know who I am. You have hundreds of hours of radio interviews, where anyone can hear exactly who I am. This is a deeply good person.

And that person is not doing any of the shit these people do. Look at them. They all knew about Lorin Stein. Look at Emily Gould, just to mention a recent thing. Look that up. Look around a bit. Look how 1. Horrible that person is and 2. Talentless. It's just all bad. It's not a problem for these people. It's not a problem for them with each other. You know what is? True goodness. What a mind fuck that is, right? Imagine waking up every day at two, three, four in the morning, and then working for twenty hours, knowing that that's how it is and what you're facing with this system. How it is for now, I should say. Or what exists for right now.

Again, having whatever wherever means nothing. But to these people? They think it's big. Story in such and such equals this and means you get that. With one exception: Fleming. Well, they know how good it is. That's also part of the problem. Do you know how special something like "The Ghost and the Flame" is? Here, let me pull pull up a prose off with J. Robert Lennon's story in The New Yorker. Raise your hand if you think that J. Robert Lennon story in The New Yorker is better than what you saw of "The Ghost and the Flame"? Everyone is sitting on their hands, right? Of course. Do you think New Yorker fiction editor Debora Treisman thinks that the Lennon story is better? Do you think David Remnick does? Their "fiction coordinator" David Wallace? No. Obviously you don't think they do and obviously they don't. There's no comparison in quality, and everyone knows it. It's not subtle. You don't need some super sharp axe to split a hair here.

So, what? If you're one of those people, you're angry at me for not letting you discriminate against me? "I'll show him (but covertly behind the scenes and in back channels because that's the kind of coward I am)!"

How insane do you have to be to think that? Like, if you're a rapist and you rape someone, are you angry at them for not liking being raped? Are you angry with them for filing a complaint? For coming forward? Do they owe you the privilege of being raped by you?

But the quality of that work has nothing to do with someone running it right now. That actually makes it harder. Being legit and having masterful work and not being one of them makes it harder. That is the problem. Then there's the problem of none of these places have what I think of as the infrastructure for a "Fitty," a "Big Bob and Little Bob," a "The Ghost and the Flame," a "Dot." They're not stories that belong next to "Bodies of Water" in a journal that no one sees. Those stories in that journal aren't meant for readers. They're certainly not meant for the world. My work is for the world. Not to say, "I had such and such in such and such." I've published thousands of things. That's not what this is about. That's someone else's limited endgame. My endgame is the world. Impacting it. Changing it.

So why say anything about "Make it right"? I have hundreds of works here. I can give this to A and this to B and this to Y. There's so much material. I'm not some guy who manages one thing every six years. And that's not the end for those works. Those places will eventually fold. Probably sooner rather than later. That's how this is all going right now. For the reasons I've laid out. And there's books. "The Ghost and the Flame," for instance, is the last work in The Ghost Grew Legs: Stories of the Dead for the More or Less Living. "Fitty" is the first work in There Is No Doubt: Story Girls. "Best Present Ever" is the first work in The Solution to the World's Problems: Surprising Tales of Relentless Joy. "Big Bob and Little Bob" is the first work in Big Asks: Six Novelettes About Acceptance. Those aren't story collections. Those are books. Wholly integrated works of art and entertainment. And there's all kinds of ways to do business. So and so runs this, so and so that has much deeper pockets says, whoa, we want that for our place having seen it in yours, and they pay whatever fee for the rights--which would be much--and it comes out three months later and reaches many more people who wouldn't have known about it in the venue it started in and puts more money in my bank account and word spreads and things build and out comes the next thing, and that's bigger and more remunerative. And on and on and on.

But it's also a principle. I'm not going to let you fuck me and discriminate against me. More people are going to see this entry in a few hours today than people are going to see any issue of American Short Fiction. Again, it's that bunker on the furthest edge of society. The people who look at it are these people, insofar as even any of them do. Not people you know in the world. Not your neighbor. You think if you walk around outside and ask people about The Missouri Review they'll have a clue what you're talking about? The stakes at a place like this are really so low.

Someone wants to be in there, usually, so they can brag to a colleague in their English department, take that victory lap on Facebook, or get another line in their CV off in academia. What's another notch mean for me at this point? And when I'm basically not being paid for it? What does having a work in a place where it won't be seen mean? I write for people. I don't write for the CV. I need a full-time archivist--and I'll have to have one later--to manage my publication archives. I'm so, so, so far past stat padding. But I have that work, as I said. Mountains of it. And: I'm an honorable person. I have self-respect. I was raised the right way. I have values. I will only live with myself as a person who does the right thing.

I'm not letting anyone get away with discriminating against me. And then there's this: The entire system needs to change. And if it has to be ripped down first, and something else come up with instead, then so be it.


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