Sunday, May 31, 2009

Congratulations on your Wedding! Thanks for ruining my weekend…

Yeah. That’s right. I took it there.

I was going to make up a similar hypothetical situation for the sake of objectivity but let us get straight to the heart of the matter. Some friends of yours--or perhaps only friends of your significant other--are getting married. Isn’t that nice? They are getting married on Sunday at two in the afternoon. The wedding is in Savannah, since Savannah is a beautiful city; not that anyone is from Savannah. Savannah is four hours away from where you are and there is a ‘party type thing’ on Friday night. You work Friday. Oh and there is a rehearsal dinner on Saturday and then the real shebang on Sunday.

Your whole weekend gone, shot, done. There is nothing I hate more than to have my weekends planned out for me ahead of time. I don’t exactly have a lot of spontaneity in my Monday-Friday 10:00-6:00 workweek so the last thing I want is to know everything that is going to happen on the weekend spelled out in explicit detail come Tuesday, or worse still two months ahead of time by way of wedding invitation.

Two more people are joining in marital bliss, eternally bound to each other by way of unexplainable happiness and legality and your weekend--the last bastion of true freedom for today’s working man--is over. You have to drive four hours back home and go to work in the morning.

How is this a polite gesture to ask people to undertake? I understand there are wedding invitations that are sent to certain people with no expectation of that person actually showing up but but what about the people that do show up? How are they reimbursed for their pain. Lost time can’t be made up for last I checked. Furthermore, it’s not only weddings; any national holidays that occur during the work week and result with me not having to go to work are even more treasured than a standard weekend. Don’t mess it up for me… Plan you bar-be-que for Saturday or Sunday. There has to be someone else out there who understands what I’m saying here.

All people that wish to be married should elope. At bare minimum put your wedding on a Monday (assuming it’s not a national holiday). Everyone hates Mondays. Monday hatred is a standby of solidarity among the common man; an instant point of bonding. Instead taking up my whole weekend why not take up three days of my work week that I won’t mind? Then I would actually enjoy the whole venture. If I have to take off Monday-Wednesday it is basically a vacation I don’t want to go one; but vacation nonetheless. This way I will enjoy myself especially if you wedding followings the rules of good form and has an open bar. The return trip home Wednesday evening will be a good one. Followed by two days of work and then a nice relaxing weekend.

I wish everyone well in there personal pursuit of happiness, but if you can; try and make sure it doesn’t intrude on mine.

And to anyone feeling self-conscious out there: I'm not talking about you.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Short Story Posers

I forgot to mention that I do not like novel excerpts posing as short stories. I’ve come across a few and regardless of the writing; they tend to make me angry.

There is no background so the characters and situations make little to no impression and furthermore, I don’t know where the story is going. This inability to gain momentum or even have a basis of understanding for static situations makes it very difficult to connect with the story. The few novel excerpts that I’ve come across in collections and anthologies were well written but ultimately uninteresting as it is impossible to tell what the reader was supposed to take away from the excerpt.

Obviously an excerpt isn’t supposed to stand on its own and make complete sense… because it’s an excerpt. If the goal is to generate enough interest to make me want to read the book then why wasn’t I given the beginning of the book, i.e. the prologue or first chapter? This is nothing more than what many a literary agent has complained about regarding submissions from potential clients.

“Please send a query letter, synopsis and the first fifty pages.” The latter of these stipulations only had to be spelled out in recent times to the best of my understanding as some new writers feel their best efforts are pages ninety-seven to one hundred and three, and wanting to put their best foot forward that is the material they submit. Agents rightfully complain that if the beginning isn’t of a certain quality then no one will stick around to page ninety-seven and that when starting at page ninety-seven they have no clue what’s going on making it near impossible to gauge interest.

With this in mind why is it okay for an editor to publish a novel excerpt as a short story? Is it not a disservice to the reader and the author? To those who feel that the short story and the novel are completely different literary entities, how does publication of a novel excerpt as a short story make you feel?

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

I think I need something more...

I've got one more short story anthology left in my current stack of short fiction, but I think I need a break. My first endeavor into short fiction has been great. I've discovered new authors, read with a fast rate of completion, and come across a wealth of new novels to look into.


Like novels, short stories run the gambit of good and bad and everything in between, but I've been craving something more as of late. More of what I don't know how to say. I hesitate to use the word substantial or deeper but they come close to what I'm craving. If a short story is well written but generally uninteresting to me, I can and will finish it by way of it being short. If a short story is bad I can skip it and go to another. If a novel is well written but uninteresting to me, in the past I've been inclined to finish it as it could be deemed 'harmless.' I doubt I'd extend that same curiosity today. If a whole novel is bad then I'll be angry that I have to take the time to sell it on ebay and get no redeeming value out of the book.

Here's the kicker: if a short story is good, then I generally want more than the amount that qualifies it as a short story. The ‘more’ of what I want is greater than the page count that classifies fiction as a short story. Perhaps I was wrong with I previously said in a blog post that the novel and the short story as essentially the same thing. I still do not think that the rules for good writing vary with page count but after having read a good amount of short fiction I do feel the novel--at least a good one--does offer something, ‘greater,’ but by no means 'superior.'

With that in mind, and my desire for the comforts of a lengthy (if it's good) read, I place my faith in Duane Swierczynski’s Severance Package. A short novel that I hope is as fun, and exciting as all the reviews I read about last year.

Weary of short stories or not, my reading of it late has only lead me to do one thing: buy more of it.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Did you misplace your fiction?

As I’m in the midst of my short story stint, some questions as to how certain works or even authors get placed in certain genres have arisen. Though I read many a high brow and pretentious work of ‘literary fiction’ (which is the most redundant nomenclature ever conceived) and my affinity for 19th century Russian literature isn’t normal, my main interest lie in upper echelon of quality scientific fiction and fantasy. As such, in my current perusal of short stories I have come across a few authors whose work really makes me question the standard conventions we use when organizing today’s bookshelves.

I just finished Jonathan Strahan’s The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year Volume Two (God only knows what year) and within are many quality short stories. Of particular interest to me were Peter S. Beagle’s The last and Only or How Mr Moskowitz Becomes French, Ted Chiang’s The Merchant and the Alchemist Gate, Dead Horse Point by Daryl Gregory, The Cambist and Lord Iron: A Fairy tale of Economics by Daniel Abraham, Last Contact by Stephen Baxter, and Jesus Christ Reanimator by Ken MacLeod--a satire.

At what point in time does a work cease to be fiction and become a sub-genre: fantasy, science fiction, horror and so forth? What degree of suspension of disbelief is needed? We can buy into all the political mechanizations of The Godfather, and the court room suspense within any John Grisham novel but the moment but when someone comes back from the dead as a plot device as in MacLeod’s story or morphs nationality as in Beagle’s we need to conceive a new genre as to not mislead our readers? And to mislead the readers into thinking what precisely? I’m not the first to say, ‘all fiction is fantasy,’ though I’d love to know was the first to say it.

Some of the stories in this particular collection had such slight elements of the fantastic that upon finishing them I was genuinely surprised that they were included in the volume. Good fiction is good fiction and that has nothing to do with a genre appellation. Through no fault of their own, I feel a good deal of readers are missing out on great works that they may find highly enjoyable simply because the books maybe placed somewhere they wouldn't think to look. If you are talking about spell casting dragons or planet destroying lasers--both of which are extremely cool--then the designation is correctly laid upon those authors but what if you have a character that has a lengthy conversation with the devil as in Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov? Should that perhaps be placed in the fantasy section of your local book seller?

MacLeod’s story is very serious, equally funny and always mocking of something; that is what makes satire so difficult. But is the idea of the second coming and creating a story around it really enough to ‘pigeon hole’ the work as fantasy? (Or would that be science fiction?) I feel bad for the multitude of readers that are missing out on countless phenomenal works simply because it didn’t fall in the boundaries of their preferred reading material. Furthermore I would point out that for the average reader those boundaries are spelled out by the publishing world and retail outlets.

Retrospectively, I wonder if past best sellers like The Historian or Jurassic Park were located in the fantasy section of book stores. Why aren’t certain works of Franz Kafka, Stephen King, or Gabriel Garcia-Marquez on the fantasy shelf?

Be sure to consider all your options next time you're looking for something new and interesting to read. You might find a great book in a place that surprises you. Then you may do as I have and wonder why it was there in the first place.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Short Fiction and Cachaca

I’ve been reading a lot of short fiction as of late. Not due to any self imposed goals or rules, but rather my collection of unread stuff has had a large amount of shorter works: two anthologies of short stories, a hand full of literary journals, Susanna Clarke’s The Ladies of Grace Adieu, and The fifth head of Cerberus by Gene Wolfe. As I’ve never really read short stories before I thought it would be good to try and read all I had before formulating an opinion.

I’m not through all the anthologies yet and I think I’ll reserve judgment on literary journals until I have read a few more, but in my opinion what makes short fiction successful are the same qualities that make novel length fiction successful: good writing. Obvious answer I know, but as always the simplest explanation is most often true; I figured I’d leave it at that.

Clarke’s scattered stories as a whole felt more like exercises than actual works. There was some good--which was still bland--and there was some bad--which was atrocious, but outside of the excellent Mr Simonelli or the The Fairy Widower none in this collection are memorable. More than likely this volume is a publishers efforts to cash in on the success of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. Which is all well and good for the publishing world as it needs to generate income, but it is rather disheartening for many as yet unpublished writers concerning the quality of works that make it to the printed page. Personal feelings aside, the entire volume felt like an exercise in world building. If I had to guess, these stories were crafted along the road to completion of Ms Clarke’s fantastic novel.

If you, as a writer, don’t have anything to say; why would you commit your lack of anything to paper? If you had to write your ‘nothing’ down, why would you share it with anyone else? Perhaps the titles in Ms. Clarke’s collection best describe the writing: the two best stories Tom Brightwind or How the Fairy Bridge was built at Thoresby and the previously mentioned Mr Simonelli contain the word, “or.” It is this indecision, this open-ended uncertainty on the authors part that make me believe these works were not to be shared with others. She didn’t even know what to name the works. I can only hope that one day I will be as fortunate as Ms Clarke and be consumed by the ever influential dollar.

Wolfe’s Fifth Head of Cerberus is him at his best...and worst. It is far more accessible than his other works (primarily as it is shorter) but lacks none of the depth that one becomes accustom to with Wolfe. The three stories that make up Fifth head of Cerberus are frustrating, annoying and out right anger inducing. Most irritating of all is that fact that these elements combined do nothing but make the reader keep turning pages in an effort to make sense of the cacophony. The second story--appropriately entitled, “A Story”--reminded me much of On Lickerish Hill by Clarke, with inane babble and vague ideas loosely thrown together in an attempt at a coherent story. Wolfe found some measure of success as all three of his stories are interrelated. At least I was able to take something away from, “A Story,” to apply to the previous story and keep in mind for the third. His disjunct presentation and nonlinear approach is no doubt a turn off for many, but I find the work involved in reading his works highly rewarding and just as every other book by him I’ve read the greatest compliment I can pay is that when the book was finished despite all the headache, I had to fight the urge to turn back to page one and start all over again.

Of the other short stories I’ve read, I’ve been extremely pleased. They have introduced me to a handful of good writers whose books I plan to check out. Contrary to what some may say, there is nothing exotic about short stories, they are as run of the mill and standard as the novel. There is nothing greater or lesser about one compared to the other in my mind. The unifying thread is quality. To me the rules of good writing don’t change with the page count.

My friend Gabriel, who wishes he was Brazilian, brought over some cachaca the other day. He told me all the hype and romance surrounding the drink and proceeded to make us exotic beverages from South America that I was extraordinarily pleased to consume. However, at the end of the day, cachaca is rum. Sure the sugar cane comes from Brazil but sugar cane it is none the less. Thus are my feelings concerning the short story, be it four pages or forty. Cachaca is to rum what short stories are to the novel: a variant of the latter; derived from the same feeling, with it’s own character which grants it its identity, but essentially the same.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

The threat of accountability

We’ve all been on both sides of this: the offender and the offended.  You’re at work; someone comes in or calls and asks you to do something.  Before they leave/hang up, they throw out a seemingly harmless question: “And your name please?”  Depending on your means of conversation there is only one correct way to respond.  If on the phone, hang up.  If you are talking in person, punch them in the face.  

It is always stated as a casual closing comment, one that precedes “Goodbye” or “Have a nice day.”   However it is anything but casual and far from indifferent.  When that question is asked, you are being called out.  Even if you’ve only know the person you are talking to for a few seconds your character is impugned and the, assume-you’re-dealing-with-a-douchebag-until-proven-otherwise mentality is put in full effect.  

Nobody likes being called out, by definition it is confrontational, let alone how good does it make you feel to be called out before you supposedly don’t so something?  I understand getting someone’s name in a business situation is very helpful when it comes to following up and staying in contact, but what I am referencing is a different matter entirely

What are people really saying when they ask you name in this context?  They are saying, "If you don't follow through, I'm on your ass.'  Surely there are exceptions but by and large this is the rule.   

How did we get to point where this is not only acceptable but expected practice?  Do we really have that many apathetic degenerates in the work force?  Because if it is these same apathetic degenerates getting laid off all the time, I’m not sure I mind.  I don’t know what I find more offensive: when someone I’ve never met expects me to slack in my efforts due to a precedent I didn’t set nor uphold or that it may be necessary to do so in todays work environment.