The Best and Worst of American Short Fiction

February 21, 2011

Sometimes I think I’m not cool enough to read this. I subscribed to Austin-based short story quarterly American Short Fiction at an event some time last year, due in large part to a launch party at which an extremely talented actress read an excerpt in which a bunch of nuns get very drunk. I have since received all four issues that come with my annual subscription, and I’m still trying to figure out if I’m going to renew.

Case in point: one of the things they do is a short story contest, where the winner (and probably several runners up) get published in their fall edition. This year’s winner was called “Field Trip” and the editor described it as follows: “Told from a child’s perspective, ‘Field Trip’ is gripping, visceral, and immediate. In a mere 865 words, it gestures to the mysteries of birth and death.”

I would agree with that assessment. It gestures. Like, someone extending a middle finger, or sticking out their tongue, or smiling, or waving, opening a door for another person to walk through, or curling their finger as if to say “come here.” There’s just one problem with that.


At the end of the 865th word, just as I was going, “Hmm, I wonder where this story is going to go,” I turned the page, to find … the next story in the book. WTF? That wasn’t a story, it was a set up. It was a first act, at best. There was no turn, there was nothing the character was really after. What the hell? And this is the one that won the contest? Sheesh.

I’ve found many of the short stories in ASF are guilty of this kind of violation. Like I said, I think I’m not cool enough to read this publication. Maybe I just don’t get short fiction. But then, there are a few that hit the ball to the other side of the fence. The most recent – winter edition – of ASF featured, at the other end of the spectrum, a novella by Josh Weil, who is considered to be one of the best young author’s of our generation. And it’s clear why. Although the story’s subject matter – historical fiction that takes place on a confederate farm during the Civil War – is not something I would ever seek out, the quality of the writing was nothing short of superb. The hero is a pretentious, precocious slaveowner who’s given his slaves names like Deliverance, Persistence, and Insouciance. And throughout the novella we get a peek at passages written from all their voices. And holy smokes, does he do a fantastic job of writing voices – every one completely different.

Again, the plot isn’t something I especially cared for, nor did I have a problem with it. But with skills like that, he’s an author I’ll definitely be seeking out in the future.

And this, ladies and gentlemen, is why writers need to read as wide a variety of material as possible. So I’m torn … to renew ASF or not to? I just started a subscription to Poets & Writers magazine, so maybe I’ll let that decide.


The Audacity of Hope (11.03)

February 11, 2011

I realize I’m a bit behind the times in reading this book. I was not one who got caught up in Obama fever during the 2008 election cycle, either pro or against. I was and still am ambivalent, toward the man, which is not to say that I don’t care, but rather I have conflicting opinions.

I have always disagreed with his politics. Without getting into a lengthy discussion about it, I realized somewhere around the time of the “Too Big To Fail” $700 billion bailout — which then-Senator Obama voted for — that I would never agree with him on that front. But as a Head of State, the figurehead for the country, a person to represent us to foreign nations and to break the partisan divide and unite us under one banner, I’ve long felt that if anyone can do it, Obama can.

Now, reading his pre-presidential-campaign manifesto, I’ve completely reaffirmed that belief. Consider:

You don’t need a poll to know that the vast majority of Americans–Republican, Democrat, and independent–are weary of the dead zone that politics has become, in which narrow interests vie for advantage and ideological minorities seek to impose their own versions of absolute truth. Whether we’re from red states or blue states, we feel in our gut the lack of honesty, rigor, and common sense in our policy debates, and dislike what appears to be a continuous menu of false or cramped choices. Religious or secular, black, white, or brown, we sense–correctly–that the nation’s most significant challenges are being ignored, and that if we don’t change course soon, we may be the first generation in a very long time that leaves behind a weaker and more fractured America than the one we inherited. Perhaps more than any other time in our recent history, we need a new kind of politics, one that can excavate and build upon those shared understandings that pull us together as Americans.

or the following passage:

The year that Democrats regained the majority in the Illinois state senate, I sponsored a bill to require the videotaping of interrogations and confessions in capital cases. While the evidence tells me that the death penalty does little to deter crime, I believe there are some crimes—mass murder, the rape and murder of a child—so heinous, so beyond the pale, that the community is justified in expressing the full measure of its outrage by meting out the ultimate punishment. On the other hand, the way capital cases were tried in Illinois at the time was so rife with error, questionable police tactics, racial bias, and shoddy lawyering that thirteen death row inmates had been exonerated and a Republican governor had decided to institute a moratorium on all executions.

Despite what appeared to be a death penalty system ripe for reform, few people gave my bill much chance of passing. The state prosecutors and police organizations were adamantly opposed, believing that videotaping would be expensive and cumbersome, and would hamstring their ability to close cases. Some who favored abolishing the death penalty feared that any efforts at reform would detract from their larger cause. My fellow legislators were skittish about appearing in any way to be soft on crime. And the newly elected Democratic governor had announced his opposition to videotaping of interrogations during the course of his campaign.

It would have been typical of today’s politics for each side to draw a line in the sand: for death penalty opponents to harp on racism and police misconduct and for law enforcement to suggest that my bill coddled criminals. Instead, over the course of several weeks, we convened sometimes daily meetings between prosecutors, public defenders, police organizations, and death penalty opponents, keeping our negotiations as much as possible out of the press.

Instead of focusing on the serious disagreements around the table, I talked about the common value that I believed everyone shared, regardless of how each of us might feel about the death penalty: that is, the basic principle that no innocent person should end up on death row, and that no person guilty of a capital offense should go free. When police representatives presented concrete problems with the bill’s design that would have impeded their investigations, we modified the bill. When police representatives offered to videotape only confessions, we held firm, pointing out that the whole purpose of the bill was to give the public confidence that confessions were obtained free of coercion. At the end of the process, the bill had the support of all the parties involved. It passed unanimously in the Illinois Senate and was signed into law.

It’s hard to hate a guy who talks like this. I don’t know if Obama used a ghostwriter (there’s none listed on the book, and a cursory search presented no conclusive evidence one way or the other), but the tone certainly matches those of his speeches. It’s highly eloquent, compassionate, passionate and authentic. Said one blogger: “Brief Review: It’s like an Obama speech, but 362 pages long,” which were my thoughts exactly. Even when specifically mentioning other politicians with whom he disagrees (my favorite was when he referred to the possibility of “a White House that would see a 51-48 victory as a call to humility and compromise rather than an irrefutable mandate”), the tone may be one of dissent or disappointment, but never rancor or indignation. The structure was loose, winding like a river with islets and rivulets that all eventually meet up in the same ocean, and somehow managing to stay interesting even though there was no plot, no story, no twists or surprises, nowhere obvious that the book was particularly going.

And although there a thousand places I could (and would) argue with him on his political philosophy, I have never been more confident that the man we have in the White House is the best hope we have for producing a united nation; one that’s able to resist the urge to fight with itself; a nation of people who are more interested in making a difference than they are in being right and winning.

And that, to be sure, is an audacious thing to hope.

10.21 – A Texan in Hollywood

December 31, 2010

Several weeks ago I attended the Writers League of Texas Christmas Party. As part of the party, there was a grab bag – for $5, you could reach in and grab a present, which would be a book, or perhaps a signed book, or perhaps, if you were really lucky, a really awesome book with a $25 gift certificate to some local business.

I got just a book. And given the books that WLT has to give away (It’s not uncommon for them to get a box of books dumped in their office with a note saying “I’ve got 500 of these in my office, please, just take it!”), I was fully expecting it to be a pretty lame one.

But I was very pleasantly surprised.

The book I unwrapped was Call Me Lucky: A Texan in Hollywood by Robert Hinkle, a West Texas cowboy who wound up as a stuntman, dialect coach, actor, writer, director, and producer. In 1955, when George Stevens asked him, “Do you think you could teach Rock Hudson to talk like you do?” he became the dialect coach for Hudson, Jimmy Dean, Elizabeth Taylor, and a young Dennis Hopper for the movie Giant, and then did the same for Paul Newman and the cast of Hud as the Academy Award-winning film’s cultural consultant. He made friends with the likes of Elvis and LBJ, and helped with Evel Knievel’s rise to fame. He doubled for John Wayne, Charlton Heston, and Robert Mitchum.

Of course, an interesting life/career doesn’t necessarily mean that the book will be good. But this one was. You really hear the West Texan voice coming through in the writing. Each chapter was introduced with a quote that would show up sometime later: for example, at the top of Chapter One, “Mr. Stevens, to tell you the truth, I’ve been going to a speech coach to try to lose this damn accent.” Each chapter featuring its own main storyline, not worrying so much about a chronological telling as much as telling the interesting anecdotes in interesting ways.

As I’m ghostwriting someone else’s memoir right now, this helped me along some. It’s let me get away from the rigid way I’ve been thinking about structuring this book, and maybe taking a completely different tack–having the memoir be about the author’s journey in re-telling his life story, rather than just being about the story itself.

So four stars to Robert Hinkle and his ghostwriter/literary agent Mike Farris, who’ve produced a really solid specimen in the memoir genre. Well done.

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