Size matters

I tucked into Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke recently. Twenty pages in, I had a bad feeling that I didn’t want to read it anymore. The next 20 pages made it worse. My dispatch from page 60 will have to come at a later date, for I have cast aside that “wildly ambitious” “masterpiece” for now. But what I’m really interested in is the clunk it made on the floor. Does “wildly ambitious” have to mean 614 pages? Humongous books get some automatic points, it seems, for being humongous — it takes a lot of ambition to make something so big, right? Maybe more reviewers should hand out points for brevity.

Meghan O’Rourke offered in 2006 a nice defense of the “small” novel in reaction to The New York Times’ inclusion of just a few in a “best works of American fiction” list.

Being termed ‘small,’ it seems, is a verdict on whether a book is familiarly ‘American.’ It reflects a perceived failure to pursue explicitly enough, in formal or thematic terms, our representative narratives of money, regret, ambition, and individual struggle in the messy maelstrom of contemporary social reality.

All that “flotsam and jetsam of social reality,” as O’Rourke calls it, tends to take up lots of pages. You could put two copies of The Things They Carried into Tree of Smoke and still squeeze in a Jesus’ Son.

Daniel Woodrell, who wrote the novel Winter’s Bone, suggested in an interview that the “sprawling novel”-ist leaves his or her job unfinished. He used to like many of those writers, he told The Southeast Review.

But now, I’m cutting in my head as I go along. I hear a lot of writers say this, that they’re cutting in their head as they read. It’s almost a different sensibility. I have a writer friend who tends to write longer works. They always call it being more ambitious, which I resent, because sometimes those writers aren’t making the difficult decisions of what needs to be there and what doesn’t. That’s what makes writing hard. Leaving everything, letting the readers decide what’s good, those are the choices I want the artist to make.”

I tend to agree.

Animated Poetry: How design and interactive media are changing the way we view prose

Over the past week the WS editors had a fun task: hunt down animated videos of poetry and prose. In this search we discovered some really wonderful sites devoted to rethinking the way we process literature. Below I’ve included some of my favorites along with short descriptions of the sites. What was most surprising during the search was how successful collaborations between film makers, designers and poets can substantially improve the ‘reading’ experience. How words accompanied by visually stunning work resonated deeper, so much to the point that I felt them climb the back of my spine, and left me sincerely happy/depressed/hopeful/existentially drained- depending on content.

Here are two of my favorite links. The first is an adaptation of “Render, Render,” by Thomas Lux. The second is a German Translation of “The Chimney Sweeper,” by William Blake. Hope you Enjoy!

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And it goes on

The Oscars were last night, as, I think, most people know. Award shows aren’t usually my cup of tea, but my sister is staying with me right now, and she wanted to watch, and so I sat through a full night of interviews (“who designed your dress?”), speculation (there was really that much pre-awards industry support for The Social Network?), and then, of course, the actual awards. (Now might actually be a good time to mention that my movie knowledge is fairly limited, too. I’m chalking my relatively high number of correct picks up to sheer dumb luck.)

A few hours before turning on the television, I was discussing the nominees for best actor and best actress with my sister. I mentioned an article I’d seen online (for the life of me, I can’t remember where) about how most of the nominees (and winners) for actress tend to be for women in family roles—they either act as a love interest or a mother. The exception this year, obviously, was Black Swan. The nominees (and winners) for best actor, on the other hand, have roles that can stand alone.

I’d forgotten about this by the time the awards started, however, since I couldn’t independently confirm or deny this, since I have seen so few of the films in question. But then I stumbled across the following video, which discusses the balance of male stories versus female stories in films receiving best picture awards. (Original link here.)

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I would like to thank the Academy…

In case you didn’t know, the Oscars were last night.  Until then, I hadn’t watched the Oscars in years–I believe it was the year Renee Zellweger was nominated for her role in Bridget Jones’ Diary and I was floored that a comedy received a Best Actress nomination. I watched parts of it between scenes during a rehearsal–that’s how long ago that was. This year, I was a little shocked to see our buddy James Franco alongside Anne Hathaway–not a pair I could have foreseen, but I guess I’m a little out of the Hollywood loop. But that’s not important. What’s important is that regardless of how many of the nominated films I’ve seen or how strongly I agree (or disagree) with the Academy’s decisions, Oscar season always gets me thinking about the movies I love. So here, in chronological order, are ten of my favorite Oscar-winning films, which you should buy, rent, or Netflix immediately: Read more »

How to Write a Sentence by Stanley Fish

How to Write a Sentence book cover

All lovers of language should read this book.

Sometime last year Chris Howell remarked in passing that undergraduates should have to spend an entire course learning how to write a sentence. At the time I was teaching some of the very undergrads he was talking about, and even though I agreed that they needed a deeper understanding of language and the funny little ideas sloshing around in their brains, I was hesitant to go off the deep end of the grammar pool. That is until I read Stanley Fish’s new book, How to Write a Sentence, and How to Read One.

First, a disclaimer: I, unlike some of my friends and many of my students, was immersed in grammar instruction both in high school and for an entire year of college linguistics. I remember diagramming sentences in tenth grade English. I know how to use commas and a lot of the parts of speech, although I still get confused by simple verb tenses like present participle. (Isn’t that like “I am eating strawberries”? See, I get confused.) And these moments of confusion about the “taxonomy,” as Fish calls it, of language worry me. Does this mean I’m not a real writer because I can’t remember what an appositive is or the difference between that and a prepositional phrase? But I feel like I’m pretty good at understanding the relationships between words and phrases and how they can be put together to make an interesting unit of thought.

And that’s the basic philosophy behind Fish’s book:

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on being a stranger: part 2

Someone lives here: Courtyard in Bucharest, Romania. (Photo by MCR)

1. You know the cliche/true story about the man selling apples on the side of the road in post-communist Russia? “Back then,” he says, “I used to be an engineer.”

2. You’re talking about music venues, or cheap brunch, or falafel stands. “It’s not as good as it used to be,” someone will say.

3. And there’s a New Orleans theme restaurant here in Kreuzberg, near a park. Closed the cold day I walked by.

In Part 1 of this post, I left off with: “Sometimes I forget and think I am equal to everyone.”

What I want to know is whether or not displacement leaves a human being equal to his or herself. The self he was on his own ground. Or whether it’s just a false, discomfited nostalgia that leaves us longing for whatever came before. No matter how stifling or stale or persecuted: it was home.

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Tell It Slant

Searching for new literary magazines to send my stories, I stumbled upon Tell It Slant, a new website aiming to help both writers and journals better manage unsolicited submissions.  I vacillated at the thought of joining.


  1. Allows me to submit stories to several magazines without the hassle of printing out the story, addressing envelope, etc.
  2. $1.50-3 price per submission is roughly the same as the cost of mailing a submission.
  3. Assuming the website succeeds, I’ll easily learn about new journals as they are added to the website’s catalogue.


  1. Paying to submit a story online is irksome.
  2. Website may not succeed.

I joined.  And after setting up a paypal account with Tell It Slant, purchasing credits with which to use to submit stories, writing a brief biography to be included with each submission, I discovered a new “con.”  Each time I hit “submit,” an error message appeared.  Were my stories successfully submitted?


  1. Under “My submissions,” it clearly shows the names of the literary magazines, the title of my submissions, and the dates submitted.


  1. My credit total has remained unchanged at 18.
  2. When I attempted to contact the website to report my difficulty I received the same error message.

I am currently in wait-and-see mode.

Conclusions at this time:

Assuming they get the bugs worked out, I think the website is an excellent model.  My biggest hang-up was the money factor, but paper submissions cost money too (ink, paper, stamps etc), and are wasteful in regards to the environment.  The website also does a great job explaining the submission process, both external and internal, to literary magazines.  If you haven’t been to an MFA program, or worked for a lit mag, you can really learn a lot here.  Finally, “tell the truth, but tell it slant,” is a great, great poem.

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I have recently started a job with an hour long commute each way on the bus. Sometimes, the bus gets stuck in the transit tunnels and my ride home extends a half hour (really, the transit mechanics in Seattle are incredibly swift if you think about it). That’s about eleven hours on the bus each week (buses get stuck in the transit tunnel more often that one would think; perhaps thorough would be better than swift?). I dusted off my Ipod resubscribe to my favorite podcasts. It’s amazing how much vodka-soaked, camouflaged men respect earbuds and how often I look crazy on the bus because of my inability to listen without reacting.

Do you have any recommendations of shows I should add to my listening? Maybe some linguists or poets?

Here’s my list:

The first time I listened to Wire Tap, it was like meeting a platypus–the show is fun and bizarrely put together and sometimes quite serious (did you know that a platypus has venomous claws?).

Anyway, Wire Tap is hysterical. One third of the premise is basically that the host Jonathan Goldstein has wacky friends who call him during his interview hour. There’s a mix of interviews (which are fictional but could be true. For example, one guy recounts how he started eating timothy hay pellets, i.e. rabbit food), written-to-read items by Jonathan Goldstein (I really got a kick out of the superhero short stories like The Penguin falls in love with Mary Poppins, as they both use umbrellas as a mode of transportation.)

Have you ever been afraid of laughing like a crazy person while the bus is going through a transit tunnel? If so, the Sound of Young America may not be for you. They cull skits to re-air and present interviews with comedians. Some of the skits have had me laughing days later, like Superego’s “My Baby Dreamer.”
This short story podcast is like going home with a bottle of Makers Mark–the ingredients and the method are solidly good, so you know it’ll be a quality time.

Once a month, the fiction editor at the New Yorker sits down with a current author to read and discuss one of their favorites short stories that the New Yorker has published. Lots of classic stories are read and discussed. Awesome. One of my favorites was Jonathan Franzen reading Ian Frazier’s “Coyote v. Acme.”

I don’t have enough drama in my life. Consequently, I enjoy hearing people awkwardly explain their sexual issues on the air while Dan Savage calls their (boy-/girl-) friends douchebags before delivering advice. I often find myself nodding in agreement and sometimes saying, “What a douchebag” aloud, right in sync with Savage.

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friends & followers, tweeps & peeps—or how mike doughty inadvertently got me to quit facebook

william wordsworth

this man would probably not approve of twitter.

the other week former soul coughing frontman turned terrific singer songwriter mike doughty did a thoughtful and honest interview with new hampshire public radio (full 30+ minute version here; 10 minute edit here).  at about 14 minutes in, he talks about that moment of discovery you can still have, even after hearing a song million times.  coincidently, a couple days later i was listening to jeff buckley’s cover of “hallelujah” (for the millionth time).  i was walking my dog and using my ipod with a set of earbuds that have these foam cone things which do a remarkable job of blocking external noise.  and, for the first time ever, i heard jeff buckley gasp, for literally just a second, before that first haunting note hits.  it stopped me stone cold in my tracks.

i’ve always loved that song, and found it soulful in the way white boys with guitars can be.  but hearing that brief little exhalation just knocked me out.  like there was this whole other, even deeper level of exhaustion beneath the song that i didn’t even pick up on before.  and that made me think of the last time i watched “high fidelity,” one of my all-time favorite movies.  there’s a scene in which liz asks the broken-hearted rob gordon, “why do you want laura back so badly?”  and the camera flashes to rob’s face, for just a moment, before cutting to the next scene.  what i never really noticed, before my most recent viewing, was the look in rob’s face—as if he had never even considered that question before.  it was brilliant bit of acting & editing.

and all of this made me think of an article i read (but sadly can’t remember where, in order to link to it) which advocated the position of reading a lot, but fewer writers—as opposed to reading just one or two books from many different authors.  the idea being that we as readers can learn more by studying an entire body of one author’s work rather than trying to assimilate the ideas of hundreds.  the familiar depth vs. breadth argument.  which brings me to facebook.

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Change comes eventually like rain: My unnecessary defense of Mary Oliver

It gets heated in poetry workshop...over swans.

The title of this post is a line from a poem I wrote in my junior year of high school. My family had just moved from New Jersey to North Carolina and I was channeling my unrest through poetry. The following line of the poem, reveals the teen angst, “…my life is a rainforest.”  Now years later and thousands of miles from sweet, sunny Carolina, with snow falling outside my window, I can’t help but wonder why change is so hard to handle.

This quarter in my poetry workshop, our professor assigned Mary Oliver’s  collection of poetry, Swan for class discussion. I didn’t have strong feelings about the poems in any way but I was surprised by the passion some of my classmates were feeling in response to Oliver’s latest work. Many of them had grown up reading  Oliver and thought Swan was a huge departure. They argued over whether or not Oliver was knowingly writing against the RULES OF POETRY.  These rules, which are so embedded in our learned consciousness, were thrown around in the discussion like nursery rhymes: Read more »

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