Monday, June 28, 2010

Subtropics 2006

Another guest blog post, this time by fiction and nonfiction writer Lydia Paar.

Literary Journal Review
When I initially started this project, I was looking into the magazine Creative Nonfiction, produced by Lee Gutkind, to see what kind of work was in it. After I read a few of the pieces, however, I decided most of them, while well-written, were in the traditional memoir vein, and I wanted to see what kinds of other things were out there. I picked up an old (Spring/Summer 2006) copy of Subtropics and was attracted to what I saw as a deliberate non-distinction between fiction and nonfiction throughout the magazine; works were not classified or titled for us by genre, they simply stood alone. Some works, I could tell were nonfiction either because of the content of the piece or the tone, and others, I thought could probably be either fiction or nonfiction and still hold value for the reader for both learning and entertainment. I have decided to parse a few of these pieces apart to discuss the way they work and give an illustration of the wide variety of work accepted by Subtropics in the loosely nonfictional form.
The first essay I immediately identified as nonfiction is by Harold Bloom, and seems to be an interesting mix of historical/biographical content on Hans Christian Andersen and his peers crossed with cultural/literary commentary. Bloom’s tone is interesting—this piece, called “Trust the Tale, Not the Teller: Hans Christian Andersen,” does not read like a typical scholarly essay. Bloom does not shy from the use of the “I” or “you,” and his own voice comes through aggressively, perhaps overbearingly, and he makes a lot of assertions and assumptions about literature (and Andersen and other authors) I find rather…unfounded: “JK Rowling and Stephen King are equally bad writers…” (38, from his opening statements).
He goes on to dissect six of Andersen’s children’s tales, as he says he will, but not with limitations around focusing on the tales alone—he reads very much into who Andersen was as a person via the details he interprets in the tales. The format is very discussion-esque, in that Bloom moves from tale to cultural commentary to personal commentary on his subject (Andersen, more so than his works, I think) in a meandering way, and the quotes he uses from the tales are huge (one takes up almost two pages).
Again, as I read, I found more and more tumbling and unsupported assertions: “Andersen, whose project was to remain childlike, tapped into the energies of the sexual past and derived from them the verve and pace of his art” (47). I assume from Bloom’s incredible critical stature that he must have reasons for making the kinds of broad claims that he does, and at the same time I find it interesting that he assumes his readers will read enough of Andersen (and Freud, Kierkegaard, Whitman, and others he mentions) to validate or disqualify his arguments in their own minds. It seems most unusual to me that a critical giant would write a largely unsupported essay, and yet here is the place for it: a magazine that does not advertise itself as academic, but primarily creative. And surely, Blooms authoritative and still conversational voice contributes to his ability to be trusted by the Subtropics reader.
Another interesting piece is entitled “Grasscolored: A Threat Documentary,” and it’s by Anne Carson. Now, this piece is very short (one and a half pages) but written in such a dense and unconventional way it took me twenty minutes to make it out. It begins:
Little tough ones, some taller than others…There is no reason for you to wonder about this. Keep listening. Keep glancing out at the driveway…little grasses…in time can overtake the whole driveway and how strange this voice you don’t recognize is using your name, talking about you in the third person. Very bad accident…He? You? No ladders go up to this moment when you perceive the second person cut from the third person within you…you didn’t know the blades hung in your mouth (20).
WTF? Parts of speech all over the place, and how is this about threat, specifically? Well, it isn’t yet, but the piece goes on in a very strange, impressionistic way to rotate around the concept and emotional impact of feeling “threatened.” It reminds me of the scaffolding piece from Next American Essay, only maybe even less cohesive. It reminds me of those fabrics you can’t afford at the yarn store where there’s more negative space than fabric, and the fabric that is there barely hangs on, like the frayed rope on a fisherman’s net. And yet, the piece has appeal, if only because it is a puzzle, mental chewing gum, and one can spend an inordinate amount of time trying to tell if it’s “fake” or not, to disprove the validity of it, to dispute whether or not the structure really holds and constructs the meaning we expect or don’t expect (it’s like a game).
The third piece I’d like to discuss is the most typically memoir-ish in its construction, but it, too, is done in a slightly unusual way that seems to linger between formalism (the defining and rational discussion of terms and ideas) and story/poem/unfounded artistry. This is by Kent Annan, entitled “Sketches of Scarcity,” and is divvied up into sections, each titled by “Scarcity of…(fills in the blank with a different term: Birth Certificates, Pocket Money on the Morning Commute, Pride, Medical Inhibition, etc.) (24-33). The content under each caption is written differently: some in first person, story or anecdote form, some in second person, as in instructions, some in third person with a random but seemingly relevant anonymous subject. I haven’t figured out the significance of the rotation in perspective entirely, but it seems to lend itself toward keeping the readers’ attention and taking it from a fresh, new place at the start of each blurb. It’s also more sensory than all the other pieces (one might even say “lush”), and includes more facts, statistics, historical and personal event than either of the two other pieces. Go figure. This one had the effect of making me very wary at first (memoirs make me wary on principle, as I myself am aware of the self-indulgent purging the writer can attain and the risk of pushing: “look at this, my story is so important, it is so big, it is so deep, blah blah blah). I was especially wary since this was about Americans traveling (for godssakes, will we ever stop traveling and spitting out our two cents about third-world cultures?). However, I found the unique form snapped me out of my skepticism long enough to read, and in the end, I did learn a lot about Haiti.
The pieces, I think, certainly each had a place in this magazine, and I tend to think their juxtaposition with works of fiction and poetry did them a justice, as did their forms (unconventional) and their “unlabelledness.” Here, genre-crossing has had the effect of slipping new information or at least questions into my mind where, if they’d been presented in conventional form, I may not have been forced to pay such hard, careful attention to them. I tend to see this as a success both in collecting/selecting and in presentation on the part of Subtropics, and have sent a piece of my own work (“Spirit String,” revised) to the magazine, in the hopes that it may be included in an interesting and actively unusual issue as well.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Seneca Review 2009

We here at Essay Daily (not that daily, but maybe weekly, soon!) would like to include more voices here. Here's a new review from Erica Jones.

Nonfiction Essay Review of “Bricklaying” by Laura Brown-Lavoie
as published in the Seneca Review, volume 39/1, Spring 2009

First I must say that I will not get it all, will not tell it all. But that’s okay; I feel fairly certain that neither did Laura Brown-Lavoie and while that may sound like an insult it is meant as a compliment. Brown-Lavoie’s essay, like Walt Whitman, is large. It contains multitudes. Although the text itself is relatively short—six pages that embrace the use of white space, of shifting margins—the essay expands beyond these parameters, creating multitudes of texts, of ideas, that are as much dependent on how the essay is read, on what the reader brings to the essay, as they are on Brown-Lavoie’s intentions when creating this text. Drawing from sources as varied as the Bible, the Grimm brother’s fairy tales, Barack Obama’s political campaigns and writings, and many others, Brown-Lavoie forces together musings on multiple subjects, often cutting off one topic mid sentence and picking up on another, again in the middle of the thought. These transitions are sometimes seemingly seamless, as when she ends one paragraph with “A good writer lures everyone upstairs to his pleasure den with the promise of eternal spring,” and begins the next paragraph (after a white space enclosed in a series of square brackets) with “while a bad one snatches so many balloons that he looks down to find that his toes have left the ground and not a soul has grabbed onto his shoelaces for the ride.”
Other times, although the grammatical sense of the sentence that bridges the white space is maintained, there is an obvious shift in subject that problematizes the reader’s desire for a clear linear understanding of meaning. Moving from Rapunzel back to Genesis, Brown-Lavoie writes “Then she let her hair drop twenty yards, and the sorceress would climb up on it. A few years later,” and again, there is white space enclosed in square brackets before we pick up with “The Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built.” We know, because we have read Rapunzel, have had the story told to us with drooping eyelids years and years ago, that the Lord did not, in fact, enter in to the story, at least not so literally. And maybe we heard, with plaid skirts and doodled margins, the story of the tower of Babel, and are fairly certain that no sorceress climbed sixty feet of hair to a kidnapped would-be princess. By pushing these pieces together, Brown-Lavoie encourages us to understand our old stories, our old beliefs, in new ways.
If there were to be one story that works as a through line for the essay, it would be that of the tower of Babel, wherein humankind dared to create a tower so great to glorify its own name, and God punished humankind by scattering them across the world, and dividing their common language so that all of humankind could no longer understand each other. And this division seems to be, in many ways, what Brown-Lavoie is addressing. She speaks of “We” of “I” of “You,” of language barriers, even when we speak the same language, of “a common enemy” a “common oppressor,” of hope, of race, of country, of a “we” that is two and a “we” that is all and a “we” that is some but not others. She speaks of elephants and donkeys and races politically, geographically and visually defined. She also speaks of creation, of creators both mystical and human, of creations that are the world and of creations that are a story, a painting, a poem. She speaks of things that I have not yet discovered, and so I say again that I will not get it all, will not tell it all. And I say again that neither did she. Because what Brown-Lavoie does not do in “Bricklaying” is tell you what to think, or what is right. She does not define, but instead presents, and allows the reader to create a multitude of meaning through the ways that the ideas interact with each other outside of the page and inside the mind.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Summer Reading

Ok, so this isn't necessarily a commentary/review of the Essay, but it's been a while since anything's been posted here and I'd like to keep the blog's momentum moving.

So summer book lists:

1)What are you reading?

Currently reading Let Us Now Praise Famous Men and loving the hell out of it. Others on the stack include the newest issue of Gulf Coast, Reality Hunger, and Anne Carson's Nox (which is friggin' gorgeous). Might try and tackle a longer work like Moby Dick or Infinite Jest but we'll see.

2)Do you read differently in the summer months?

I'm always interested to hear that people go for different (often lighter, more plot-driven) books in the summer months, mainly because I do the opposite. Now that I have an abundance of free time, I like to take on books that deserve my time and attention, take some notes and soak in the words for as long as I can stand.

Feel free to add other questions/comments/suggestions, particularly if there's any good nonfiction-y books coming out in the next few months.