Boston Uncommon Chapbook Series 2018
A chapbook series? In this economy?
Yeah, we're doing it, and we're going to deliver poetry chapbooks as digital downloads. This will allow us to distribute books to subscribers for free (details on becoming a subscriber to follow; stay tuned). Donations will be welcome at the time of each publication, and 100% of donated funds will be transferred to the chapbook author. Boston Accent Lit is aiming to publish 4-8 chapbooks as part of the Boston Uncommon Series. Please reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org anytime with ideas, praise, concerns, or questions.
- Manuscripts should consist of 20-40 pages of original poetry, but if you run a few pages over we won't hold it against you.
- Include a title page, page numbers, and a table of contents. Your name should appear on the title page. You may include an acknowledgements page if necessary. Start each new poem on its own page.
- If a poem has been previously published, please note the original publisher either on an acknowledgements page or under the poem's title.
- Email submissions to email@example.com, and please use "Chapbook Contest" in the subject line. You may include a bio, but this is not required.
- We prefer submissions not be simultaneous, but simply let us know if you have submitted your work elsewhere; we will consider it regardless.
- Submissions are extended with a reading fee of $5; these are due by March 16, 2018. If you are not able to use the Cash App, let us know in your email and we can give you PayPal or other payment options.
- Limit one submission per poet.
- Have fun, and show us your most authentic work.
Meet the judges
Poetry Editor, Boston Accent Lit
Chastity is looking for poetry to go beyond being words on a page. She wants poetry to be raw, ugly, beautiful, intriguing, and to stir up emotions. She loves when poets are able to own their craft and expose their true selves on the page.
Sarah A. O’Brien
EIC, Boston Accent Lit
Sarah is looking for work that is provocative, Detail-driven, and emotional. Give Her those poems that call for God while being tongued by a demon, those poems that make you question your own identity. She’ll take words in whatever form you feel fits the content best. Let your language play.
All My Heroes Read Poetry
Sarah A. O'Brien
Ariel Francisco delivers the ultimate companion for the solitude-seeking writer with his latest collection of poetry, All My Heroes Are Broke (C&R Press, 2017). Split into two parts, the book offers a glimpse into the emotions and struggles of a blue-collar poet. The collection delves into Francisco’s literary influences, as the poets who inhabit his bookshelves also make themselves at home in his writing. While setting much his poetry in what can be many writers’ kryptonite, New York City, Francisco manages to avoid cliché by employing image-driven momentum and a confessional tone. The second portion of All My Heroes Are Broke transports readers from NYC to Miami, and its author continues to construct poetry that reads as both authentic in tone and intimate in detail, still peppered with allusions to literary greats.
A first-generation Dominican/Guatemalan/American writer, Francisco freely allows his ancestry to bleed into his work. Francisco’s collection effectively utilizes setting to characterize various members of the narrator’s family. In “Upon Encountering a Street Mural of Super Mario, I Think of My Mother,” the speaker’s memory is jogged by street art, which “sends my mind racing back,” and he brings readers along on a ride through nostalgic images from the video game. Francisco writes, “always that same message / at the end of every level: / your princess is in another castle” (34). Despite the poem’s potential teetering toward predictable, Francisco shifts the tone just when you think you know where he is going next. The speaker describes how he happens upon his mother playing the game “before her night shift / at a SeaWorld gift shop / where she’d sell orca key chains, / tacky t-shirts, and glazed alligator / heads to dipshit tourists” (35). The emotional honesty Francisco embraces throughout this piece feels as pure as the scene of a small boy in awe of his mother’s gaming skills; he writes, “figured she was just trying to relax / before going to work—it didn’t occur / to me that she was trying / to save herself” (35). In any other poem, this blunt assertion would be eye-roll inducing, but Francisco’s ability to ground readers in his world (“family lunch / at McDonalds” and “dipshit tourists”) while reminding them of their own childhood results in a final image that crashes, causing waves of emotions.
Francisco allows imagery to determine tone in All My Heroes Are Broke, sidestepping cliché through tactful and surprising descriptions of familiar setting. In his piece, “Reading James Wright on the L Train,” Francisco is able to play upon the readers’ senses with first the sound of retching: “a sudden heaving pulls me from the text” (27). He then provides a visual of a man in a baseball cap getting sick on the train, “his head lolling between his knees” (27). The poet forces readers to experience this repulsive moment with the narrator, daring to evoke discomfort: “Everyone scatters to the adjacent compartments, lifting scarves up to their noses as they exit.” However, Francisco follows this prescribed desire to escape the poem with the phrase, “The vomit stretches like an evening shadow,” causing a shift in tone (27). With this simile, he transforms a disgusting incident into one that is intriguing and lovely, without ever leaving the setting of the L train. His final lines read, “The train sways lightly, like a hammock. / Beneath a sun-marred window blossoming / with jewels of frost, I begin to read aloud” (27). This diction allows for a distinctive depiction of NYC; Francisco takes what could have been written in a formulaic manner—a probably-drunk Yankees fan making a scene on the train—and instead uses his narrator’s perception to create a moment that feels at once unique and relatable; all readers have at a time used books as a means of escaping reality.
Francisco’s work is strongest when he allows his narrator’s sassiness and cynicism to shine through, which manifests in several pieces through use of insults and cuss words. In “O Christmas Tree,” the narrator reminisces about his former employment with Home Depot in Miami. The piece picks up momentum at this tonal shift in stanza five: “The trees were always stacked and netted / like body bags” (30). The poet brings exciting images to readers, such as “that stupid orange apron, leaving me sap- / stained” and “my English degree hanging on the wall / like a crucifix that never answered a prayer” (30-31). The voice builds energy as the work progresses, and readers feel present in the poem with a humorous image of the narrator “having to cut the netting and twirl / tree after tree, only for them to say, / again and again: Eh, I don’t know. / How about that big one in the back?” Then, startling readers from the standard shopping scene, Francisco presents an image of dead spiders, “which often turned up in the frozen trucks / with their eight glazed eyes multiplying / the darkness, legs like dried pine needles” (31). Here is what Francisco may do best, creating beauty out of an unsettling reality. He draws an unexpected connection between these dead spiders and “a stiff robin” and his own familiarity with the struggle of immigrants: “sad, strange little immigrants fleeing / their homeland, smuggling themselves / in the trees” (31-32).
By far, the greatest part of “O Christmas Tree” is its ending, in which the narrator romanticizes workplace arson during his final shift. Francisco writes, “I didn’t quit that night—I just never came back, though I / stood out there a long time, broom in hand / fantasizing about the embers flickering / like tinsel, the smell of roasting pine needles” (32). He then imagines what he’d do when authorities arrived on the scene: “I’ll wish them all a Merry fucking Christmas / as the fire jumps to the store front / and say this blaze is my gift / to myself—the only one I could afford” (32). In these final lines, the flippant attitude of the narrator is felt through that sarcastic sentiment, “Merry fucking Christmas,” and a sense of irony and desperation is maintained with the phrase, “gift / to myself—the only one I could afford.” Readers are engaged with this moment due to the place-based, sensory imagery woven into the poem up to this point, especially “embers flickering” and “smell of roasting pine needles.” Using the relatable experience of a dreaded day-job, Francisco creates a mood that readers can rally behind: burn that place to the ground! He transforms a despondent scene—a man has become unemployed, leaving without notice—into an empowering one.
Overall, Francisco's debut full collection is a delight to read, offering vibrant and nuanced depictions of New York and Florida as well as of the writer's own culture. Some standout phrases include the following: “silhouette of a dream-sized woman” (“A View of the Statue of Liberty From The Brooklyn Bridge," 7); “Even under winter’s / tightest fist some light still slips through” (“I Know You Love Manhattan But You Should Look Up More Often," 11); "snowflakes settling into his / slicked back hair like nesting sparrows / seeking safety, the sky crying its apologies" (“Reading Lorca At Union Square," 15); “dandelions that dissipate in the night’s wheezing breath" (“Lights Out, Vagabond," 53); and “I think the sky a dream / not yet starred by bullets" (“The World And Everything In It," 64). In addition to crafting evocative images such as these, Francisco is able to juxtapose neutral observation with implied judgment in very few words. For instance, his narrator describes crowds to be “like so many / pennies at the bottom of a wishing well / rippling beneath another tossed prayer” (“Looking Down From Atop the Empire State Building," 14). The words “another" and “tossed" paint an irreverent tone, subtly mocking those who place faith in fountains and the like.
Francisco's skill, apparent throughout All My Heroes Are Broke, lies in allowing detailed setting to reveal character quirks and emotional truths. This book will leave readers looking forward to more from Francisco in the future.
Ariel Francisco is the author of All My Heroes Are Broke (C&R Press, 2017) and Before Snowfall, After Rain (Glass Poetry Press, 2016). Born in the Bronx to Dominican and Guatemalan parents, he completed his MFA at Florida International University in Miami. His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in The Academy of American Poets, The American Poetry Review, Best New Poets 2016, Gulf Coast, Washington Square, and elsewhere. He lives and teaches in South Florida.
Sarah A. O'Brien is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Boston Accent Lit.
Ten Emerging Artists to Watch 2018
Call for Art:
Boston Accent Lit’s Ten Emerging Artists to Watch
Editor's Note: The deadline has been extended until midnight on February 5!
Boston Accent Lit seeks submissions from artists aged 30 and under, or previously unpublished artists of any age, from throughout the United States for Ten Emerging Artists to Watch 2018. Visual artists working in all media are welcome to submit their recent work for consideration. This competition will be juried by Boston Accent Lit's Art Editor Michael Rose. Submissions are due by January 31, 2018.
About the Juror:
Michael Rose joined Boston Accent Lit as its founding Art Editor in 2016. Michael is an art historian, gallerist, and advisor based in Southern New England. He has served as Gallery Manager at the Providence Art Club, one of the nation's oldest arts organizations, since 2014. Michael earned his BA in Art History from Providence College and his Certificate in Appraisal Studies in Fine and Decorative Arts from New York University. He has completed additional coursework at the Rhode Island School of Design and was a member of the Fall 2017 cohort of Practice//Practice, AS220's national professional development program for arts administrators. You can learn more about Michael at his website michaelrosefineart.com.
- Artists must be based in the United States.
- Submitters must either be previously unpublished or, if previously published, be no more than 30-years-old as of January 31, 2018.
- Each artist may submit up to six works for consideration.
- Artists may also include a short statement and a biography or CV.
- All work must be original and the product of the applicant.
- The juror reserves the right to personally invite individual artists or those previously published in Boston Accent Lit to apply for this competition.
Ten Emerging Artists to Watch 2018 will be published in Boston Accent Lit's February 2018 Anniversary Issue. This Issue marks two years since the founding of the publication. Ten Emerging Artists to Watch will be accompanied by an essay by Michael Rose and will feature works by selected artists along with their information.
How to Submit:
To submit, please send your materials to firstname.lastname@example.org under the heading “Ten to Watch” with your last name in the subject line. All submissions will be considered. Submissions are due by January 31, 2018.
Boston Accent Talks To Jennifer Taub, Founder of #DivestDonald
By Charles Bane, Jr.
Jennifer Taub is a Professor at Vermont Law School where she teaches courses in contracts, corporations, securities regulation, and white-collar crime. She earned a J.D. cum laude from Harvard Law School, and a B.A. cum laude from Yale College. Prior to joining academia, she was an associate general counsel at Fidelity Investments. Professor Taub has written extensively about the 2008 financial crisis and on the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act. This includes the book, Other People's Houses, published in 2014 by Yale University Press.
Boston Accent Lit: Is it your opinion that President Trump has consciously decided to pursue personal gain through his administration, in knowing violation of the Constitution?
Jennifer Taub: None of us are mind readers. However, we can draw inferences from a person's words and conduct. Based on his words and conduct from the campaign through the present, a reasonable conclusion is that he intends to pursue personal gain without regard for Constitutional requirements and ethical norms.
BA: What kind of effect does this have on current and future office holding, if unchecked?
Taub: Ultimately, I believe his greed will be his downfall. His tax returns will come out. Remember that Richard Nixon said "I am not a crook" concerning his tax returns. Then the IRS investigated, and he was forced to pay $465,000 in back taxes in April 1974. A few months later, after the Watergate scandal broke, he resigned.
BA: You've written a highly-praised account of the 2008 financial crisis, Other People's Houses. Are you alarmed by Trump's choice of Treasury Secretary?
Taub: The appointment of Stephen Mnuchin for Treasury Secretary is a betrayal to his voting base. Mnuchin is known as a "foreclosure king." He personally earned about $300 million after purchasing and then flipping IndyMac, renamed as One West. Remember IndyMac was a subprime mortgage lender that failed in early 2008 and was bailed out by the FDIC. This cost the FDIC deposit insurance fund more than $9 billion. During his period of ownership, the bank reportedly foreclosed on more than 36,000 homeowners and allegedly violated the law in several instances.
BA: Will the other shoe drop from Trump on Wall Street Reform?
Taub: We are still waiting to see what the Republican-majority Senate plans for the Dodd-Frank Act. Remember that 60 votes are generally still needed for legislative changes. So, if the Senate Democrats stand firm, the damage down to financial reform can be limited.
BA: Could you speak a little about the "Divest Trump" movement which you maintain with "joyful purpose."
Taub: I was inspired to launch the #divestdonald hashtag and begin the movement in November after reading the work of a bipartisan group of legal ethicists and Constitutional scholars including Kathleen Clark, Norm Eisen, Richard Painter, Stephen Schooner, Zephyr Teachout, and Laurence Tribe.
This phrase, #divestdonald, is designed to draw public attention to how this President was poised during the interregnum to violate, and now after being sworn in, is violating the Constitution. In particular, the foreign Emoluments Clause, found in Article I, Section 9, Clause 8 of the Constitution forbids the President from taking any payment from a foreign government or official unless Congress first approves. This would include payments for hotel rooms and licensing fees. It would also include any of the joint ventures Trump’s operations have with foreign governments.
This is a case of both monumental corruption and historical significance. When a President takes the oath of office, he solemnly swears to “faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and . . . to the best of [his] ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.” Yet, Trump is defying the Constitution.
The reason that I maintain a joyful purpose is because of the incredibly beautiful activism we are seeing across the country. From the Women's March, which was apparently the largest protest in American history, to the protests against the unconstitutional Muslim ban. I am inspired. Also, to be clear, the hashtag #divestdonald means more than just him selling his assets and placing them in a blind trust. It signifies that We the People need to divest of him as President and elect someone better. So, when we divest, what will we get? We need to shape that now. I believe this vision has six parts:
1. Shared prosperity and a living wage
2. Equal treatment, dignity, and justice for all
3. Affordable, comprehensive healthcare through single-payer
4. Debt-free, affordable higher-education
5. Banking that is not too big to fail
6. A sustainable, healthy planet
For more updates on #divestdonald, follow Taub on Twitter @jentaub.
Charles Bane, Jr. is the Nonfiction Editor of Boston Accent Lit. He is an American author of three collections of poetry, including the recent The Ends Of The Earth: Collected Poems (Transcendent Zero Press, 2015). He has written The Ascent Of Feminist Poetry (TZP, 2015 ), I Meet Geronimo And Other Stories, (Avignon Press, 2015), and Three Seasons: Writing Donald Hall (Collection of the Houghton Library, Harvard University). He created and contributes to The Meaning Of Poetry series for The Gutenberg Project.
winner of the 2017 accent prize: Tracy cross
An Interview with Boston Accent's Justin Goodman
Congratulations to Tracy Cross on winning the 2017 Accent Prize with “A Piece of Good Luck,” a story about the desperation of the disenfranchised to obtain wealth at whatever cost. A dystopia fed on Sinclair Lewis and Aldous Huxley, one can take an equal amount of political allegory as aesthetic joy; having edited three of her other works as part of the prize’s award, I can say this carries through the rest of her work.
Be sure to read the winning story, published in Issue 7, here.
1. How do you want our readers to know you?
Well, I am a huge Prince fan, so last year was devastating. I mean, Bowie went first. Okay. But Prince? I was not close to ready and I’m still mourning him. But George Michael was the cherry on top of a 2016 Crap Sandwich.
I also have a wickedly, dry and dark sense of humor.
Sometimes, I am easily distracted; usually it’s by something I think would make a good story. Or there’s something shiny and I turn into a two-year-old: “Did you see how shiny that was? Wait, what’s going on, now?”
I'm not afraid to say that I suffer from depression. So, along with my sense of humor, I try to look for the light in the darkness. If you can find one tiny spot of light, you can pull yourself out of anything. I try not to let depression rule my life because I don’t want to be the person looking back and thinking, “I could have done so much more.”
I'm a mom, a (semi) practicing Buddhist, and I have been doing yoga off and on for about 20 years. I am a really good cook and aspire to go out to dinner at Alinea in Chicago. It’s one of best molecular gastronomy restaurants.
I also make a mean apple pie.
2. Because the Accent Prize is meant for “self-identifying women of color,” it makes sense for you to tell our readers what your sentiments are about the labels we attach to writers, such as “Black Writer” or “Woman Writer.”
To me, before we identify who wrote the story, I think it's the importance of writing a good story that should come first.
I have read stories, without regards to the author. As long as the story is good, I anxiously await the next one or try to gather as many stories as I can by the author. Race and gender are not very relevant to me because the work speaks for itself.
I remember reading “Blood Son” by Richard Matheson. It blew me away. I mean my head flipped in the air at the end. Soon, it was all about Richard Matheson. Did I care what he looked like? No. I would sneak down to the main branch of Cleveland Public Library and ask my cousin (who worked there) for all the Richard Matheson books. I read those books in the back of the library from open to close.
Then, I read some books by his contemporaries. I lost my mind in Charles Beaumont’s work. I read some Ray Bradbury and felt my head explode. After consuming a lot of what these authors have written, I looked at pictures of these people and thought, “So, that’s what he looks like. Now, where can I get more books?”
Race was never a big issue for me. I’ve read Octavia Butler and thought she must have had an imagination that felt like another world. I mean, “Bloodchild” scared the shit out of me. I had to read it several times to really “get” it. I also read “Speech Sounds” and thought that this could not be the same person. I didn’t find out her race until much later, but I didn’t care. She wrote really good stories.
In answering your question, I self-identify as a writer. I don't want to be known as "that black writer" because it's not necessary. My work speaks for itself.
If the public feels it's so important to identify me as a black woman writer, so be it. Sadly, this is the type of world we seem to live in now. Everything and everyone has a label.
However, I would like to be known as "the chick with the dark sense of humor that writes dark stories."
3. You’d mentioned a love of genre when we’d first talked [the original interview had occurred over the phone], and it seemed that you were most enthusiastic about horror. Is there a reason you feel drawn to horror in particular?
I don’t feel particularly drawn to horror. I like a good horror movie or story that either leaves you thinking or scared to walk down the street at night. If I write a horror story that has people looking at me and saying, “I didn’t know you were so dark”—mission accomplished.
When I was young, my mother would take me to scary movies. I think it was just all about taking someone to the movies with her. She never leaned over and said, "It's not real." It was more like her jumping out of her chair or grabbing me.
Imagine being seven or eight and going to see Alien. What I remembered most was the alien bursting out of John Hurt's chest and Veronica Cartwright making a noise like, "Eww..." Most people jumped. I thought it was a bit funny. This little thing slithers across the table. It has no eyes and just these teeth. And then it's gone.
I’m drawn to a lot of different genres—horror seems to be a bit of the easiest because it’s what I know. My imagination has always been on overdrive, even as a child—to this day, I can’t sleep with an appendage hanging over the edge of the bed or the closet door open. Ironic, isn’t it?
4. We’d talked about confronting the grimness of the world with humor—readily apparent to those who read your story—but do you feel there’s a point at which the world is too grim to be laughed at? I’m thinking of two of your stories that we edited (“The Sin Eater” and "A Day in the Life"), which were played straight almost entirely.
The other day I spoke to my father...actually, let me back track. I went home to Cleveland, Ohio for a funeral not too long ago. We drove through the city and it had to be the most depressing thing I've seen. There were torn-down houses, empty lots and very few people. It almost looked post-apocalyptic. No, it was post-apocalyptic.
When I spoke to my dad the other day, we were talking about all these depressed cities—like Detroit, Gary (Indiana) and of course, my city, Cleveland. It's like these cities are being abandoned or dying. As opposed to when I grew up and everything seemed alive—with lots of shiny lights. To see such a deceleration in my lifetime is pretty much astonishing and depressing. I wonder where the people went; why did this happen and could it have been avoided?
These places are modern-day tragedies. There is no humor to be found in them, but, if you look hard enough, you can find redemption or hope in all this sadness: a small child laughing while they play with a ball or the squeal of a kid going down a sliding board.
5. “A Piece of Good Luck” focuses on a world where everyone lives in “Quads” based off of their socioeconomic class. You’d said that you might come back to it, you might not, even with one of your edited stories featured in the same world. Has that changed at all since we talked, or is it still ‘wait and see’?
To answer your question, I find that now, somehow, quite a few of my stories will be connected—or already are—in a pre and post Quad world. There may be three or four more Quad stories and I’ll end it. I’ve got other interesting worlds to explore. The Quads seem like a strange place, but it almost feels like home to me because it's a place I invented based on things I’ve seen. It’s not like cities went from thriving to becoming ghost towns overnight; it has been happening and we have been watching. Sometimes we choose not to see what’s happening because it’s so depressing, but that doesn’t make it disappear.
The idea of “The Quads” has been bouncing around in my head for years. I've finally put pen to paper and made it happen. I’m the chick with the overactive imagination breathing life into what a lot of people consider dead and abandoned. I want to show the reader where they come from, how it happened and what life is like during.
For me, it’s almost like The Quads are inventing themselves. Some of the dead or abandoned cities have some type of justice system happening among the people (dead bodies or body parts turning up in abandoned houses). In my opinion, there's only a matter of time before the poorer communities will start being fenced off from the not-so-poor communities “for their own benefit and safety.” When this happens, I'll just post a picture of myself on my blog with the words—"I warned y'all."
6. Getting into the story, it notes that “before the Quads, [Hugh and Floyd] lived near each other in the countryside.” It isn’t just a shift from old to new, free to enslaved, but also from open to close. That the world becomes to them (and feels to us) small, regimented, and novel seems reflective of the stratification we see today. I won’t press the analogy—new technology making the world feel smaller, capitalism consolidating wealth—but do you feel that this is a fair reading of the story?
But have you noticed how the more tech-savvy we are, the further we are from each other? Don’t talk to me, just text me, while we are sitting in the same room, across from each other. My daughter has an iPad. She will play on it all day if I let her and if her cousins come over; they sit and play next to each other (on their iPads) instead of directly speaking to each other. It’s a strange dynamic to me because we didn’t have technology like this when I was young. It was more of a “Take your sister and go outside. See you when the street lights are on.”
I mean, I’m still waiting for my flying jet car just like they had on The Jetsons.
Hugh and Floyd lived in a simpler time. I’m not saying general stores and cowboys, but smaller cities or communities like I grew up—everyone knew everyone. Having been bounced around the penal system, they (can choose to be or) are oblivious to the world changing around them.
In a sense, yes, the world does become smaller to them. The Quads don’t give them room to stretch, but they adapt to it because it’s necessary. In the same right, the world remains the same for them with crappy factory jobs, small apartments, black-and-white TV with antennas and cheap beer.
7. Typically writers focus on what one might call the domestic imagination—typically middle-class people living through typical day-to-day affairs in vigorous contemplation. What’s appealing about your story, however, is it focuses on working-class characters. You could call them 'criminal class,' even. Why write their stories? What do you think is missing about their perspective?
I write what I know. I have lived and worked around upper, lower and middle class people all my life. I’ve discovered the penchant in fiction for working class portrayal is usually a stereotype: somewhere there’s a trailer, someone has an alcohol or drug (more likely alcohol) problem and there will always be small children (in soiled diapers) running around. Conversely, in reading about working class blacks, there is always—always—a single mother raising a child (probably a boy) on her own. Her husband has left her and her son is always on the cusp of doing something wrong-joining a gang, talking back, etc. And one day, a white savior will appear and help her son get his life together. I read this and just throw the book across the room, running around my living room, yelling, “Really?! Seriously?!”
I write to disprove these stories. This isn’t how real people live. I’m not ashamed to say I’m working class. I get up, go to work and do my job. I come home and read with my daughter, fix dinner, watch TV—maybe get some editing or writing done—and go to bed. This is the perspective that is always missing from the story. All of our stories are important because one would be surprised at how much we all have in common as people and not stereotypes.
Additionally, not all criminals are bad. There are quite a few stupid ones out there—which I have proven in my story. When someone says criminal, there’s always a stereotype associated with it. I wanted to show these two guys, with bad luck, trying to catch a break. These guys wouldn’t beat you down in an alley for your wallet. They are too old and too tired. They messed up in the past and they just want to live their lives and adapt to their new surroundings.
8. Ultimately though, your story is about the ability to change one’s future. I saw this in one of the other stories you had us edit (“Tempus Edax Rerum”). Like we talked about in the original phone interview, you write about the irony of making change because it plays out in daily life all the time. Very O. Henry that way. But that begs the question, one I think that is implicitly asked in “A Piece of Good Luck”: How much can one change the direction of one’s life? Do you have any thoughts on this?
I love my city, Cleveland. Clevelanders almost have the same mantra, which is keep your head down and keep moving forward. It doesn’t matter how you feel, it’s the progression of moving forward and understanding that this time tomorrow, and things will be different that keeps you moving and makes everything okay.
I’m a person that believes what you put out in the universe, you will receive back. Put out negative energy and that’s what you get. So, yes, anyone can change the direction of their life if they choose to change it. Some people just go with the flow because it’s all they know and they think, “Well, if I change, it won’t be good.” If we look at Hugh and Floyd in the short story, one of them not only thinks outside the box, but also believes in what he’s doing so strongly that he doesn’t consider the consequences of his actions. He just knows he is right, despite warnings from everything around him.
As a writer, I am petrified to share my work, but this is only normal. Once I removedthe fear and said to myself, “This is not half bad and your friends and family wouldn’t lie to you, give it a chance and send it out.” It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but someone will like it. And that’s what led me to Boston Accent Lit.
9. For our readers, what are you working on now?
Well, I feel like I am always editing. I am editing the three stories you guys reviewed—and I really appreciate it. Editing and entering contests or anthologies seem to be one route I’m taking with the shorter stories.
I am also self-editing a book about a man who spent a chunk of his life in juvie and a psychiatric ward before The Quads are in existence. Once he is released, The Quads are being formed and he has to rapidly assimilate into society. On top of all of this, he believes he is a superhero.
Once he starts seeing his “Wellness Coordinator,” he learns a dark secret about himself and why he believes he is a superhero. It doesn’t necessarily unravel from there, but it puts a lot of his life in perspective and helps him to get a better understanding of himself and his situation.
One of the underlying issues of this book is mental illness. I hope to take away the stigma people often associate with mentally-ill people. This book touches on using medication to help with mental illness, journaling, ECT (electroconvulsive therapy) and other methods of self-help for mentally-ill people. People fear what they don’t understand. If one person reads this book (I’ve titled it Monachopsis. It means the subtle but persistent feeling of being out of place) and either gets help or realizes they aren’t alone, then I’ll be a happy camper.
One additional thing I’ve done is added a playlist in the back of the book, so the reader can really get into the protagonist’s head. There’s a wide variety of music like Steely Dan, Public Enemy, and (of course) Prince, but it leans a bit heavy on some old school ska and rock steady—like The Specials and Alton Ellis.
10. Anyone you want to thank? Any social media you want to plug? Etc?
I would like thank my sister, Teri Cross Davis, for reading all my writing and not calling me up asking if I was okay because of the scary things I write. And I’d like to thank Jess Stork for diving into my world and sharing her world with me at the right time—right after the election. She always gives me the right amount of input and advice on my work. And we both are from Cleveland, so we have that connection as well.
If people are interested in what I’m reading-they can follow me on goodreads: https://www.gooodreads.com/ldglns. If they want to experience the dry humor, I’m on twitter: https://twitter.com/1dangerouswoman
and for my random crushes or thoughts, they can find me on tumblr: http://blacklotus71.tumblr.com/
I would like to thank Justin and Rashi for their edits as well.
The Phoenix of Gratitude
By Justin Goodman
In the last novel we’ll ever see by Jane Austen, the posthumously published Northanger Abbey, Henry Tillney falls in love with Catherine Morland out of gratitude. “In other words, that a persuasion of her partiality for him had been the only cause of giving her a serious thought.” Unusually, but not oddly, this is the author from which I developed my cynicism. Because, contrary to what Jane Austen fans know of the stylized Hollywood version, she knew three things: wit, society, and morbidity. After all, so the story goes, Austen lay in bed, dying from Tuberculosis. Likely she was nearly weightless, smelled of unending sweat, and would cough blood into a handkerchief. From the far corner of the room, during one of these coughing fits, Cassandra, her sister, asked if there was anything she wanted. Austen’s last words: “I want nothing but death.” She died shortly after on July 18th, 1817.
In our century, Henry’s sense of gratitude comes across as parochial. Either as wholesome and naive—in a way life prior to WWII can appear—or, as Austen writes in the sentence following the above quoted, “dreadfully derogatory of an heroine’s dignity.” These negative connotations to an honest word are pretty clear when, even on the Wikipedia page for parochialism, we are reminded that the word “particularly when used perjoratively” is opposed to universalism. It should remind you of the screaming matches leading up to the Trump Cabinet about Globalism and Nationalism. #MAGA is the cry of either a patriot of the naivest type, or a return to evil; the love of country is equivalent to its contrapositive. Meanwhile, those who live in cities are either dupes or American-hating “commies"; the love of others is equivalent to its contrapositive. If Austen were alive to see this, she’d probably be unsurprised. These conflicts, after all, are the heart of her work.
Take the book everyone knows, Pride & Prejudice. Elizabeth Bennett is a village woman of immeasurable worldliness—translated as wit and humor—whose friend, Charlotte Lucas, embodies a parochially practical type. When her cousin, the Reverend William Collins, attempts to woo her, for instance, she sees it as loquacious stupidity and refuses him. Elizabeth, atypically for a woman of her time and place, scorns the well-off. When he makes the same proposal to Charlotte, though, wary of a potential future of spinster poverty, she readily accepts it as a necessary sacrifice. Elizabeth goes on to butt heads with Mr. Darcy who, seduced by her independence and strong will, inevitably falls in love with her. After a series of dramatic plot points involving Darcy racing to London to save Elizabeth’s impetuous youngest sister from a man formerly serving in the military during the French Revolutionary Wars, Elizabeth, overwhelmed by gratitude for his kindness, ultimately falls for him in return and they marry.
Passionate intensity is what drives the fiery-eyed Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen in the Hollywood Austen, which is how many remember her writing. Yet clearly, this passionate intensity is all that crosses over between the two—only, in her novels, it is closer to Yeats’ sentiment that “the best lack all conviction, while the worst / are full of passionate intensity.”
In Sense & Sensibility, to turn to another Austen novel, this behavior isparalleled in Elinor and Marianne Dashwood. Elinor is the sensible eldest daughter and Marianne the romantic (read: sensibility-driven) second-oldest. Elinor is often referred to as cold-hearted because of her restraint, while Marianne is driven to spuriousness, at one point fainting from emotional distress. Elinor, caught between duty to family and love for Edward Ferrars, refuses to act. Marianne, incapable of restraint, is entangled in a failed romance with the flirtatious John Willoughby. Once this romance fails and Marianne is taken ill with distress, the ever-patient Colonel Brandon, who had been in love with Marianne from the start, tends to her. Out of deep gratitude for his patience and dedication, she comes to admire and love him. They marry, much like the equally opposed Darcy and Elizabeth, out of human gratitude. Can such division be sewn together in such a way today, in America?
With all the frenzy of this past election cycle, we tend to forget that the federal level of our government is not the centerpiece of our system. I would wager that the increased focus on federal elections has distanced people from their very real, very parochial way of living. Communities, divided into abstractions of red and blue, have lost the feeling of gratitude for one’s neighbor that brought the founding fathers together. Think of it, the love you’d feel for people who committed treason with you. Even the parochial John Adams and internationalist Thomas Jefferson, an Austenian love story of sorts, who each declared the other egocentric and self-serving, have gone down as dedicated friends in American myth. Similar, I may add, to Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy.
Which is the point. The funny thing about Austen is that neither worldliness or parochialism, globalism or nationalism, lacking conviction or being full of passion, are useful for confronting the ills of the world. There are no heroes and heroines in Austen. There are only heroic bonds built on strong contrasts.
And this is bound to happen in any small community in America because the wisdom of local politics tends toward people, not party, in stark contrast to what we see in Washington. What we see there, what we see spreading to our homes, is an issue that will not be resolved by reasoned or angry debate with strangers (with rare exceptions). Rather, it must be built on conviction and love. Things which, when combined, tend toward a feeling of gratitude.
So, you ask, is it enough? Of all Austen’s characters’ storylines, Marianne Dashwood “was born to an extraordinary fate.” Unlike many of the parallel figures Austen wrote into her novels, Marianne discovered “the falsehood of her own opinions” after marrying Colonel Brandon. No other Austen figure converts at the end of the novel to such an extreme—even sharing the reasoning of mutuality that “her society restored his mind...and [Marianne] found her own happiness in forming his.” Perhaps it is enough. Yet there is a certain morbidity in submission that is “dreadfully derogatory of an heroine’s dignity.” In the end, her conversion was Colonel Brandon’s happy ending. And so it seems that the battle, instead of ending in gratitude, merely shifts to a gothic sense of uneasy peace. You can imagine them fighting over servants or the best route to Bath, as you can still hear Austen’s last words resonate in the temperamental joy of their beginnings.
Justin Goodman, Assistant Fiction Editor of Boston Accent Lit, graduated from SUNY Purchase with a B.A. in Literature. His film, book, and music reviews have been published in Red Carpet Crash, Cleaver Magazine, and InYourSpeakers, respectively. Other work has been published in Italics Mine, Counterexample Poetics, and 352 Degrees. Take a look at his website here.
When Everyone Is Lying, Fiction Tells the Truth:
Conversation with Eric Bennett
by Justin Goodman
Author Eric Bennett teaches at Providence College, the alma mater of Boston Accent Lit’s founder, which is how this book and interview were decided. Bennett’s 2015 novel, A Big Enough Lie, is a fitting homage to a post-9/11 America’s cynicism—but its tone is entirely out of sync with his playful intellectualism. In what people are calling a “Post-Trump” America, it seems eerily excellent timing to release this book review and interview, which remains largely unedited over the several days we communicated. This is not because I was lazy, but because it seems appropriate that, in a “Post-Fact” world (everything is “post-” these days), one should strive to maintain forthrightness in all its error and simplicity. This conversation, and Bennett’s A Big Enough Lie, are good reminders that these issues we face today are old and that the concerns we face are everywhere present. Hopefully, someone will find comfort or a few laughs herein.
Justin Goodman: I'm going to start from an unusual place because A Big Enough Lie is, I think, so conceptually diverse that it'll probably take much of the time for itself. Plus, I find the best way to learn about someone is to consider their future orientation. So, in that vein, you said in a Q&A with Deborah Kalb last December that the next novel you were working on was called Everybody Can't Be Naked, which you described as a novel with "tales of actors, photographers, musicians, and writers in a gothic city on the East Coast." Foremost, I want to ask how that project's coming along. Has there been much progress over the months?
But I also noted that you described the project as “tales” (suggesting concrete divisions), while also calling it a novel. It made me think of something like Rachel Kushner's The Flamethrowers. An urbane, multi-layered world engaged in constant fiction while invoking Theory and Aesthetics to defend their commodity fetishism and conspicuous consumption. I know you have a similar perspective regarding a style of MFA student. The Greater Than X boys from A Big Enough Lie, for example, or your descriptions of former Iowa Writing Workshop director Paul Engle as something like a writerly power broker. With that in mind, do you see Everybody Can't Be Naked as a continuation of this criticism of the (anti-)politics of the American art world?
Hopefully that wasn't too much at once. Sorry, if so. I'm trying to hold back as much as possible to start.
Eric Bennett: Since Deborah's interview last year, Everybody Can't Be Naked has come more and more to resemble a novel proper. An international Chinese artist creates an installation in the ruins of nineteenth-century mill buildings in a city in Rhode Island. The installation—a work of art—is a full scale replica of a factory you'd find in the Pearl River Delta in southern China—the kind of place that makes 80% of everything we own and wear. The “factory workers” are rich girls, the daughters of Communist Party higher-ups, playing labor as Marie Antoinette is said to have played milkmaid. American artists are hired to build out the “factory” itself—to do the wiring and hang the sheetrock. They think they're really building a factory. And they live fatly on the good wages from the Beijing arts council, or they do at least until the money runs dry. Much of the novel concerns the dreams, hopes, loves, and empty bank accounts of these American artists (the old “tales” that I mentioned). But thematic continuities with A Big Enough Lie and Workshops of Empire will probably be clear to anybody who's kind enough to read the three books. Our material reality depends on industrial activity we barely ever even think about, let alone see. That's a truth that belongs to the realm of economics and politics and ethics, or at best to memoir or journalism, and not in a lush, vivid, plausible novel. But could a lush, vivid, plausible novel contain it? We'll see.
Goodman: I hadn't realized in making the comparison how fitting it seemed. Down to the factories. I don't know if you've ever read The Flamethrowers, but I more than recommend it. I think you'd appreciate it. And I look forward to reading Everybody Can’t Be Naked.
It strikes me as unusual that you say the truth belongs to a realm independent of a “lush, vivid, plausible novel,” but could you elaborate on that more? Could you explain, particularly because I think it's a charged word here, how this might relate to the importance of the “plausible” nature of a novel?
Bennett: The Flamethrowers is one of my favorite recent novels. I feel like Kushner takes a lot from DeLillo but also adds a lot to him—it's an edgy, weird, fast, paranoid book, but also one full of feeling. (DeLillo's Americana is maybe the one most worth comparing it to; it has the same spirit of manic solitude).
Just to be clear, although I'm sure you got this: when I say “the truth,” I mean the particular truth about the invisible industrial underpinnings of how we live and not the “Truth” as in the Ultimate Nature of How Things Are. In my writing, I've been thinking through ways to combine a political impulse, or really an ethical reflex, with an aesthetic process. The political impulse/ethical reflex goes something like this: it’s obscene to lament personal misfortune on one scale (the emotional hardship of divorce, the crisis of loneliness or disconnection) when the preconditions for that misfortune, even if they seem impoverished, are comparatively lavish compared to life on a different scale. Some poor Chinese teenager made the shoes that the moping divorcee is wearing. In saying so I don’t mean to suggest that the divorce isn’t important. If my heart didn’t bleed too easily for everything that ever hurt anybody anywhere, including me, I would have gone into business rather than fiction writing. Domestic grief and suburban malaise is real human stuff and belongs in the pages of books that people turn to to read about real human stuff. Domestic grief and suburban malaise is stuff I write largely about. But there’s other stuff, compelling, relevant, and crucial, that shows up far more often on the non-fiction shelf, in statistics and scholarship and journalism. Can that stuff fit into fiction? George Saunders makes it look easy—fits it right in. He captures this collective crisis of irreconcilable scales of consciousness in short stories like “The Semplica Girl Diaries” and “Brad Carrigan, American.” So it’s not as though there aren’t writers working on problems of scale, like this. But vast swaths of American fiction since 1945 have concerned themselves with the single scale of the lives most of us live, as they feel from the inside. And even writers conscious of the problem of scale will often point at that problem rather than find (as Saunders finds) powerful ways to dramatize it. I greatly admire Ben Lerner's 10:04, which could not succeed more vividly as an account life as some of us live it. It also tries to do more. At one point in the novel, the narrator riffs on the strangeness of the course of events that leads a product's appearing on the shelves of a Whole Foods he shops at—imagines his way into the global network from which he's mostly alienated. With this, Lerner gestures at breaking through to another frame of reference, but, at least for me, the gesture underscores the provincial reality of the narrator rather than effecting an escape. The Lithuania subplot in Franzen's The Corrections similarly never attains the level of dramatized reality. It doesn't hurt anything. But it doesn't do anything, either. To bring it back to Kushner, I find the interspersed episodes from the history of Italian Futurism remarkable—and successful within the emotional economy of the fiction.
In A Big Enough Lie, I wanted to put two cultural moments into the same book: George W. Bush, draft-dodger, landing an aircraft on an aircraft carrier and standing before a banner saying "Mission Accomplished" (and getting a relative pass from the media for the charade); and James Frey, author of a harmless entertainment, getting shamed on Oprah for fibbing about how long he was in jail. The former was a non-event, the latter a scandal. Which types of falsehood inspire American outrage? Clearly not always the larger falsehoods. This discrepancy between magnitudes of deception, and the political relevance of that problem, is still very much with us, not least in the horrific contrast between the grotesque bogusness that is Donald Trump's very essence and the hysterical attention that Hillary Clinton's emails have received.
Why does any of this matter? There's the hedonistic answer and the civic answer.
Hedonistically, I'm most exhilarated, in my own reading, by works that fill a full canvas. I'll take Toni Morrison over Mary Karr, William Faulkner over James Salter, Ralph Ellison over Richard Ford. Civically, our crises are crises of scales of consciousness: individual gun ownership v. a national gun epidemic; driving to Whole Foods v. climate change. If the majority of three generations of American novelists have concerned themselves only with the local, the personal, the private, in the pages of their work, they've added to the narrowness of vision that contributes to our crises—even, and that's in italics, even if they're staunch advocates of gun control or garden-tending hippies who bike everywhere. Of course, plenty of people will doubt that novelists even matter that much. And those doubters will seem saner than you and me, who refuse to believe it, even if we believe it.
Goodman: I'd largely agree with the analyses you've given of those books—although, with Lerner, his project seems less related to effecting an escape than trying to determine if escape is possible when confronted by one's alienation from collectivity—but there are three things that struck me in your response that I want to mull over.
You go far enough to imply blame is on the majority of three generations of American novelists for our literary myopia, possibly our cultural one. This is a classic topic that leads certain people (myself included now) to mention American genre fiction. For instance, you've praised David Mitchell in an interview with Booktrib for what you call his "inspired borrowing," but it's important to mention he's a genre writer too. Half of Cloud Atlas is dystopia and post-apocalyptic fiction. There's a laundry list of great works that question the political/personal like Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness or Asimov's Empire series. I'd say the genre's MO has been one focused on collective action—I could go as far back as Alfred Bester's The Demolished Man, which features a scene where the telepathic detective protagonist is at a party with other telepaths whose thoughts and feelings aggressively collide with his. So when you talk about a "plausible" novel with "dramatized reality," do you use these words in a looser sense than some are accustomed to taking them?
A shorter, vaguer question with a longer answer: what do you see as the ethical demands of a novelist specifically, or an artist generally?
And, to A Big Enough Lie crises of scales of consciousness. It's directly related to this lack of perspective, I suppose, but I'd like to hear about the almost compulsive sexuality of your characters. Heather and John, as the protagonists, are constantly engaged in a state of jouissance. This seems like a way to characterize young adults, sure, but there's also an exceptionally Freudian sense to it where there exists a 1:1 correspondence of social futility to sexual frustration. John himself considers himself as suffering from "the nothingness of feeling and the nothingness of action" and Heather's only poem is titled "Blowjobs in the Interregnum"; meanwhile, she can't fit in with her sex-addled classmates. How much does sexuality/impotence play into your notion of political/collective action?
Bennett: To see my words come back at me like that (and it's a fair paraphrase)—"blame is on the majority of three generations of American novelists"—makes me want to scrap the whole way of talking. But of course I can't. The thing that seems impossible to say in a way that sticks is that you can both love Richard Ford's writing (or whomever's, but I really enjoyed The Sportswriter and Independence Day) and take issue with the Richard Ford-ness or Mary Karr-ness of American letters, in the same way that you can both thrill at driving a well-engineered automobile on an empty Utah highway and wish that automobiles had never been invented and that the first nations of Utah hadn't been shot by Mormons. Polemics, or how polemics come across on the internet, force us to love something or hate it but not both—even in the realm of literature, which is supposed to include lots of room for complexity of emotional response. In any case, it's the pervasive lack of an eagerness to imagine alternatives that is above all the object of my attack. A kind of comfort with what we've got. I don't doubt that I'm a little too nostalgic for the high modernists and too forgiving of their fascistic tendencies (have you read John Carey's book on them? The Intellectuals and the Masses? I loved it!) but what was appealing in that generation was the radicalness of their repudiation of what they found fault with. The repudiation got expressed via intense preoccupations with both literary form and social structure. And those writers managed to fuse the two concerns, formal and societal, into novels, poems, and essays that still, for all that ambition, continue to scratch the itch of reading for pleasure. That generation took itself so so seriously. And, as far as I can tell, Marilynne Robinson is the only first-tier American novelist writing these days who can take herself that seriously and not be subjected to chronic ridicule. Why can't we have two dozen of her, instead of just one? E. L. Doctorow was another along her lines. But the scene is largely a blitz of smirks and personal affront. James Wood and Jonathan Franzen have achieved eminence enough that nobody seems to want to feel sorry for them. But I certain feel sorry for US, that our impulse, in the face of their opinion-rife eminence, is to make lame bogeymen of them. I'm not clueless about the gender politics of all this, and that the attacks, not on Wood but on Franzen, are informed by the aftermath of a twentieth century full of Mailer, Roth, and lots of men trying to be like Ernest Hemingway. But, even so, I sense within the blowback against Franzen and Wood a blowback against seriousness itself. We're offended by high ambition. It's a distilled form of a general flavor of contemporary shamefacedness. The only brand of seriousness that gets a pass is the personalistic brand. If your claims are small enough, your seriousness is welcome. People take their own voices seriously, but not the weight of history and the catastrophe of current conditions. "People? Which people?" I know I'm generalizing offensively. Thank you for letting me generalize offensively.
You put your finger right on the chasm on my reading list, the authors who employ genre conventions to push back against what a Marxist would call bourgeois illusions and delusions. My affection for writers who straddle the line a little (Mitchell and also Pynchon, Atwood, Samuel Delany, Vonnegut, and DeLillo) makes clear that I've got a lot of alternative worlds to look at. I'd never heard of that Bester title, which I look forward to looking at. You probably agree with me (or feel even more strongly than I do?) that the line between "literary" and "genre" fiction is overstated and overplayed. If I insist on "plausible" fiction and "dramatized reality," it just means that I want the magic to work—want to read about alternative worlds imagined in a way that allows me to believe in them. How does that happen? Well, it seems to depend on their being created by, well, smart people. Not just like Richard Powers smart—my affective response to Powers's fiction is never strong enough to propel me to the end of his books—but 360-degree smart, whatever that means. My best friend from way back is not a literary guy, although he'll occasionally read "literary" fiction to keep his finger on the pulse. But he's always urging pulp fiction on me. And as much as I want to like it, whenever I look at it, I always think, "Oh. Some guy is making shit up." And I can't get through books where the middling powers of the author are more real to me than the ostensible reality.
I'm going to dodge your big question about the ethical demands.
Bennett: And as far as sex in A Big Enough Lie goes: hmm. You might have discovered another chasm, the chasm of my awareness of my relation as a writer to sex. My answer feels post hoc to me - something I arrive at by thinking about the question, and not that existed in mind as I was writing the novel. But the thoughts I have now relate to the other stuff we're discussing, so why not? Sex has always been a major territory for politics. A century back, John Sumner and Anthony Comstock suppressed anarchists by persecuting literary journals on sexual grounds. And the 1920s and the late 1960s were two moments in American history when a coherent and not-purely-academic coordination of sexual and political freedom seemed to be at play. Since the 1980s, literary scholars have loved to talk about sexual subversion, the queering of texts, and so forth. But the revolutionary emancipations heralded by such scholarship are almost purely limited to our domestic lives. (And frankly Modern Family has probably done more for same-sex marriage than Judith Butler; although I say that in praise of Modern Family and not disparagement of Judith Butler). There's an analogy here with what I said about domestic malaise and suburban alienation, about fiction about divorce. This stuff matters! Hugely! To good friends, to people I love and want to see happy! But, even so, it's important to remain aware of how much it matters, just how much, and in what way, and in relation to what other concerns. It strikes me as dangerous or at the very least unconscionable if an educated elite mistakes their privilege to sleep with and live with whomever they please as a sufficient democratic watershed. It's a necessary one, but not a sufficient one. I tend to buy David Harvey's formulation in A Brief History of Neoliberalism: both sexual variety and multiculturalism are easily coopted by a market logic that leave fundamentally unchanged the economic reality that leads to class stratification. We're given a sop to justice that doesn't hurt an unjust global order any and might even help it. You now have persons of color among your high finance crowd. You now have gay and lesbian couples living in the heart of Manhattan, helping it brand itself as a center of global culture. And yet you still have endemic problems of class stratification. The investment bankers of color and the same-sex couples are like progressive legislation passed in Norway when you're living in Kentucky or Oakland. But yes, sex in A Big Enough Lie is kind of hollow, yeah?
P.S. Junot Díaz also manages to be serious without getting made fun of. I forgot to mention him, and God bless him.
Goodman: Haha, that's a wonderful answer that makes me think of this essay from Electric Literature. I think this is what people are generally saying when they lament the ubiquity of "identity politics." It's necessary to talk about race and gender and sexuality, but not sufficient since it ignores the powers of class stratification. And where is that in our literature?
I would argue it can partly be found in A Big Enough Lie, in Marshall Stang. Stang is a mysterious figure in the novel despite his prominence—he's the centerpiece of John Townley's identity, the focus of Emily White's book, and nominally a fetishistic object for Heather. Yet none of the characters provide a qualitative reality to him, and he's largely absent near the end. He's also the only distinguishably lower-class character while tending to also act as the repository of other people's fantasies. With John Townley alone he's seen as "truly transcendent and righteous." This seems allegorical in how we treat the poor—from Algier's rags-to-riches narratives to fighting meaningless wars in foreign lands. Was there another goal in drawing Stang out as you did in the novel? Relatedly, where did you draw Stang's mannerisms from? I'm honestly curious because of his nickname for Townley.
I'd like to look at Trump for a moment. [Editor’s Note: Justin did not mean this literally. Nobody likes to look at Trump in the literal sense.] "We're offended by high ambition" and "the only brand of seriousness that gets a pass is the personalistic brand. If your claims are small enough, your seriousness is welcome." When you look at Trump and his popularity, this seems the exact opposite situation, no? Running for president with legally unattainable goals while using his heavily-branded name as a trumpet. Of course you meant artists who are criticized for ambition, but looking from this angle, it becomes a question of what artists are doing differently that they face the dismissal and sometimes scorn of the populace (if you're A.O. Scott and don't like The Avengers). You suggest "a distilled form of a general flavor of contemporary shamefacedness." About what, do you think? Could you elaborate? Because if it's also the case that "people take their own voices seriously, but not the weight of history and the catastrophe of current conditions," it would be hard to be ashamed about what bruises they've left on other people's histories. Or do you mean it in the same vein as Steinbeck's supposed "Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as exploited proletariat, but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires?"
It's definitely the case that the genre/literary binary is antiquated and, other than its current practical use in conversation, should be set aside. I warn you now that Bester is not a great stylist, or even a great writer, a condition which, as you noticed, traditionally plagues many a genre author. What I think fiction has come to learn from genre, however, is the need for a plot to be involving—"the magic to work," as you put it. Faulkner was influenced by Rex Stout, a crime novel author, which explains how he managed to rivet drama into his spiritual horrors. I'd always recommend Philip K. Dick, just as I always take recommendations (I'll have to find a copy of John Carey's book). But, of bourgeois illusions and delusions, do you think the seeming increased interest in genre has anything to do with an increased consciousness of class politics? Do you think that, at least in literature, there is in fact an increased focus on histories and social orders?
Bennett: The PLOT in Faulkner is always what makes it work, even though it's buried under the eschatalogical mists of verbiage. I'd never heard about Rex Stout. Worth reading?
Trump [was] the least serious major party candidate for President of the United States in living memory (and probably much longer) in the sense that I'm using serious. By serious I mean considering yourself to be in intellectual and ethical company with other human beings at other times who have tested the limits of the field and feeling some kind of obligation to their afterlife (even if it's to overthrow it with equal and opposite seriousness). Testing yourself against what has been done by people who probably, at least according to future editions of the Modern Library, will always dwarf you. Upholding a kind communally constituted but intrinsically enforced standard. Instead of "limits of the field" I almost typed "genius" or "excellent" or "aptitude," but it's so easy to sound 1) reactionary and 2) covertly gunning for your own career with such language. I wish you could admire "genius" or "excellence" or "aptitude" in a field, by the way, and call for more of it, and not sound like a narcissist projecting. But that's precisely what I mean by the shamefacedness. The more full-throttle a writer is, the more likely his or her tail is going to be tucked between his or her legs. This is in part because of how small late capitalism makes everybody feel. But it's also largely because the very nature of the project of writing great books has only gotten, in the market and in the cultural prejudices that fosters it, more personal. Whereas Joyce's epic ambition, even while drawing upon autobiographical material, seemed to take as its subject Dublin and the English oppression of the Irish and the diminishing legacy of inherited memes and the charismatic vanity of commercialized and disposable culture, the average ambition of a writer today centers on the adequate promotion of a small square of personal territory. A writer like Knausgaard (to take one of the more pseudo-epic examples) has made that small square as vast as possible, and to occasionally mesmerizing effect. But that's so different from Woolf's handling of England in Between the Acts or Orlando or Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County. Clinton [was] the more serious candidate, in this race, because she actually knows things about other countries and, presumably, about the history of this one. The analogy between that and our literary conversation may seem glib, but the seriousness of a writer can be gauged by her awareness of other times and places and other ways of putting books together. Such awareness gives (or can give) thickness to books in a way that makes them durable, and, well, beautiful—transcendent in both the sense of lasting and of really fucking awesome. Invisible Man, good even if you don't know Dostoevsky or Joel Chandler Harris, is only better if you know Dostoevsky or Joel Chandler Harris. I know I'm a stone's throw from shaking my cane and invoking the lost value of tradition. But when I watched the campaign this year, I found myself wishing the old mores of American democracy still pertained. (As soon as African Americans and women at long last join the imperfect project of American democracy, angry white men gear up to shit all over it.) It has become politically viable to threaten journalists, praise autocrats, rough up protestors, invoke penis size, and so on. I know the like has happened since the beginning. The KKK sold like hotcakes in Indiana in the 1920s. John Birch mattered for years. But it's never been this ugly in my lifetime. But, to say one more thing about shamefacedness: Lerner and David Foster Wallace, both ambitious, have woven their ambition into a kind of apologetic fabric. It's important, it's a report on the condition, that need to apologize, but viscerally I prefer Mitchell, because there's so much life, and so little Mitchell, in Mitchell. He has found a way to write with ambition without writing about himself. (Fredric Jameson seems to think so too—The Antinomies of Realism is pretty great, and it ends with a laudatory reading of Cloud Atlas).
Where's Stang from? Really? Are you asking me if my fiction is autobiographical?!
Justin: I phrased my question poorly. Let me try again. Stang made me think of Jacob, from Woolf's Jacob Room, in how his identity is always the substance of other people's thoughts and dreams and ideas. Did you have this project in mind (of making Stang a surrogate for others) when writing A Big Enough Lie? Was it intentional that this type of essentially voiceless character was of a lower class/economic background? It ties rather nicely to your political sentiments.
It's also funny that you censored yourself, seeing as your novel revels in narcissism and grandiosity to the point that Townley is disappointed he missed "inhaling the terror, witnessing [the]history]" of 9/11 while Heather sleeps with Townley-as-veteran hoping "she could become a war poet of a kind" through him. You've highlighted how far is not far enough with Lerner and Wallace, but I'd like to know at what point the "serious" project of an artist goes too far?
On the issue of race—since we're talking about Trump and angry white men shitting on minorities—race is incredibly understated in your novel. There's passing mention (mostly in the book's pseudo-memoir, Petting The Burning Dog) of J'Million and Antoine's being African American, and cruder references to race by Stang. There's Petting the Burning Dog's campy stereotypes of the wise Middle Eastern man and jocular Italian. Largely, that's to say, these characters are caricatures (the exception being Greep). This is easily traceable to Townley, the white middle-class man with sexual frustrations, who wrote them into being. This seems to exactly mirror the 90s and 00s, when neoliberalism patted itself on the back so hard it knocked the conversation of racial injustice out its own mouth.
So, to rephrase my previous question, and revisit an older one, this seems to get to the heart of what are the ethical demands of an artist, no? It seems from what you've said, and from the purposeful stereotype dependence of Petting the Burning Dog, the artist has to write while respecting the storied history of others. You can't just write other characters without seriously respecting them. As Townley's boss—and later the Middle Eastern academic—say, "not one big picture, a thousand little pictures." Would you disagree with that?
Bennett: No, you phrased the question really well, and I chose to crack a joke instead of answering it. So I appreciate the second chance to answer it. A precocious middle school or high school student in a nowhere place can have this double consciousness regarding the students around him—can perceive and envy their superiority, which is location-specific, even as he knows that he's bound for elsewhere, where his own relative inferiority will vanish. It was this mutually asymmetrical dynamic that I mostly was trying to get at with Stang: the triumph and tragedy of the location-specific alpha-male. But then Stang gets thrown into a kind of non-location-specific alpha maledom—into celebrity—and that original seed of novelistic interest ended up as something else entirely. Your reading of it—Stang as blank surface onto which elites project fantasies—is flattering.
Last night I was thinking about our email exchanges so far, and returned to the same question you've returned to, that of the ethical demands of an artist. Fiction, I really believe, is a tool we should use, among other purposes, including pleasure, to think our way into others' experiences. Not my idea, and, well, obvious, but also not uncontested as a belief. And a big question for me is: should I only think my way into others' experiences by reading accounts of experience by people who actually lived them? This is the dominant twenty-first century trend, and by its logic James Frey should enrage me and even Faulkner and Woolf look dubious. Or, am I allowed to enjoy and believe the work of writers who stretch beyond the bounds of their biographies by thinking their way into other minds? If the latter is the case, then, as a WRITER, rather than a reader, what are the limits of that propriety? Can writers also get outside themselves? Or only by reading? Do I get to write about Iraqi archealogists and black soldiers and jocular Italians? A Big Enough Lie only does so under the cover of falsehood. But I wanted to think that question through within fiction itself. There are certainly limits to how much you can vicariously or by proxy walk in another person's shoes. You are you; I am I. But I think these days we underestimate those limits and make a business of that underestimation that's by turns both angry and sanctimonious. In your question, you've already answered the question I'm working through, and answer it with the word "respect." I wouldn't have put it like this at the time, but I think I wanted to think through that concept fictionally, and in light of a political climate, a social milieu, and a war, none of which were very much replete with respect.
Goodman: I think this just demonstrates your point about how the internet—to go further than specifically polemics—creates a unilateral landscape. Poe's Law strikes again. Besides, in an uncomfortable way, one could say that A Big Enough Lie is about the possibility of second chances. I think the two readings go well together in that regard, though, and it's what I think I was thinking of. All the characters seem to depend on the Gatsby Effect, of being reinvented or of reinventing. But "The American Dream" leaves them in a state (I think) worse off than Gatsby. Instead of being dead, they're merely husks. A particular line from Petting the Burning Dog, perhaps one of the only self-conscious lines written by Townley, struck me in that way: "Without God, only TV cameras." I'm not religious, and your novel doesn't seem heavily motivated by faith in any typical sense, but all this seems to suggest to me that the ability to function requires a grounding/preserving force. "There was no continuity, and without continuity it seemed impossible for there to be sympathy," Townley writes, as Henry Fleming. Which, speaking of continuity, maps to something you wrote in "The Pyramid Scheme": "Texts worth reading...coordinate the personal with the national or international; they embed the instant in the instant's full context and long history." Does that sound right? Could elaborate on "full context" and "long history" in this sense?
Your response very much makes me think of Kamila Shamsie's "The Storytellers of Empire." It's a fantastic essay in Guernica on post-9/11 literature. In particular, she says:
The stories of America in the World rather than the World in America stubbornly remain the domain of nonfiction. Your soldiers will come to our lands, but your novelists won’t. The unmanned drone hovering over Pakistan, controlled by someone in Langley, is an apt metaphor for America’s imaginative engagement with my nation.
Her entire point being your point about an increasing concern over "appropriation." And while I think it's used liberally and for polarizing purposes, I think there's also a lot to be said here that are valid concerns. Shamsie in the paragraph just before this one points out how Updike's Terrorist, "the figure of the young Muslim seemed such an accumulation of stereotypes that it struck me as rather poor writing." And Sinan Antoon, in an essay about Brian Turner's Here, Bullet, notes how Turner reverses the image of civilian and soldier so that "the occupier is a victim trapped in a foreign landscape, fighting a war in an incomprehensible place." I guess the question would be, did you feel an obligation to read through first-hand accounts before writing the book? Do you feel an obligation with this second novel? Or, as regards to the idea of "full context" and "long history," do you feel that to study an individual you need to study their context and history extensively?
Bennett: I said above that the seed of A Big Enough Lie was the contrast between James Frey and George W. Bush, or between the handling of their mistruths by the media. But in another sense I simply wanted to see how close I could get to the Iraq War as a mere civilian, as somebody without the motivation to go there as a soldier or the opportunity to go as a freelance journalist. This felt like an ethical undertaking—a challenge to engage with the disastrous foreign policy of the nation I'm a citizen of in a more meaningful way than simply posting my anger on Facebook. This meant, for sure, reading everything I could find about the war. In 2007, there were far fewer titles available than now, but still plenty. I also drew on my experiences living in desert places and traveling in poor ones.
As far as current events go, a writer, if finances permit (which can be a crippling "if"), always has the option to travel and behold face to face what he or she is writing about. Shamsie is right that people need to get out more. That's a good thought experiment: if the money that goes annually to summer writing conferences in the U.S. were spent to deliver those same writers to the far corners of the globe: how would that affect contemporary American literature? I've never seen mainland China, which I'm treating in the new novel, but I spent the summer in Hong Kong in 2010, and those weeks have been proving crucial. Memories of how it looked, sounded, and smelled, plus excellent recent nonfiction and fiction about contemporary China, have given me purchase on the materials I need for Everybody Can't Be Naked.
The question of "full context and long history" are closely related. As soon as a writer writes about events that are not current—and most of them aren't—the only real resource is text. Or the major resource is text, along with visual media. So unless we want to declare the whole of human history sympathetically inaccessible, unless we want to declare as meaningless everything but what's happening now, we need text. I teach at a conservative Catholic college and am not Catholic and would not call myself a conservative. But one of my most conservative colleagues, in resisting the formulation of diversity requirements within the curriculum, pointed out that the cultural differences dividing medieval Europe from contemporary America are far vaster than even the vastest cultural differences amongst us as citizens now. That argument doesn't change my attitude toward diversity requirements (which thank the Lord my college has more of than it did when I started teaching at it), but whatever that colleague's intent in making that argument, I agree with the argument. As hard as it might be for me to put myself in the shoes of Colson Whitehead or Maggie Nelson, it's far harder for me to read Edmund Spenser and think my way into his weird, obsolete reality. But even THAT I can do. It just takes more work. This may seem like trivial role-playing, or some kind of escapist make-believe, but the relevance to the contemporary world is profound. The material and psychological similarities between, for instance, the British who experienced industrialization in the 1830s and 1840s or the Americans who experienced it in the 1870s and 1880s and the Chinese who are experiencing it now are astonishing. Modernity destroys value systems and replaces them with other value systems that soon come to seem like the only thing possible and (to some) like the only thing that has ever been. So Dickens not only provides for me great tricks of the trade—elements in plotting and crafting a novel—but also an account of another place and another time when economic exploitation and environmental degradation wore the melioristic mantel of progress and liberalism. There won't be anything explicitly related to Dickens in the new novel, but it would have been a different book without him (and without Eric Hobsbawm and Raymond Williams and Edward Bellamy and more authors on seemingly unrelated topics than I can name).
Let me say just a little bit more about diversity, so that that point doesn't come across as inhumane, reactionary, or tin-eared. It's not that I don't think that our local American differences are enormous, vile, and at the heart of many of the problems that need to be solved. Class is stratified along racial and ethnic lines; men out-earn women; social networks matter crucially to wellbeing; and so on. But the diversity I was invoking above pertains to what the moral philosopher Charles Taylor calls hyper goods—the largely unspoken values that structure what most people consider to be a good life. And, regarding hyper goods, were mostly much alike. If you interviewed the least advantaged people living on the South Side of Chicago and the most advantaged ones living in San Francisco, many of their assumptions about the Good Life would be similar—not similarly within reach, of course, but similar in conception. And, in my view, overcoming socioeconomic divisions such that our recognized hyper goods can be achieved with greater parity is the most pressing immediate work for our politics.
But there also exists the even more difficult work of genuinely being able to make sense of human beings who don't share our hyper goods. Some but by no means all of the residents of Baghdad, probably only an educated minority, shared the hyper goods that went without saying in the Iraq war (liberalism, free markets, democratic enfranchisement, religious tolerance); few people attracted by the worldview motivating ISIS share those hyper goods. In domestic politics, reading about life on the South Side of Chicago is a good way for the person living in San Francisco to liberalize himself. But in international affairs—or even in some of the wider cultural differences within our own country—the intellectual work concerns not just policies but an ability to grasp the discrepancy between foundational values, whole systems of belief, which is philosophical or intellectual historical work, and not political work. For that, the past is a great resource. It has left huge traces of (now, to us, strange) permutations of belief and other ways of living.
I realize, too, that I'm downplaying the differences, in terms of hyper goods, that divide Americans. Devout Mormons differ cosmically from black Southern Baptists from New York Jews. But even my staunch communist friends own smartphones: the majority effect is far more homogeneous than the human record as a whole.
Justin Goodman is the Assistant Fiction Editor of Boston Accent Lit.