29 December 2016

What Belongs to You by Garth Greenwell

Garth Greenwell's debut novel What Belongs to You is one of the most celebrated and successful gay novels of 2016. Its success seems to me both odd and gratifying. It is a book that garnered the attention of the literati, and not just the gay literati, though it certainly has that (Edmund White blessed it with a blurb). It received praiseful notice from nearly all the major literary institutions in the U.S. (and elsewhere).

It is a remarkable novel, but were I a literary agent or publisher, much of what makes the novel remarkable would have caused me to assume it would not sell very well and would find, at best, a niche audience. (This is perhaps reason #28,302 that it's good I'm neither a publisher nor an agent!) I don't know the sales figures for What Belongs to You, but it hit the LA Times bestseller list for a couple weeks, got tremendous review coverage, and often seemed to be among the books of the moment — I traveled a lot during 2016, and nearly everywhere I went, somebody mentioned it (perhaps because they knew it was a book I would like). Despite being on New York Times critic Dwight Garner's top 10 list, it didn't make the Times list of 100 Notable Books (nor was it one of their 10 Best Books), it did make LitHub's "Baffling Omissions from the NY Times’ 100 Notable Books List" list, which is good for street cred.

It is, in the Delanyan sense, a book that has accrued an impressive set of literary markers.

22 December 2016

Coetzee: The Life of Writing, The Good Story

by David Attwell
Viking ($27.95)

by J.M. Coetzee and Arabella Kurtz
Viking ($27.95)

In 1977, J.M. Coetzee struggled while beginning the novel Waiting for the Barbarians, because, he wrote in his notebook, he had failed in “the creation of a credible beloved you.” David Attwell explains this mysterious statement as a manifestation of Coetzee’s disaffection with illusionary realism, the kind of writing that pretends textual figures are real. A week later, Coetzee wrote: “I have no interest in telling stories; it is the process of storytelling that interests me. This man MM, as a ‘he’ living in the world, bores me. ‘Creating’ an illusionistic reality in which he moves depresses me. Hence the exhausted quality of the writing.”

Any fiction writer could sympathize with the feeling of frustration when beginning a difficult story, one that seems rich with possibility, but which the writer has not yet found a productive structure for. Coetzee’s frustration was heightened by his disaffection with the most common techniques of fiction. One of the many virtues of Attwell’s  J.M. Coetzee and the Life of Writing, the first book to explore Coetzee’s manuscripts in depth, is that it shows how Coetzee’s novels serve to unite interests and challenges that are sometimes at direct odds with each other.

Waiting for the Barbarians began as an aesthetic challenge, but the challenge was conquered when the world outside the text refused to stay outside, for just as Coetzee was beginning work on the novel, the anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko was arrested, tortured, and killed. The inquest was held in open court, and received international attention. Coetzee kept press clippings about it. Attwell writes that “Biko’s torture and death gave Coetzee the minotaur’s lair, the ‘habitation for desire’ that he was looking for… The novel’s emergence took the form of a simultaneous, seemingly contradictory, two-way process: both a distancing—into an unspecified empire at an unspecified moment in history—and a homecoming into the violence of apartheid in the period of its climactic self-destruction.”

Attwell shows over and over that the tensions inherent within this two-way process, the dance of world and text, fuels much of Coetzee’s writing, often providing the animating force for his work.

14 December 2016

Shirley Jackson at 100

Today is Shirley Jackson's 100th birthday, and as I think about her marvelous body of writing, I can't help also thinking of the changes in her reputation over the last few decades, or, rather, my perception of the changes in her reputation. For me, she was always a model and a master, but there was a time when that opinion felt lonely, indeed.

I discovered her as so many people discover her: by reading "The Lottery" in school. (Middle school or early high school, I don't remember which.) I loved the story, of course, but it wasn't until I got David Hartwell's extraordinary anthology The Dark Descent for Christmas one year that I really paid attention to Jackson's name, because the book includes the stories "The Summer People" and "The Beautiful Stranger", both of which I read again and again. Around the same time, I read Richard Lupoff's anthology What If? and thus encountered what would become one of my favorite short stories by anyone: "One Ordinary Day, with Peanuts". After that, I sought out Jackson's work wherever I could find it.

But it was not easy to find Jackson's books. This was the late 1980s, early 1990s. When I first started looking, nothing seemed to be in print. I got an omnibus edition of her most famous books, The Haunting of Hill House, We Have Always Lived in the Castle, and The Lottery and other Stories (which ISFDB says was published in 1991; I expect I got it a year or two later). From one of the local libraries (which had hardly anything by Jackson, including the local college library) I was able to read The Magic of Shirley Jackson, which included some of her short stories, The Bird's Nest, and her two collections of humorous family stories (which I didn't pay much attention to). At some point, I got a battered and water-damaged old paperback of The Bird's Nest. I read the library's copy of Judy Oppenheimer's biography.

And that was it. I tried for years to find copies of novels I'd only read descriptions of, particularly Hangsaman and The Sundial, but they seemed not to exist except as expensive listings in used book catalogues.

Jackson was seen as a minor writer. While bookstore shelves filled to bursting with the endless emissions of Updike, Mailer, and their ilk, Jackson was perceived, at least by the literary mainstream, as the weird lady who wrote that story about the village where people stone each other to death ... and that horror novel that they made into a really creepy movie ... and wasn't there something about a castle?

09 December 2016

"Perverse and Uncommercial"

Since my book came out, lots of people have asked me to describe my writing. I'm not good at this. However, having now seen my writing described by reviewers and by common readers, I've got a few ideas about how other people describe it. "Not nice", "disturbing", "bewildering", etc. After a while, I found myself responding with the same two words when people asked what my writing is like. "Perverse and uncommercial," I heard myself say now and again. (I'm sure I have some rejection slips around somewhere that call my writing exactly that.)

I don't know if those terms are exactly true, but they seem to set up the right expectations in readers.

My friend Jeremy John Parker overheard my self-description. Being not only an excellent writer and discerning editor but also a talented designer, he decided there should be clothing, tote bags, mugs, etc. with "perverse and uncommercial" on them. And so there now are.

There are black t-shirts with white lettering and white everythings with grey lettering, should you desire one of your own.

Once I received the shirt I'd ordered (because how could I not order such a shirt?), I decided it was time for a new publicity photo, as seen above.

08 December 2016

The Return of David R. Bunch

In the earliest days of this blog, I declared David R. Bunch to be "unjustly neglected". This was true back then, but not nearly as true as it is today, when all his books are out of print and usually sell for high prices on the secondary market (if you can find them).

After I wrote that post in 2004, Jeff VanderMeer and I started talking about ways to get Bunch back into print. I sought out every stray Bunch story I could find. I tracked down the rightsholder. I typed up a section of Bunch's novel-in-linked-stories Moderan before tendonitis forced me to stop typing much of anything for a few months, and made the thought of returning to typing up Moderan painful. Various obstacles presented themselves. (I started a master's degree. I became series editor for the Best American Fantasy anthologies. I moved to New Jersey. My father died. I moved back to New Hampshire. Etc.) In amidst it all, I couldn't follow up on the idea of reprinting Bunch, though it was never forgotten by me and a few other folks, at least.

Jeff and Ann VanderMeer moved from one success to another, in terms of Jeff's writing, Ann's editing, and their joint anthology projects. As they began putting together The Big Book of Science Fiction, they thought of Bunch, ultimately reprinting three of his Moderan stories, the first time any Bunch had been reprinted in almost 20 years. 

And then they wondered if maybe they could find a way to do what we'd dreamed of doing more than a decade ago: Bringing Bunch back into print.

Their tremendous efforts have now paid off. New York Review of Books Classics will publish a new edition of Bunch's Moderan, possibly with some previously uncollected and/or unpublished Moderan stories (Bunch kept writing about Moderan after the book was published, and always dreamed of a complete Moderan volume. It's too early to say whether this edition will be able to be that).

23 November 2016

Against the Chill

Hopefully, someday my contribution to peace
Will help just a bit to turn the tide
And perhaps I can tell my children six
And later on their own children
That at least in the future they need not be silent
When they are asked, "Where was your mother, when?" 
—Pete Seeger, "My Name Is Lisa Kalvelage"
Faculty and grad students at my university are being targeted by right-wing groups who publicize their names and contact information because these faculty and students have criticized racist and sexist acts on campus. The Women's Studies department in particular has been attacked in the state newspaper for the crime of offering supplies to students who were participating in a protest against Donald Trump. The president of our university just sent out an email giving staff and students information about what to do if they are attacked. Numerous students have reported being harassed, spat upon, told they'd be deported, etc.

The right wing detests many segments of academia. The basic idea of women's studies programs, ethnic studies programs, queer studies programs, etc. are anathema to them, but right-wing vitriol is not limited to the humanities — ask a climate scientist what life is like these days.

These trends are not new, but they are emboldened and concentrated by the success of Donald Trump and the nazis, klansmen, and various troglodytes associated with him. Hate crimes are on the rise. The media, trapped in the ideology of false equivalence, terrified of losing access to people in power, besotted by celebrity, makes white supremacists look like GQ models and ends up running headlines questioning if Jews are people. Things will only get worse.

The chilling effect is already strong.

Within the last few days, I've heard from a number of academics (some with tenure) who say they are being very careful. They're changing their social media habits (in some cases, deleting their social media accounts altogether), making themselves less accessible, being careful not to show any political partiality around their students. They need their jobs, after all. They have bills to pay, kids to support, lives to live. Just yesterday, one of my friends was called in to a meeting with a dean to discuss a Tweet from her personal account, a Tweet I had to read three times before I could figure out what in it might ever be construed as "misrepresenting the university". She's got tenure, at least, so she might be safe for now. For now.

17 November 2016

BLP, Blood, and the ACLU

My publisher, Black Lawrence Press, has announced that for every book they sell through their website from now through the end of the year, they will donate $1 to the American Civil Liberties Union.

I will match this for my own book, Blood: Stories, meaning that every copy sold through the BLP website will also send $2 to the ACLU.

I'm an ACLU member, and pleased with this choice of an organization to support because so many of BLP's authors are among the groups targeted by harassment, civil rights violations, and hate crimes — all of which are on the rise and likely to continue rising.

13 November 2016

Out of the Past

In the archives of the New York Times, materials about Germany and the rise of the Nazis to power are vast. It would take days to read through it all. Though it would be an informative experience, I don't have the time to do so at the moment, but I was curious to see the general progression of news and opinion as it all happened.

Here are a few items that stuck out to me as I skimmed around:

7 February

28 October 2016

On Robert Aickman

Electric Literature has published an essay I wrote about Robert Aickman, one of the greatest of the 20th century's short story writers:
Thirty-five years after his death, Robert Aickman is beginning to receive the attention he deserves as one of the great 20th century writers of short fiction. For the first time, new editions of his books are plentiful, making this a golden age for readers who appreciate the uniquely unsettling effect of his work.

Unsettling is a key description for Aickman’s writing, not merely in the sense of creating anxiety, but in the sense of undoing what has been settled: his stories unsettle the ideas you bring to them about how fictional reality and consensus reality should fit together. The supernatural is never far from the surreal. He was drawn to ghost stories because they provided him with conventions for unmaking the conventional world, but he was about as much of a traditional ghost story writer as Salvador Dalí was a typical designer of pocket watches.
Continue reading at Electric Literature.

For more of me on Aickman, see this post about my favorite of his stories, "The Stains".

19 October 2016

The Penny Poet of Portsmouth by Katherine Towler

     Dawn again,
and I switch off the light.
On the table a tattered moth
shrugs its wings.
     I agree.
Nothing is ever quite
what we expect it to be.

—Robert Dunn

Katherine Towler's deeply affecting and thoughtful portrait of Robert Dunn is subtitled "A Memoir of Place, Solitude, and Friendship". It's an accurate label, but one of the things that makes the book such a rewarding reading experience is that it's a memoir of struggles with place, solitude, and friendship — struggles that do not lead to a simple Hallmark card conclusion, but rather something far more complex. This is a story that could have been told superficially, sentimentally, and with cheap "messages" strewn like sugarcubes through its pages. Instead, it is a book that honors mysteries.

You are probably not familiar with the poetry of Robert Dunn, nor even his name, unless you happen to live or have lived in or around Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Even then, you may not have noticed him. He was Portsmouth's second poet laureate, and an important figure within the Portsmouth poetry scene from the late 1970s to his death in 2008. But he only published a handful of poems in literary journals, and his chapbooks were printed and distributed only locally — and when he sold them himself, he charged 1 cent. (Towler tells a story of trying to pay him more, which proved impossible.) He was insistently local, insistently uncommercial.

13 October 2016

A Long and Narrow Way

And if my thought-dreams could be seen
They’d probably put my head in a guillotine
"It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)" 
First, some axioms. Points. Nodes. Notes. (After which, a few fragments.)

From Alfred Nobel's will: "The said interest shall be divided into five equal parts, which shall be apportioned as follows: ...one part to the person who shall have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction..."

Even if every winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature were universally acclaimed as worthy, there would still be more worthy people who had not won the Prize than who had. Thus, the Nobel Prize in Literature will always be disappointing. The history of the Nobel Prize in Literature is a history of constant, repeated disappointment.

The Nobel Prize in Literature's purpose is not to recognize the unrecognized, nor to provide wealth to the unwealthy, nor to celebrate literary translation, nor to bring attention to small publishers. Occasionally, it does one or more of these things, and doing so is good. It would be nice if any or all of those were its purpose. I'm not sure what purpose it does serve except as a sort of Hall of Fame thing, which reminds me of what Tom Waits said at his induction to the Rocknroll Hall of Fame: "Thank you very much. This has been very encouraging."

As with many things, Coetzee probably got it most right: "Why must our mothers be 99 and long in the grave before we can come running home with a prize that will make up for all the trouble we have been to them?"

10 October 2016

Reflections on Samuel Delany's Dark Reflections

At the Los Angeles Review of Books, I have a new essay about Samuel R. Delany's 2007 novel Dark Reflections, which is about to be released in a new and slightly revised edition by Dover Books. Here's a taste:
In many ways, Dark Reflections is a narrative companion to Delany’s 2006 collection of essays, letters, and interviews, About Writing. In the introduction to that book, Delany says that its varied texts share common ideas, primary among them ideas about the art of writing fiction, the structure of the writer’s socio-aesthetic world both in the present and past, and “the way literary reputations grow — and how, today, they don’t grow.” The book is mainly, though not exclusively, aimed at aspiring writers. It provides some advice on craft, but it circles back most insistently to questions of value, and especially to questions of the difference between good writing and talented writing — and what it means, practically and materially, for a writer to shape a life around an aspiration toward the highest levels of achievement. While About Writing poses and explores these questions, Dark Reflections dramatizes them.
Read more at LARB

11 September 2016

The Schooldays of Jesus by J.M. Coetzee: Preliminary Notes

Whenever I write about a new Coetzee book, I am wary. I think back to what I wrote in 2005 about Slow Man when it was new, and I cringe. On the one hand, I'm glad to have this record of a first encounter; on the other, the inadequacies of a first encounter with a new Coetzee novel are immense. (With Slow Man, I learned this vividly a few months later after the book wouldn't stop haunting me, and I reread it, and it was a different book, one I had learned to read only after reading it.) The first sentence of my 2008 Diary of a Bad Year post is: "This is a book that will need to be reread." For the next book, Summertime (2009), I didn't write anything until I could spend time thinking and re-thinking it, particularly as it was the final part of a trilogy of fictionalish autobiographies; I first wrote about it in my Conversational Reading essay on Coetzee and autobiography.

For The Childhood of Jesus (2013), I returned to recording my initial impressions, but clearly labeled them as such. I will do the same here, with Childhood's sequel, recently released in the UK and Australia (it's scheduled for release early next year in the US).

Some preliminary, inadequate notes on The Schooldays of Jesus after a first reading:

08 September 2016

Of Moral Panics, Education, Culture Wars, and Unanswerable Holes

via Wikimedia Commons

I demonstrate hope.
Or the hope for hope. Or just more unanswerable holes.
Mary Biddinger, "Beatitudes"

(I keep writing and rewriting this post.)

I thought I knew what I felt about the academic controversy du jour (a letter sent by a University of Chicago dean to incoming students, telling them not to expect trigger warnings, that academia is not a safe space, that open discussion requires them to listen to speakers they disagree with, etc.) — but I kept writing and rewriting, conversing and re-conversing with friends, and every time I didn't know more than I knew before.

Overall, I don't think this controversy is about trigger warnings, safe spaces, etc. Overall, I think it is about power and access to power. But then, overall I think most controversies are about power and access to power.


The questions around trigger warnings, safe spaces, and campus speakers are complicated, and specific situations must be paid attention to, because universal, general statements are too distorting to be useful.

(I keep writing and rewriting this post.)

Of Moral Panics, Education, Culture Wars, and Unanswerable Holes

via Wikimedia Commons

I demonstrate hope.
Or the hope for hope. Or just more unanswerable holes.
Mary Biddinger, "Beatitudes"

(I keep writing and rewriting this post.)

I thought I knew what I felt about the academic controversy du jour (a letter sent by a University of Chicago dean to incoming students, telling them not to expect trigger warnings, that academia is not a safe space, that open discussion requires them to listen to speakers they disagree with, etc.) — but I kept writing and rewriting, conversing and re-conversing with friends, and every time I didn't know more than I knew before.

Overall, I don't think this controversy is about trigger warnings, safe spaces, etc. Overall, I think it is about power and access to power. But then, overall I think most controversies are about power and access to power.


The questions around trigger warnings, safe spaces, and campus speakers are complicated, and specific situations must be paid attention to, because universal, general statements are too distorting to be useful.

(I keep writing and rewriting this post.)

06 September 2016

Why I Am Not a Poet

I have a brief new essay up at The Story Prize Blog, "Why I Am Not a Poet". Here's a taste:
I care about words, structures, rhythms, resonances, patterns, allusions, borrowings, sentences, images, emotions, voices, dreams, realities, fears, anxieties, failures, yearnings, and much more, but I don't really care about telling stories. The story is a kind of vehicle, or maybe an excuse, or maybe an alibi. The conventions of the story can be followed and forsaken in ways that get me to the other things, the things I care about.

All of those things I care about are things common to poetry — some more common to poetry than to prose, I'd bet — and that is why I read poetry, but even though I read poetry, I write prose because I just don't know how to do those things unless I'm writing prose.

(I think I would rather be a poet, but I am not.)

21 August 2016

The Pleasure of the (Queer) Text

I returned to the WROTE Podcast recently for a 2-part discussion of reading and writing queerly with Dena Hankins, SA "Baz" Collins, and moderator Vance Bastian. (Previously, I did a solo conversation there.)

The strength of the discussion is also what makes it sometimes awkward and even contentious: we all have utterly different tastes, touchstones, and experiences. I'm not a natural fit for such a conversation, as I don't think of myself as a "consumer of queer content", but rather as a reader/writer who sometimes reads/writes queer stuff. I hardly ever seek out a book only because it's about a queer topic or has queer characters, and I only ever set out to write such a thing if I'm writing for a specifically queer market, which rarely happens.

As I say in the program, if a book's not trying to do something new and different, and if it's not aesthetically interesting to me, I'm unlikely to read it. Why bother? I've got more books than I have time to read already, and I'd rather read an innovative and thought-provoking hetero book than a familiar, conventional queer book.

Barthes gets at this in The Pleasure of the Text, presenting a fairly familiar Modernist case, one that describes well my own textual pleasures and (very occasional) moments of bliss:
The New is not a fashion, it is a value, the basis of all criticism.... There is only one way left to escape the alienation of present-day society: to retreat ahead of it: every old language becomes old once it is repeated. Now, encratic language (the language produced and spread under the protection of power) is statutorily a language of repetition; all official institutions of language are repeating machines: school, sports, advertising, popular songs, news, all continually repeat the same structure, the same meaning, often the same words: the stereotype is a political fact, the major figure of ideology. Confronting it, the New is bliss (Freud: "In the adult, novelty always constitutes the condition for orgasm").

...The bastard form of mass culture is humiliated repetition: content, ideological schema, the blurring of contradictions — these are repeated, but the superficial forms are varied: always new books, new programs, new films, news items, but always the same meaning. [trans. by Richard Miller]
This is not, of course, what most readers want, and what is New to one is not New to another. My pleasure is your boredom, my bliss your pain. Nonetheless, I wish more queer writers today were more interested in finding new forms and shapes and styles. I mention in one of the episodes Dale Peck's new anthology, The Soho Press Book of '80s Short Fiction, which is queer in that it is not heteronormative in its selections, putting Dorothy Allison, Robert Glück, and Essex Hemphill alongside Raymond Carver in a way no other anthology I'm aware of has done. What the anthology also does is show that many American queer writers were, once upon a time, interested in a truly wide range of aesthetics. Peck's anthology can only gesture toward those aesthetics, since it has to fit many different purposes between two covers, but it made me think about the ways that queer artists have for so long been the ones to embrace vanguards. (Queer Modernism is often the most interesting Modernism, for instance.) To be queer is to be outside the norm, and thus to be outside the norm's language and forms.

I ended the first episode with a point that right now seems to me the most important one: If we want to identify as a queer community (I'm not sure I do), and we really want to do something for the queer world generally, we should be advocating for queer writers from outside the U.S. and other relatively safe, progressive places. The two books I mentioned in the last moments as ones I'd be reading if I had time to read stuff other than things for my PhD are Under the Udala Trees by Chinelo Okparanta and Guapa by Saleem Haddad. There are likely many others I don't know about.

If there is a value in queer reading communities, then those communities must not replicate the insularity of most American readers. If you want to be a politically and socially intentional reader, as describing yourself as a queer reader (or consumer of queer content) suggests you do, then your political and social intentions as a reader can't begin and end with you staring at a mirror.

Finally, I got into a bit of a disagreement with Baz Collins about Hanya Yanagihara's A Little Life, and for my perspective on that book, my initial post about it remains my most substantial declaration of love.

28 July 2016

Reality Affects

Bonnie Nadzam's recent essay at Literary Hub, "What Should Fiction Do?", is well worth reading, despite the title. (The only accurate answer to the question in the title [which may not be Nadzam's] is: "Lots of stuff, including what it hasn't done yet...") What resonates for me in the essay is Nadzam's attention to the ways reality effects intersect with questions of identity — indeed, with the ways that fictional texts produce ideas about identity and reality. I especially loved Nadzam's discussion of how she teaches writing with such ideas in mind.

Nadzam starts right off with a bang:
An artistic practice that perpetually reinforces my sense of self is not, in my mind, an artistic practice. I’m not talking about rejecting memoir or characters “based on me.” What I mean is I don’t have the stomach for art that purports to “hold up a mirror to nature,” or for what this implies, philosophically, about selfhood and the world in which we live.
This is a statement that avant-gardes have been making since at least the beginning of the 20th century — it is the anti-mimetic school of art, a school at which I have long been a happy pupil. Ronald Sukenick, whose purposes are somewhat different to Nadzam's, wrote in Narralogues that "fiction is a matter of argument rather than of dramatic representation" and "it is the mutability of consciousness through time rather than representation that is the essential element of fiction." Sukenick proposes that all fiction, whether opaquely innovative or blockbuster entertainment, "raises issues, examines situations, meditates solutions, reflects on outcomes" and so is a sort of reasoning and reflection. "The question," he writes, "is only whether a story reflects thoughtfully, or robotically reflects the status quo with no illuminating angle of vision of its own."

20 July 2016

Reading, Writing, and Living Through the AIDS Crisis

Literary Hub has published one of the most personal essays I've ever written, an essay about growing up as a reader and person during the AIDS crisis.

The original title, which doesn't make a good headline and so wasn't used, is "A Long Gay Book, A Life". (I'm always happy for a Gertrude Stein allusion. And quotation, as you'll see in the piece.)

The piece is fragmentary, like memory. It roams across the page, probably an effect of my recently revisiting some of Carole Maso's writings. (Also, reading Keguro Macharia's elegant essays and blog posts.)

Here's an excerpt:
When I was in the eighth grade I wrote a story about a vampire. He was young, roughly my age, entering puberty, entering vampirism. He ached to touch, to kiss, to drink in the loveliness of what he hungered for, but to do so was to admit his monstrosity and to kill what he loved. He feared himself and hated himself.

I don’t remember anything else about that story except how terrified I was to show it to anyone, lest they notice what I was saying about desire between the lines.

But I did show it to my English teacher. She had been sensitive and supportive of the stories I’d written, no matter how weird and violent. We talked about the story for a while. Now, more than 25 years later, all I remember is that she spoke—casually and not in any way judgmentally, without lingering—about the vampire’s desires being a powerful element of the story because they could also be read as sexual desires.

“No,” I replied quickly, lip trembling, “he’s just a vampire. Vampires have to drink blood or they die.”

She smiled and nodded. “Of course, of course,” she said.
Read more at The Literary Hub.

Blood: Stories Playlist at Largehearted Boy

One of my favorite sites on the internet is Largehearted Boy, which brings music and literature together.

A core series at LB are the Book Notes: playlists of songs to accompany books.

Huge thanks to the Largehearted Boy proprietor, David Gutowski, for inviting me to participate and create a Book Notes entry for Blood: Stories.

The The, David Byrne, Cowboy Junkies, Washington Phillips, Arvo Pärt, and many more...

12 July 2016

"Perfect Day" at Cold Takes

When Kelly J. Baker put out a call for essays about music albums and emotions, I knew immediately what I would propose: An essay about The The's Soul Mining and what it meant to me as an adolescent.

Now, that essay, "Perfect Day", is available on Kelly's site, Cold Takes.

Here's the opening:
That moment: album — book — car ride.

How long ago now? Twenty-five years? Something like that.

It was (roughly) sometime between 1988 and 1991, which means sometime between when I was (roughly) 12 years old and 16 years old. Most likely 1989 or 1990. Most likely 14 or 15 years old.

Interstate 93 North between Boston, Massachusetts and Plymouth, New Hampshire.

Blue Toyota Tercel wagon, my mother driving.

Mass market paperback of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Philip K. Dick (Blade Runner tie-in edition).

Black Sony Walkman cassette player.

Soul Mining by The The.
read more

Nonfiction for Fiction Writers

I'm just back from Readercon 27, the annual convention that I've been to more than any other, and for which (a while back) I served on the program committee for a few years. At this point, Readercon feels like a family reunion for me, and it's a delight.

Here, I simply want to riff on ideas from one of the panels I participated in.

Friday, I was on my first panel of the convention, "Nonfiction for Fiction Writers", with Jonathan Crowe, Keffy Kehrli, Tom Purdom, Rick Wilber. It was good fun. I'd taken lots of notes beforehand, because I wasn't really sure what direction the panel would go in and I wanted to be prepared and to not forget any particular favorites. Ultimately, and expectedly, I only got to mention a few of the items I was prepared to talk about.

However, since I still have my notes, I can expand on it all here...

04 July 2016

The Covers That Weren't

original image by Joseph Maclise
In the Weird Fiction Review conversation I had with Eric Schaller, Eric asked me to talk a bit about designing the cover of Blood: Stories, and in my recent WROTE Podcast conversation, I mentioned an alternate version of the cover that starred Ronald Reagan (this was, in fact, the cover that my publisher originally thought we should use, until she couldn't get the image we ended up using out of her mind).

I thought it might be fun to share some of the mock-ups I did that we didn't use — the covers that might have been...

21 June 2016

The Schaller-Cheney Road Show at Weird Fiction Review

The marvelous Weird Fiction Review website has now posted a conversation that Eric Schaller and I had about our books, our magazine The Revelator, the weirdness of New Hampshire, and other topics.

Along with this, WFR has posted Eric's story "Voices Carry" (originally in Shadows & Tall Trees) and my story "The Lake" (originally in Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet).

So if you're curious about us or our writings (or just utterly bored), Weird Fiction Review is a great place to start.

16 June 2016

"Killing Fairies" in Best Gay Stories 2016

I'm thrilled that my A Cappella Zoo story "Killing Fairies" has just been reprinted in Best Gay Stories 2016 edited by Steve Berman for Lethe Press.

The table of contents for Best Gay Stories this year is quite strong, and it's an honor to be among this company. It's especially nice to have my story in a book with a story by Richard Bowes, since "Killing Fairies" is my attempt to write Bowesian tale: something that skirts the line between fiction and memoir. In this case, I wanted to preserve a few memories of my first year of college before those memories slip away (they grow dimmer and dimmer), and I thought a fun way to do that would be to give myself the challenge of trying to write like Rick.

It's harder than it looks. The problem for me was that my memories didn't add up to a story. There were a couple of really great characters (two of the strongest personalities I ever met in my life), but no story, just encounters that ultimately led nowhere because I quickly lost contact with those people as I developed a better network of friends. Then I thought: Who did I hope to meet in college, but never did? And thus I created the strange, perhaps rakish character of Jack. Once he was added to the mix, the story began to cohere.

Here's a brief excerpt:

14 June 2016

Conversation at Electric Literature

The good folks at Electric Literature invited me to converse with Adrian Van Young, perhaps not knowing that Adrian and I had recently discovered we are in many ways lost brothers, and so we could go on and on and on...

We talked about Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Sublime, writing advice, writers we like, Michael Haneke, neoliberalism, The Witch, and all sorts of other things. It was a lot of fun and we could have gone on at twice the length, but eventually we had to return to our lives.

Many thanks to Electric Lit for being so welcoming.

12 June 2016

Mass / Blood

I have been busy and have neglected this blog. I forgot to make a post here about some of the most exciting news of my year: I have a story in the current issue of my favorite literary magazine, Conjunctions. It's titled "Mass" and it is about, among other things, a mass shooting.

Early this morning, at least 50 people were killed and 53 wounded in a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida. The New York Times is currently calling this the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history.

I'm not going to write about the gun politics of this. For that, please read the work of Patrick Blanchfield, particularly "So There's Just Been a Mass Shooting", "God and Guns", and "The Gun Control We Deserve". (He's excellent on Twitter, as well, if you want his most recent thoughts.) I have sputtered on about the topic in the past, not always coherently. Patrick is better at it, and better informed, than I. Thinking through the complex, contradictory, vexing, and emotionally charged landscape of gun politics, I'm better (or at least more comfortable) in fiction. Thus, "Mass".

(Titles fascinate me. The title of this issue of Conjunctions is Affinity: The Friendship Issue. Affinity is something more than friendship. Friendship is useful, it feels good, it glues us socially, and sometimes it may be, yes, an issue. But affinity is more: its etymology [via Latin and French, a story told by the OED] is rich with ideas of relationship: relationship via marriage; any relationship other than marriage; a neighborhood; relationship between people based on common ground in their characters and tastes; spiritual connection; structural relationship; adjacency.)

A character in "Mass" has been reading theoretical physics:
“Not especially detailed theoretical physics, but introductory sorts of texts, popularizations, books for people who don’t really ever have a hope of truly understanding physics but nonetheless possess a certain curiosity. And its words are sometimes beautiful — a tachyonic field of imaginary mass — who couldn’t love such a phrase? I find it all strangely comforting, the more far-out ideas of quantum theory and such. It’s like religion, but without all the rigmarole and obeisance to a god. Or perhaps more like poetry, though really not, because it’s something somehow outside language, but nonetheless elegant, and of course constricted by language, since how else can we communicate about it? But it gestures, at least, toward whatever lies beyond logos, beyond our ability even to reason, though perhaps not to comprehend. At my age, and having spent a life devoted to language, there is comfort and excitement — even perhaps some inchoate feeling of hope — in glimpses beyond the realm of words. There is, I have come to believe, very much outside the text. What is it though? Call it God, call it Nature, call it the Universe, call it what it seems to me now to be — having read and I’m sure misunderstood my theoretical physics — call it: an asymptote.”
Mass. Affinity. Asymptotes.

The OED: b. Relationship by blood, consanguinity; common ancestry of individuals, races, etc.; an instance of this.

And then there is "Blood". And Blood: Stories.

"Why did you give it that title?" people ask. There are a lot of answers. (And that, in itself, is an answer.) Here's one: As a child of the early AIDS era, I always knew queer blood is politicized and scary. Scary, thus politicized. Politicized, thus scary.

Until recently, the FDA prohibited any man who had had sex with men since 1977 from donating blood. Now, if you've been celibate for a year, you can donate. The massacre in Orlando brought this policy back into the news, with various outlets reporting that while queers were attacked, and blood was needed, any man who had had sex with a man in the last year could not, under FDA rules, donate blood.

Blood is a reality and blood is a potent metaphor: beautiful and terrifying, wonderful and evil.


Blood is life and blood is death; blood is family and blood is genocide.

Is there an opposite to blood? What is water in our metaphors? It washes blood away, but also sustains us as we live, for much of what we are is water. Tears are made of water, salt, enzymes, hormones. They taste like oceans and look like rain.

Water is what we weep.

I weep for my queer brethren. I weep, too, for the inevitable homonationalism as queer shoulders are put to the wheel of US imperialism and US exceptionalism; as pride is wielded for Us against Them.

But I am not feeling political today.

Sometime looking backward
into this future, straining
neck and eyes I'll meet your shadow
with its enormous eyes
     you who will want to know
     what this was all about          

—Adrienne Rich,
"A Long Conversation"

Yesterday, my aunt, after (as they say) a (short? long? relative to what?) illness, died.

We had never lived near each other, but she was a profound influence on my life. She and her daughter, my cousin, gave me Stephen King stories when I was much too young for them. Night Shift, Skeleton Crew. The titles are still magic to me, the covers of the old paperbacks as powerful as any personal icon I have. So much of what I became as a writer is because of those stories. So much of what I became as a writer, then, is because of her.

She was a brilliant artist, a fun and funny person, so smart, so straightforward, saucy, even, and strong as the mightiest metal. She had a magnificent life with magnificent people in it, as well as hardship, oh yes, hardship, indeed, as we all do, yes, but still: she struggled, persevered, survived, didn't let the bastards get her down.

I will miss her forever and cherish her forever. Her husband, my uncle, provided me with my middle name, and I am always proud to have been named for him, one of the best people I know.

(The cover of my book called Blood is a picture of a man with his heart removed.)

At the wedding of my youngest uncle some years ago, my oldest uncle, this great man now a widower, gave a toast in which he said ours is a motley family of steps and halfs, of once- and twice-removeds, of marriages and unions and affinities, but in the end those designations don't much matter, because family is family, and that's who we are, and what we are, and what we have, because we love each other.

Affinity. And even more so that most important of political cries: Solidarity.

I remember that Auden kept revising his poem "September 1, 1939", because he couldn't decide between "We must love one another or die," "We must love one another and die," or nothing at all.

Here, then, my own tentative, inadequate revision: We must love one another or nothing at all.

I loved my aunt fiercely, and I love fiercely all you queer folk out there aching and screaming and scared and willing to fight, and all who dance against the gunfire, hands held together through the pain, lips together in solidarity, lives together as we live and live and live — even if separated by oceans, even if drowning in tears — always striving, even if never reaching, like asymptotes, like believers and holy fools — as we remember and honor the dead, as we go on, as we must, you, me, all — whether strangers or the oldest of lovers, we are — we must be — a mass of friends, family, water, blood.

And I dream of our coming together
encircled     driven
not only by love
but by lust for a working tomorrow
the flights of this journey
mapless     uncertain
and necessary as water.

Audre Lorde
"On My Way Out I Passed Over You and the Verrazano Bridge"

10 June 2016

The Journals of Samuel R. Delany

Kenneth James is editing the journals of Samuel Delany for publication. Volume 1 is coming out from Wesleyan University Press in December. For the future volumes, Ken needs help with funding.

If you already know how valuable this project is, don't read on. Just go donate.

But if you need some convincing, please read on...

06 April 2016

An Interview with One Story

A new interview with me — the first to come out since Blood: Stories was released — is now up at One Story's blog, part of the publicity leading up to the One Story Literary Debutante Ball. Many thanks to Melissa Bean for conducting the interview, and for her very kind words about the book.

Here's a taste:
MB: On that note, what inspires your stories?

MC: Daydreams and nightmares created by anxieties, fears, and desires.

I don’t write fiction for the sake of therapy, per se, but I am prone to anxiety and I have an active imagination, so it’s often the case that a story starts from one of my weird anxiety fantasies.
Read more at One Story...

30 March 2016

AWP Events

This afternoon, I will be flying to Los Angeles for the annual Association of Writers & Writing Programs Conference. Here's my schedule of events, in case you're in the area and want to say hello...
  • Thursday, 3/31: Black Lawrence Press reading and party at CB1 Gallery, 7pm
  • Friday, 4/1: Signing at Black Lawrence Press booth (#1526), 1-2pm
  • Saturday, 4/2: signing at the GLBTQ Caucus Hospitality Booth (#633), 12-12.30pm
And of course I'll be wandering around the conference and spending lots of time at the book fair.

28 March 2016

The Revelator: Special Wizard of Oz Issue

Once again, chaos and luck have conspired to release another issue of the venerable Revelator magazine into the world!

In this issue, you can read new fiction by Sofia Samatar and John Chu; an excursion into musical history by Brian Francis Slattery; surreal prose poems by Peter Dubé; an essay by Minsoo Kang; revelatory, rare, and historical Wizard of Oz comics; art by Chad Woody; and, among other esoterica, shotgunned books!

Go forth now, my friends, and revel in The Truth ... and All!

12 March 2016

Bread & Roses by Bruce Watson

This review originally appeared in the January 2006 issue of Z Magazine. I'd forgotten about it until somebody today mentioned that it's the anniversary of most of the striking workers' demands being met (12 March 1912), and so today seemed like a good one to post this:

by Bruce Watson
New York, Viking, 2005, 337 pp.

Lawrence, Massachusetts was, at the beginning of the twentieth century, what might be called one of the greatest mill towns in the United States, but "greatest" is a difficult term, and underneath it hide all the conditions that erupted during the frigid winter of 1912 into a strike that affected both the labor movement and the textile industry for decades afterward.
Bruce Watson's compelling and deeply researched chronicle of the strike takes its name from a poem and song that have come to be associated with Lawrence, although there is, according to Watson, no evidence that "Bread and Roses" ever appeared as a slogan in Lawrence until long after 1912.  This fact might suggest that Watson's position is one of a debunker, but he offers less debunking than revitalizing, and the ultimate effect of his book is to show why the romantic notions behind the "Bread and Roses" phrase do a disservice to the courage and accomplishments of the strikers.

09 March 2016

"But why should it be assumed that great music emanates from a great human being?"

John Eliot Gardiner, from Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven (Preface):
A nagging suspicion grows that many writers, overawed and dazzled by Bach, still tacitly assume a direct correlation between his immense genius and his stature as a person. At best this can make them unusually tolerant of his faults, which are there for all to see: a certain tetchiness, contrariness and self importance, timidity in meeting intellectual challenges, and a fawning attitude toward royal personages and to authority in general that mixes suspicion with gain-seeking. But why should it be assumed that great music emanates from a great human being? Music may inspire and uplift us, but it does not have to be the manifestation of an inspiring (as opposed to an inspired) individual. In some cases there may be such correspondence, but we are not obliged to presume that it is so. It is very possible that "the teller may be so much slighter or less attractive than the tale." [source] The very fact that Bach's music was conceived and organized with the brilliance of a great mind does not directly give us any clues as to his personality. Indeed, knowledge of the one can lead to a misplaced knowingness about the other. At least with him there is not the slightest risk, as with so many of the great Romantics (Byron, Berlioz, Heine spring to mind), that we might discover almost too much about him or, as in the case of Richard Wagner, be led to an uncomfortable correlation between the creative and the pathological.

06 March 2016

Workshops of Empire by Eric Bennett

Eric Bennett has an MFA from Iowa, the MFA of MFAs. (He also has a Ph.D. in Lit from Harvard, so he is a man of fine and rare academic pedigree.) Bennett's recent book Workshops of Empire: Stegner, Engle, and American Creative Writing during the Cold War is largely about the Writers' Workshop at Iowa from roughly 1945 to the early 1980s or so. It melds, often explicitly, The Cultural Cold War with The Program Era, adding some archival research as well as Bennett's own feeling that the work of politically committed writers such as Dreiser, Dos Passos, and Steinbeck was marginalized and forgotten by the writing workshop hegemony in favor of individualistic, apolitical writing.

I don't share Bennett's apparent taste in fiction (he seems to consider Dreiser, Dos Passos, Steinbeck, Thomas Wolfe, etc. great writers; I don't), but I sympathize with his sense of some writing workshops' powerful, narrowing effect on American fiction and publishing for at least a few decades. He notes in his conclusion that the hegemonic effect of Iowa and other prominent programs seems to have declined over the last 15 years or so, that Iowa in recent years has certainly become more open to various types of writing, and that even when Iowa's influence was at an apex, there were always other sorts of programs and writers out there — John Barth at Johns Hopkins, Robert Coover at Brown, and Donald Barthelme at the University of Texas are three he mentions, but even that list shows how narrow in other ways the writing programs were for so long: three white hetero guys with significant access to the NY publishing world.

What Bennett most convincingly shows is how the discourse of creative writing within U.S. universities from the beginning of the Cold War through at least to the 1990s created a field of limited, narrow values not only for what constitutes "good writing", but also for what constitutes "a good writer". It's a tale of parallel, and sometimes converging, aesthetics, politics, and pedagogies. Plenty of individual writers and teachers rejected or rebelled against this discourse, but for a long time it did what hegemonies do: it constructed common sense. (That common sense was not only in the workshops — at least some of it made its way out through writing handbooks, and can be seen to this day in pretty much all of the popular handbooks on how to write, including Stephen King's On Writing.)

Some of the best material in Workshops of Empire is not its Cold War revelations (most of which are known from previous scholarship) but in its careful limning of the tight connections between particular, now often forgotten, ideas from before the Cold War era and what became acceptable as "good writing" later. The first chapter, on the "New Humanism", is revelatory, especially in how it draws a genealogy from Irving Babbitt to Norman Foerster to Paul Engle and Wallace Stegner. Bennett tells the story of New Humanism as it relates to New Criticism and subsequently not just the development of workshop aesthetics, but of university English departments in the second half of the 20th century generally, with New Humanism adding a concern for ethical propriety ("the question of the relation of the goodness of the writing to the goodness of the writer") to New Criticism's cold formalism:
Whereas the New Criticism insisted on the irreducible and indivisible integrity of the poem or story — every word counted — the New Humanism focused its attention on the irreducible and indivisible integrity of the humanistic subject. It did so not as a kind of progressive-educational indulgence but in deference to the wholeness of the human person and accompanied by a strict sense of good conduct. (29-30)
This mix was especially appealing to the post-WWII world of anti-Communist liberalism, a world scarred by the horrors of Nazism and Stalinism, and a United States newly poised to inflict its empire of moral righteousness across the world.

24 February 2016

Blood: Stories

a box of Blood
Though delayed, my debut collection, Blood: Stories, now exists. I know because I received copies of it straight from the printer. That means it's also going to arrive at the distributor within the next day or so, and from there ... out into the world.

I'll have plenty more to say later, I'm sure. For now, I'm just going to go marvel at the thing itself...

13 February 2016

Catching Up

Posting here is likely to continue to be sparse for a while, aside from occasional announcement-type notes such as this one. I'm preparing for Ph.D. qualifying exams and anything not related to that and/or to the impending release of Blood: Stories has been cut from my waking hours since this summer.

Blood: Stories has an official release date of February 20. It is at the printer now as I write this, and can be ordered not only from the publisher, but also from Amazon (U.S.), Barnes & Noble, and Small Press Distribution. (It hasn't hit Book Depository yet, but when/if it does, I'll post a link, as that's often the least expensive way to order internationally.) There will be an e-book version eventually, but not until this summer at the earliest. BLP also has a new subscription series for their books, which has various options, all of which are less expensive than buying the books individually.

I'll be in New York City this coming weekend to read at the Sunday Salon series on February 21 at Jimmy's No. 43 (43 E. 7th St.) at 7pm alongside Alison Kinney, Thaddeus Rutkowski, and Terese Svoboda. If you're in the area, stop by!

Various other events are coming up, too. I'll mention them here, but you can also keep up with things via Twitter, my newsletter, and/or the book's Facebook page.

Speaking of books, Eric Schaller's debut story collection, Meet Me in the Middle of the Air, has now been released by Undertow Publications (and is available as both a bookbook and an e-book at the usual outlets). It's a marvelous concatenation of stories of horror, dark fantasy, and general weirdness. Some are disturbing, some are amusing, some are both. It's a really smart, entertaining book. I'm especially pleased it's coming out now, near to the release of my own collection, because Eric has been my erstwhile partner in a number of crimes, including The Revelator (a new issue of which is impending. Even more than its been impending before). Eric hasn't always gotten the credit he deserves as fiction writer because he only publishes stories now and then, and often in somewhat esoteric places, so it's a real pleasure and even a (dare I say it?) revelation to have a whole book of his work and to get to see the range and complexity of his writing.

Finally, in terms of new work, I have exciting news (well, exciting to me) -- my story "Mass" will appear in the next print issue (issue 66) of Conjunctions. It's a tale of academia, mass shootings, and theoretical physics. Having it published by Conjunctions is almost as exciting for me as having a book out, because Conjunctions is my favorite literary journal, the place where the aesthetic feels most convivial to my own, and I've been submitting to it for almost 20 years. I've had stories on the website twice ("The Art of Comedy" and "The Last Vanishing Man"), and numerous stories that came close, but were not quite right for the theme of the issue or didn't quite fit with other material or just weren't quite to the editors' tastes. Getting into the pages of Conjunctions means more to me than getting into The New Yorker or any other magazine would (although I'd love the New Yorker paycheck!).

I think that's it for news. Thanks for reading, and thanks for bearing with me!

29 January 2016

Blood: Stories Update

We're almost there — my debut book, Blood: Stories, was scheduled for January release, but is going to be a couple weeks late, because things happen, it's a small press, etc. It looks like it's going to be a really beautiful object and well worth the wait. I expect copies will be making their way out in the world around the second week of February. [Update 29 February: Wrong about that. Physical copies have made their way to me, which means they're on their way to the distributor, and once the distributor has done all their distributory things to them, they'll be out in the world. Any day now...]

The book's info has been submitted to the distributor (Small Press Distribution), and should appear in their databases early next week, which will allow bookstores and libraries to place orders. It should also be hitting all the online vendors soon. (It's been on Goodreads for a while.) That means the pre-order sale from Black Lawrence Press will end [and it has], so if you want to order directly from the publisher at a discount, you'll need to do it immediately to get the discount.

Update: The book is now available for pre-order at Amazon, and ought to be at B&N, Bookdepository, etc. very soon. This means BLP can't offer a discount on it themselves anymore, but they will of course be hugely grateful to you if you order directly through them.

People have asked about e-books. BLP does not yet do e-books, though they're hoping to have them by the end of the year. Plans are afoot. But I doubt there will be any before summer at the earliest.

I'll be stepping out of my hermitage and making some appearances to support the book. The first will be Sunday Salon in New York City on February 21. Then I'll be at the AWP Conference in Los Angeles (March 30-April 2), where I'm doing a couple of signings and a reading. This summer, I'll be at Readercon. More details on all of this later. My newsletter and/or Twitter are good ways to keep up with what I'm up to.

(Reviewers: Either BLP or I can provide a PDF, an unofficial e-book, or, if you're really convincing about your need for it, a physical copy [they're a small press with limited resources, and hardcopies are not cheap even for the publisher]. Email me or editors@blacklawrencepress.com.)

And here is the table of contents: