Sunday, February 27, 2011

One (Dull) Story

I've been preoccupied lately with writing my first novel (I'm about halfway done with a draft), so I haven't had much chance to write and submit short stories. I did complete one, titled "Aphasia," and I'll be sending that out soon to see what happens. But in the meantime, rather than offering more of my own short fiction, I thought I'd comment on someone else's.

Over the past year, I've subscribed to the literary journal One Story, whose innovative idea is to send out precisely one story to subscribers roughly every three weeks. Of the fifteen or so stories I've received from them this year, I've really liked about five and at least appreciated another five; the rest I haven't thought much of. The most recent one, titled "Summer, Boys" by Ethan Rutherford, falls into the "appreciated" category: it's beautifully written, but in my view, utterly predictable and ultimately unsatisfying.

"Summer, Boys" is a coming-of-age story about two unnamed fifth-grade boys who develop an intense friendship centered on the common interests of many prepubescent males: professional football, skateboarding, dirt bikes. The two are inseparable until an older cousin of one of the boys mocks their interests as childish and introduces them to his own interest, namely video porn. The story ends with the two friends uncomfortably but compulsively trying out on each other one of the acts they witnessed in the video. So in the end, the story becomes what just about anybody could have predicted it would become from the first word (which is "Friends"): a story of the loss of innocence, conveyed through the medium of homosexual experimentation.

And that's precisely my problem with the story. Not the homosexual experimentation, which I'm confident lots of boys engage in as they're making the passage from childhood to teenhood. What bothered me was the predictability. As a rule, I think we can agree that any story whose plot can be expressed in the form of a tabloid headline isn't a very original story: "Two Young Boys Lose Their Innocence and Engage in Homosexual Experimentation!" What's so interesting about that?

Rutherford, it must be said, can write his pants off (no pun intended). Just look at this sentence (and yes, it's all a single sentence):

"Plays are called, random numbers, slow huts, sharp hikes, and the trees lining the street, the great oaks and elms that have been watching over this particular block for who knows how long, have seen how many plays called, have seen how many errant, throwing-starred punts go up on the roof, who hold, in their branches, a generation's worth of Aerobies too high to knock out--these trees, who have enjoyed, for centuries it seems, those magical on-the-lawn-hours when balls are drawn heavenward, who have stood in rapt attention for those endless minutes before the car-door slamming parents return from the outside world to ask their kids what the hell, just what the hell is going on, these trees, they whistle their applause."

That's good stuff. But to my thinking, it's form without much substance; it sounds great, it evokes a feeling, but it's all in the interest of setting up the scene toward which you knew the story was driving all along. The trees, see, are timeless, but cruel Time will snatch these boys and drag them toward teenhood and an Unspeakable Act! But that Act being neither unspeakable nor particularly interesting, the trees are mostly wasting their time, or ours, by leading up to it.

Some might say it's precisely the job of stories to render the commonplace in uncommon language; others will quibble that the classic definition of the short story presumes that every word will indeed point toward a single predetermined effect. But personally, I'm not much for stories that go to great stylistic lengths to tell me something I already know, or something I could already see coming from word one. I much prefer stories that teach me something I don't know, stories that shock or surprise me, if only (to paraphrase Emerson) with the alienated familiarity of my own being.

If you want to read a couple recent coming-of-age stories that do just that, check out Benjamin Percy's "Refresh, Refresh" and James Lee Burke's "Why Bugsy Siegel Was a Friend of Mine." Both of them are brilliant, impossible to summarize, surprising, melancholy, hilarious, sad. No timeless trees or unspeakable acts in either, but I promise you won't miss them.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Sixty Students

Facing financial meltdown, the Detroit public school system has been ordered to close half its schools, raising class sizes to as high as sixty students per high school class. Just another present to the people from our enlightened leaders in Washington.

It's not fair, of course, to blame this crisis entirely on the present Republican Congress. Detroit's public schools, like most big-city public schools, have been in freefall for decades.

But then, it's not inappropriate to suggest that the slash-and-burn mentality the current Republican Congress has brought to our nation's capital is the same that has failed our public schools over the past half-century.

To speak bluntly, our nation's leaders don't give a shit about poor black kids in Detroit's public schools. They never have. And witness the results.

I looked up the statistics on one of Detroit's public high schools, Barsamian Preparatory Center. (It was first on the alphabetical list.) Almost 100% of its students are black. Almost 80% receive free lunches. Its attendance rates are around 55%. Over 60% of its students lack proficiency (as defined under No Child Left Behind) in all subjects, including reading, math, and writing. That's actually a lot better than the district as a whole, where the below-proficient population is over 80%. And anywhere between 50 and 60% of the students in this "preparatory" high school drop out before completing their degrees.

Apparently, what they're being prepared for is the reality of being poor and black in America: no one gives a shit about you.

I have a prediction for the 60 students in each class at schools like Barsamian Prep. 30 will drop out and end up either dead on the streets, hooked on drugs, living off welfare, or working at minimum wage. Of the remaining 30, 10 will rely on public assistance, 10 will find low-wage employment, 5 will go to community college and obtain work as lab techs or clerical laborers, 4 will go to state schools and possibly manage to claw their way into the middle class, and 1 will go to Harvard, where, feeling hopelessly alienated and out of place, he'll commit suicide.

And our elected leaders in Washington will be chauffeured home to their mansions and townhouses, and wash their hands for dinner, and congratulate themselves on a job well done.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Burn, Baby, Burn

Sorry for the blaze of environmentally-themed posts in recent days--I promise I'll have something entirely new soon--but I was so incensed by the House vote yesterday, I just had to fire off this cartoon. And yes, as you can see, all the incendiary language is intentional.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

A Tolerable Planet

Recently, I reported on attempts to strip the Environmental Protection Agency of its power to regulate greenhouse gases. Today, I am sad to report House Republicans have had their way: in their spending bill, the House not only slashed EPA funding but tucked in an amendment to prohibit EPA regulation of heat-trapping gases. The reason, of course, is that they claim such regulations would hurt the economy.

The last time I talked about this issue, I tried to see it from the side of your average American, someone who's afraid of losing her or his job (or who has already lost it) and who honestly believes regulating CO2 and methane will hurt their chances of a decent life. That person, I suggested, was someone with whom one can sympathize.

But the Republican leadership and representatives aren't supposed to be your average Americans. Politicians are supposed to be forward-thinking, insightful people who understand the implications of their actions. They're supposed to think about the damn future, not just about the next election cycle.

Sadly, American politics are in ideological freefall, with neither party able to govern effectively. All they can do is piss off the electorate enough that the vote swings toward the other party two or four years later.

We are living in a climate-altered world. That's fact, not ideology. If the world's climate gets much worse, we may not be living at all. I can appreciate the difficulty of the average citizen in accepting that reality. But I can't accept elected officials' ideological purblindness to the actual world in which they and their constituents live.

Thoreau wrote in his journal: "What is the use of a house if you haven't got a tolerable planet to put it on?" That was in the 1850s. He was thinking of the future. If he were here today, he'd surely be shocked and saddened to see so many of the nation's supposed leaders living in the past.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Passing Gas

Here's my latest pictorial comment on newly inaugurated Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett and the natural gas industry he supports. If you're a Pennsylvanian (or New Yorker, or West Virginian, or Ohioan, or Texan, or just plain American) concerned about this issue, watch Josh Fox's film Gasland, check out the Marcellus Protest website or the blog "Fracked Again," and get involved!

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Third Option

I got a call a couple days ago from some lobbyist group trying to convince me that the EPA shouldn't be allowed to regulate greenhouse gases. Their reasoning? You guessed it: doing so would "hurt the economy." My response: "perhaps, but it would help the planet." Clearly, we had little to talk about, so we hung up.

It boggles the mind, this weighing of profit over planet. Taking the long view of things, it's impossible to conclude that those who favor the former over the latter are certifiably insane.

And yet, the thing is, they're not insane. They're behaving, in fact, in perfectly sane, indeed eminently rational ways. According to rational choice theory, most of us, when given an either-or choice, will choose the one that is most rational for our immediate circumstances. If the choice is between having a job today and having a planet 100 years from now, it's rational to choose the former over the latter. And so most people do.

This reminds me of discussions we've had in one of my classes this semester. Why, we've wondered, did northeastern woodlands Native peoples in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries over-hunt and over-trap fur-bearing animals? Couldn't they see that they were depleting the very resources on which they relied? Weren't they--according to the popular stereotype--environmentally conscious enough to want to preserve for the seventh or seven hundredth generation the land's bounty?

Perhaps they were. But they were also enmeshed in a colonial economy wherein just about the only valuable commodity they could sell or trade was furs. Their populations were decimated, their forests were falling, their lands were diminishing, their languages and cultures were threatened--and they still had to feed their families. Given the choice to do so over the choice to preserve hypothetical future beaver and deer, they rationally chose the former.

The same holds true in contemporary Native Nations. Some of my students were troubled, given the prevailing stereotypes, to hear of the presence of extractive, and highly destructive, industries on Indian reservations. How could Indian peoples damage the lands of their ancestors? Well, Indian peoples live, by and large, on the submarginal lands to which they've been relocated; poverty in their communities is endemic; opportunities for education or advancement are practically non-existent; and when the coal company comes knocking, the rational choice is to open the door and let them in.

All of this simply goes to show that to make a truly rational choice, one that empowers communities while at the same time embracing planetary health, we need a third option. And that third option can only come from systemic change; individual communities generally don't have it at their disposal or within their means.

Which is exactly why we need the EPA to regulate greenhouse gases. That, in conjunction with programs that help individuals pay the bills and that promote renewable energy and green jobs, would be a step toward that third option.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

My Best Work

I've noticed something odd about the editorial guidelines offered by many literary journals. In their tips to contributors, they often say something like, "send us only your best work." Which means . . . what?

Maybe it's some kind of code. Maybe if I'd attended an MFA program I'd know what they were talking about. Maybe it means, "make sure to proofread, you moron!" Or, "send only those stories that your thesis advisor compared favorably to the works of Chekhov and Hemingway." Or, "if you've written a hundred stories, throw them all at the steps and send only the one that lands on top."

Because really, how many writers seriously consider sending their worst work to a literary journal? Yes, I suppose there are a lot of desperate writers out there (maybe I'm one of them), and I suppose there are people who jot down a story, run a quick spell-check (or not), and then flood the markets with the thing. Given how many journals accept electronic submissions these days, this is relatively easy (and cheap) to do. So I guess, in this light, the journals are just trying to protect themselves.

But my guess is also that it doesn't work. Because those few writers who adopt the above approach are not going to be dissuaded by such editorial advice, and the rest of us are not going to be helped by it.

I'm confident that most writers, the vast majority of writers in fact, are sending their best work--the best work of which they're capable. That doesn't mean it's going to be great; but the fact that it isn't great doesn't mean it isn't their best. The majority of writers, even those whose stories are not very good, are not trying to annoy and infuriate editors by sending inferior stories; they're sending their best, and it's precisely the job of editors to determine which stories among the innumerable "my bests" are actually the best.

I've written lots of stories. Most of them I consider to be pretty good. A few I know are awful. And many I consider to be my best. But I'll be darned if I know how to make my best better. The only way I know to get better as a writer is to keep reading and writing, and so that's what I do--but should I sit on these stories forever, hoping that in years to come they'll meet someone else's hypothetical standard of "best"? Or should I send the work I consider to be my best at present, knowing that as I continue to write, my best will get better? The stories I send out for possible publication are the best I can do right now, and so it's not particularly helpful to tell me they're the ones I should be sending. That would be like me saying to my students, "Send me your best paper." What other paper would they send me?

I think it's time for some honesty here. Don't tell us on the editorial page, "send only your best work." Tell us, "send only the best story ever written, the single story most likely to be immortalized by the bards of the future." If I saw that advice, I'd know not to submit my stories there.

Instead, I'd submit to some market that's willing to consider my best.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Father Knows Beast

So I understand the Steelers lost in the Super Bowl. Sizeable Benjamin did not, as the blogger whom I mentioned in a previous post hoped, get his legs broken, but perhaps it would have been better for his team if he had; I hear he played very poorly. The city of Pittsburgh was briefly traumatized (I could tell from the absence of hoots and cheers outside my window Sunday night), but now everything appears to have returned to normalcy. Life goes on.

In my case, life was never interrupted; I spent the Super Bowl grading papers and watching Iron Man. Interesting film, though it's disturbing how its apparent critique of militarism turns into a critique of supplying arms to the bad guys (and thus, in the end, into a promotion of militarism on the part of the good guys). It was also intriguing for its use of a theme I've noticed in a number of fantasy films, where the father either is a monster or consorts with monsters. You see it in Iron Man when Tony Stark's surrogate father, Obidiah Stain, turns out to be the supplier of arms to the bad guys (and, later, dons the Iron Monger suit for a face-off with his estranged "son," Iron Man). You see it in The Spiderwick Chronicles, where the father, having deserted his family for some other woman, later returns to apologize--but it turns out he's actually the arch-villain, the shape-shifting ogre Mulgarath, in disguise. You see it in the Jurassic Park movies, where a bunch of childless, irresponsible men sic monstrous dinosaurs on innocent children. You even see it in Terminator 2, where the fatherless John Connor is both pursued and saved by Terminators posing as guardians. I'm sure I could multiply examples, but I think you get the point.

There's a very lengthy critical literature on the representation of the "monstrous-feminine," psychoanalytic critic Barbara Creed's term for the feminization of movie monsters. Supposedly, this has to do with men's universal fear of female genitalia, the vagina dentata, and all that. (Creed has a field day with the mouth-inside-a-mouth of the Alien monsters.) I'm sure there's something to this, but I prefer to read gendered monsters sociologically, to ask what cultural anxieties and desires underlie the representation of monsters as voracious moms or dastardly dads. For those interested in learning more, there's always my book Framing Monsters. Alternatively, you can pop any of the Star Wars movies into the DVD player and learn all you need to know for yourself.

Of course, we could also talk about the football quarterback as failed father-figure, but perhaps we'll save that for another time.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

The Big Four-Six

Today's my 46th birthday, and though I haven't learned much in 46 years, I thought I'd pass along, for what it's worth and in no particular order, some of what I have learned:

1. Human beings are amazing creatures. So are trees. And microbes. And dolphins. And three-toed sloths. And just about everything else.

2. Everything in life is too complicated to be understood or solved. It can only be addressed.

3. Art is infinitely better than war, but it makes far less money for the powerful.

4. Nature is good. And civilization is good. And Nature is good for civilization. But civilization is not good for Nature.

5. Ethical decisions follow the same rules outlined in #2 above.

6. If God exists, s/he appears to be content largely to let us figure things out on our own.

7. Faithlessness and unfaithfulness are not the same. Being faithless means denying what you don't believe in. Being unfaithful means denying what you do.

8. The best things in life (love, happiness, purpose, freedom, etc.) are not free. You have to work far harder to achieve them than you do to buy stuff.

9. There is no such thing as good luck. There's only a.) hard work or b.) random chance. Take your pick.

10. In art, we approach the divine. In divinity, we approach art.

11. Life is far too short. But if it were any longer, we'd probably waste most of it.

So there you have it. By next year, maybe I'll have learned something new.