Literature Living in the Past

(Editor’s Note: With this post we’re living in the past, in that this short essay originally appeared under the same title on August 9, 2013, at the Attacking-the-Demi-Puppets blog. It’s being reprinted because its approach represents the impetus behind our quest to reinvent the short story form– and because in five-plus years things haven’t much changed.)
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SHIRLEY JACKSON AND THE NEW YORKER

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The centerpiece of The New Yorker’s August 5 summer fiction issue is a story by Shirley Jackson named “Paranoia.” In style the short story reads like any other New Yorker short story published over the past year. Being from Shirley Jackson, it’s more entertaining than the run-of-the-mill NewYorker story. The biggest difference between “Paranoia” and other well-crafted New Yorker stories is that the story “Paranoia” by Shirley Jackson is sixty years old.

Did the run-of-the-mill New Yorker reader notice?

Likely not. In the first place, fiction appearing in The New Yorker is never read, A.) because the magazine’s purpose isn’t to be read, but to sit upon refined coffee tables in upscale residences from Manhattan to Newport Beach (but not very much in Newport Beach) as a marker of breeding and good taste—the unique cover announcing the week’s message; and B.) because the pieces that are actually read when an ambitious subscriber decides to read the magazine are the movie reviews and show listings, maybe the week’s big think piece, but never—never—the fiction. That the magazine still publishes “fiction,” even if no one reads the fiction, is all that’s required. “Oh, the fiction,” a person responds, looking at the Table of Contents. “Still there. Good.”

In on-line blurbs for the issue, The New Yorker hearkens back to a previous New Yorker story by Shirley Jackson, “The Lottery,” which received more mail response than any story they’ve ever published, before or since. “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson was published in 1948!

With today’s establishment-produced “fictions” we’re not talking about a healthy art form. There’s not been a lot of change in it. After sixty-plus years of presenting the same thing, the few remaining publishers of literary short stories have lost their audience. Renowned-but-little-read short story writer Charles Baxter acknowledges as much in a Daily Beast interview this week, with hardly a shrug. No attempt to understand the reasons. No desire to create something strikingly new. Charles Baxter has been writing the same kind of short stories for thirty years (not a long period from The New Yorker’s perspective). One thing we can bet about the short stories Baxter has published then and now is that they haven’t changed one iota. Since no one reads them, beyond dutiful writing students eager to learn how to duplicate them, does it matter?

A healthy art form—think of rock music from 1964 to 1967—is engulfed in explosions of creative discoveries everyplace, new trails blazed, the standard centerpiece of the art (the pop song) presenting radical new experiments and experiences by the week.

In literature, we get the unchanging literary story. As unchanged in 60 years as the proverbial generic McDonald’s hamburger left on a plate that never changes, always looking the same.

But The New Yorker is happy, and if they’re happy, the unthinking unblinking literary herd is also happy. Yes. A good year for the short story. 1948!

Maybe next they’ll bring back Joe DiMaggio to play for the Yankees.
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-Karl Wenclas, New Pop Lit News

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Why Change?

WHY CHANGE THE SHORT STORY ART?

THE ATTITUDE throughout the literary world is that our stories are very good no one could do better so why change anything?

Yet art like everything in nature needs to adapt, mutate, change.

The Rolling Stones

THERE ARE scores of bands today who can do anything the Rolling Stones did– in presentation, posturing, music– likely better, but the Stones got there first. Or almost first. Early enough.

Bob-Dylan

Hundreds, maybe thousands of wannabe folk singers can sing and play the guitar as well or better than Bob Dylan ever did– some even write as well– yet Bob Zimmerman got there before them.

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Dozens of singers in groups and bands can blend their voices as well as did the 70’s Swedish pop act ABBA. But ABBA did that kind of thing before them.
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Here’s a photo of an ABBA sound-alike group from California, Music Go Music. They’re pretty good. Ever hear of them?

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MEANWHILE, there are at least a hundred rock bands out there influenced by– and sounding and looking very much like– the classic rock band Led Zeppelin. Most prominent among them is Greta Van Fleet, which won the 2019 Grammy for Best Rock Band. (You know rock lost its cred and impetus when they created a Grammy category for it. Tamed and neutered.) Here’s a photo of the band:

greta van fleet

What, are we back in the 1970’s? This is not called reinventing an art form, or even renewing it. It’s called recycling something which lost steam more than twenty years ago. It’s art going through the motions– staying alive in a culture, but barely. On life support. (The situation “Literature” has been in for decades.)
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THERE ARE EVEN today painters who can paint just like Paul Gaugin and Vincent van Gogh (if not with quite their amount of passion and soul), but when those two artists came onto the scene no one was painting like they were painting.

We remember the pioneers, the innovators, the creators-not-regurgitators, in any field.

WHAT are we asking of short story writers?

We’re asking them to be prepared to scrap their current beliefs on how to write, to be ready to radically alter their present modes of writing– to be willing to change the way they view the art, because one way or another, from this corner or another, artistic change IS coming.

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Not “Literature.” Instead: POP LIT.
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-Karl Wenclas, New Pop Lit NEWS

Busting the Supply-Demand Equation

THE NEED FOR FICTION REINVENTION

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People fail to realize the extent to which most things in life are influenced by the supply-demand situation.

For instance in politics, the enormous oversupply of liberal arts graduates is one of the drivers of left-wing activity. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (who after college worked as a bartender) is a classic example.

But what about art? Writing?

WHEN GOOD ISN’T GOOD ENOUGH

Many competent short story writers are published every year in literary journals across the country. Several of them are crafting short stories better than vaunted New Yorker magazine fiction– which for decades has been the model for writing programs across the nation. We’ve published a few of those better writers at our main New Pop Lit site.

Having fiction placed in The New Yorker has been thought of as the Holy Grail for the standard MFA writing student. Thousands of MFA grads are attempting to follow that model. To squeeze through that narrow doorway. Lining up. Jamming up. A department store before the doors open on Black Friday.

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THE PROBLEM

The problem is that there are too many creative writers, and too few paying-or-prestigious outlets for their work. A vast oversupply of product. To meet it, tiny demand: very few people who read the overwritten New Yorker model. Today the creative writer’s audience consists of other creative writers, who’ve been trained to read and appreciate that obsolete style of story writing. (New Yorker stories themselves, with rare exceptions, are unread by most New Yorker subscribers.) Well-crafted literary stories are made to be admired, not read.

Today it doesn’t matter how well you the writer can write. The margin of difference between the best and the merely competent is small enough that decisions on who deserves publication and attention are made for reasons other than quality and talent. Instead, they’re made for reasons of politics, correctness, or connections.

THE SOLUTION

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The solution is to bust the supply-demand equation which currently exists in writing. This can be done on both ends.

1.) Create a faster, vastly more readable and exciting short story model– one so new and thrilling it demands to be read. Done right, this could grow the audience for short fiction several times over.

At this point the art is so marginalized there’s ample room for growth.

2.) Create a short story prototype so different from the standard– and difficult to do well– that few writers will be able to write it.

Doing this will create the “perfect storm” of jump-started demand, with few writers able to fill that demand. Those writers a step ahead of cultural history will be in a valuable spot. The vocation of fiction writer will become a worthwhile pursuit, for the first time in years.

Creating that new product won’t be easy. I’ve been working intensively on the matter for many months– really, longer (did my first rough version five years ago)– and am finding the going anything but easy.

Then again, life isn’t easy.
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-Karl Wenclas, New Pop Lit NEWS

 

Value of the Mind

REFLECTIONS THE MORNING AFTER THE SUPERBOWL

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The NFL will have to invoke the mercy rule. The New England Patriots have gone to the Superbowl too many times. They’ve turned the vaunted National Football League into something of a joke. Despite all attempts at creating parity in the league, one increasingly creaky team continues to dominate.

They achieved the Lombardi Trophy for winning the Superbowl with a 41 year-old quarterback against three teams each with more talent than them.

HOW DO THEY DO IT?

The New England Patriots’ success illustrates the truth that value in the world, as in an economy, comes from the mind.

For 18 years the Patriots have leveraged some incremental intangible advantage– somehow out-training and out-thinking their adversaries. Not by a lot, but by enough. Over the years that edge has multiplied so that even this year with a team of players literally in some cases off the street, Bill Belichick and Tom Brady, instituters of a slightly better system, have devastated the league– to the extent that critics continue to cry “luck!” or “cheating!” Which illustrates the critics’ lack of understanding.

HOW THE WORLD WORKS

Isn’t it the way of the world that an enterprise gains a slight edge over its competitors, and that edge multiplies itself again and again until the business dominates its field? In some cases becoming a monopoly. This explains the success of Starbucks and McDonald’s. They have a slight intangible edge– are able to in some way out-think and outperform their rivals. A better plan. Better thinking.

The key part of this is the way an edge is leveraged. Which explains the creation of billionaires.

This phenomenon applies to history. It explains, for instance, the rise of the West– how a better economic system combined with a stronger belief system gave Europe an edge which continued to increase, and increase. The phenomenon explains how America became, in less than 200 years after its founding, the greatest civilization the world has ever seen.

THAT America continues to value the individual mind more than do other countries– the key to American success– continues to give it an edge which draws value, in the form of ambitious go-getters, from around the world.

BETTER THINKING APPLIED TO LITERATURE?

Our bet at New Pop Lit is that creating and discovering better literary products, and presenting them in a better way, will give us an edge which will multiply quickly throughout the literary realm– and draw ambitious talent to our modest site.

WE SEE how the wrong way of writing has multiplied itself throughout literature and publishing, via MFA programs and take-no-risks conglomerates– which explains the stagnation of the dominance of mere competence in fiction and poetry circa 2019.

The task is to change that.

New England Patriots at Washington Redskins 08/28/09
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Karl Wenclas, New Pop Lit NEWS

 

Thinking Beyond the Flat Narrative

ABOUT THREE-DIMENSIONAL THINKING

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(image per uncyclopedia.)

Social media is forcing us to change how we see things. Because of social media, our minds are changing how we perceive and process reality.

PREVIOUS THINKING

The previous way of thinking and perceiving is to take a news story handed us by the Big Screen at face value. Yet what you’re receiving has been heavily edited– often in order to present a rigged, structured viewpoint. It looks at a news item from a single angle. Everything from established news outlets is geared toward narrowing and focusing the story, for greater impact.

QUESTIONING THE NARRATIVE

Social media adds more information– often from unapproved sources like your average citizen. (The essence of democracy.) Unexpected video– or the full video before editing. New, different angles. The truth of a matter is suddenly not as certain as we were originally led to believe.

Many of those trained to think one-dimensionally have trouble handling this. A leftist friend of mine recently tweeted out this statement:

The idea that there are two sides to every story, and that you gotta hear ’em, is probably the most destructive ideological position operating today.

In truth there are more than two sides to every story– but at least two. We should accept two at minimum, because the alternative is totalitarianism.

SEEING THE FULL PICTURE

Modified by CombineZP

The person who wants to be more than a blind follower of this herd or that one, has to think in as broad a fashion as possible– and engage in games or exercises designed to get the mind outside a narrow corridor. Chess runs on rigid rules, but trains the player to think side-to-side as well as straight ahead. More importantly, to be good at chess you have to put yourself in the shoes of your opponent, to see the game board through his eyes, from his viewpoint. Poker trains the player to study the person as well as the cards– to try to understand the minds of a variety of players.

The three-dimensional thinker is ahead of the curve. Within several years, those who aren’t seeing the world three-dimensionally will be far behind.

Examining a variety of views and opinions simultaneously isn’t comfortable or easy. For indoctrinated ideologues especially, confrontation with contrary viewpoints is especially painful. It goes against their schooling; against every part of the way they’ve been trained and educated.

Standard education practices teach students in a linear way. The student progresses in stages, from one level to another, as if in a corridor– using texts which proceed in a linear fashion. Everything is geared to reinforce the impression that the universe works in a linear, one-dimensional mode. But it doesn’t. The environment we emerge into is far more complex than we’d like to believe. Linear thinking is a shorthand way of understanding the world– but only that. Extremely limited and ridiculously incomplete.

THE CHOICES

The creation of smartphones and the rise of social media have given us a bombardment of information. There are three ways for ourselves and our brains to handle that.

A.)  Our personalities and our brains break down in the face of it. We go insane.

B.)  A totalitarian state or giant monopoly drastically restricts the flow of information the public receives. Unapproved participants to be kicked out; shut down; disallowed.

C.)  Our minds adjust. We learn to adapt, to process information faster. Which means, for one thing, faster reading. Not quite speed reading, but close. (The direction our Attention-Deficit society has been going in anyway.) Which will have many consequences for the literary art.

I’ll discuss those consequences, and the effect of three-dimensional thinking on the arts in general, in a future essay.
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-Karl Wenclas for New Pop Lit NEWS

 

Underground Hemingway

AN ADVENTURE IN NORTHERN MICHIGAN’S HEMINGWAY COUNTRY

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(A moose at the Mitchell Street Pub in Petoskey.)

WHILE we were on our honeymoon two weeks ago, one of our more fascinating experiences was an underground tour conducted by a young woman who may or may not exist in reality. (A ghost?)

We were at the City Tavern Grill in the quaint town of Petoskey, both of us sitting at the bar, in a saloon which young Hem himself used to frequent. I was at the exact spot– second from the end– which Hemingway was said to like.

We must’ve seemed easy marks. Out of nowhere, a woman approached us and asked if we’d like a tour of the saloon, including its underground tunnels.

“Sure,” we said.

The woman was dressed like someone from another time period– the 1920’s, perhaps– with a feather in her hair and wearing a delicate retro black dress. In build she was tiny, as if from that bygone era when people were smaller than today. Her waist could not have been more than 20 inches around– Scarlett O’Hara territory.

Beyond this, she spoke in a dramatic manner, as if on a Victorian stage. She batted her eyelashes like a silent movie actress. When she walked, she shimmied like a flapper from the pages of a Scott Fitzgerald story.

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The woman knew, somehow, by looking at us that we were Ernest Hemingway fans. She told us how often Hemingway frequented this spot– named The Annex in his time. The bar and its furnishings were the same. She showed us signed bills from Hemingway for food and drinks. The last one was from 1947.

This narrative was related in a secretive manner, as if she’d personally known the man.

Her name, she said, was Mary Ellen. She reminded us that in the time Ernest Hemingway first came here, Prohibition was in force. At any sign of police, observed through a peephole, booze and customers moved swiftly downstairs, to the basement.

Mary Ellen asked us cryptically if we’d like to visit the basement.

Without waiting for a response she turned and made her way down rickety stairs to the basement. We followed.

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The basement was gray and dimly lit. Bannisters, walls, shelves of liquor bottles– everything– was covered in dust. Layers of dust, in some cases. We looked at each other with our eyes, asking ourselves, “Can we trust this woman?”

In the way she spoke and was dressed, she could have indeed stepped through a time warp. Or, could she be instead an escapee from– ?

We didn’t continue that thought because we didn’t want to continue it. Instead we stumbled along after Mary Ellen, through lengthy depths.

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Mary Ellen showed us a number of blocked or partly-blocked tunnels, used both to smuggle bootleg liquor into the saloon, or out of it. One of the tunnels led to the nearby Perry Hotel, where we happened to be staying for the week.

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The smuggled booze came from the Al Capone gang. From his base in Chicago, Capone controlled all liquor going into resort towns which spread north along the Lake Michigan shoreline, including this one.

The lights began flickering.

“The lights are going out!” Mary Ellen said dramatically.

Her eyes seemed truly afraid. Perhaps the time allotted for the private tour was over, or someone above needed her. Or perhaps she was about to turn into a pumpkin, or vanish, or appear her real age, or something. We were, after all, only days from Halloween.

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We made it back up shaky wood stairs to the main floor, breathing, despite ourselves, a sigh of relief.

The tour was one of many highlights we encountered in the quaint town of Petoskey.

-K. and K.

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Poetry Cops: An Investigation

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FINDING THE RIGHT ANALOGY FOR TODAY’S CENSORS

WHO are the Poetry Cops? How do we best describe them?

We’ve already used the pod person analogy from “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” Close, but incomplete.  How about Programmed Robots? Blackballers use stock phrases and code words as if the phrases had been programmed into them.

robot

OR: Leninists?

Statue-of-Lenin-in-Nizhyn-Ukraine-wikimedia

SPEAKING of which, there’s this. A Poetry Cop?

Their biggest mistake? Calling her a lady.

“That’s no business, that’s social injustice.”
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The “Mean Girls” analogy has already been put forward–

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FINALLY, we come to the most accurate parallel: Carry Nation:

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–and her acolytes:

prohibitionists

The cause may have changed, but the impulse remains the same: Stamp out bad behavior and the hint of untoward words, opinions and ideas wherever they’re found. BAN THEM!
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Beneath the silliness is a core truth. Freedom of expression is a value for the public-at-large. But for the artist, the writer, the musician, the poet, it’s VITAL. It’s everything.

Begin restricting language, the free expression of opinions and ideas, and you kill art.
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“Poets in Name Only”

When you’re squealing and snitching and stoolin’ and lying,
when banning other writers takes up all of your time,

Hunting down opinions different from your own,
not thinking of the damage and destruction you have sown.

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You’ve lost your credibility, poetical integrity.

You’d like another target, another carcass on your wall;
Kill ALL the other poets you’ll be the fairest of them all–
(you think)–
but the portrait in your closet says your cause is gonna stall.

1The-Picture-Of-Dorian-Gray_1945

We don’t want your duplicity, mendacious mediocrity.

It’s ego it’s ambition it’s politics it’s pose,
narcissistic bonfires of art is how you want to close.

1933-may-10-berlin-book-burning

Keep your hellish attitudes, your social justice platitudes. . . .

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-Karl Wenclas, New Pop Lit NEWS

Happy Hemingway Day!

YEP, another year has shot by and we’re again back celebrating one of our favorite authors, Ernest Hemingway. Maybe we just like his Michigan connection, an excuse for us sneak up to Hemingway country in Petoskey and environs. Away from urban civilization as we know it.

WE were there this May, encountering a Hemingway statue–

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–and examining the pier in Harbor Springs where the boat from Chicago carrying the young Hemingway would dock–

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–or staying in the exact same hotel in Petoskey that young Ernest Hemingway boarded at–

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–drinking at taverns with trademark Hemingway atmosphere–

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–reading Hemingway novels–

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–then closing the day with a Petoskey Michigan sunset.

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Slate’s Junot Diaz Show Trial

MORE ON THE JUNOT DIAZ LIT-WORLD CONTROVERSY

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YOU THOUGHT the Junot Diaz Controversy was over when two of his three main accusers were discredited? When Boston Review and MIT kept Diaz on the job? We did. Think again.

CHARGING IN on her white horse to right the perceived wrong rode Slate’s Lili Loofbourow, with an essay which addressed everything but the specific accusations. This tells us something else is going on.
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NOTE from the outset the way a photo of Junot Diaz is book-ended between two other accused harassers, Jeffrey Tambor and Bill Clinton. We’re in the realm not of objective reportage, but propaganda. (In case anyone misses Slate‘s analogy, Loofbourow throws in a fast mention of Donald Trump.)

WHAT is Loofbourow’s essay chiefly about?

The Slate essay is about what she calls “displays of contrition”; what accuser Zinzi Clemmons calls “the confession spectrum.” The problem isn’t that Junot Diaz didn’t apologize for crimes real and apocryphal in the 04/16/2018 New Yorker essay by him. It’s that he didn’t apologize enough.

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We’re dealing with ritualized denunciations followed by a public confession– what was infamously known in totalitarian regimes of the last century as a show trial. It wasn’t enough, for instance, that accused harasser Bora Zivkovic later apologized personally to Monica Byrne for perceived sexual harassment, when he had discussed with her, in a private conversation between two adults, his sex life with his wife. He was required to be publicly denounced– with accompanying resignation of important positions and destruction of his reputation. Carcass nailed to a wall as warning.

Now it’s the turn of Junot Diaz. The in-house investigations of Diaz by Boston Review and MIT are irrelevant. That was never what this was about. His crime isn’t that he is or isn’t privately misogynist (though he might be, who knows?), but that he’s written about misogynists in his fiction, and has tried to understand such men.

Loofbourow looks for evidence against him not just in his New Yorker memoir, but in his book of short stories, This Is How You Lose Her. Which is curious, because according to Alyssa Rosenberg in a 10/4/2016 Opinion piece in the Washington Post about novelist Elena Ferrante, Lili Loofbourow came out strongly against attempts to identify a fictional character with the author.

Loofbourow said then in her tweets about Ferrante,

-She hacked the system. She made the WORK the point. She sidestepped every dumb reductive tendency we have by making herself unreachable.

-Did Ferrante *really* make all that up? Is she really that brilliant & META? Or is it just thinly-veiled MEMOIR? This last is key.

In her Slate article, Lili Loofbourow does exactly what she says one should not do– take fiction as “thinly-veiled MEMOIR.”

(Better had Junot Diaz done a J.D. Salinger– or Elena Ferrante– and made himself unreachable, rather than address the issue of misogyny head-on?)

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A large part of Loofbourow’s argument against Diaz are portions of the New Yorker essay in which he discusses personal (i.e., private) relationships. If the skewed-by-emotion perspectives of ex-girlfriends or boyfriends become material for determining these issues, we’re all in trouble. Men and women both.
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In examining the infamous Carmen Maria Machado recorded conversation with Junot Diaz at a literary event, Loofbourow says, “–we can learn something from the way Díaz talks about his manipulative characters–” Diaz’s crime in the exchange is insisting on his version of what he’s doing with his characters in his fiction. This very defense is used against him.

Throughout the Slate essay, Diaz’s assumed guilt is front and center:

–that you did heinous things, things you wouldn’t have done to people you truly respected as equals. 

Maybe you’re trying to figure out how to understand this moment without thinking of yourself as a monster, which you have never felt you were. Maybe you long for redemption and feel it’s no longer available.

How condescending! How assumptive.

By the end of the essay, Lili Loofbourow has reached her conclusion: “Everyone is guilty.”

Yep, everyone– but Junot Diaz is the person being targeted. Loofbourow again uses his own words against him:

The only way this thing that’s called patriarchy can be cured in me is collectively.

The hallmark of the show trial is that the person on trial agrees with his prosecutors and judges. The accused was revolutionary and correct in his attitude– just not revolutionary enough. See Nikolai Bukharin, Grigory Zinoviev, and other examples from the past.

bukharinzinoviev(Bukharin and Zinoviev caught in the spotlight.)

Lili Loofbourow’s gripe, you see, isn’t with Junot Diaz the individual, but with relations between men and women since the beginning of recorded time. Junot Diaz is merely the designated sacrificial victim.
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NEXT: System versus Zeitgeist: The Larger Context.

Karl Wenclas for New Pop Lit News

 

 

 

 

 

Pop Writers

HYPER-TALENTS OF THE NEW LITERARY AGE PART IV

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(Painting: “The Detective” by Jozsefs Rippl-Ronai.)

Why pop short story writers?

Because in the days of Jack London and O. Henry, the short story was THE popular American art form. Any renewal of literature starts there.

It’s begun!– particularly with various styles of “flash” or short short fiction, which puts an emphasis on brevity, clarity, and punch. But there’s no reason why entertaining and accessible stories can’t be longer, as they once were.

Recently we published a fairly long pop story by Norbert Kovacs, “The Fight,” which gives a hint at what’s possible.

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We’ve published several writers who skirt the line between pop and pop lit, often through different twists on genre fiction. Among them is Ian Lahey, whose most recent story for us, from 2016, is “What I Don’t See.”

Ian Lahey

 

 

 

 

Ian uses a genre style and setting of agents conducting an interrogation to throw the reader off balance– making us see in the situation what we otherwise might not see.

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However, the best pure pop story we’ve run to date is a new one by Alan Swyer, “Country Sweetheart.”

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What makes Swyer’s story work is its sense of humor, along with the affection Alan Swyer has for the characters and for the often-quirky world of country music. It’s an entertaining story about entertainers– and about other things like authenticity. Authentic art. The main character may in some ways be a fraud (to put it mildly!) but at the same time his feeling for the music, his colleagues, and his audience is thoroughly genuine. The suspense comes from the question of how long he’ll be able to get away with the imposture. Or, how will he be caught?

The tale is quintessentially American in a variety of ways. Not least of them is the theme of reinvention– that, contrary to what Scott Fitzgerald once said, there are second acts in American life. (Why people came here in the first place.) But also the story’s love for the land and people, combined with a sense of good old fashioned fun-loving ballyhoo. The American quality of finding yourself through being an entertainer. Entertaining through singing, or entertaining through storytelling.

Our interest here is in the latter. . . .

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Next up in this series: “Underground”