Archive for the ‘literary journals’ Category
I took some time to catch up with my favourite literary magazine ventures online. Open Letters Monthly turned out to be the most rewarding site as I accompanied the reading with a lot of mental exclamations like, What a fun idea that was! or What the hell? I totally wanted to review that book and Oh, I now find this interesting thanks to the Evil Telly (granted I saw the shows on the internet because who has time for tv these days?).
The Vampire Fan(g) Guide by Sharon Fulton immediately caught my eye in the October issue because I am one of those who find such creatures very compelling, sometimes to my deep, soul numbing distress, sexy, evil, what have you; and am always on the lookout for authors who can mine something fresh from the cliches. Fulton doesn’t cover much in the last category but her piece is useful because she gives specifics on books about which I’ve heard a lot of empty praise (eg. Bloodsucking Fiends by Christopher Moore) and about which I can never see mocked too much (the Twilight series by everyone’s favourite Mormon writer). For more nutritious brain food try Lianne Habineck’s meditation on Hamlet from a neuroscience perspective suitable for Shakespeare’s time period. (One of the few essays that applies neuroscience without making me yearn to poke out my eyeballs.) I can’t remember if I read Donoghue’s examination of the only play in which Shakespeare decided to bother with the Tudors — I don’t think I did (yet)– but you should because Donoghue is consistently funny and smart with a touch of acid.
Also, Tudors! Usually, I yawn at anything having to do with the lot. For mediocre film directors and writers Henry VIII and his beheading hobbyhorse is third only to Shakespeare and Austen in source material. (Oh, that I could unsee that movie with Scarlett Johansson and Natalie Portman. When is Johansson going to act in anything as good as Lost in Translation and that Vermeer flick again? Yeesh.) I can’t explain how The Tudors cheap soap opera antics and gratuitous heterosexual sex scenes — homosexuals don’t have sex in Tudor England, they only touch each other’s cheeks tenderly and lie in bed shirtless — managed to get past my guard. Natalie Dormer’s Anne Boleyn may have something to do with it but the biggest draw is the writers’ cavalier handling of historical fact. (It’s very heady if you aren’t a history professor — if you are I suggest keeping a cell phone with 911 on speed dial nearby.)
Anyway, such productions tend to heighten my curiousity about the pertinent historical figures or time periods so Steve Donoghue’s ongoing essay series “Year with the Tudors” could not come at a better time. In each new instalment he covers fiction or non-fiction books that cover seminal figures and for September he chose Bloody Mary. She gets a sympethetic biography in Linda Porter’s The First Queen of England: The Myth of “Bloody Mary”, further inspection with Donoghue’s Q&A with the author, and inclusion in a fun quiz question: Why are cover art designers so fond of her’s and other Tudor women’s bosom? The world may never know.
The other coolest of cool September offerings is OLM’s survey of “the bestseller’s list” (I don’t know which one) as contributor’s tackle everything from Nora Roberts to James Patterson. Not that that’s much of a range. As a tepid Nora Roberts fan I found John Cotter’s review amusing — I could not have thought of an odder book-reviewer pairing — although I am disappointed he didn’t mention Roberts’ fondness for incomplete sentences. (She does them for emotional impact, gravitas or because she feels like it and it never, ever works.) Donoghue asseses Evanovich’s never ending Stephanie Plum series and comes out with an opinion many of the series’ fans would not disagree with at this stage. Fulton is more receptive to what fans may find appealing in Catherine Coulter’s ongoing action/romance books about FBI agents. It’s quite novel to find such books reviewed in literary venues and while I may have wished the books had a more receptive audience, seeing a title like “The Last Patriot” on OLM made my month. Seriously. I’d like the non-fiction list done next, please! I’d like to experience gimmicky Gladwell tomes, self-help bibles and bogus financial advice books second hand.
I’ve barely skimmed August but Dan Green writes a fan letter to James Wood’s How Fiction Works, Donoghue tells us all about Henry VII — the feller who came off as an honourable goody two shoes in Shakespeare’s Richard III — and Laura Tanenbaum carefully dissects two books of the “Young People Today!” variety in Scolds in the Agora.
Was there room in my heart for other outfits? Certainly. Estella’s Revenge can be depended on for articles by book lovers about their obsessions and idiosyncrasies. In the October issue Jodie writes about her yen for big books, Chris Bucner introduces us to some comic book lines beyond the hot properties making their way to film, and the reviews section covers a gratifying mix of books for those who read high and low.
I’ll get to my print subscriptions at some point. The LRB pile looks less daunting, my grudge against Bookforum lessens and my fall Paris Review is finally here. Plus, the founding editor of a new-to-me offering sent me a PDF copy of the latest issue which promises to be a mix of the literary and fantastical. Sounds like it should fit me perfectly, doesn’t it?
Some days ago there was a kerfuffle about The Virginia Quartlery Review public airing of its readers commentary on submitted stories. I haven’t bothered to read the disgruntled comments because writers (online) tend to get disgruntled about a lot of things for which I, as a reader, can only raise a disinterested eyebrow. One good post that came out of it was Rhian Ellis’ evaluation of the stories in a VQR issue (via pinkyspaperhaus). She claimed that, typical of a trend in literary magazines, the stories focused on external, cultural and/or political events at the expense of characters; these tended to be ciphers for the author’s ideas.
The only lit mag fiction I read on a regular basis is what’s published in The Paris Review — I prefer critical journals. Many of the stores it prints aren’t proper ones but excerpts from soon-to-be published novels, which I find mildly annoying. Actual short stories, even only competent ones work better than novel excerpts of similar quality because they are structured to. I find TPR‘s selection to be the opposite of VQR‘s per Ellis’ take.
Here the stories tend to be nothing but character studies of one kind or another: US immigrants dealing with culture shock (often in university settings); divorced family dealing with everyday life in the aftermath; settled parent dealing with wayward young or not so young offspring; some childhood memory; uniquely middle-class problems like stock problem obsession…you get the drift. I don’t have anything against fiction about the middle-class, of which I am an enthusiastic member. But I do relish variety and I find that it’s the contributors who depart from the norm that offer the most impressive pieces (ie I go to Chapters.ca or call the indie book store and order their books immediately). It’s not impossible that this is partly so simply because they are so different. It may be coincidental that the stories that veer off the beaten TPR path are a notch above the rest or that those writers have to be so much better to get printed while a Pulitzer winner’s stodgy, middle-of-the-way entry sails in. (It also helps if you’re dead and woefully under-appreciated or dead and famous.) Anyway, it’s not that the middle-class isn’t important — it’s not that any topic you choose to write about must hit such arbitrary criteria — it’s that you must make me feel as if your fiction needs to exist.
Significant departures in theme or style tend to occur when the writer isn’t American, and/or is of an older generation, like Daniel Kehlman and Alessandro Barricco or dead Russian writers who do cryptic political parables. The exceptions to this are Benjamin Percy and Jesse Ball, the first who writes about the lower classes and the second who doesn’t only travel on the typical realist road. Of those who write the TPR standard and make it compelling, again they tend to be foreigners like Mohsin Hamid and Damon Galgut. This is no surprise: for whatever reason I’m almost always unimpressed by the TPR-published authors that everyone else is praising and handing out awards to. Remember that Icebergs tale I shrugged at earlier this year? Got a National Magazine Award nomination. (As did André Aciman‘s and Uzodinma Iweala‘s. From that lot only Iweala’s story grabbed me.)
If you open any recent issue 9.9 times out of 10 you’ll get a story done in a conventional style, 1st or 3rd person, male narrator/protagonist. Style-wise Balls and Barricco’s stories are the most inventive ones I’ve yet read; both happened to play with space on the page. For Barricco the spaces between groups of words worked like they sometimes do in poetry, putting breaks in thoughts without the use of punctuation which impacts on rhythm as well; and he used no paragraph breaks. He wrote from multiple narrative perspectives, too, different genders and class, allowing a more complete and varied picture of the first, and very dangerous, car race in Europe. In Ball’s story, winner of the Plimpton Prize for Fiction, I discerned the breaks in the way sentences, paragraphs and dialogue were put together without any spatial reinforcement. It was gratifying to read in his Bookslut blog interview (which I can’t find because the site was created to be impervious to all search engines — brilliant idea) that the original manuscript is about twice as long because of the gaps he interspersed throughout the text. The gruesome revenge by duels, random violent acts, disjointed, surreal sequences that may or may not be dreams, the lack of “realistic” characters, all are memorable and not the TPR norm. I like when the magazine surprises, and the people involved do too, so let’s hope stories like that are published more often.
Unfortunately, the fiction in the Spring 2008 issue came too early to fulfil that expressed desire. The first story ended on a high note, the second started strong then petered out and the third didn’t get (me) anywhere.
Tim Winton is an Australian writer who has the honour of being a Booker finalist. Therefore it’s no surprise that he writes fine, elegant prose — a superior example of the readable type — that carries one along as the narrator describes moments from his childhood living with his parents in a small seaside town during the 60s. (So I assume since he and a pal meet up with a bunch of hippie surfers (one can be both right?).) Winton writes of the relationship between the child and his parents with a delicate tension that makes one believe that there’s more that went on, perhaps later in the narrator’s life, that is not revealed. All we get is a father anxious about his son going near any sizeable water body because of an old friend’s fatal drowning incident and his own lack of swimming ability. It’s the son’s new friend Loonie who tells him about the first source of the father’s anxiety. Loonie is, of course, an extrovert and a rapscallion while the narrator is a quiet, “solitary by nature” type although not bereft of all childish mischief. (For once I’d like to read the rapscallion’s story. Any takers?)
It’s all very, very nice but not very exciting, eh? Rather same old, same old until a page or two at the end when the narrator describes the euphoria he feels when he watches and then does surfing for the first time.
I couldn’t have put words to it as a boy, but later I understood what seized my imagination that day. How strange it was to see men do something beautiful. Something pointless and elegant, as though nobody saw or cared. In Sawyer, a town of millers and loggers and dairy farmers, with one butcher and a rep from the rural bank, men did solid, practical things, mostly with their hands…The only exception was strange Yuri Orlov, who carved lovely old-word toys from stuff he fossicked up from the forest floor. But…people said he was half mad anyway.
For all those years when Loonie and I surfed together…we never spoke about the business of beauty…There was never any doubt about the primary thrill of surfing, the huge body rush we got flying down the line with the wind in our ears. We…quickly understood how narcotic the feeling was, how addictive it became; from day one I was stoned from just watching. We talked about skill and courage and luck — we shared all that, and in time we surfed to fool with death — but for me there was still the outlaw feeling of doing something graceful, as if dancing on water was the best and bravest thing a man could do.
I admit it’s arguable whether Winton assuredly rode that wave of sentimentality or wiped out but for me the earnestness and emotional fervency innervated a boring seascape. It broke through Winton’s proper prose and, perhaps because I’m an island girl, the kinship the man feels in his old age at the very end, when he witnesses a child going through a similar experience, lent the story a memorable grace weightier than the kind he tried to achieve in the previous bits. But if this is a novel excerpt — since I detected that nagging lack I suspect it is — I’d only accept the book free of charge. Maybe.
In comparison to Winton’s gated community fiction — yes, his character appears to be working class but the *writing style strangled that completely — Ryan McIlvain’s is less cordoned off and settled, not only because it is set mostly among impoverished Brazilian neighbourhoods and involves Mormon missionaries. There is a wider variety of characters, many out-of-place, and all interacting and getting into conflicts. McLeod is a young Mormon from the USA a few months away from the end of his missionary work. So close to finishing he hits up against an accumulation of obstacles as his missionary partner, Elder Passos who he doesn’t much like, and other hitherto friendlier parties pile on the negative critiques on his country’s foreign policy right around the time the USA begins to bomb Iraq. The story entices for a while as one gets a peek into the how people from all classes live, some amusing encounters between the missionaries and their flock, and McLeod’s grapples with his weakening faith (inversely proportioned to his sexual desire).
Near the end I became frustrated with McLeod’s smug victim-complex. More importantly I wasn’t sure what McIlvain was up to with his motley crew of earthy, wise-cracking 20 something Mormon missionaries, self-righteous, condescending anti-American Brazilians and colourful local citizenry with special attention given to luscious, brazen, flirty women and prostitutes with a no-nonsense, professional air. Maybe he didn’t need one but all the elements just hung together. When I reached the end where McLeod and Pessos engage in fisticuffs I felt as though I’d seen the detail of a painting put in a frame with lots of empty space around needing to be filled in order to have the detail make sense. The basic theme is of this young man’s burgeoning self coming to the fore in a foreign land after living a repressive lifestyle but…so? It was at this point that I began to wonder if Gabriel Josipovici had spoilt me for modern fiction until Stefan Zweig and A.L. Kennedy came to rescue.
J. David Steven’s “Box” is the last of the trio. I don’t get it. *shrugs* It has a slightly quirky, absurd quality. A random group of persons in a hotel meeting room are at the location to attend several different conferences on anything from accounting tips to kitchen knives. They’re all socialising in a single room with a locked door (they soon discover) when one of the walls goes up to reveal another room. Some people move into it to explore the new space when the partition suddenly lowers, allowing a few to scramble back to the first room before its sealed off. There is no door in the new space and the 20 occupants, including one child, hear a strange flushing noise from the original room. This happens over and over again with the rooms shrinking in size and so tough decisions have to be made about who should stay behind while the others continue. Predictably, they choose a fair and random system which they all abide by at first until human selfishness and survival instincts pervert. It comes off as a humorously written psychological experiment that ends on a darker note. I must be missing some clever reference that makes this story — the only contribution that reads like the writer conceived it as a short story — more than the sum of its parts.
*Which is not to say that if you write about the working class there has to be a lot of swear words and slang but for god’s sakes I think the milieu and lifestyle needs to count for something different, some adjustment. He could have written about a Rockefeller kid in the same tone and you wouldn’t notice a lick of difference: all covered in pleasant silk gauze.
I got an email from Bookforum, helpfully letting me know that their new issue was online, so of course I wasted no time in clicking right over.
The first thing I see are the feature articles in nice big type. Number one is:
Right Makes Might
KEVIN MATTSON on THE CONSERVATIVE TAKEOVER OF AMERICAN POLITICS
To say the least, not exactly what I read Bookforum for, but, okay, whatever, what’s feature number two?
LAWRENCE HILL on CIVIL WAR SLAVE NARRATIVES
Well, this isn’t the most obviously literary topic imaginable, but it could have potential. But no. The essay is far more about history than art.
All right, our final feature:
Fiction and Political Fact
MORRIS DICKSTEIN on POLITICAL NOVELS
I wonder who out there thought that Bookforum readers were interested in New York Review of Books, The Sequel? Or The Poor Man’s Times Literary Supplement?
I can’t think of enough good things to say about this except that it should be read, now and years to come.
The novel, for some goddamned reason, has not been getting near any of the attention it deserves nor is Sarah Hall considering that her Electric Michelangelo was a Booker finalist. (I can’t believe all you print people slobbered on Gessen’s shoes and all Carhullan gets is a notice in the New Yorker.)
Newspapers and magazines have been jumping into the blogging pool for some months now but the only one that has managed to impress is Harper’s Online Sentences — yes, the title is uninspired, but what can you do, those print folks — run by Wyatt Mason. (There’s something about those LRB contributors….) He blogs about books I don’t typically seen covered anywhere else and so far has provided some thoughtful coverage on a Q&A (I and II) with James Wood and Jonathan Franzen. I’m kinda tired of reading about both men at the moment so it’s telling that Mason managed to get past my instinctive yawn.
The latest London Review of Books has two of its eye-catching articles available for free online. James Meeks makes a very persuasive case for the high quality of James Kelman’s work in Dead not Died, inclusive rather than in spite of his generous use of Glaswegian dialect and cuss words. I nearly wrote down the review’s conclusion in my notebook.
If I spend so much time on Kelman’s use of language, it’s partly because Kieron’s story is so bound up with it, and partly because I am not sure that all his potential readers can bring themselves to credit the degree of artistry, the weighing of each word and comma, that he puts into his work. There’s a reluctance to accept Kelman for what he is, a perfectionist and a radical Modernist writer of exceptional brilliance, and this reluctance is not just bourgeois superciliousness. There’s a generous but misdirected romanticism, too, which would like to imagine Kelman warbling his native fucknotes wild, simply sluicing a measure of his authentic working-class soul onto the page without the mediation of rational thought: a one-shot exotic. The real reason Kelman, despite his stature and reputation, remains something of a literary outsider is not, I suspect, so much that great, radical Modernist writers aren’t supposed to come from working-class Glasgow, as that great, radical Modernist writers are supposed to be dead. Dead, and wrapped up in a Penguin Classic: that’s when it’s safe to regret that their work was underappreciated or misunderstood (or how little they were paid) in their lifetimes. You can write what you like about Beckett or Kafka and know they’re not going to come round and tell you you’re talking nonsense, or confound your expectations with a new work. Kelman is still alive, still writing great books, climbing.
Terry Eagleton, always an amusing fellow, spends more than half of his “review” giving a rundown on the ever changing theories about literary works in relation to authors through the years, and splits the other half telling us what’s in the reviewed book, something which bore only a superficial link with his previous wind up, and some actual commentary. I giggled a lot while reading it in Starbucks.
Hip hip hurrah! Spring’s premature summer warmth distracted me for a few weeks but now that the weather has returned to a seasonal chilly gloom I remembered to check on the Lady Margaret Lectures at Cambridge which are about Milton this year. Behold! Another podcast is up, this time with Sharon Achinstein‘s effort which focuses on Milton as a prose writer and poet. I haven’t listened to it yet but I was too excited to exclude it from this post. The next lecture won’t be until THE END of October…:( 😦 :(. If you’re a LRB subscriber Quentin Skinner’s transcript of his lecture is printed as What does it mean to be a free person? in the newest issue (May 22nd).
To finish, I’d like to declare that, contrary to previous suspicions, Gabriel Josipovici has not spoiled me for all other modern literature. I’ve fallen a little bit in love with that characters in Stefan Zweig’s The Post-Office Girl, the way he’s written them in light of how I think the plot may develop, and I’m expecting great things from Edith Wharton’s New York Stories which I picked up in preparation for the next Slaves of Golconda read, The Glimpses of the Moon. Roxana Robinson’s introduction made Wharton’s background sound remarkably as though it was taken straight out of an Austen novel.
It’s a beautiful Sunday spring morning here which I enjoyed earlier in open-toed shoes even though my toes curled a little at 10°C. Life was made better by the internet re-launch of First Magazine a Jamaican publication that defies easy categorisation. Because it isn’t trying to be anything else but excellent you get an attention-grabbing mixture of literature, photography and journalism that encompass a variety of styles: hard-edged photojournalism, Paris-Vogue-tacky editorials, better-than-New Yorker–short stories (I know this because my eyelids didn’t start to droop after the first paragraph), on-the-spot interviews of “regular” Jamaicans, history articles, –whether it’s about controversial African-American boxers or older, dapper Jamaicans posing with their vintage vehicle (reminded me a bit of Sartorialist shots) –, music, and who knows what the contributors will come up with next. Jamaica — the good, bad and ugly — is all there open to censor, appreciation, critique, laughter; there’s a strange dissonance that’s created when you move from pictures of a murder scene to a glam shot of Miss Jamaica (which reminded me of Marlon James’ The Miss Jamaica Mulatto Factory). But it’s working for me.
The only thing the staff needs to do is get those older issues out in PDF! I could only make it through two of those slideshows, eyes straining at the 1 point, blurred font before I gave up.
Many bloggers have noted that it’s Poetry Month in Canada & the USA. Kate is hosting a Modest Poetry Challenge: all you have to do is write a critical post on a poem, not just the poem itself, in order to encourage us to develop the skills and vocabulary for a task that most of us avoid because we don’t feel confident enough to do so. I’m not officially joining the challenge but I do intend to do more posts on Paradise Lost. Reading Lorna Goodison’s memoir on her mother put me in a Caribbean frame of mind so I ended up picking up Derek Walcott’s Sea Grapes one of his 70s collections. I studied him for A-levels but never really got him — the teacher constantly bleated about his “ambivalence” towards the two apposite cultures he inherited and then got annoyed when we bleated the same thing back to her — and I’ve become less enchanted with “Collected” editions, more interested in reading single titles from beginning to end and get a feel for the product, the way I do with fiction.