Guest Blog Post, Darrin Doyle: What’s Not to Like?

Darrin DoyleOne of the first (of many) rejections of my novel Revenge of the Teacher’s Pet was from an editor who wrote, “I fear that not even Nabokov’s literary skills could make Mr. Portwit into a likable character.”  The character he referred to was Dale Portwit, one of the protagonists of my novel. Mr. Portwit is a 50-year-old middle-school teacher who is, to put it kindly, self-serving, obnoxious, and stubborn. One of his quirks, for example, is insisting that everyone refer to him as “Mr. Portwit” instead of “Dale” because he believes “first-name usage is a privilege, not a right.”

When my second novel, The Girl Who Ate Kalamazoo, was released, it received some fine praise in a few local newspapers and literary blogs. But the Publisher’s Weekly review was the one I had been waiting eagerly to read. They called my book “relentlessly inventive.” I was thrilled. However, the PW review went on to assert that my characters were “irredeemably unlikable,” which made it difficult to care about the “bizarre goings-on.”

Suddenly all the positive comments I had received didn’t matter: What stuck in my craw was that phrase – “irredeemably unlikable.” I pondered it: Are my characters really that unlikable? In what way? What makes a character likable, anyway? Is it essential to readers that they “like” the protagonists of the books they read? What does it even mean to “like” a character? The concept felt foreign to me.

In 7th grade, I read To Build a Fire by Jack London. It was life-changing. I loved the story so much that I even read it aloud for a class presentation. To Build a Fire is the story of a man (known only as “the man”) who is trekking in the Arctic on his way to another research outpost. The temperature is so cold, however, that all of the “old-timers” have warned him not to venture out alone. He ignores their advice, believing himself to be a capable enough outdoorsman to make it easily. Spoiler alert: the man makes a few crucial mistakes and ends up freezing to death in the snowy wasteland. His supersized ego, his belief that his intelligence and rational thinking are more powerful than nature, ultimately leads to his downfall.

In retrospect, I realize that To Build a Fire was a template for the type of story I loved. Nothing touchy-feely or overly sentimental, yet packing a powerful emotional punch. Something that pushes us to question our role on Earth, the very essence of human existence. No feeling of closeness or affection for the main character; “the man” is not someone I idolized or felt a kinship with or “liked” in any specific fashion. But certainly I was invested in him. Certainly I enjoyed living briefly in his skin. My 8th grade was spent blazing through Stephen King’s novels (and Peter Straub and Dean Koontz – I liked horror). By high school, I had moved on to more so-called “literary” authors: Kafka, Poe, John Kennedy Toole, Dostoevsky, Camus.

The opening passage of The Stranger encapsulates the personality of the narrator, Muersault: “Mother died today; or maybe yesterday.” This is only the beginning of Mersault’s journey of detachment through the novel. He ends up confronting and killing a man on a public beach, apparently for no reason. When Muersault is brought to trial, he offers no defense whatsoever for his actions. In other words, a loveable guy!

Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby, Twain’s Connecticut Yankee at King Arthur’s Court, Wright’s Native Son, Nabokov’s Lolita, Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Frank Norris’s McTeague – the hall of my literary heroes, when I step back and catalogue it, is a rogue’s gallery of unlikable characters. I doubt that most people, myself included, would want to spend an afternoon with any of these folks if they were made of flesh and blood. So what does this say about me, as a person? Am I a miscreant, a misanthrope, a misfit?

The honest and boring answer is that I’m none of these things. I don’t like to use the word “average,” but I’m a pretty average guy, at least on the surface. But maybe it’s because I’m a fairly average person that I’m drawn to these unsavory characters. Fiction allows me to walk in the shoes of people who are nothing like me; to observe from a safe distance as characters explore the dark, the absurd, the tragic, and the comically misguided aspects of the self. I can safely live inside the mind of an oddball, a criminal, a buffoon, and then retreat into my own drab routine. The truth is that I read and write stories, in part, in order to live things – people, places, philosophies, beliefs, fears, desires – that I don’t get to experience during my daily grind.

So if my characters are “irredeemably unlikable,” if they are grotesque or “weird,” I can be OK with that – as long as they aren’t predictable or flat. Above all, they must be capable of redemption. Their likability may be “irredeemable,” but I hope their souls aren’t. I’m not interested in perfect characters. I’m not looking for drinking buddies or racquetball partners. I’m not interested in someone like me. Lord knows, I get enough of myself seven days a week.

I don’t seek repellant characters. I don’t set out to create monsters. But I do seek difficult, flawed characters that will push me out of my comfort zone. Three-dimensional people, warts and all; people that are good and bad, ugly and beautiful, sinful and heroic; characters in need of grace.

Don’t misunderstand: there’s nothing wrong with likable characters. I love a charming, personable narrator as much as the next person. I love Scout and Bilbo Baggins and all those adorable and valiant rabbits from Watership Down. Readers seek camaraderie and friendship in the novels they love; or a feeling of connection to experiences and personalities that are familiar.

But as I continue to write, I’ll remind myself that there’s no way to predict what readers want. It’s impossible, and it’s a losing game. The amazing thing about storytelling is that it’s a two-way street; the reader brings their own life to every text they pick up, and they actively help create the characters on the page. All I can do is keep seeing the world the way I see it, trying to push myself and write characters that are living, breathing people, and raise the unanswerable questions about why we’re here.

Announcing: Melissa Pritchard

Superstition Review would like to announce that Melissa Pritchard’s collection of short stories, The Odditorium: Stories, is due for release January 10, 2012. It is now available for pre-order from Amazon.

Pritchard was the featured reader in our Superstition Review reading series in November 2010.

Praise for Melissa Pritchard:

“Melissa Pritchard is one of our finest writers.”—Annie Dillard

“Pritchard’s quicksilver ability to blend biting social/political commentary with a rueful analysis of relationships makes [her work a] delight.”—Publishers Weekly

“I have admired Melissa Pritchard’s writing for several years now for its wisdom, its humble elegance, and its earthy comedy.”—Rick Moody

About The Odditorium: Stories:

In each of these eight genre-bending tales, Melissa Pritchard overturns the conventions of mysteries, westerns, gothic horror, and historical fiction to capture surprising and often shocking aspects of her characters’ lives.

In one story, Pritchard creates a pastiche of historical facts, songs, and tall tales, contrasting the famed figures of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, including Annie Oakley and Sitting Bull, with the real, genocidal history of the American West. Other stories are inspired by the mysterious life of Kaspar Hauser, a haunted Victorian hospital where the wounded of D-Day are taken during World War II, and the story of Robert LeRoy Ripley of “Ripley’s Believe It Or Not” and his beguiling “odditoriums,” told from the perspective of his lifelong fact checker. (From Amazon.com)

Congratulations, Melissa. We look forward to this release.

 

Announcing: Terese Svoboda’s New Novel

teresesvoboda_0

In Issue 5, we had the privilege of interviewing Terese Svoboda, and in Issue 7 we were honored to publish her short story “Madonna in the Terminal.” Svoboda has written more than 11 books of poetry, fiction, translations, and short stories, among them Cannibal, Trailer Girl and Other Stories, Tin God, and Black Glasses Like Clark Kent, and she is the recipient of awards such as the Iowa Prize and the O. Henry Award. Now, she has added another item to her list of accomplishments, the novel Bohemian Girl.

Praise for Bohemian Girl:

“Harriet’s observations of the world and her small place in it are insightful and often touching. And Svoboda (Trailer Girl and Other Stories) often displays a poet’s touch with language and imagery.”—Publishers Weekly

“Creating a western world as raucous and unpredictable as any imagined by Larry McMurtry, and teeming with characters as tragically heroic as those created by Willa Cather, Svoboda offers a vividly distinctive tale of the American frontier.”—Carol Haggas, Booklist starred review

For more information on Bohemian Girl: http://www.nebraskapress.unl.edu/product/Bohemian-Girl,674858.aspx

Congratulations, Terese. We look forward to hearing more great things about you and your work.

 

Meet the Interns: Jenny Brundage, Art Editor

jennybrundage_0Jenny Brundage, a senior at Arizona State University majoring in Creative Writing and minoring in Communications, is currently one of the Superstition Review Art Editors.

Superstition Review: What do you do for SR? Please list job activities/explanation.

Jenny Brundage: Art Editor–solicit art, help decide both what’s chosen and how it’s displayed, do artist interviews, acquire and edit artists’ bios, acquire artist pics for their bios.

SR: How did you hear about or get involved with Superstition Review?

JB: I don’t recall. I do remember Trish being one of my favorite teachers I’ve had at ASU–although we’ve never met in real life.

SR: What is your favorite section of SR? Why?

JB: Art, because it truly suits the digital medium.

SR: Who is your dream contributor to the journal?

JB: Dorothea Tanning. She’s somewhere near the century mark, but still alive and working. She was associated with the Surrealist and Dadaist movements, as an artist, but really did her own thing. She’s a legendary painter, a skilled poet, and an excellent creative nonfiction author.

SR: What job, other than your own, would you like to try out in the journal?

JB: One of the managerial or PR types of positions.

SR: What are you most excited for in the upcoming issue?

JB: I’m most excited to see the completed issue, all new and shiny.

SR: What was the first book you remember falling in love with and what made it so special?

JB: No Flying in the House in Kindergarten was my first big book, and so it was an achievement as well as a fun book.

SR: What are you currently reading?

JB: I recently finished volume 5 of Ross Campbell’s Wet Moon, which was amazing and ended on a huge cliffhanger.

SR: What are some of your favorite literary links?

JB: My favorite writing site is Ralan.com, and most of my other favorites (Submitting to the Black Hole, Preditors and Editors, etc…) link from there. It’s where I check market listings and hear information. Plus, it’s free! I also subscribe to the free mini-version of Publishers Weekly.

SR: Have you ever submitted to or been published in a literary/art magazine? How was that process? What was it like, waiting?

JB: Yes, I have had a story in The Pedestal Magazine, which you can still find in their archives (“The Jig”). They were quick to reply with a “yes”–I think it was under two months. It was standard process: sign the contract and get the check. It was nice having my story discussed in that issue’s intro, not just seeing the story itself appear.

I’ve never had my art in any literary magazines (might’ve modeled for, but not created). I’ve had paintings and photography in larger shows (subject-specific, not my work featured) at Alwun House in the past. I’ve sold a commission before, but don’t really focus on art because I’m not that great at it.

Editing Poems

PlathWhen people think of the editing process, they often think that poetry is excluded. There seems to be a stereotype that poems are a one-step process: that you either write a great poem or you don’t. That’s actually not the case–many poems that are considered great by the literary community are the product of diligent editing.

To use a more contemporary example, let’s look at Sylvia Plath: while she didn’t edit her poems quite as much as her contemporaries, a book wholly dedicated to her original work has recently been released. (Though in all fairness, some of those original poems were released in 1981 Collected Poems by Ted Hughes). One book that shows Plath’s true intention for her poems is Ariel: The Restored Edition.The Restored Edition

While the original Ariel was published by Ted Hughes in 1968, Hughes re-arranged the order of Plath’s poems and took away 12 of the poems that Plath intended to be included in Ariel, replacing them with different poems that Plath didn’t set aside for publication in her manuscript of Ariel. But according to Publishers Weekly, Ariel: The Restored Edition “restores the 12 missing poems, drops the 12 added ones, and prints the manuscript in Plath’s own order, followed by a facsimile of the typescript Plath left.”

But what does all of that have to do with Superstition Review? Well, because we’re a literary magazine, we not only receive poetry that has already been through multiple edits, but we also edit poetry that we receive if we feel that we want to publish a particular poem that needs some minor changes before it’s ready for print.

But you don’t need to be an editor or part of a magazine staff to edit poetry. Whether you’re a writer or someone who may be curious about the editing and publishing industry, the ability to enhance a poem is an important asset. While reading and being exposed to many different forms of poetry will be key to helping you recognize what should and should not be in a poem, there are some basic rules to make sure that any poem is on its way to being ready for publication.

Check back tomorrow to find out some basic rules for making a poem the best that it can be!