top of page

The Baffler: How does fiction this bad even get written?

Saturday 2/17/24

I was going to look at fiction from four new short stories in The Baffler--which to these people means the fiction must be good--but in trying to put that together this morning, I realized I just couldn't do that to anyone, and so I'm breaking it up into separate posts.

This is really about a larger point, and I apologize--I feel like I should apologize--for subjecting one to such terrible writing, which is nearly all there is right now in what these people call the world of "literary fiction," a term they use as an excuse not to consider readers at all. That larger point is important. There's not only nothing worth reading, there is nothing that doesn't suck and suck in these comically bad ways that you think it's a joke, like you're reading entries from a contest to see who can write the worst story possible.

That writing this bad is written, published, celebrated, results in book deals, etc. is simply the norm--the status quo, the way of things--up and down the entirety of this system. There is no area, no field, no corner of society in which quality writing matters less than in publishing. Isn't that mind blowing? It's just a popularity contest and a hook-up fest and echo chamber of lies and den of pettiness for broken, talentless freaks.

This is the start of Ken Kalfus's "Palace-Fortress" from The Baffler:

No one saw me leave the private dining room. The absence of witnesses was peculiar. The towering mahogany door, polished to a reflective gloss, was meant to be watched and guarded every hour of the day and night, regardless of whether the dining room was occupied. I gently shut the door behind me, not looking at my reflection. This was the moment I could expect to be arrested.

The velvet-draped hall was empty and unnaturally, deliberately quiet. My boots sank into the heavy carpet. I had resolved that my departing strides would be recognized as forceful and resolute, but in the early morning hours the regular crimson carpeting had been replaced, silencing my footfall. Another set of doors was left open and unguarded at the end of the hallway. I had been rigorously searched when I passed through them earlier, just as I had been searched at every other door in the palace-fortress.

Still no arrest. I admired Dzh.’s craftiness. The midnight dinner had been especially fine, Dzh.’s companionship especially gracious. Cheese pies garnished with raw egg yolks had been followed by broth-filled, pleated dumplings; slow-cooked kidney beans and corn bread; spicy skewered lamb and plum relish; meat stew in a walnut sauce; vegetable pâtés topped with pomegranate seeds; and walnut-enhanced chopped salads. Dzh. poured the wine himself, a full-bodied red from his native province. We spoke of the campaigns we had shared, Dzh. generously recalling my commitment, loyalty, and heroism. The stories were lies. This was what the smile was about. Dzh. knew that I knew they were lies and that I knew he was taking pleasure in my refusal to call them lies at this late hour, after my fate had been determined. Dzh. was smiling at my fragile hope that my fate hadn’t been determined, that this dinner wasn’t like other midnight dinners with which Dzh. had entertained certain former associates. These were dinners that I myself had arranged, followed minutes, hours, or days later by arrests that I was delegated to orchestrate, down to every last fatal detail.

Now I passed through soundless corridors into a ballroom and descended a wide formal staircase. At the bottom of the stairs, I should have been met by a detachment in military dress. I had stationed the honor guard there years ago. They were absent. The lapse was disgraceful, an insult.

Dzh.’s former associates were always arrested according to meticulously appropriate plan: Zin., proud of his military victories, as he addressed a graduating class of cadets; the ostentatiously uxorious Bukh. and his wife Sta., brought to an interrogation room where her testimony against him was read; Pyat., who had submitted a classified report on medical malfeasance, in the hospital, while struggling to recover from an unnecessary, mandated procedure; Kres., at his daughter’s sixteenth birthday party; Kam., at the lakeside summer house he had taken over from the late Nav., whose drowning he had arranged; Tukh., at home with his family; Kaz., at home with his family, Tom., at home with his family; the devoutly loyal Orl., by his best friend, Viz; the ravenous Gam., in the state delicacies store; Yeg., just as he discovered Bak. with his wife Mey., the three of them taken away in the same van; Yezh. on the street; and Ber., Vysh., Shum., and Frun. at cabinet meetings.

This morning’s de-peopling of the halls within the palace-fortress was intended to convey significance. Dzh. had selected this lonely walk for me because it generated the illusion of liberty while being so obviously an illusion. Dzh. knew that I had always prided myself on my freedom of action. I had behaved as if I recognized neither obligations nor fears, as if I were the freest of men. Dzh. wanted me to reflect on my pride. Dzh. was reminding me that I had never been free. I had always been subject to the needs of history. To Dzh.’s needs. Dzh. had set this up to make me think these thoughts.

What are you doing? And I don't mean that in a "wow, you've gone so far with your stylistic derring-do" way or how someone might have reacted if they worked at the record label and heard the Jesus and Mary's Chain's "Upside Down" for the first time.

I mean, do any of these people ever ask themselves "Seriously, what the fuck am I doing here?" and then say, "God this sucks. Holy shit is this inept and embarrassing."

Who do you think cares about this? Who do you think might care? Who is this for? Are you even trying not to suck at writing? Are you trying to suck as much as possible?

Because I don't know how you can write what you just read and think, "Yep, that's amazing writing, people definitely should see this, they'll love it, the world needs some of this."

Do you think it's possible that you could be an editor and think, "Outstanding! That really impressed the hell out of me, I'll be thinking about that for days--no, weeks--I need that writing to be published in my magazine," because I don't think that's possible either, no matter how much of an idiot, freak, fraud that someone like The Baffler's fiction editor J.W. McCormack is. I get that he's the Mr. Brooklyn Literary Douchebag Cliche come to life, but I don't believe that if said life depended on him giving an honest answer to the question, "Do you seriously think that doesn't suck?" that he'd respond with a hearty "Yes!" and be expecting to see tomorrow.

You can't do it. Now, it's one thing to say that there's no one on earth who wants to read that. And it's all like this. I don't mean it all tries to be "deep" and "creative" and whatever in this exact same way, but it's all variations on the theme of sucking as bad as you can suck at doing something. That's what all current fiction is from these people. Whether they're in Granta with Motorollah or J. Robert Lennon with shit in The New Yorker that any of your neighbors could write if they decided to try their hand at fiction later today or winning a Guggenheim or they're Junot Diaz who wins Pulitzers and a MacArthur grant and has no ability whatsoever for writing, and is a horrible person on top of it, who can't invent anything at all, and clearly regards women as objects to simply stick your dick in.

You could say that no one wants to read something because no one has been exposed to it. Fair enough. And if they were, maybe many people would want to read it. What I'm saying, though, is that there could never be a single person on earth who would read what you just saw and think, "Can't wait to get home tonight and read more of that."

It could never happen. It's not possible to honestly like this or think well of it. There is no one out there who can say to me, "It's good for these reasons."

It's just a subculture of broken freaks who can't write. Seriously, what the hell are you doing sitting there and reading this back to yourself as you do it? What goes through your head as that writer?

You, the reader--by which I mean, someone who had this brought to your attention, because no one would willingly read this out in their own life--want to think, "Is this a joke?" or "Are you fucking with me?" or "Am I being gaslit here?"

There's this press with which I've dealt and this guy who can't write--it's as bad as what you just saw--had this book and the press put it out. I was saying to a friend one day, "So if you were this guy, you could have said to someone, 'I have this book and it's dark and it's set in Arkansas and so I call it Darkansas,'" and my friend on the phone just starts laughing his ass off.

That's real. That's how this shit is. Yes, it sounds like a joke. A nightmare-joke hybrid. Nightmare that that's how this entirely is. What is stupider than that? I wrote a book that's dark set in Arkansas, so I called it Darkansas. Yeah, it sounds like I'm making it up. And that's just what I'm telling you with this one tiny thing regarding this outlet right now, because I really, really, really don't want to get into everything else if I don't have to.

That story from The Baffler is that bad, like the rest of it. Every single person who sees this knows it's that bad. Are you thinking about readers at all? A single reader? Do you write that first sentence and think, "This will hook them"?

Or are you just so vain, so, well, stupid, so entitled, so enabled in your delusions by the people you know in your incestuous little publishing world where you see your two-headed sister and want to hook up with her yet again and breed some three-headed freak garbage and up the amount of mental illness in the publishing system gene pool, that you're just gone from reality? Do you write a name like, "Dzh." and think, "I'm so goddamn creative! Look at that name! It's spelled D-Z-H and has a period. Names don't have periods. This is why I'm brilliant! Gonna do it with all of these other names, too, wow, I'm on fire today!"

Is that what's happening? There is no attempt to engage or interest anyone. It's like, "I'll just start saying stupid shit that no one is going to give a fuck about."

Think of the level of entitlement there. That it came from you means it's worth being out there for that reason alone. What is different than defecating on a page? "That's my fecal matter, and that makes it special. It's my fecal matter."

That guy was a finalist for the National Book Award. That's true. You can look it up. Don't take my word for it. That, right there, according to these people, is some of the best writing in the world. Guggenheim for him, too.

This is all just a colossal joke, save that nothing is funny here. This is how everything is. I'm not exaggerating. You know I'm not. I've proven what this entire system is about and what's happening. And I'll keep proving it until there's something better. These people could be walking around with excrement on a page, and it'd be no different. There'd be no more or less value. No one would like it less or more. And certain people among them would get awards and book deals and and it's all crap on a page. You don't have to make some labored case to show that it's crap. All you have to do is say, "Honestly, look how bad this is" and you will be unchallenged because every single person who then looks will be like, "Yeah, I can't believe something that bad got published, won that award, or that person is lauded, praised endlessly."

Something very important happens when someone has a dalliance with "literary fiction," for whatever reason. What's an example of such a reason? I'll give you a for instance. Someone saw a lauded writer on a talk show and were told by the host that they'd won 197 awards and their latest masterpiece was out in the world and that person watching is going away for vacation and they want to be cultured because that sounds like a good idea and aim and could do with reading a great book so they buy this one and they've never seen anything so bad, so inept, so annoying, so shallow, so underdeveloped, so pointless, in their entire lives. So what then happens? That person goes away. They leave the realm of the reading experience. They in effective say, "I don't belong here," and they go. They stand down.

They think, "All of these experts like the people at The New York Times Book Review and The Washington Post said this was remarkable, I must not be smart enough." They put that blame on themselves.

Look, these people are lying to you. They don't believe this shit any more than I believe it. It's almost all of it. They're the same person with the same background doing the same things the same stupid ways in the same incestuous system who don't work at it at all.

You are not the problem. The problem isn't with your shortcomings as a reader or that you're not smart enough or intellectual enough. These people are full of shit. It's an entire system based upon being full of shit. There isn't anything you're missing.


Commenting has been turned off.
bottom of page