Monday, May 5, 2008

misery review

One of the things drummed into me from my first creative writing course was that a writer must subscribe to some kind of literary magazine. I wasn’t taught until the fourth year of undergrad how to submit to these magazines. The array was always dizzying and they’re none of them cheap. Thus the only reason I ended up with a 2-year subscription to Missouri Review was a failed submission to the Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize.
I’ve been on all sides of this equation: I’ve edited and worked on a magazine and an e-zine and a fanzine, and I’ve submitted to many, and now I’m a reader. Missouri Review is well-edited (though both Winter 2007 and Spring 2008 have typos). Winter 2007, the first issue I received (for “free”; it was included in the reading fee for the contest) was superb, which is why I got the 2-year subscription. What I am realizing—and on one hand it’s disheartening and on the other it’s validating—is that most of Missouri Review’s contributors are older, with PhDs or MFAs, grants, prizes, prolonged stints as professors of this or that University. As old as I think 24 is, I can see now that I was setting my sights a bit high in aiming for Editors’ Prize in Missouri Review.

I question why the editors choose to have their author blurbs before poetry and after prose. (Scribendi’s bios were always at the end, in alphabetical order according to author’s name.) None of the cartoons in either issue is remotely amusing. Those are practically the only criticisms I have, however. My favorite section of the Winter 2007 edition is a fascinating found text: “Laurence Olivier’s Text to Young Actors.” It is superbly illustrated with photographs of Olivier (in a journal that has a tendency toward intimidating blocks of prose not significantly broken even by pull quotes). This issue also includes an excellent “Survey of the Graphic Memoir” by Lisa Hoashi. This discusses such classics as Maus and Persepolis as well as Epileptic by David B, Blankets by Craig Thompson, Fun Home by Alison Bechdel, and Cancer Vixen by Marisa Acocella Marchetto. I love graphic stories, and what is fascinating to me is the range of artistic skill/style. Marjane Satrapi’s panels in Persepolis are small, not especially detailed or life-like but because her command of expressing emotion in black-and-white contrast is so good, it’s a perfect accompaniment for her words.

Dennis McFadden is clearly a pro; his semi-fable story “The Three-Sided Penny” is polished and entertaining. “Kind” by L.E. Miller is my favorite of the fiction pieces, resembling The Bell Jar in setting and tone. It’s similar to some of my own work (at least I think so!) and I identify with the heroine, Ann, who is both shy, retiring, penny-pinching (“She was not the kind of girl to whom such things happened”) and capable of sharp wit. Robyn L. Murphy successfully pulls the wool over your eyes and makes you think she is a middle-aged man whose mother is dying of cancer in “Necessary Parts.” Indeed, characterization is probably the main focus of the story, as the narrator’s wife has recovered from a disfiguring car accident. The narrator seems to be a satellite character, which is always an interesting position to be in.

I wasn’t very taken by the poetry of Paul Guest or Stephen O’Connor. Preston Mark Stone’s “White Power” is potent, while his other poems are artistic and garrulous, something like “For the Benefit of Mr. Kite” mixed with Baudelaire. I confess I don’t know much about Lore Segal but I found much insight in her interview. “Vien a ca, beda” is Bart Skarzynski’s first publication, and while he’s got a fantastically robust pretentiousness, I don’t think he’s earned it with this piece. The description and the characterization are strong, however, a memoir piece should make a point of some kind, draw the analysis together, otherwise it’s just a string of events that the author hasn’t taken the time to examine, or even try to examine. I’m not saying each memoir piece should have a moral or a lesson, but it should be grappling to find the deeper meaning. I don’t see Skarzynski’s piece doing that. By contrast, Elaine Neil Orr’s “My Life With Hair” combines analysis (of self and culture) extremely well—until the end, where I feel it peters out slightly. However, this is the kind of memoir I have mostly found it in myself to write: the deeply personal, full of feelings, assumptions, second-guessing, stripping one’s self bare for an audience that one hopes is sympathetic by being let in on the secret.

Spring 2008 showcases the three winners of the Jeffrey E. Smith prizes. It’s easy to see why Otis Haschemeyer’s “The Fantôme of Fatma” won for fiction: set in Mali among cave climbers with a liminal figure as an uneasy hero, it is certainly distinctive. In all honesty, though, I wished it was a little longer, a little more confident in its characterization: I can hardly tell the climbers apart despite names like Wolfy and Deon. By contrast, Cynthia Morrison Phoel’s “Never Trust a Man Who—”, set in 1995 Bulgaria, is amazingly good. This is the story I want to be able to write, this is the story I strive to write. Like “Kind,” it’s about loneliness. In more than just the setting I feel it resembles The Unbearable Lightness of Being. And it resounds with me: “Sylvia considered checking herself into a sanatorium before it was too late and they found her in bed, catatonic, hairbrush melted to the hotplate.” Whereas the setting in “Fantôme” feels a bit self-conscious, I believe in Sylvia’s Sofia as I believe in her as a character. Sylvia’s changes in character are small and it could be argued nothing much happens in the story. I, however, love its forward and backward motion in a bus and to a past where Sylvia learns English from Mrs. Kuneva, who teaches her students synonyms for heartbreak and endearingly English phrases like “bloody hell.”

Natalie Sears really captures voice in “Arctic Summer.” It’s like being sixteen again, that curious combination of thinking you know what you’re doing, yet being so immature at the same time. The story is a simple one of love found and lost, again in an unusual setting: Qikiqtarjuaq Island in the Arctic Circle. In tone it reminds me of Sarah Waters. One is sobered by the thought that “Whistling in the Louvre” is John Alford’s first piece of published fiction, as its mood of autumn and loss is similar to “Kind” and yet more devastating. Its setting in a mental institution with its pervasive smell of piss is so well-rendered I’m left shaking my head.

Jerald Walker’s “The Mechanics of Being” on the other hand, feels like an author’s first published piece. As a personal essay with profound pathos—the story of his parents, both blind from childhood accidents—I feel it doesn’t live up to its potential. It feels cursory, thrown-together, and considering this author’s publication in Best American Essays 2007, I wonder if I’m missing something? Robert Kimber’s “Big Jim” wins the prize for best essay, and again I can see why. It lauds both a person and a place—Big Jim Island and camp in Maine, and Don Yeaton, the camp’s year-round caretaker for several decades. It reveals affection from the young author for the caretaker, thought by others to be a ne’er-do-well, while also acknowledging the author’s father’s courage, and showing fondness for the camp itself. I liked it, but it didn’t astound me; to be honest I found it a bit boring.

Amos Magliocco’s “Put on the Petty” was my favorite of the essays. It’s the kind of essay I would have expected to come out of creative nonfiction 400-level workshop. So many of those involved adventure, pain, loss, and acknowledgment of one’s own shortcomings: the non-linear structure also elevates this essay above the mundane. As a story about the psychological effects of stormchasing, the reader can sense the brutality from the beginning, and it’s the sort of essay that makes your heart ache. This essay and “The Mechanics of Being” bring up the purpose of writing creative nonfiction/memoir in the first place. Should it be merely cathartic? Do you just have to have a searing personal history? Or if you tell something mundane, can the essay be just as good? Clearly, with Kimber in the company of Walker and Magliocco, it can go both ways. I think it’s a fine line between cathartic and a personal psychiatrist’s visit.

Jude Nutter won for her poetry, and it is fine stuff. I was particularly impressed by “The Insect-Collector’s Demise” and how her poems here were able to draw from the view point of a child and bring in context Shakespeare and Bergen-Belsen. “The mind is a jailer / whose job it is to wake us / when we are not sleeping . . .” She also reminded me of Christine Evans, and believe me, that’s a compliment. I was also very impressed by C.K. Hutchins’ poetry. In “Confessions of a Tactile Kleptomaniac,” she comes to terms with her father’s death in a sort of list poem spanning continents. “From Mozart I learned one requiem is all that is required.” “A Way Back to Life” should be a welcome anthem for anyone who travels, rootless. Michael McGriff’s poetry is distinctive, more narrative, with its line-indent-line format. He says he is working on a long poem about the Oregon logging town where he was born, and his style should move the reader along through something of that length nicely. His work reminds me both of Annie Proulx and Seamus Heaney. “why are there hills? / because the instructions for the valley / were read upside down.”

When my Spring 2008 edition came, I was happy because the interviewee was actually someone I’d heard of, Charles Baxter, a personal friend of Jack Trujillo from whom I took creative writing 300-level, whose story we had had to read in that class. I was a bit put off by the author in the actual interview; he came off as rather snobbish.

I forgot to tell you, but some time ago Ian Mond, a writer for Big Finish, was sozzled and Googling, apparently, and came across my review for Short Trips: A Universe of Terrors. Since I was complimentary he was happy, and I was flattered that he deigned to leave a note. So if any of the authors are Googling, I hope this makes them happy and not upset.


Natalie said...

Hey there-- I'm Natalie, author of "Arctic Summer." Since I was so excited about having my first story published, I immediately started Googling to see if anyone wrote anything about it...your blog is the only thing I've found so far! So I wanted to thank you for your comments. They definitely made me happy.

PS--I, too, am 24, and don't have an MFA. So don't ever let that stop you! Take care.

Le Mc said...

Hi Natalie--I wondered why I had written this blog entry so no one was reading it--glad you Googled it and it made you happy!

Best of luck and hooray for us without MFAs!

Amos Magliocco said...

Hey, I'm Amos, and I wanted to thank you as well for the kind words about "Put on the Petty."

And congrats also to Natalie for landing her very first story in such a great journal! All Best, Amos

Le Mc said...

Hi Amos, thanks for stopping by, you're welcome. I enjoyed the essay.

Robyn Murphy said...

Hi, I'm Robyn, and I just wanted to say thanks for the very nice comment about my story!

Age or a lack of an MFA won't stand in the way of publication -- my first story was published in The Berkeley Fiction Review when I was 21 and just finishing my undergraduate degree. The best way to get published is to accept that rejection happens ("Necessary Parts" was rejected by twenty mags, many far less prestigious then The Missouri Review), and that you should never take it to heart. Hone the writing, and just keep sending it out.