Thursday, October 28, 2010
Wednesday, October 27, 2010
Unlike many lit mags, Prairie Schooner’s aesthetic and ambition are difficult to define. In recent Essay Daily posts, much discussion has been dedicated to identifying a vibe/mood/ambition/preference of a journal (some prefer experimental work; form-bending work; august, cerebral work; and on and on). This is a useful exercise. Don’t be a chump, we have been told. Read the journal. Understand their aesthetic. Figure out if your piece is a good fit. Sound advice, to be sure. And usually it’s easy enough to sort out. Reportage + strong narrative (perhaps) = CNF. Words + design (perhaps) = Ninth Letter. Etc. But in my afternoons spent poring through PS, I have yet to nail down such a convenient formula. I note an aesthetic range of authors in these pages (from our own edgy Ander Monson to writer-of-the-West Mary Clearman Blew).
Given that I am a confessed novice in the world of lit mags, I thought it wise to contact someone who could discuss, more knowingly, PS’s tough-to-pin aesthetic. I emailed Managing Editor James Engelhardt, and he was kind enough to enlighten.
JE: We like work that makes us keep reading. When a piece moves us--intellectually, emotionally, or just propels us through--then we take special notice. We look for pieces that risk something. A jump in logic, perhaps. A surprising insight. I think you can see that we don't have a particular aesthetic, though our ambition is to publish the best work we can find.
I find this unwavering dedication to fine work noble. Admittedly, the aspiring/submitting writer in me is challenged (if I’m trying to be un-chump-like and only submit pieces that I know will fit their bill, it’s more convenient if I can rely on X + Y = This Lit Mag). But the reader in me, and (eventually) the writer too, is impressed by such commitment. There is no gimmick here. No marketing strategy to set themselves apart with a catchy tag line about requiring this type of work, or that type of writing. If it’s risky, moving, inspired, it’s PS.
Switching gears a little, as a nonfiction-type (at least for the moment), I was inclined to consider the place of nonfiction in these pages. We’ve all heard claims that nonfiction can occasionally be forgotten in the shuffle of poetry and fiction. After all, there are still MFA programs that don’t offer the specialty; as mentioned recently on this site, many journals still lack nonfiction editors; other journals don’t accept essay/memoir at all. Admittedly, when opening a lit journal, I often scan the table of contents, checking for the number of essays. That PS has been a home to some of my most beloved nonfiction pieces speaks to its commitment to what we do. They’ve got nonfiction editors (a big plus), and for two decades nonfiction has found a home in these pages. But the skeptical reader in me noticed that PS offers book prizes in both fiction and poetry, but not non. Quickly, though, Mr. Engelhardt soothed my concerns.
JE: We may well include a nonfiction prize in the future, but the poetry and short fiction were the two genres that interested UNP [University of Nebraska Press, through whom the winners are published] the most. They don't usually publish poetry but were willing to take a chance on books that we vetted, and they agreed with us that the short fiction collection was--and still is--an endangered species that nevertheless still had much to offer to the literary ecology. UNP otherwise quite likes nonfiction, and it sells well for them, and that reality also cooled their interest in a nonfiction prize.
He is absolutely right. Many of my go-to memoirs have come from UNP. And I applaud that they are providing a forum for poetry collections (so competitive in that world, I hear), and while I’m not sure the short story collection is any worse off than the essay collection (especially in light of Phillip Lopate’s “In Defense of the Essay Collection” in the most recent River Teeth), I am excited that they have pushed for book-prizes in the first place (a mark of an impressive, established journal, I think). Most important, though, as an aspiring nonfiction-type, each time I turn to PS’s pages, I am nourished and inspired by the nonfiction they present.
And with that, let us segue into discussion of recent PS essays. (Clearly, for a blog post this is growing long, so these considerations shall be brief, too brief.) In the most recent issue, Floyd Skloot and Kate Flaherty contribute the essays, “Something to Marvel At” and “Method Acting,” respectively. The pieces seem thematically linked in their considerations of relating to/identifying with artistic works. For Skloot, it is the works of Jules Verne, for Flaherty, Shakespeare. Over the last decade, Skloot’s devotion to fiction has tapered, and through Verne’s works he remembers how deeply he needs those stories. “Verne found a kind of joyful freedom in the dream of fiction,” Skloot says. And he ends by confessing, “I lose myself in reading Verne, and it reminds me of the impetus to begin reading Jules Verne at age sixty-five, my desire for a fresh appreciation of something I had been missing, the marvel of original storytelling.” As Skloot identifies his need for fiction through the works of Verne, Flaherty compares her first lessons in love to Romeo and Juliet. Clearly there are thematic similarities; stylistically, though, the pieces couldn’t be more dissimilar. Where Skloot’s tone is cerebral, Flaherty’s is chatty. Skloot’s piece feels essayistic, while Flaherty’s tips toward memoir. Again, these stylistic variances speak to PS’s diverse strengths as a journal.
The summer issue’s essays are also thematically linked. Again, two pieces are featured, “Silence,” by Mary Clearman Blew and “Cartographies of Change,” by Tracy Seeley. Both pieces deal with loss (for Blew, contact with her son, for Seeley, her health). Where Skloot and Flaherty varied stylistically, Blew and Seeley aren’t quite so dissimilar. Both essays feature reflective prose, and both leave the reader a little stunned. I am reminded of Mr. Engelhardt’s proclivity toward pieces that move us emotionally, that are surprising with insight, and these essays are evidence of Prairie Schooner’s devotion to such compelling prose.
--Many thanks to James Engelhardt for serving as the voice of PS.
Tuesday, October 19, 2010
Tuesday, October 12, 2010
I have to admit that I liked Creative Nonfiction a lot more than I imagined I would. Or perhaps, in the cause of greater honesty – much more than I had secretly hoped I wouldn’t like it. In full disclosure, I should point out that the slight chip on my shoulder going into the exploration of CNF comes from being thrice rejected. In the self-defensive crouch of declined suitor, I imagined CNF to be the Old Guard – the stuffy tweed and pipe set – and thus I could wear my rejection as a point of pride. We young punks don’t want our Oscars, could care less what the Grammys say, don’t care about Pulitzers and Pushcarts.
But of course we do. We want – I want – this validation as much as anybody else, want the validation of the establishment, want to crack that upper-echelon, of which CNF is clearly a part. They are, after all, The Voice of the Genre, as their own subscription insert reminds me. Say it several times in a row. I like to intone The Voice of the Genre as I imagine Walter Cronkite would: Tonight - Creative Nonfiction…the Voice..........of the Genre… It is also strange that we only get The Voice of the Genre on said subscription insert, compared to the much more humble True Stories, well told, that is the official byline throughout the magazine proper. I suppose this is because one might assume that if you have the issue in hand already you don't have to be sold on it the way you might have to be if you're just holding the perforated subscriber card. The difference between say The New York Times as Paper of Record versus Competent journalism, mostly true.
But I digress.
It is also necessary to point out, for full disclosure, that I had never in fact experienced an issue of CNF. I’d read blurbs here and there – reprints or links – but never cover-to-cover enjoyment. So I won’t speak to the re-design – although I would encourage any of you that are more versed in the history of CNF to weigh in on the big change circa CNF 38.
CNF 39 is a pleasant mélange – and I mean that sincerely – of craft, insight and art. We begin with seven pages of tribute to Norman Mailer, on the 30th anniversary of The Executioner’s Song, including personal interactions, excerpts of his work, and a must-read Mailer list, chronologically ordered. This is followed by a pair of what I would loosely term “Writer’s Insight” pieces – Heidi Julavits on reading (literary déjà-vu), and Robin Hemley on writing (defending the memoir) in Confessions of a Navel-Gazer.
At the heart of the literary sandwich that is CNF 39 are seven essays, and here is one of the truly pleasant surprises of this issue: four of the seven are writers being published for the first time. Lee Gutkind states, in his From the Editor intro to this issue, that “A primary mission of this magazine is to introduce new writers and to inspire them to keep writing,” and on this count he’s true to his word. This is an easy enough statement to overlook. If you glance at the “what we’re looking for” section of any literary publication – regardless of where they position themselves on the academic/artistic continuum – they all say something to the effect of “we’re looking to publish the best from established writers and up-and-coming newbies.” But often when reading the heavy-medaled bios of the Nonfictioneers included in any given upper-echelon publication, we get the feeling that they’re just saying they publish newcomers to keep their incoming slush pile big enough to justify their slate of interns. Which is to say, again, that I appreciate the emphasis on first-timers in CNF 39.
Of the three essays out of these seven that I chose for class discussion I should also admit to a couple of biases. First, I didn’t choose either of the two entrants from last year’s CNF Program-Off that were published in this issue, in deference to our very own Natalie Cunningham, who was one of the five finalists last year – and I make no apologies for my unreasonable home-team booster-ism in this matter. Secondly, I chose John Nosco’s Apology not just because it is awesome in general – which it is – but because it is a two-page sentence – a style of which I am admittedly partial to.
After the mid-sandwich artistic-essay meat, we end CNF 39 much as we began – with craft/insight and “etcetera.” The craft/insight being comprised of Phillip Lopate’s regular Show and Tell column, in this edition concerned with the uses of contrariety – and a Writer at Work section in which Michael Rosenwald explores and dissects the typed notes of Gay Talese from a New York Times piece circa 1979 on the loser Yankees of that year. And let it be said that though the Yankees may have purchased a few World Series titles since then, they are still, and will always be, losers in my heart.
Part One of the “Etcetera” (my term) is the entrant under the title of Pushing the Boundaries. Here again your trusty blogger must acknowledge a personal bias, in that I was disappointed to find that the PTB section was comprised of only one essay. If this is going to be a recurring section of CNF, I will be more forgiving of the meager three pages devoted to pushing said boundaries, but I have to admit that when I submitted my PTB essay, including a personally-burned soundtrack CD for said literary missive, I was under the impression that Pushing the Boundaries was going to be its very own special issue – or at least more than three pages in the back quarter of the next CNF.
Part Two of Etcetera is CNF Online, comprised of a couple blog entries and a collection of Twitter essays (750 words? How about 140 characters! Take that, Brevity!). Part Three is a last-page column entitled – cleverly enough – afterWORDS, in this particular issue being devoted to the artless idiocy of modern nonfiction book subtitles.
The layout is not that much different than the New Yorker, Atlantic or Harper’s in some sense – the bookending of the primary long-form literary main course with smaller chunks – the hors d’oeuvres and after-dinner cognacs. In particular the final-page articles – Findings in Harper’s or afterWORDS here in CNF – seem to imply a kind of utilitarian literary circle – as if one could start reading from either end of the publication.
A couple final notes on form – I like the purple hued pages and the watercolor art accompanying the essays. I think, for example, that the obscurity of the watercolor wolf in motion (in Why I Run) works much better than a more literal photo would.
Also a nice touch is the interactivity – we get online content from Jerald Walker and Robin Hemley, which I’m including a link to here. Both insightful, and for myself in particular I found Hemley’s response to his most hated question – “after writing X did you feel healed?” – to be a great addendum to his defense of memoir.
I honestly didn’t know that much about either CNF or last week’s entrant, the Kenyon Review. I expected CNF to be what The Kenyon Review turned out to be – somewhat tedious, marginally artistic, mostly academic essays. I was, unabashedly, pleasantly surprised by Creative Nonfiction, which is more humble (Voice of the Genre notwithstanding) and helpful than I would have imagined - and even though that means I can no longer wear my rejection slips like badges of young punk honor, I must now consider myself a fan.
Wednesday, October 6, 2010
Tuesday, October 5, 2010
This isn't to mention the fact that it's mostly essays written by men, and that a majority of the collection is made up of essays from the bigger magazines like Harper's, The Atlantic, The New Yorker or NY Times Book Review or any other publication with 'New York' in the title. Meanwhile, a majority of the notable essays are from a more diverse set of smaller journals/publications.
Anyway, none of this should come as a surprise (the big magazines always have a significant representation in the Best American series), but it does have me questioning the purpose of the Best American anthology, and why so many similar essays would be put into a collection where there were a lot of opportunities for a variety of voices and content. Here's a couple theories:
1) In my mind, the anthology should be a venue for highlighting the diversity of a genre in terms of style and content (for many readers, this might be the only time all year they pick up a collection of essays, or short stories, or whatever). Furthermore, it seems like a wider variety of journals/publications would be ideal, especially when they could give attention to lesser known writing venues and writers that would benefit from the distinction, but it doesn't seem like that's necessarily the mission of the series.
2) It's simply a venue for that year's editor (in this case, Christopher Hitchens) to put forth the writing they're most interested in. If an editor were particularly interested in, say, reading profiles on famous writers, then they could go ahead and publish fifteen of them and call it a day.
3) It's an opportunity for that year's editor to set forth an agenda/message on where they see the genre heading, or what they'd like to see more of, or something along those lines.
Anyway, I don't want this to sound like a rant about me not agreeing with Hitchens' choices as an editor, but I'm honestly curious as to what people see as the purpose of this type of anthology.
Sunday, October 3, 2010
I’ll open this post by admitting to a certain degree of ignorance. I’m not proud of my ignorance, but I think it’s important to acknowledge that before writing this post I knew nothing of the Kenyon Review.
Somewhat arbitrarily, I chose to blog about this journal because one of my housemates and close friends during my undergraduate years was a transfer student from Kenyon College. I liked her literary tastes, so I figured the journal would be pretty good. Of course, had I carried this thought process one step further and asked myself why she transferred in the first place I might have arrived at a different conclusion. But, the Kenyon Review it was, and now to the actual post:
The Kenyon Review is a serious journal. I could tell when I looked at the cover. I chose to focus on the four issues from 2009 and they all had classy black and white photographs of literary looking people or literary looking places (or literary looking people in literary looking places). What is a literary looking person, you might ask? I guess it’s a white middle-aged man standing at a desk, or sitting on a sofa, or holding a copy of the Kenyon Review. Upon further examination of previous issues over the past few years I noticed that classy black and white photographs seem to be the Kenyon Review’s signature move (the cover in winter 2010, a special issue with guest editor Simon Ortiz, is a notable exception- sporting a crayon drawing of an anthropomorphized insect).
Each issue in 2009 had two to three essays under the journal’s self-proclaimed nonfiction heading. There are about two or three times as many short fiction stories and around ten or so poems. I thought this wasn’t too bad considering how in some literary journals nonfiction still seems to be considered an illegitimate child. I figured the folks at the Kenyon Review were at least trying to incorporate the genre, but after browsing the nonfiction articles more closely I wasn’t too sure.
Out of the eleven nonfiction pieces published in 2009 seven are about writers and writing. They include book reviews, interviews with writers, and literary criticisms. When two thirds of the pieces under a journal’s nonfiction heading are of the meta-literary variety, I become suspicious. I was planning to contact the journal’s nonfiction editor to discuss my unease, when I noticed that according to the staff list there wasn’t one.
It’s possible that I’m hypersensitive. It’s possible this trend doesn’t indicate anything. Or it’s possible the folks at the Kenyon Review consider creative nonfiction to be a satellite genre, one whose presence serves only to observe and comment on real writing and those who engage in it, i.e. fiction writers and poets.
This may sound a little harsh on my part. After all, there are four non-meta-literary essays in 2009. I could have chosen to focus on them. But this somehow felt dishonest, and I preferred not to misrepresent what seems to me to be the Kenyon Review’s take on nonfiction.
The first essay I looked at was The Mysterious (Un)meeting of George Orwell and Ernest Hemingway by John Rodden and John Rossi, published in the fall of 2009. This 22-page essay revolves around a chance meeting that may or may not have happened between Orwell and Hemingway in a Paris hotel in 1945 during the last days of WWII. “Great,” I thought to myself, “Could Rodden and Rossi (or John and John) have picked a more esoteric and boring topic to write about?” (The answer is yes, but more on that later.) If there is something more obnoxious than rehashing the literary canon, it must be more irrelevant minutiae about the literary greats (who happen to all be white men, did I mention that?)
Rodden and Rossi comb through all of the sources at their disposal to investigate whether this meeting actually took place. They contact Hemmingway scholars and Orwell scholars, look at the biographies of both men, examine letters by the authors to their friends and colleagues. All this work for a meeting whose actual implications no one really knows. It made me wonder. Who would find this topic so engrossing that they would actually enjoy reading this essay?
I wouldn’t. At least, not at first. I have to admit I found no interest in whether the meeting happened. I really couldn’t care less whether George Orwell met Ernest Hemingway in a Paris hotel in 1945. I could care a little bit if I knew what they said to one another, but even then not so much. But some interesting questions do come out of Rodden and Rossi’s investigation.
Underlying this entire quest is a desire for drama. It is the hope readers have that writers are not just human beings, but characters in their own novel. Imagining a meeting between Hemingway and Orwell is like experiencing a comic book crossover, when Superman meets the Incredible Hulk. It highlights the separation between the fiction and nonfiction of a writer’s life (and the nonfiction in the author’s fiction), and how obsessed we can become about discovering who the artist really is.
Of course, as the essay also highlights, this fabrication is as much the work of the artist as it is the obsession of the reader. Rodden and Rossi again and again point to Hemingway’s tendency to embellish and exaggerate, specifically his knack for self-aggrandizement. This would merely be an interesting trivial comment on the character of Hemingway the man were it not for the fact that all these questions of fiction vs. nonfiction are in fact an integral part of how literature is read. As Rodden and Rossi note “Whereas the Hemingway myth was both becoming a bloated, self-inflated media spectacle without underpinnings in Hemingway’s art and coming to overshadow his literary identity, the Orwell legend was being viewed as found on perceived transparency between his life and work and thus burnishing his reputation.” (72) In other words, how the audience views the artist’s work is consistently informed by how the audience views the artist’s life (and vice versa). In that sense a meeting between Orwell and Hemingway may not be so interesting, but what people read into a meeting between Orwell and Hemingway can be. Maybe. I’m still not convinced I needed to read 22 pages to understand that.
Night Hawks, a much shorter essay by Charles Johnson in the summer 2009 issue, is another account of a meeting between two artists- Johnson and the celebrated playwright August Wilson. This time, we are led to believe, the event actually happened.
At first the essay almost reads as a tribute to Wilson, who passed away in 2005. Johnson reflects on his time with Wilson, his appreciation of the artist and the man, and a description of a particular night they spent in each other’s company in Seattle. But what begins as a description of Wilson’s thoughts on life, art, and the state of black America, slowly turns into a nighttime adventure. The two writers step into a fictionalized (though factual) world, becoming characters in a story, complete with a crime scene and a violent climax.
This piece once again speaks to the need of readers to see their authors as characters. Johnson notes that “the public could know only the media-created surface, not the subterranean depths, of any artist.” Could we read this essay then, as an attempt by Johnson to break the surface? But if that were the case, why does his essay lapse into the world of storytelling? Does his telling, using fictional conventions, break the media-created surface or reinforce it? Perhaps this is an indication of the limits of fictional narratives in creating a real intimacy between the person in the text and the reader.
The essay could have been chosen for another reason, one that indicates the values of the Kenyon Review and its relation to nonfiction. Perhaps the reason why meetings between artists are frequently featured in the journal is because the journal views itself as a meeting place between fellow artists. And perhaps this is an indication of its view of nonfiction, the genre whose purpose it is to document and elaborate upon this meeting.
If that is the case, what kinds of artists are meeting each other in the pages of the Kenyon Review? Mostly older men, it seems, who write in private, who live comfortably, and who escape their wives and their domestic life by fraternizing with other male writers till the wee hours of the morning.
OK, I have to admit I’m grossly misrepresenting the journal here. I found the Johnson essay quite enjoyable to read. I thought his closeness and intimacy with Wilson was lovely and heartwarming. But on the other hand the fairly conservative description coming out of these stories doesn’t exactly seem to push for a radical vision of who a writer is. I originally wanted to call this post “crusty old men” but thought better of it. (Actually, I wanted to call this post “crusty old white men” but Charles Johnson and August Wilson ruined it for me).
This brings me to the final essay I reviewed, Bluebeard Bellow by Jeffery Meyers in the spring 2009 issue. Remember how I asked earlier if there could have been a more esoteric and boring topic to write about than that meeting between Orwell and Hemingway? Meyers must have been going for that in his essay comparing the female characters in Saul Bellow’s novels with the writer’s five wives (four ex, one widow). I found this essay to be a somewhat tedious examination of the way Bellow used the autobiographical material of his various marriages in his novels. By intertwining Bellow’s life and stories Meyers manages to not only illustrate how closely related Bellow’s fiction was to the nonfiction of his life, but also show how Bellow exacted terrible vengeance on his ex-wives by portraying them as evil harpies.
In the process, Meyers also managed to completely confuse me. Who is the real wife, and who the fictional? Which character was the fictional portrayal of the wife before the divorce, and which one was after? For each one of Bellow’s wives there are usually two corresponding fictional characters, and keeping track of around 10-15 people, all of whom I’ve never heard of before reading this essay became entirely too taxing.
Perhaps that was Meyers’ goal all along, to blend fiction and reality so much that the reader can’t tell them apart anymore. And I have to wonder who would find this interesting? Saul Bellow fans I suppose, or misogynists who enjoy seeing women punished on paper. Meyers does seem to relish Bellow’s post-divorce vengeance a little too much for comfort. Not that I would go so far as to label him a misogynist, but he does describe the University of Chicago in his own words as a “breeding place of brides,” (172) not exactly the most humanizing of descriptions.
In his conclusion, Meyers says that if Bellow “married Janis Freedman [his fifth and last wife] in the first place he would never have written these great novels. His ex-wives provided emotionally intense material and generated the anger, misogyny, and guilt that fueled his creative powers. He needed these witches to torment and inspire him.” This quote raises an interesting question about writers and the way they use, perhaps even exploit, their life in order to create their art. Is that really necessary? Meyers suggests that Bellow’s greatness came from these failed relationships and the literary material they provided. This may be true, but at the same time this supposition reduces Bellow’s companions from real live human beings into objects and caricatures which are used to delight us the readers, and I’m not too sure I’m comfortable with that. Not that anyone asked me.
I wonder about the meaning behind these three essays; are they really emblematic of how the editors at the Kenyon Review view nonfiction, or am I just judging them unfairly? They raise some interesting questions about the relationship between the lives of artists and their art, but never quite answer them. I would like to think that the Kenyon Review sees nonfiction as more than just a tool for writing about writing. I would like to think that what appears to be the journal’s adherence to a conservative canon (at least for its nonfiction) is a fluke. But I’m just not sure.