Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Why The Divide In Writing Culture Bugs Me

This is copyright Marvel comics, was drawn by Al Milgrom and written by Jim Shooter and was taken from Secret Wars II which was terrible in that awe-inspiring genuinely entertaining fashion that is so much rarer than actual quality.

Desiccated, right?

For about a year now, I've been reading blog posts and articles by literary writers on genre fiction and genre writers on literary fiction. These works are inevitably rooted in envy of sales on one hand and respect from the literary establishment on the other.

There are a lot of them. Try doing a search on any variation on the theme of 'genre vs. literary.' Regardless of the personal and professional virtues of the writers who produce them, they are all creepy, gross, defensive, disingenuous, and irritating as fuck.

I've been trying to write about this for some time, and yesterday I said, "Fuck it, I'm never going to nail down a coherent statement on this subject. I may as well just lance the boil, squirt a little pus, and be on my way."

The result was creepy, gross, defensive, disingenuous, and irritating as fuck.

It was also one the most widely-viewed post I've put up since I mocked Ken Ham. Nick Mamatas was the one who first pointed me in the direction of this little cultural divide, so I sent him a tweet blaming him for the post. He put it up on his blog, and lo! they came.

So now I feel as if I have to explain what I was actually saying rather than simply venting. Thanks oodles, Nick. I wonder if this will be consigned to the same dustbin containing all my other attempts at the subject...

So now let me be creepy, gross, defensive, disingenuous, and irritating as fuck in a way that conveys something.

These days, most fiction is produced by people who have been trained in one of two ways -- academia and the workshop and convention circuit. This is the actual divide between literary and genre fiction.

I've done some of both. I'm not the only one. But usually, people wind up falling fairly clearly into one camp or another. My experience has been that I'm literary to genre people, and genre to literary people.

This is uncomfortable. It makes me nervous.

And to see the stupid crap that people are posting makes me wonder if I might not be doing exactly the wrong things with my writing, at least so far as acquiring an audience goes.

Here's the thing -- the division between  academic and genre writing education is damaging American letters. The conflict may be described in brief as, "Story is everything," which sometimes degrades to, "Anything but story is bad," versus, "Story is nothing," or, in a spirit more generous to if contemptuous of the reader, "Story is a regrettable necessity."

(That last one generates a lot of sleepy in the middle brow.)

These statements give me the fucking hives. Readers are perfectly capable of enjoying a work based on its prose, its contents, or any number of reasons other than story. Nonfiction outsells fiction by a radical margin, story freaks. But to dismiss story is to dismiss the most natural, elegant, and effective means of composing a work of fiction that there's ever been. What kind of idiot would do that?

("I'm not interested in story," or, "If there isn't a story in it, I can't read it," are both perfectly reasonable statements, though.)

What has had a more unfortunate effect is the systematization of training. While it's a mistake to say that writing can't be taught, what we are seeing is a couple of generations of writing that has more to do with classrooms and workshops than with life as lived. People think, "I'll be a writer," and then they get their training, and then they start reeling out the manuscripts. A lot of writers have one good book in them, and a lot of them go on to have careers.

There really are a lot of good books out there. I am not denying it. I'm not complaining about a lack of good books. I'm complaining about a lack of exciting books. Great books. Books that provoke arguments, books that people make you read. Books fit to place on a shelf next to the classics.

What I think I'm really missing these days is not so much the quality of the writing as a certain expansiveness both in fiction and in the persons of the writers themselves, and I think part of the problem is that the cultural role of the writer as hero has vanished. I had an exchange with a pal the other day, and we agreed that John Irving was the last culturally big writer.


Fiction itself has a more trivial role in the world than it did when I was growing up, and this process of diminution has been going on since the introduction of radio.

Maybe it's not the writing that's bugging me. Maybe it's the way the world works, and I'm just all hopped up on it because I'm entering the market and I wish I could entertain more spectacular fantasies for myself.

Honestly, it's time to reel in my notions of what writing is and should be, and accept that fiction is a marginal occupation, a marginal pursuit, and that to suggest that writers have some kind of significant role as custodians of our cultural dreams is arrogant and ludicrous.

But still, this low-level background chatter of lit versus genre just irks me. Part of it is that everyone who's complaining? Seems to me they are experiencing appropriate sales and critical regard, and that makes me wonder if maybe my judgment is off, and that makes me nervous. I'm taking it way too personally. I should probably get a hobby, like lawn bowling or something.

Or maybe I should just stop clicking the links on Nick's site and Googling 'Genre vs. Literature.'

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

The More They Meet, The More They Fight

Draftsmanship is like weight training. If you maintain a certain level of conditioning for long enough, you do get a little something that sticks with you permanently, but basically? If you want to be strong, you've got to work out.

I've started sketching again.

Deep breath. I've been trying to write this for months now. There were even variations where I took the various literary groupings and concepts and personified them as a couple of ninnies, and then had Honky-Tonk Sue ask them, "Well, why cain't you both be the Walrus?"

(That image drifts through my mind just about as often as the Curate's egg does -- once or twice a month, typically. Honky-Tonk Sue is one of those comics that I think I'm the only one who's ever heard of it them. Is.)

(Do I sense a little avoidance behavior?)

So there is a lot of nonsense going around about literary fiction and genre fiction and people are getting all huffity-puffity and I just want it to stop.

And maybe that's all I should say on the subject. Any more than that, and I start to lose friends and influence people to storm my castle with pitchforks and torches and rakes and such.

I'm tired of the subject, but I can't stop poking it. The blogs I've been reading have me pig-biting mad. Why would literary writers think they should or could get the kinds of audiences that Dan Brown and Stephanie Meyers get? "Why do so many people eat hamburgers when I like cooking faux bone made from desiccated eggwhite decorated with slices of bush plum gel for the marrow? Is it them? Is it the hamburgers?" Why should people who write potboilers get indignant about the idea that maybe their work is easier to do than that of people who plumb the human soul and test the bounds of language? Why should second- and third- rate fiction make it into serious literary venues, including significant anthologies of record, while second- and first-rate literary work that appears in genre venues gets ignored or even badmouthed in both literary and genre circles?

And why is everyone being so weird and disingenuous and defensive about this shit? The hidden classism of this mutual culture of rejection speaks poorly of both eggheads and meatheads. I want to take Margaret Atwood and that space whale rape story guy and bang their heads together until they love each other. And then they wouldn't write so much!

Why is there so much competition, so many writers, so many venues, and yet so little work of substance in any arena of fiction? Why are people throwing stones at each other and whining instead of working to raise the level of the game? We are at a crucial juncture in history, and our time is being recorded in the snapshots of blogs and infomercials rather than on the fully-painted canvas of crafted writing.

(He snarled, and the gap between his mustache and nasal hairs closed with a disturbing rustle.) Shut up! Shut up and write better, all of you! If you want more sales, be more fun! If you want more honor, tell the truth and destroy the boundaries of language in order to reflect the beauties and brutalities of your world! Either way, it's an improvement! Just for the love of Mike shut up and write better!

Literary, genre,
which one's right?
The more they meet,
the more they fight.
The more they fight,
the worse I feel.
So eat your beans
at every meal.

(With Apologies To Robert Loren Fleming)

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Smoking With Mom

My mom, Zoe Jean Bishop, was incredible. Charismatic, artistic, witty, intellectual, worked toward the public good, devoted to child welfare, the center of any given conversation -- I haven't known many people as capable of inspiring love as she was.

She was also the kind of person who is constitutionally incapable of understanding any law higher than her own reason and good-will.

And she was drunk, mostly. It was the distillation of the American regime of psychoactivity -- coffee until beer, cigarettes always -- that killed her. She knew it, we knew it, and that's why I wrote the following piece when asked to do a memory for her funeral.

Our relationship wasn't as close as either of us would have liked. She was someone dependent on illusion for survival, while I can't pass an unpleasant truth without rooting my snout deep in its rotten guts. Just to give you a hint of the complexities, she used to get drunk and tell me that she never, ever smoked or drank while pregnant. I've recently been diagnosed with fetal alcohol syndrome.

It was kind of a surprise, in a way.

What can you do? Mother's Day is bittersweet, just like Mom. This was eventually published in Monday Night magazine, I think in issue 4.

No edits, this is my old prose style. It'll do.

Zoe Jean Bishop

Mom slid the cellophane envelope off of a pack of Kools, just touched the cherry of her cigarette against it, burning a tiny hole in the plastic. She took a quick drag, blew dense smoke into the envelope, then plugged the open end with the pack of cigarettes. Holding the envelope in place, she tapped the pack. Out of the hole came a perfect ring of smoke an inch across that moved out, expanded, finally dissolved into shreds less than a foot away from where it started.

“Do it again!” I said.


We sat on the porch in the shade of the juniper tree, and its dusty, spicy green smell seasoned the mentholated fumes of Mom’s cigarettes.
I rubbed my hands against the grainy red non-slip paint of the steps and leaned forward into fresh air. “Mom, why do you smoke?”

She took a drag and exhaled sharply, vented the smoke from her nostrils in a jet so clean it could have been cut out of construction paper, looked at me out of the corner of her eye, and smiled just a little. “Why don’t you try one and find out?” She poked her elbow towards the green pack behind her, matches tucked inside the cellophane.

I grabbed the pack and stuck my finger into it to drag out a bent cigarette. It took me three tries to strike a match, and finally I used the cover of the matchbook to pinch the head against the striking strip. When I had it lit, I picked the cigarette out of my lap, put it in my mouth, and held the flame to its tip. I inhaled.

It scratched the inside of my throat as though I’d swallowed a blackberry vine. Wood smoke, smoke from burning paper, sulfur smoke from a kitchen match, this was the worst.
I coughed, spat, and handed the cigarette to my mother, who stubbed it out and set it to one side. She still had that half-smile. She looked pleased with herself. “So, why do you think I smoke?"

“Because you’re an idiot.”

She nodded. I could tell by her expression that she’d tricked me again, but I couldn’t quite figure out what the trick had been.

“That’s right.” She took the last drag off of her cigarette, dropped the butt in her empty beer can, then lit the smoke I’d just abandoned. “I’m an idiot.”


Dad replaced our brick patio with turf, and a few weeks later there was a patch of grass in the backyard that felt nice, that you wanted to walk on barefoot, a place where you could lie down and roll around.

I made a twist of wire from a coat hanger and filled a jar with water and dishwashing detergent. The weather was bright and clear with just enough of a breeze to send the bubbles drifting gently across the yard. “Mom, what happens if you blow bubbles with smoke?”

“Let’s see,” she said.

I dipped the wire loop into the jar and handed it to her. She took a drag off of her cigarette, blew at the glistening film. It bulged, then wobbled free of the wire. It was gray and iridescent, its sides trembled as it floated through the air. I followed it until it touched the grass and burst, releasing a puff of smoke.

“Mom, you’ve got to see this!” I dipped the wire loop again and handed it to her, and this time she followed the bubble along with me.
“Oh,” she said, “that is neat-o petite-o.”

I passed her the loop again.

After a while she didn’t look so good. She wasn’t Mom-colored anymore; she was more like a Band-Aid or a flesh-colored crayon. “No more,” she said. “I’m getting a little sick.”

I didn’t know there could be too many cigarettes for Mom.


We were driving home from the day care center. Rayne’s parents had been late again, so it was way past dark. I still smelled like Lysol from cleaning the bathrooms.

“Maybe you should name them,” I said.

Mom took a drag off of her cigarette. “I’m not sure I follow you.” She huffed a little phlegm loose from her larynx with a purring noise.

“If you really want to quit smoking, you could try giving your cigarettes names. They could be like little people.” I grinned into the dark, warming to my brilliant idea. “See, that way every time you smoked a cigarette, you’d be killing someone. Every time you lit a cigarette, you’d be setting someone on fire.”

“Setting their heads on fire, or their feet?” She pulled open the ashtray and stubbed the butt into it, then popped the dashboard lighter in.

“I guess that’s up to you.”

“Okay.” She picked up her pack of Kools and tapped out a cigarette, put it in her mouth. “This is Sparkle.” The lighter popped out of the dash. The metal coil glowed red, and as Mom held it to her cigarette it lit her face from below. “I’m setting her hair on fire.” She took the first drag off of Sparkle, then put the lighter back into its socket.

“Her real name is Wanda Sue Weszlowski, but she makes everyone call her Sparkle. It’s on the sign on her dressing room door at the club where she works. She sings corny old torch songs in this squeaky little girl voice, but she’s not going to be able to keep it up for much longer. So far as she’s concerned, she’s a star, and she isn’t afraid to let everyone know it. She’s real mean to the other girls at the club, and she’s sleeping with the manager. He tried to fire her, but she threatened to tell his wife.”

Sparkle was almost gone. Mom ground the charred stubs of her ankles into the ashtray. “Was it wrong to kill Sparkle?”

“I guess not.” I rolled down the window and leaned my face into the jet of cold, clean air. “I guess she pretty much deserved it.”

“My next cigarette is Carl Rickards,” she said. “He owns a bait shop, and he doesn’t take good care of the worms and minnows. He does it on purpose. You buy bait from him and half of it’s already dead.” She paused a moment, gave Carl a chance to express himself. “He has two daughters, you know.”

How old were they? Were they tiny children lying in bed with their eyes wide, listening for Carl’s footsteps in the hallway? Or were they sullen hulks with greasy hair working behind the counter at the bait shop, dishing out bad change and smirking to themselves as they watched pileworms slowly dry out and minnows go belly-up in stagnant water?

“So what should I do with Carl?”

I rolled the window back up and felt the car refill with stale air from the heater. “I think you should kill him.”

Beast Crawl

It's interesting. When I try and use digital techniques specifically as labor-savers, either they look cheap and crappy or they turn out to look good but not save me any labor at all. I'm regarding this experiment as falling into the latter category. Click on this pup -- I'm quite pleased by the abstract shapes that make up the areas of tone.

Have you ever heard of LitQuake? It's a San Francisco literary event that's based on a pub-crawl model. People go from one bar to another to hear a bunch of different writers read.

The first time I attended a reading, it was LitPunk, a counterculture alternative to LitQuake. I know, I just said, "The right wing of the Republican party," but that's how it was. I was there primarily to see John Shirley read, and I walked away determined to read myself. Here's what I said at the time -- if you know me these days, you'll see how much things have changed.

Anyway. Last Friday there was another Lip Service West performance. I wasn't on the bill, but I'd been intending to go anyway -- the current venue is within walking distance of my house, so it's hard to make the excuses good.

But I'd had a hard week. A baaaaaaad week. I might blog about it later. But I wasn't gonna go.

Joe bugged me, so I went.

People, take heed of this. If you want me to do something, bug me. It works, mostly.

Anyway, it was a good time. I ran into old friends Maria Sanchez and Kent Young, and Zabrina Zabriskey, who finished off the night, was in-fucking-credible. Art and show-biz -- it's kind of rude to compliment a writer's appearance, but it was part of what she was doing. She had sex, violence, passion, and even pulled off some Shakespeare quotations. I was blown away, and felt oddly competitive.

And Joe Clifford asked me to participate in something called Beast Crawl. It's an East Bay event modeled on LitQuake. It's going to be on July 7, so start getting ready.

This really feels like a compliment and a step forward. I'll be talking about this more, but now I'm facing the real question.

Do I go light, with the magic mushrooms at the Special Olympics story, or dark, with the EZ-Off story?

Either way, there will be giggles, I assure you. More information to come.