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Some words from a fiction contest judge

Tuesday 1/8/19

Part of my contractual stipulation with the fiction contest I judged for New Rivers Press was to write an introduction to the anthology containing the nineteen stories that made the final round. Those stories had been sent to me, to select three winners, with all of the stories going into the anthology. The introduction for this book was to be at least 800 words. It was, in the end, about 2700 words, which I just composed this AM. As the only way people would be able to see this introduction will be to buy the book, I am going to put it up here. I think it's more than what one usually gets with an introduction. I hope, whether you are a reader, a writer, both, or a reader or a writer in ways beyond the page--for their are ways to be writers and readers, beyond the page--it brings a little inspiration to your day.

Can I Get Some “Is” Please?

Some words from a fiction contest judge.

There are a lot of things a writer can do to negatively impact a reader’s day. When you think about how many ways this can be done, and so easily, within the space of ten words, there’s actually a great deal of trust we put in a writer whom we come to. A writer can take our time from us. They can siphon our energy. They can fail to deliver on what I think of as the writer-reader compact in which the person doing the reading of the writing has an expectation of acquiring new knowledge, new viewpoints, new glimpses of who they are and what makes them them.

A little known novelist (William Sloane, if you’re scoring at home, whose To Walk the Night I implore you to check out) once wrote that the only unforgivable sin is weakness. Which, of course, fits a lot of other sins under it. For the writer, one of them is making a reader say, “What was the point of that?” And making a reader say, “You give me no cause, none, not to walk away from you, right now,” is reason enough for that reader to be more deeply, legitimately sad than that writer could know back on their side of the ledger of this endeavor, because the former desired contact and connection, and the latter—well, they were about something else, which is, naturally, something less human.

When I began the process of reading these stories, I hoped—for it enervates me—that I would not have to ask myself that question of what the hell is the point of what the hell was in my hands. If I did, with whatever entry I was reading, I was going to swiftly shift that to the “no way” pile. And, to be honest, I thought there would be quite a few of those, for it’s rare when I glimpse at what these days pass for literary magazines (hey, if everyone over the age of five was magically transported to some other planet, we’d call a bunch of first graders what passed for the best hockey players in the world), that I ever find anything that I think has a semblance of a point to it. I’d say it’s one in 500 stories, but it isn’t. It’s once in, to shift the unit of measurement, every seven, eight years. I just see the pointless, entitled, over-written, pretentious, smug, cowardly, scumbering prose of people of zero ability who could not care less for the people they are supposed to do right by, entertain, help, inspire: readers. They want you to jack their ego so they can lie to themselves about what they like to think they are, for all of the wrong reasons.

Which is why people don’t read short fiction now. You’re going to hear MFA people argue that it’s because of short attention spans and Netflix. It’s not. It’s the product on offer, in which no one can see themselves, which is an endless, formulaic exercise in passivity, in giving you the reader nothing that will enhance your life, or even quicken your pace with a plot as you take the commuter rail off to some family function in the sticks.

One of my first editors, when I began writing professionally at twenty, remarked that people who have a lot of things they don’t like don’t like much. It was one of the more inaccurate, backwards statements I’ve yet encountered. Having things that you stand against, provided you are not virtue signaling or doing, in this case, the Literary Citizen version of virtue signaling, is a pretty good sign that you have loads of things you’re passionate about. (Well, provided you’re not that captious type who needs to whinge about everything, because you’re that insecure in who you are.) You’re just aware of more. Spend more time Lewis and Clarking out in the woods, you see more poisonous snakes. You also see more butterflies.

I see the Literary Citizens all but humping each other on social media like digital dogs in search of the nearest leg. “This is awesome, you’re awesome, it’s all so awesome, we’re all so awesome.” No. You write pretentious shit that no one on planet earth cares about, save you people, who pretend to care about it so you can have a community you say you belong to. Never mind that your community is a sham/lie that abets a simulacrum of realty much like an opiate, that has as much a hand as anything in creating work that is killing off reading.

I don’t want to see your safe work that has zero stakes, makes no effort to risk, to leap, to overleap, to be something. I don’t want to see stories that aren’t actual stories about silver-spooned, trust-funded MFA people who lie to you and lie to themselves and say that Lydia Davis is just super duper and trade favors with other people just like them so they can have their “short-short” that was “birthed at Yaddo” and took them nineteen months to write because most of these people hardly write anything appear in a lit mag whose editor they’ll shortly publish in the lit mag they work at so that that professor can get their two free contributor copies and brag to the colleague down the hall in their English department about “oh look what I just received.” Round and round it goes. That is all that is here right now. That is what must be destroyed. I don’t want to see people fictionalize their lives, which most who try to write do, because chances are your life is not very interesting. That’s just a reality of being human and there being so many of us. Very few are Melville hoping aboard a whaling ship, or whatever the current version of that is. Most hop aboard Facebook or numb themselves with the latest Netflix binge or while away the evenings in posting Twitter blasts about the government.

Invent. Imagine. Create. Irrupt and erupt. Astound me. Move me, lose me in what it is that you have made. Help me make me into what I can be made. Buttonhole me, beard me, kiss me, love me, shake my hand, fuck me, caress me, cum on me, hold me, be there for me, breathe your soul into mine. Or just don’t. Go somewhere else and do something else. Try to be a good person. Do not try to stand in the way of that which is so important, that if it must destroy you, to get where it is going, it simply has to be that which destroys you, given the stakes. The needs of the many v. sickness of the petty.

A quick glance into my career will tell the glancer that this is someone who is up to their neck in thousands of things they care deeply about. Part of the reason I care as I do is because I’ve ferreted out those things that I wanted to see the stories in here do. If a story failed, it could still interest me, if it went for something of substance. As such, I had a hard time picking out what I wanted to claim as the three best works here. Nearly everything I saw was better than what I’d see in an Alaska Quarterly Review, a Missouri Review, where it is tripe upon tripe, where there is nothing worth your time, nor will there ever be, unless there is a culture change—that is, if the roiling waters of the ocean come to disperse the bog water of these fetid little ponds. But it’s worse than tripe, because it’s not honorable tripe. It’s a series of passive aggressive soft-sells, overwritten passages, the constant reach for the thesaurus by people who had never seen the words they used any time prior in life. This gross, lazy, cowardly writerly panhandling of “please like me, please like me, am I not offending anyone, am I being safe enough, please like me, please like me.”

The stories I read here mattered, it seemed, to the people who told them. I was surprised to see sports come up as a theme as often as it did. Literary people, because they were the ones skulled in dodgeball in gym class and always sought a note from mommy to get out of PE, usually hate sports. Never mind that Fitzgerald, Keats, Shakespeare, so many others, loved them and found nuances in them that in turn informed their own work. Writing what you know is bad advice. Imagine if Kafka wrote what he knew, in terms of his day in, day out life, like with his job? Or Hawthorne, doing his busy work and dull paper pushing there at the Customs House in Salem? There’s a catch with write what you know, that most people pass right on by; and that’s that you write what you know in terms of emotion, you write from inside that emotion, out of it. From the inside out. Do that, and your words, even if they are clumsy, even if you’re finding yourself at the level of the sentence, will ring true. It goes for any art. For “level of the sentence,” we could also mean “level of musicianship,” and what I said holds true for the Beatles of Please Please Me versus the more accomplished players of Abbey Road. The former still works, it still gets through because it is rendered from the inside out.

This meant that picking three winners took more time than I expected. It meant that I had multiple folders, having thought at first it’d be a quick task of you go here, you go there, and you—ha, you should throw this writing version of yourself off a cliff! Yes, I had a cliff folder. Sorry about that. But you must see, the art of the written word means everything to me. It is what I have dedicated every waking moment—and many sleeping moments, for I work on my art then, too—of my life to, going back to when I was three and I could recite from memory what my parents had just read to me. I knew what I was. I knew I was a storyteller. And everything I did in my life going forward, even away from the page, was a form of being a storyteller, because telling stories, more than anything else in this life, is about connecting with others.

When you are a good sister, you are, in a way, a good storyteller, because you share, you communicate, you are not afraid of vulnerability and risk. When you are a devoted spouse, a special friend—by which I mean, the bedrock of someone else’s life kind of friend. When you betray this, when you stand against it, when you do what so many people in publishing do and hate someone who can do it better than they could ever dream of doing it, you need to be culled. Removed. Because it is you that limits our progress as individuals, because you are so resolute in making none of your own in a life of incarnate nullity.

Judging a fiction contest for me isn’t just a matter of, “Hmmm, I’m Joyce Carol Oates, I’m a dreadful writer, I coast on my reputation, I am the Empress with No Clothes and Very Great, let us see what these peons have done, for I have to blow my nose in five minutes and have Narrative publish the tissue.” No. I’m looking for my brothers and my sisters. People who, I hope, can be part of a revolution with me, be that as writers, as readers, as sane folk, who help give people reason to read again, who are the readers who must read again.

If you are a writer who risks, who has stakes, you are among my people. I care about you. It’s like at the start of the MC5’s Kick Out the Jams album, when they start screaming about who is and who is not ready to testify, to be part of the solution, or get run over as the problem. “I want to see a sea of hands!” they plead, as everyone is whipped into a froth. That’s what I want to see: people who have to write because if you stopped them from doing it, you’d do more to them than if you changed their name, forced them into a new gender, changed their background, their race, anything, because this is their fucking soul.

I’m not sure this is generally how introductions go. It’s probably not. They told me to write 800 words, which we passed a ways back, as that was part of me collecting my fee. My favorite introduction was one written by Arthur Machen, a gifted writer of the eldritch, for Richard Middleton’s The Ghost Ship and Other Stories. It was Middleton’s lone collection of stories, because by the time it came out, the young man had killed himself. It’s a fine work, but Machen doesn’t celebrate what might have been, but rather what is. What is is a very powerful notion. It might not sound like it. But that verb contains the power of the great emotional sweep of humanity. It is the forever now. The forever now moves to the past, it occupies the present, it will have its say about the future. But these writers, of this anthology, they can go forwards themselves. I hope that writing the works they wrote, which I had the honor to read, played some part in their journey. Play some part. Are playing a part out there in their lives, with what they are writing now, as I am writing this.

It surprised me, maybe even more than the sports stuff, how many of the stories had to do with faith. Some were more overtly religious than others, but faith was a constant. Faith should be a constant in your life, the practice of putting it into something. Sometimes that’s you, as you are trying to get to where you wish to be with talents you believe you have. Sometimes it’s the faith in yourself to accept that maybe you have other talents elsewhere, and it’s time to find those instead. Faith is a search, predicated on the power of belief, which connects person to idea, present to future. Which is what good writing does, too. So I guess it makes a certain amount of sense that I experienced these stories that way.

As for the three winners: I wish to say that “Barn Find” by Matthew Finch had voice and verve. I felt like I would know the cut of this voice’s jib if it took on human form, donned clothes, walked around in the world. At the Starbucks, listening to this voice-person order a latte, I’d have a good idea it was the voice from the story. Charles Duffie’s “Catalina” made me think that the forces that drove this story were out there. I just hadn’t experienced them firsthand yet. But they were of, and out in, the world, and now I would be better served to come upon them. David Fuks’ “Distinctions” took the top prize, but I went round and round. My feeling was that if Fuks had been the last man on earth, like in a bad Vincent Price horror film, he would have worried less about acquiring food and water than he would have about completing this fiction account. Make me read so that I feel that it matters to you, because you tried so hard to give characters dimensionality, as hard as you try to give anything in your life dimensionality. Harder. Then harder than that, and more. Do that, and you, the writer, is removed; the autonomous story is what remains, the story with legs, that story gets up and goes. That is when the writer has honored the compact, as too does the reader, for the reader now has reason to, and that is the end all and the be all. It’s the “is.” Give a reader the “is,” and you are giving them a portion of their life that they did not know that they had all along. And that is a very generous thing for you to do.


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