Guest Post, Elizabeth Sheets: The Illusion of Ascending

dad readsI’ve always been a reader. I don’t know if this is my parents’ fault or not. Recently I found a crayon drawing and questionnaire book I made when I was in elementary school. On one of the pages it asks what my parents do during the day while I’m at school. My answers were: My Dad builds Rockets. My Mom sits on the couch all day and reads love stories. I don’t think that was entirely true, I mean, my Dad read books too. In any case, I do remember that prior to puberty, trips to the mall were exciting for two reasons: first, because I could climb up and sit in the conversion vans in the car dealership that was actually in our mall; and second, we got to go to Walden Books. My family didn’t have a lot of money, so we didn’t buy a lot of new books there, but it was a thrill just to be there and look around. I knew that eventually the books on those shelves would find their way to our city library.

As a kid, I was fairly well read. Once I got beyond Dr. Seuss, I enjoyed Roald Dahl, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Scott O’Dell, Louisa May Alcott, Franklin Dixon, Carolyn Keene, the Choose Your Own Adventure Series, and of course, Judy Blume. There are a few in that list some might consider literary, but many fall into the category of good old genre fiction. I still have many of them because I saved them for my children. And now I’m saving them for my grandchildren, because I don’t think I was as successful as my parents were at passing down the love of literature.

As I got older, I dove harder into genre writing. Once I could get books from the library that didn’t have the purple dot on them, my literary world was blown wide open. I devoured everything from Jean Auel, Piers Anthony, and Marion Zimmer Bradley to Stephen King, Dean Koontz, and Anne Rice. Some of these authors I still read today. Because they’re good, and because I can get lost in the worlds they bring to my mind’s eye.

Once I started my degree program, my literary world was blown open again. Even with all of the reading in my youth, there was much that I missed. Memoirs? Whatever were those? Well, all of those English Lit classes filled me in, and filled me up to the brim with writing on every social topic I could imagine, and a few more besides.

Writing classes and workshops introduced me to the short story, and the idea that writers who don’t get paid are somehow of more value than those who do. I’m not much for martyrs, but I bought in. In my few years in school, my professors helped nurture in me a love of the short story, and an appreciation for the craft of drawing them out of myself and others. And so now, my private library grows full of chapbooks and short story collections. To my list of favorite authors I’m adding Roxane Gay, Aimee Bender, Stacey Richter, Matt Bell, Dan Chaon, Tara Ison, Margaret Atwood, and so many more.

But for all my education, and my editorship with a literary magazine, and my degree in English and Creative Writing… I still read Anne Rice. In fact, she might just be my very favorite person ever (not that I know her personally, but I do follow her on Facebook, so I feel like that counts… anyway).

I’m reminded of this funny thing that happened recently.

modest houseMy husband and I raised our children in a suburban neighborhood of the sprawling Phoenix Metropolitan Area. We had a modest income, and a modest house. We drove practical cars, and our kids went to public schools. There was a house of worship a half mile in any direction from our house. Our neighbors were diverse. To the east was a family of folks who spoke little English, had obnoxious barking dogs, and always had parties in the front yard instead of the back. To the south were the drug dealers. The husband rode a very noisy Harley and cut his entire lawn holding a Weedwacker in one hand and a beer in the other. His wife had no teeth and only wore a bra on Sundays. (I guess they weren’t very good drug dealers.)

We lived in that house 15 years, and our kids came up just fine.

And just a couple of months ago, we moved. Since our income has doubled, so has our mortgage and the square footage of our new house. Our new block is glorious. The neighbors all cut their grass on Wednesdays, and everyone drives a new car. There are bunnies and quail everywhere, and no one parks in their lawn.

School just started a couple weeks ago, and as I was driving past the elementary school on my way back from my morning Starbucks run, I noted that the crossing guard drives a Jaguar. A Jaguar.

This is it, I thought, we have definitely arrived. All of that hard work, education, ladder climbing, etc., has all paid off. Finally. Now we can live among the educated folk. People like us. Cultured people. People who read. If the people across the street are drug dealers, well they’re damn good ones because their kids drive BMWs.

And then I turned down our street. It was a Thursday. Blue barrel pick up day. About three houses in, out came a neighbor down his drive way, pushing his barrel out to the curb. He was wearing a pair of very snug fitting, bright red boxer briefs. His hairy belly was spilling over the waistband, and his tangled bedhead hair pointed in all directions from his unshaven face. He looked up as I drove past. Smiled.

I about choked on my chai.

But it’s okay. I’m glad I saw him. It’s a great reminder: there’s room on the block for everyone.  He cuts his grass, he parks in the garage. Maybe his wife builds rockets.

Guest Post, Rich Ives: Which Box Do I Put It In?

Which box do I put It In?

While this might seem like a statement, it is really a question disguised as an observation. It seems to me that one of the most destructive trends in recent “literary fiction” successes has been the devaluation of style in favor of plot and character. While ideally, all these things should work together, popular literature has always favored plot and character over style, and now it appears that even “literary” works fear too much development of style as a clear sign of a limit to the potential audience for the work, the kind of thinking that was previously more limited to genre writing, best seller attempts, and the innumerable serial novels.

The backlash to this exists in “innovative” fiction and some small press releases, but the gap between the two has been increasing. In poetry, there is an equivalent polarization between experimental and traditional although the reasons seem to have much less to do with the potential popularity of the work.

Fortunately, there are always writers more interested in the most unique and complete experience of the writing regardless of popularity trends, which are usually not really trends at all but disguised returns to more direct explanation in the fiction. “Show us, don’t tell us,” often becomes give us the experience and then tell us what it should mean.

Popular fiction has always been good at stealing the thunder from literary art by adapting its successes to more mundane purposes. One of the latest victims of this is flash fiction, which has in many quarters been increasingly less experimental and wide-ranging in its structures, approaches and particularly its style. Some publishers of flash fiction are now drawing a stricter line between the prose poem and flash fiction. Theoretically interesting perhaps, but isn’t that defeating one of the reasons the form developed?

I began writing shorter prose works first as a poet trying on foreign hats, finding so much more of interest in the form in translated works from countries where the distinction between poetry and fiction was not so clearly drawn, places like Russia, for example, where poetry is actually popular and sometimes sells well. I felt a freshness that caught and held my attention more fully in the form, and one of the reasons was that I could come to it with fewer preconceptions of what it should be.

As I worked in shorter prose forms, I found it veering into essay, autobiography and satire as well as mixing fiction and poetry, and the range of possibilities excited me. There are rhythms and voices that function better in a confined space. There are different kinds of condensation and pacing. There is a different kind of tension created by knowing the experience will end sooner.

As I explored the range of possibilities, I found several of the resulting works rejected by a poetry magazine for being “fiction” and the same work rejected by a fiction magazine for being “poetry” without either of them having actually considered the work beyond their assumptions of its genre. I started sending the work without labeling it or designating which department it should go to and had pieces accepted by both fiction and poetry editors assuming it was meant for them, and even labeled with just as much certainty as “essay,” an assertion I had not considered, but which, once it had been pointed out to me, seemed equally valid.

Now that the idea of fiction completing itself in a much shorter space has been more widely accepted, the attempts to restrain it to more definable dimensions are returning, and the reactions against this are also occurring, making the questions such work raises once again more polarized. Is this healthy disagreement, or merely two equally restricting forms of boxing up creativity?

Many literary magazines and online sites claim to want “experimental” and “hybrid” work, but is this really what they want and publish, or have too many of them narrowed the definitions, and has the label “experimental” become merely an excuse for focusing on a single dimension of the work, just as popular fiction does with a different single dimension?

2012 Paris Literary Prize Open For Submissions

The Paris Literary Prize, an international novella competition for unpublished writers, is open for submissions. The Prize is sponsored by Shakespeare & Company and The Groot Foundation.

Shakespeare and Company, the famed Paris book shop on Paris’ Left Bank, has a long-standing tradition of opening its doors to aspiring writers and in keeping with that philosophy, the 10,000€ Paris Literary Prize is open to writers from around the world who have not yet published a book.

We have long been admirers of the novella, a genre which includes such classics as The Old Man and the SeaAnimal Farm, L’Étranger and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. The Paris Literary Prize celebrates this small but perfectly formed genre while giving a unique opportunity to writers whose voices have not yet been heard.

There are three Paris Literary Prize awards:

The Paris Literary Prize award: 10,000 Euros
Two Paris Literary Prize Runner-up awards: 2,000 Euros each

All three winners will be invited to a weekend stay in Paris to attend the Prize ceremony and read from their work at a special event at Shakespeare and Company.

Last year, the winner of the Paris Literary Prize was Rosa Rankin-Gee for The Last Kings of Sark; the two runners-up were Adam Biles for Grey Cats, and Agustin Maes for Newborn.

The submission is open and must be submitted by September 1, 2012. The Prize Ceremony will be June 15, 2013. For more information, see https://www.parisliteraryprize.org/