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Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Reviews, Literary; Failings, Personal

I've written this and this for The Review Review, a website that reviews, well, reviews. Literary reviews, that is. And lately they've gotten some pretty sweet media attention, from the LA Times, and The motherfucking New Yorker: mostly for this piece by Lynne Barrett, which is succinct advice to aspiring submitters to the literary journals.

The Review Review editor/creator, Becky Tuch, sent all reviewers and interviewers (which included me) a "thank you" email for their contributions after the website received this attention. This of course sent me into a guilt spiral, as the last assignment they gave me was one at which I failed parlously (dude, Blogger, PARLOUSLY is so a word! Go Away, squiggly red lines!). I was sent this issue of Ploughshares to review and failed utterly (oh, so THAT word is okay with you, Blogger?) to do so.

I failed utterly because the stories included in this fiction issue included a story by Charles Baxter, my onetime professor and thesis adviser, and a story by Ethan Rutherford, my onetime MFA cohort. It was edited by Jim Shepard, who wrote a really good introduction to this particular Ploughshares issue about "weirdness" and fiction writing and once said cool things about weirdness and Yogurt's writing when he visited the University of Minnesota and gave a talk, which I meant to go to but forgot what day it was.

Anyway, I was overcome with anxiety about reviewing an issue to which I had several--admittedly, some of them somewhat tenuous--connections. So I employed the tactic easily recognized by all Passive-Aggressives everywhere: I emailed Charlie, Ethan, and Becky and told them about the connection and asked them if they had a problem with it? To which they all sensibly replied that no, of course not, as long as I put a FULL DISCLOSURE: I KNOW SOME OF THESE FOLKS thing on the review.

What I was hoping for, in true Passive-Aggressive fashion, was for someone else to read my mind and say: "No, no, I have a problem with it," thus absolving me of all responsibility.

But you know what? Passive-aggressive techniques suck and rarely work. So I was left with the review to write.

Here was the crux of the problem: I liked the issue. I did, more or less unreservedly. So I couldn't get away from the thought of how suck-up-y that would sound: "THIS IS ALL REALLY GOOD! BY THE WAY, I KNOW SOME OF THESE FOLKS." If I'd had some intelligent criticism, it would have been different. But the personal connection seemed to block the part of the part of my brain that was able to come up with intelligent criticism. I thought of doing the review in the form of a jokey workshop-letter (having been in workshops with C.B. and E.R.)...this idea seemed awesome to me -- until it didn't. And round and round it went. The issue of Ploughshares stayed in my battered canvas bag from Barnes and Noble -- with James Joyce in creepy green animation on the front -- for months. The deadline came and went. Various life events came and went, with other writing responsibilities and anxieties. I drove to the Nebraska City, Nebraska, and then drove back. Occasionally, I'd wake up in the middle of the night, sweating, thinking of the undone review. "PLOUGHSHARES: DECISION EMAIL" was on my to-do list for months.

Finally, I "put on my big-girl pants" -- to quote an awesome expression I've heard recently -- and emailed Becky and told her the truth. I couldn't do it. Or, I clearly wasn't going to do it. I'd succumbed to another tried-and-true Passive-Aggressive decision-making technique: simply don't do anything and see what happens.

This is a decision-making technique I've used many times in the past, and it sucks. It sucks, because it's not how adults act. If you're responsible for anything as an adult, it's making your own feelings/position clear. When someone asks you something: "Do you want to review this literary review?" "Chicken or fish?" "Is it okay if I date your ex?" it's your job to make your feelings clear. Don't say, "Sure!" "Either is fine!" "Of course!" when the real answer is "Ack, I feel awkward," "I don't eat chicken or fish," or "That thought makes me want to die." If you don't woman-up and make your feelings clear, then it's all on you.

As it happens, this drama was a much bigger deal in my head than it was to anyone else (natch). Becky said, "Thanks for telling me, no worries," and sent me another literary review. Once again proving that big-girl pants are the way to go.

Here's the only coherent thing I'd worked up to say about the Ploughshares issue: most of the stories involved characters in a isolated, rural location. Other than the C.B. story, every story had some kind of line which said, essentially, "They lived in the middle of nowhere."

That's it. Aren't you so sad that you don't get to read a review filled with bon mots like that?

I'd like to close with saying that what I genuinely do like a great deal about The Review Review --and because, unlike The Review Review, this blog is not a real publication but simply my own narcissistic echo chamber, I have no problem saying here that I like things, unless you are a TV show I don't like...or Anne Hathaway: ugh, I hate her--is how often the reviews honestly do reflect my own feelings about literary reviews. It might be this review of The Colorado Review (of which Charles Baxter is a contributing editor, because the world is teeny tiny, another thought that makes me wake up, sweating, in the middle of the night), in which Jo Ann Heydron responds to sensible advice about submitting to the literary magazines by saying this:

I’ve appreciated the opportunity to review literary journals for The Review Review largely because doing so has made me sit down and read them. In the early part of this decade I had some success placing short stories in print journals using what a friend of mine calls the carpet-bombing method. I sent one story to twenty journals at the same time and waited for an acceptance...

Writer and editor Lynne Barrett recently wrote on this website that editors wade through oceans of material looking for “work that is developed, complete, thoroughly revised, and—of great importance—appropriate for the magazine.” In order to provide what is appropriate for publication, writers must “read the magazines.”

That is, even if you’re working through a pile of novels, memoirs, poetry, and journalism, even if you haven’t yet read Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom or Tolstoy’s War and Peace, if you want to publish in literary journals, you have to make time to read them.

Having done this myself, I can attest to another reason for reading them: pure pleasure. The spring issue of Colorado Review is a case in point.

I, too, have appreciated the opportunity to review for The Review Review because it gives me the opportunity to read literary reviews: to sit down with one, read it from cover from cover, and feel guilt-free (oh god! I should be doing x or y other thing! I should reading x or y other thing!). I appreciate all the perspectives the site gives me. I appreciate the honesty of the site, including things like Becky Tuch addressing, head-on, whether literary reviews are even relevant.

I guess I think that things like The Review Review are like a really awesome gym buddy. Wait, hear me out. Exercising -- in my case, I've settled upon yoga and dance classes, at a gym and local studio -- makes me feel good. I like it while I'm doing it; it has long-term benefits for me; even in the short term, it makes me feel calmer, stronger, more flexible, happier. But, left to my own devices, I often won't do it. This seems silly. You enjoy it -- it makes you feel good -- it's good for you -- so why wouldn't you do it all the time?

Well. Lots of reasons. Laziness. It feels like I don't have enough time. There are plenty of other things to do. It's hard. It can be expensive. Sometimes it challenges me or makes me feel inferior. TV has gotten really good lately.

But if you have a gym buddy, this all changes. A friend that goes to a yoga class with you. Someone you only see when you meet up at the gym because you're both really busy. You can laugh about the class together. You can catch up before or after the class. The guilt of taking time away from all the million other things you have to do -- or from spending a little extra money -- is absolved, because your friend is doing it, too, and sometimes splitting the cost with you.

A site like The Review Review functions like that: someone who raises the same questions you have and complains about some of the same things you do -- who might snark a little with you at the yoga instructor's overly earnest opening monologue while agreeing with you about the basically worthwhile nature of the exercise you're engaged in.

Tucson's own Poetry Center works like that, too: they have an extensive library of literary journals and you can go there and read them, free of some of the difficulties otherwise involved in reading lots of different literary reviews. [FULL DISCLOSURE: I KNOW SOME PEOPLE WHO WORK THERE]*

*See? I'm growing.

Because let's be honest: sometimes reading literary reviews can be a bit overwhelming, particularly for the would-be writer. I remember going to the AWP bookfair for the first time in 2005 and feeling 1) ignorant; 2) overwhelmed; 3) depressed. Sure, ideally, you want to only submit your work to places that you know about -- journals you've read and respect. But there are so many -- and which ones....-- and what if the journal is run by an MFA program and you know that the editors change every year and what if you've volunteered to be a journal reader and know for a fact that the stories got passed around at a bar and you put our own gin-and-tonic on top of one and you didn't finish reading it because you generally sucked at the time?

I mean, sometimes we all feel -- I'm sure of it -- like the narrator of Nicholson Baker's The Anthologist (he's talking about poetry, but it can apply just as well to fiction):

And then there is, of course, always, and inevitably, this spume of poetry that's just blowing out of the sulphurous flue-holes of the earth. Just masses of poetry. It's unstoppable, it's uncorkable. There's not way to make it end.

It we could just--stop. For one year. It everybody could just stop publishing their poems. No more. Stop it. Just--everyone. Every poet. Just stop.

But of course that's totally unfair to the poets who are just starting out. This may be their "wunderjahr." This may be the year that they really find their voice. And I'm telling them to stop? No, that wouldn't do.

But wouldn't it be great? To have a moment to regroup and understand? Everybody would ask, Okie doke, what new poems am I going to read today? Sorry: none. There are no new poems.

Because sometimes, you're at the AWP bookfair and you go into sensory overload or you have more new literary journals piled around your bed then you have time to read or you open one and just hate the stories inside--they look like stories but they are not stories!--or you love all the stories and start to feel really depressed about your own prospects--I look like a writer but I am not a writer! I AM MORTAL AND AM GOING TO DIE AND NO ONE WILL CARE--and it all seems like too much and it's easier to stay home and cry into your popcorn and not go to the gym or maybe instead you can futilely rage against the present literary climate and evoke some past literary golden age that clearly the writers/publishers of today JUSTDON'TUNDERSTAND and STUPID LITERARY JOURNALS WHY SO MANY and then it's like, breathe, okay? Just do your yoga breathing and relax:

(NOTE: Sam Winchester is not doing yoga breathing in the above animated GIF. He is, however, learning how to control his anger, which is totally consistent with the principles of yoga).

My point is that, when one starts to fill with anxiety and feel the need to nostril-breathe, it's helpful to have a gym-buddy: The Review Review or The Poetry Center or just friends who are also excellent readers and writers and occasionally get things published and steer you in the right direction. Just breathe and go exercise: you'll feel better, it'll become a habit, it'll be good for you in the long term, both as a human being and as a writer, and you'll even have fun doing it if you freaking relax.

So: I got sent an issue of VQR to review and I'm very excited. I don't know anyone in the issue. [FULL DISCLOSURE: I once saw Benjamin Percy at an AWP party, but I did not speak to him. {FULL FULL DISCLOSURE: I may have been drinking a lot of gin-and-tonics at the time} ]

Bring it on, objectivity and rational excitement/evaluation of the whole literary review process.

More thoughts to add, but this is already way too long. Later!

Sam, calm down:

ETA: I ordered Ethan's story "Summer, Boys" from One Story, along with a short story by Etgar Keret and was pleasantly surprised at how cheap it is to order One Story. And although it's, like, THE CONCEPT of One Story to just publish, well, one story at a time, I was struck all over again at how neat this format is -- it totally bypasses the sensory overload, nostril-breathing effect of a big fat stack of literary journals.

Anyway, just wanted to say that back at that same AWP in 2005 when the bookfair nearly gave me a panic attack, a volunteer from One Story was walking around handing out sample issues. She gave me a story, and I looked at it dubiously, having never heard of One Story (as I'd never heard of most literary journals). I took the small packet of paper from the volunteer who was doing her best to be cheerful and hand out samples to strangers (a job that never doesn't suck), and I looked at it with suspicion, as if were potentially a tract from a Jehovah's Witness or a bomb (at the time, my attitude was basically, "If I don't understand it, it makes me uncomfortable, and I resent it").

Anyway, the story was "Girl Reporter" by Stephanie Harrell and it was really good. I wish I could go back in time and say, "THANK YOU for giving me this neat execution of a literary journal, volunteer who is not getting paid and has to approach strangers and give them things, a job that never doesn't suck. I APPRECIATE YOU AND YOUR TIME. THANK YOU FOR INTRODUCING ME TO ONE STORY."

1 comment:

The Review Review said...

Thanks Laura! We're so happy to have you be part of The Review Review, panic attacks and all. And if you do ever decide you want to say something about that issue of Ploughshares, by all means the door remains open.

In the meantime, yeah, The motherfucking New Yorker!! Love it.

Keep up the great work, gym buddy.