Tuesday, December 14, 2010


There are certain things which necessarily benefit writers. Some writers favor a certain kind of notebook or pen, others a certain place where writing seems to happen more often. One of the main things, in order that we can call ourselves "writers" and not "scribblers" or some such, is having information on where we might submit our stories, poems, or essays.

I've looked around over time at various web listings of creative writing submission opportunities and there are some really great resources out there. But the one I've found most useful is the CRWROPPS mailing list. It's run by the wonderful and talented Allison Joseph and each day in my email inbox I receive opportunities (sometimes contests, sometimes calls for submissions) on markets that are looking for work. It's well worth looking into, at the very least, and you can find all of the information on it here. If you don't want to sign up for the Yahoo Groups stuff, you can also send a blank email to CRWROPPS-B-subscribe@yahoogroups.com in order to get hooked up with the listserv.

Check it out. You won't regret it.


Friday, December 10, 2010

“The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake” by Aimee Bender

As excited as I was to read this book, I had also become uncertain. I fell in love with Bender’s quirks in her two short story collections (“The Girl in the Flammable Skirt” and “Willful Creatures”), but none of those quirks seemed to lend themselves to long-form storytelling. In my mind, I had defined Bender’s style not only by her flashy, magical-realist conceits, but also by her fragmented, singsong prose. Quotation marks are few and far-between. Her characters, if there are any, tend to be thin and open to the reader’s interpretation. I loved her stories, but I could not imagine following something like that for longer than ten pages or so.

It was around the tenth page when I realized I loved this book. It was at least a hundred pages later when I realized why.

“The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake” has all the aforementioned hallmarks of a good Aimee Bender story. The twist was just surreal enough, and the prose was just fractured enough, and the voice was just cutesy enough, but none of these things pushed the novel into greatness. That happened because of the characters.

The novel tells the story of Rose, a young girl who discovers the ability to taste emotions in foods. When she tastes her mother’s misery in her birthday cake, her eyes are opened to complex and grown-up world of her parents’ quietly troubled marriage. As fun and interesting as the magic ability is, Rose’s maturation and the interplay of the family is what drives the book.

Through short vignette chapters and the watchful eye of the protagonist, Bender crafts each character as sincere and sympathetic. No one is wrong or right, and the narration holds no recriminations or judgment. For a story about magic cake eaters, the characters are beautifully realistic.

“The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake” is garnering rave reviews and good sales, and while it is always pleasant to see a good author being rewarded, Aimee Bender has never been more worthy. Seeing her stretch her talents has made me more eager for her next book to be released. And I hope it’s a novel.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

New Online Content from Brenda Miller

Hello everyone,

Things have been pretty hectic around here lately, what with the holiday and the end of the academic quarter coming up on us. I hope your own holidays have been good so far, however you celebrate them.

I wanted to take the opportunity to point you in the direction of a new piece published by our Editor-in-Chief, Brenda Miller, in the most recent issue of the Superstition Review. As with all of Brenda's work, it's a fantastic read and I highly recommend it.

I also wanted to take the time to point you toward a listing of the best LGBT books of 2010. Some really fantastic authors take the time to recommend some delightful books. While I certainly haven't read them all, I have to say that Eileen Myles's Inferno: A Poet's Novel was one I couldn't resist, even when I knew I should be doing other things. Consider picking one of these books up for some holiday reading or if you're looking for a gift for the holiday season.


Sunday, November 28, 2010

Prose Poetry or Flash Fiction

Hey all, I hope you've had an enjoyable week and that you're currently recovering from the over-indugence which is part and parcel of this particular holiday (if you're outside of the States, then it might be helpful to know that the American Thanksgiving was two days ago). 

Our blog topic for today was brought about after reading an article on Bark about the differences between flash fiction and prose poetry:


I'm not here to take issue with what was written there. Actually, I think a good deal of what Brett says is exactly true and a good introduction to the basic differences between flash fiction and prose poetry. The main difference to me between flash fiction and prose poetry has to do with focus. Flash fiction focuses on story (whether that be character or plot or place or time). Prose poetry focuses on image and/or emotion. This is, as with all definitions that would delineate the two, imperfect, but for my own purposes, that's what I usually go with. And of course, every rule was made to be broken, one just has to know he is breaking it when doing so. 

What I want to talk about is something a little closer to home. My own concern with the differences between short-shorts and prose poems has to do with audience. Specifically as relates to a magazine, such as the Bellingham Review.  Very short fiction acts in a publication in much the same way as poetry does; it's consumed easily and in a brief time and there are usually a couple or three pieces per author (at least this is how I prefer to consume short-shorts). 

This is something to consider as a writer, too. My own writing of late has been much more concerned with short forms than with longer narratives, and I have produced quite a few pieces of prose poetry and a few pieces of what might be better called flash fiction. Stories over, say, 500 words will rarely be confused with prose poetry, but there are masterful practitioners of very short fiction that produce works in the 100-499 word range. 

I very much doubt that there is a definitive way to identify and classify these pieces of work. A good analogy seems to me the field of taxonomy. The idea is to take extant and extinct animals and try to place them into groups, to sort the Mice from the Rats, so to speak. For the most part this works well, but every now and then a taxonomist comes along and blinks his eyes like Jeannie and the former Rat is redesignated a Mouse. I think I would feel this way, the same ambivalence, should someone tell me that what I thought was Prose Poetry was instead Flash Fiction. Yes the two are distinguishable, but at times the distinguishing characteristics seem arbitrarily selected (the shape of the ears say, or the length of the sentences) and a look at other parts of the anatomy might bring about the contrary conclusion. 

This is not to say that I don't think that discussing the differences is a waste of time. Indeed I spent time reading a blogpost about them and writing one of my own. But I think maybe the larger picture sometimes gets overlooked in the examination of minutiae.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Chris Howell Interview

Hey Everyone,

In about an hour I'm going to start an interview with poet Christopher Howell. Chris is the author of eight books of poetry including Light's Ladder, which won the Washington State Book Award, and Dreamless and Possible, publishing in 2010, which is a collection of new and selected poems. Chris has been published widely both regionally and nationally, and has even been published several times in the Bellingham Review. In addition to being a poet, Chris is also an editor and a professor at the Inland Northwest Center for Writers MFA Program in Spokane, WA. I'll be asking him questions about his own poetry, about the state of American small press publishing, and about his role as a teacher.

I'd like to thank Chris for agreeing to do this interview with me. I know you'll all enjoy everything he has to say, as well as all of the other amazing pieces we're going to be publishing in the upcoming Spring 2011 issue.


Saturday, November 13, 2010

Best-selling E-books

I was perusing the New York Times' Books section on the web yesterday. I try to do this at least once a week, but don't always manage it. There are only so many hours in a day and I already have trouble fitting all of my obligations into a tight schedule, but I like to stay current on what's happening in literature and the NYT is one of the better venues for doing that. I bring this up because of this article, by Julie Bosman.

As I've already stated here on the blog, I have mixed feelings about the move to a digital format for the reading of books, but I have trouble seeing this announcement, that the NYT is going to track e-book sales and publish an e-book best-sellers list, as anything but a universal good. I'm certain that the best-selling e-books mirror in many ways the best-selling mass market paperbacks and hardbacks (if I had to hazard a guess, I'd say that the list would be mainly made up of new hardcover releases and those mass market paperbacks which stay on the list for weeks and weeks), but it's heartening to me that the NYT finds the adoption of this technology to be significant. It's as heartening to me as the addition of graphic novels to their list in 2009 because it means they're paying attention to the trends in book-buying and not just printing a list blindly based on a formula.

One thing I wonder about is how sales tracking will be done. I know the Best Sellers List is calculated by some kind of voodoo, and I'm sure that there will be even more calculated algorithms involved in tracking e-book sales, but it's a concern of mine. For instance, will free e-books be disqualified from the competition? Will there be a price threshold for what constitutes a sale? I'm sure most of my questions won't be answered, as the NYT has a stake in keeping their system opaque, and that's really fine with me. I don't make purchases based off of best sellers lists any more than I make purchases based on the "you might also like..." portion of Amazon.com. Still, it's exciting that this is happening. The article states that the first e-book best-seller lists will show up in early 2011 and I'll be looking forward to seeing that list appear.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Dispatch from NonfictioNow

Greeting from the NonfictioNow conference in beautiful Iowa City, a town known for its writers. At the moment, I’m writing to you from a café in the renowned Prairie Lights Bookstore, surrounded by literary magazines, with floors and floors of books to explore. As I walked here this morning, my progress was hampered by the literary quotes inscribed on the sidewalk, each one requiring me to stop and ponder before I moved on.

The NonfictioNow conference is the largest gathering of creative nonfiction writers and teachers in the nation. We get a little giddy as hundreds of us converge at the University of Iowa to not only discuss esoteric aspects of our craft, but to reconnect with one another and remember why we’re writers in the first place. Yes, we go to panels with names like “Nonfiction: A Hybrid Genre or a Highly Evolved Form?” or “Holding Back: Privacy and Disclosure in Nonfiction,” but we also go to readings like “Farthest North Nonfiction: Alaska Writers Read” and keynote addresses by such luminaries as Allison Bechdel, Rebecca Solnit, and John Edgar Wideman. We sit at round tables in the Main Lounge and eat mushroom strudel for lunch, or we walk to the Motley Cow and have a dinner while laughing and laughing at the sheer joy of being together.

Not that I’m biased or anything, but one of the most enjoyable events for me was “Literature of Palpable Quality: A Bellingham Review Reading.” The reading was scheduled for 8:45 a.m. on a Friday morning, up against two panels filled with heavy-hitters that I myself longed to see. So I brought with me a box of Bellingham Reviews, hoping to bribe those willing to forego the talking “about” nonfiction and experience some fine nonfiction writing instead.
To my surprise, we did draw a respectable audience, including the one and only Robin Hemley, director of the conference and the previous Editor of the Bellingham Review. Robin was the one to bring the Review under the purview of Western Washington University and to launch the magazine to national prominence, so when I took the reins from him about nine years ago, I was both excited and humbled by the bar he had set. Nine years later, I’m happy to report that we’re still going strong, as evidenced by the reading that unfolded that morning.

I had gathered together Julie Jeanell Leung, Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich, Lauren Smith, and Ira Sukrungruang to represent the wide range of nonfiction we publish in the review. Julie read from her remarkable essay “Moon Snail,” which was a finalist in our Annie Dillard Award in Creative Nonfiction. It combines a scientist’s eye for the beauty found in nature, with a sister’s honest ambivalence about her love for her brain-damaged brother. Alexandria’s powerful piece, “In the Fade,” was a winner in the Annie Dillard Award, and it draws on her work as a lawyer for death row appeals, taking cases of those whose guilt is not in question. Lauren’s work as a researcher in Africa, interviewing women who have lost loved ones to AIDS or who have AIDS themselves, formed the basis of her award-winning piece, “The Widow’s Tale.” Ira completed the reading with his beautiful lyric essay, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at Fat,” a poem-like piece that draws us into dialogue with Wallace Stevens while it reveals intimate details about the body.

I knew the reading would be good, but I didn’t know how good it would be, until all four readers enacted their pieces on that big stage, in the dim light, their voices bringing to life the words I had previously only heard in my own mind. It felt as though the magazine, itself, was up there, sitting in one of those hard chairs, pouring water into a plastic cup, nodding in approval as each reader showed us how powerful, startling, and persuasive creative nonfiction can be. As the Editor-in-Chief, I know my magazine intimately, but this reading drew me into a deeper relationship with the journal, affirmed for me that literary publishing does matter.

The audience seemed to agree. Not one person left the room (a rarity at literary conferences, where the sheer number of things to do incites a mass case of attention deficit disorder), and they all applauded warmly at the end, with genuine smiles and interest. One person commented that though all the pieces were quite different from one another, they all had something in common: each narrator was struggling to understand something difficult, something that cannot be reduced to easy answers. That, I realize now, is what I look for when scanning the thousands of submissions that come into our office: the essential struggle, one that we can enter with the narrator and come away changed.

I’m returning home in the morning, my suitcase full of new books, magazines, business cards. But the most important thing I’m bringing home is my renewed sense of faith: faith that writing matters, that small journals matter, and that, most important, we matter to one another.


Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Goals (Realistic and Otherwise)

My first Creative Writing professor, an overwhelmed grad student with eccentric facial hair, had each student announce their dream jobs. The class was full of aspiring journalists, singer-songwriters, and professional novelists. When it was my turn, I said, “A staff writer for Seinfeld.” The professor informed me that, at the time, that sitcom had been off the air for the better part of a decade and the position was impossible. A dream job, I argued, isn’t supposed to be something we will ever achieve. At the risk of sounding cynical, most writing jobs are dream jobs. This is a tough field we’ve chosen.

Every professor I’ve ever had seemed to relish telling us that we will never, ever, ever make any money from our writing. At least, not a lot of money. And we will certainly never make a living from it. But it’s not cruel to remind the hopeful of failure. The icy-cold shower of reality is very necessary for anyone with big, creative dreams. We, as writers, should never let our imaginations run away with us. Unless it’s on the page, of course.

In On Writing, Stephen King recounts his struggles to get his career started. He describes putting each rejection letter on a nail above his writing desk to keep him motivated. He received at least a hundred before making a sale. Talk about grounding yourself. It’s a romantic image, that young, funny-looking man finding bigger and bigger nails to chronicle his own failure. But then again, when you can end an autobiography with, “And then I wrote a book about an evil car and made a million dollars,” everything sounds romantic.

Writing is solely fueled by optimism, when you think about it, so there’s no reason to become a defeatist. We have to believe there is some kind of future for us, for our craft, or else we’ll just throw our laptop out the window, curl up in a ball, and take a job as an insurance salesman.

I suppose it’s a thin line to walk. It’s important to recognize that the odds are stacked against us, but that’s no reason to give up our dreams. Reach for the stars, but don’t lose perspective. If we have a story to tell, for the love of Cthulhu, tell it. Don’t expect a paycheck, but who knows?

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Happy Halloween!

Halloween is by far my favorite annual ritual. I don't typically do a lot for Halloween myself, but I have a lot of fond memories of Halloween from my youth and every year I get a big bowl of candy and hand out fun size Snickers bars and the like to small children. I get a kick out of all of the costumes, but the ones I love most are the ones that were clearly thrown together by an unenthusiastic parent at the last minute: the vampire with the plastic bag cape and food coloring blood running down one lip with regular black clothes underneath; the hobo wearing dad's rattiest to-be-given-to-charity threads; the karate master wearing the gee from his older brother's brief interest in the martial arts. More than once I went as something akin to one of these costumes (vampire was by far my favorite, though once I wore a black dress tucked into black jeans with a black scarf around my head and called myself a ninja).

Anyway, in celebration of this holiday I'm going to link you to Neil Gaiman's short story "How to Talk to Girls at Parties." While not explicitly about Halloween, I think it fits the pattern well enough, and Neil Gaiman is one of my favorite authors to read in the little leisure time I have left. He has a wonderful story that combines the Cthulu mythos if H.P. Lovecraft with the Sherlock Holmes stories of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, called "A Study in Emerald," which is also quite fun and well worth a read if you're a fan of those two authors.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Hello Everyone!

Finally got connected to this page. Chris has been after me to start blogging and, while I'm uncertain how to begin, I will be logging on from time to time to talk about what I'm readng. I may also pop up with a review or two or talk about events.


Wednesday, October 27, 2010


I'm fascinated by tattoos. I don't have any ink myself, being the kind of guy on whom a tattoo would probably come off as a desperate cry for attention, but I am endlessly entertained by the kinds of things that people choose to tattoo on themselves. This, in and of itself, is probably something which doesn't belong on the blog of a prestigious literary journal like ours.

But wait!

I have a tie-in: Contrariwise. This is one of my favorite blogs; it's a photo blog dedicated to pictures of tattoos people have gotten because of books. The author likes to go on hiatuses from updating, one of which she is currently on, but there is a good archive of tattoos inspired by or taken from famous works of literature. Some of the tats are from stuff like Twilight or Harry Potter, but a surprising number are really very literary. Anyway, if you're perusing the internet for something fun to do, you could do worse than Contrariwise, whice I'm hoping will resume posting sometime soon.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

A topic after my own heart...

I don't post much stuff about me personally here, but one thing that might be relevant for you to know is that I'm currently engaged in applying to MFA programs. I've got my recommenders all lined up, my statements of purpose written, and my writing sample picked out (I think). I've even started all of the applications with the intention of getting all of the materials for which I am personally responsible turned in by November 15th. The cost of applying will be roughly $1000 for 7 schools and 1 fellowship program, due in large part to the fact that I've attended five different colleges at this point and at two official transcripts per school, that price adds up. I'm not writing to complain about the price tag, though. I am a grad student already, obviously, and am getting an MA degree from Western Washington University (which has a great program for both writing and literary criticism) where the Bellingham Review is housed. I know applying to programs costs money, and while I would prefer it cost less, these are the realities of the world.

The reason I'm writing is because of this article by Anis Shivani, who is known for his screeds against the MFA program model of becoming a writer. The article was a slog to get through (the medieval guild thing got tiresome about three paragraphs in, but Shivani continues leaning on that analogy throughout), but raised some fundamental questions. I have often thought of the value of doing work outside of an academic setting, of drawing on experiences one gets delivering pizzas or standing behind the front desk of a hotel or whatever it is that Shivani expects a writer to do to pay the bills (I got a BA in English from Eastern Washington University, a really great school where I learned a lot, but Shivani graduated from Harvard, so it's hard to imagine his experience and mine really being all that relatable).

I worked at hotels throughout the latter part of my undergraduate education, actually, and while I did meet interesting people, the fact of the matter remains that I was exhausted at the end of the day and writing was a bit of a chore. Combine that with the relative lack of a support system for my writing while I was doing that work; I had a few writer friends, but they were as busy as me and had little time to read my short stories, and I can't imagine that with my them now getting married, having kids, and working demanding jobs that they'll be freeing up more time for me in the future.

I've never been in an MFA program (though I feel like Western's MA program comes close in a lot of ways), so I can't judge for myself, but I imagine that the biggest boon a program can give a writer is time to write and people interested in working with you on your writing. Here at Western I have a great cohort of peers, some of whom I really admire as writers. The professors I work with are talented and always willing to help me out by taking a look at my work. And this is just an MA program ("just" not meant in a pejorative way, but to differentiate it from an MFA program). I imagine that the dedication that comes with an MFA program's faculty and peer group is all much the greater because everyone in the program is there specifically to write.

I've heard from people, most of whom have never been to an MFA program, that the workshop model stifles writers into writing certain kinds of fiction, poetry, or nonfiction, but I've never experienced that. There are certain rules of good writing, but I've never had a workshop leader tell me that there are rules that cannot be broken. Genre works are generally looked down upon, I guess, but I have a hard time thinking Shivani doesn't sneer at science fiction or fantasy or romance writing himself, so that's clearly not what he's talking about. And even within workshops I've seen genre works presented, taken on their own terms, and criticized respectfully by writers.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that I'm not dissuaded from applying by Shivani's article, nor do I take his criticisms all that seriously. I understand that my chances of actually getting into an MFA program are quite small, even though I know my writing sample is solid, but it doesn't feel like a waste of time or money to me. I'll continue writing no matter what happens, of course, and I'll continue submitting stuff to journals and working on novels, but I don't think looking for a place that is going to encourage me to write and where I'll be surrounded by others who have the same goals will hurt my writing in any way. The programs to which I'm applying are diverse, each having its own take on what an MFA program should be, and so I don't buy Shivani's argument about MFA homogeneity. But wherever I end up and whatever I end up doing, writing will be a part of me.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Brenda Miller Publications

Just a short blog to announce that Brenda Miller, our astonishingly talented Editor-in-Chief here at the Bellingham Review, has had a short essay published in the latest issue of Water~Stone Review. The piece, "What I Could Eat," is short and powerful and definitely worth a read, so if you can get your hands on a copy of Water~Stone Review Volume 13, I'd recommend it.

Also, Brenda had an essay published with Brevity 31 about a year ago, which is available to be read online. She also gave a delightful blog post at Brevity's blog about the writing of the piece, "Swerve," which goes nicely as an accompaniment to reading it. I'd recommend reading both. They're short and poignant and will leave you with a feeling that you feeling breathless in a way that is both familiar and unique.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Self-publishing? Can you call it that?

Self-publishing is a concept that's been around for awhile, but the advent of the internet seems to have made more people latch onto it as a viable means of distribution than have in decades and centuries past. Take, for instance, this article from Publisher's Weekly, written by Calvin Reid, on the new service being offered by Borders. Go ahead, give it a read.

Now that you've read it, I don't need to tell you that it's talking about their new partnership with BookBrewer, which will allow bloggers and others to convert their works into e-books and sell them in Borders online store. The author makes mention of a similar (free) service that Barnes and Noble offers, but let's put a pin in that for a moment.

I guess I'm just not seeing where the payoff comes in for authors in this scenario. Presumably, since this service is being marketed directly to bloggers, the person's content is already available online to read for free. I'm unsure on what, then, my insentive is as a reader of that content to then purchase it for money, money that I could just as easily spend on  tickets to see the Mariners lose or Scotch to help me deal with the realities of their win/loss record (over 100 losses? really?). I could understand if this were a self-publishing venture with an Espresso Book Machine or something where an actual physical product would be involved, something that might add value to the blog's content or be a preferable format for reading or re-reading the archived posts, but in a digital medium I'm unsure what the added value of an e-book would be over simply reading the blog from the site, as I can already do on my iPhone or iPad.

Now back to the Barnes and Noble free service versus this service you pay for. I suppose it's possible that the "quality" of the e-book would be nice with the BookBrewer service (though this is something I would have to see to believe), but it doesn't seem like there's a whole lot of incentive to go with a service you pay for over a service you don't. Perhaps the royalties structure is more profitable with the Borders version (I know the Barnes and Noble version is a spilt of royalties; neither launch seems to be particularly forthcoming with the details of how much you'll end up getting paid), but even then, it's hard to imagine most bloggers shelling out $90 for a service which seems dubious at best.

As far as even calling this self-publishing goes, I think I'd have to say that it is more like vanity publishing in my eyes. The Barnes and Noble model, where the author isn't paying the publisher, seems more like legitimate self-publishing, albeit with assistance from a large corporation. The implied contract there seems more like a traditional publishing one; the author and the publisher agree that they think the book can make money and each makes some money based on sales. The Borders/BookBrewer model seems like an e-version of those PublishAmerica scams that were and are so popular, preying on those who don't know the ins and outs of the publishing world well enough to realize that the "publisher" is gauranteed to make money because you're giving it to them. It violates what I am told is the #1 fundamental rule of publishing: money flows toward the writer.

I have some thoughts on legitimate self-publishing, especially in an internet age, but I'll go ahead and save those for another day.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

On Fonts and Their Uses

I spend a lot of time thinking about fonts. One of the things I love most about books of poetry is that, in the back of the book, there is usually a mention of the font the publisher used and the reasons behind it. For instance, in Diwata, by Barbara Jane Reyes, they mention the font they chose and part of its history:
  • "Diwata, poems by Barbara Jane Reyes, is set in Centaur, a digitized version of the font designed for Monotype by Bruce Rogers in 1928. The italic, based on drawings by Frederic Warde, is an interpretation of the work of the sixteenth-century printer and calligrapher Ludovico delgi Arrighi, after whom it is named."
This kind of information thrills me, because it sets the font up not as something randomly chosen, but rather as being informed by a history and a tradition and it makes the text come alive in a new way for me. Sure, many fonts look alike, something that's just plain going to happen when you have twenty-six finite letters and readability is a concern, but I like the idea of an artistic tradition going on with fonts themselves, in addition to the art of the poet or author.

What got me thinking about this is a post by Kathryn on the bark in which she rails a bit against the use of Comic Sans. Comic Sans is, admittedly, an atrocious font, one that should almost never be used except by used car salesmen and ex-boyfriends, you know, people you should stay away from. But that got me thinking about the internet and how fonts function here. For instance, the font I'm typing in now is one of seven that are available on Blogger. When I think about it, it's very limiting, not being able to select a nicer font, a font with, not necessarily more history, but a more unique history than that of Times New Roman or Ariel. I understand that with tens of thousands of blogs, Blogger needs more standardization than that, but a little more variety might be nice, if only so I could write a post about how interesting and unusual the font we're using is.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

"The Wilding," by Benjamin Percy

It is possible to pick up Benjamin Percy’s The Wilding and be struck with déjà vu. There is a lot of familiar territory covered in these pages, whether you are a fan of Percy or not. And this is not a bad thing.

For starters, entire chunks of narrative in The Wilding previously appeared in the 2007 collection, Refresh, Refresh. This kind of repetition is not easy to prepare oneself for. Recognizable passages can be viewed in a new light when placed in a different context, or with new characters inserted. Sometimes it feels like watching the entire film after memorizing the teaser trailer. Other times it’s like looking into a parallel universe, an alternate history of small, hypothetical changes butterflying in unforeseen directions.

The set-up is commonplace enough. There is a strained marriage between a browbeaten man and a woman who doesn’t know what she wants anymore. There is their child, caught in the crossfire, forging his own identity. There is a man struggling to readjust to civilian life after serving in Iraq. A community is torn between its traditional roots and the advantages of urbanization. Even if you are not familiar with Percy’s short stories, it may be tempting to guess where the plot is heading. And just when things drift closer to cliché, someone digs a homemade Bigfoot costume out of their closet and goes running through the forest. Thus is the genius of Benjamin Percy.

Like Refresh, Refresh before it, The Wilding is as accessible as literary fiction can possibly be. Big things happen while the story stays character-driven. The prose flourishes in the right places without losing narrative momentum. Themes like environmentalism and nature-versus-nurture are evident but never overbearing. Characters are identifiable and sympathetic. The stakes are real. Suspense is palpable. It is an easy book to lose yourself in.

Percy is a rising literary star and it is easy to see why. This is his first novel, and he has already received the Pushcart Prize, the Plimpton Prize, and the Whiting Writers’ Award. These accolades aren’t the only evidence of his talent, though. Pick up The Wilding and see a literary novel, and thriller novel, and even an environmental novel done right.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

A Nerdy Bit of Meta-Computation

While its not the Bellingham Review's typical net fodder, this video was just too good for me to pass up. A player of the popular Minecraft video game has sculpted and manipulated the game's landscape and in-game tool set to develop a functional 16-bit arithmetic logic unit. In short, he's created a computer inside a video game. Sure, it's relatively simple in function since it really can only add and subtract, but the imagination and ingenuity is still admirable in my eyes.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Of Digital Publishing

I know it's somewhat ironic to talk about digital publishing on a blog, but let's contain our amusement and just dive right in. About two months ago, romance publisher Dorchester Publishing announced that it was going to go to an exclusively digital publishing strategy, with only occasional books coming out later in trade paperback editions or being available as POD purchases. Since then, the company has done some backtracking such that it's not entirely clear to me who I should believe and who is just trying to reassure those to whom the publisher is fiscally responsible, but the upshot is that Dorchester will be taking a huge swing at the digital books market, a swing they're hoping will connect with purchasers of ebooks (with the explosion of the ebooks market) and with their regular customers (who will hopefully be willing to continue reading Dorchester titles in an electronic format).

I have to admit, I wasn't that concerned about this development. After all, I don't write romance novels. However, I do write queer literature, and today's announcement that Alyson Books will be going into an all digital format does concern me. When I was grappling with my own queer identity issues in high school, I came across a copy of their anthology Revolutionary Voices: A Multicultural Queer Youth Anthology in a bookstore in Seattle and felt like I was home. Over the years, I've very much enjoyed reading other of their books (Young, Gay, and Proud and the phenomenal First You Fall come easily to mind), but I wonder if I'll continue buying their books if they're only available in a digital format. You see, I don't own an electronic reader of any kind, and I don't plan on buying one in the foreseeable future (the realities of my finances preclude such a purchase). I've always hated reading books (or even literary criticism articles) on a computer screen, so I don't think I'll be likely to buy them in that format.

Part of the reason Alyson Books has decided to forego traditional publishing is the closing of gay and lesbian bookstores (which have been ravaged by the economic downturn and by the rise of more convenient ways to purchase books like Amazon.com or Barnes and Noble) and I have to admit that I understand their problem. They're not making money in traditional publishing and the cost of producing books is really high (even higher when all of the stores that used to carry your books have closed and now the books are taking up space in your warehouse instead of space on the shelf of a bookstore where someone might actually buy them) and like it or not, publishing is a for-profit business, which is something we sometimes forget. From this office, located on a university campus, where writers pour in submissions by the hundreds, it can seem unimaginable that the publishing world outside is not thriving similarly.

What does this mean for the market as a whole? I hate the thought of mid-size and small publishers getting edged out of business by market forces beyond their control. Alyson Books makes good literature (First You Fall, which I mentioned above, won a Lambda Literary Award, and their anthologies tend to be the subject of library challenges across the country, which is, from what I can tell, almost always a sign of quality) and the idea of their not making books anymore (which is what might happen if their gamble on digital publishing doesn't pan out) is distressing.

It is becoming more and more apparent that publishing is changing, that we live during a time when books are going to shift from being physical objects to digitally distributed information packets, and most of the time I am okay with that. I like the idea of electronic books from a green perspective (less paper used up, fewer gallons on gas used shipping physical objects, etc.) and I like the idea of publishers offering books more directly or via online sources. But I know that I'm going to miss the physicality of books and I know that there are certain books that I would perhaps buy in a book store that I won't know about in a digital realm. Browsing for books online is a process I find truly unsatisfying and my online books purchases tend to be known quantities, either books from authors I trust to produce good work or books that have been overwhelmingly recommended to me by friends and colleagues.

Ultimately, I don't know how this is all going to shake out. I am not enough of an insider to see the true lay of the land (the barista who serves Janet Reid her coffee is in more of a position to know the future of publishing than I am) and guessing at it will ultimately just make me seem foolish. I hear all the doom and gloom, but then I heard a lot of doom and gloom about the future of Apple in the 90s, so you can see where I'd be reticent to pay that much heed. After all, books have been around for a very long time, they're an item people are used to (whether they have positive or negative connotations concerning them is another thing altogether), and part of me doubts that they'll so easily give up on the pleasure of holding bound pages in their hands. But I see what's happened to the USPS since the advent of email, which really is an analogous situation, and I reconsider. I guess what I'm mostly trying to say is that I am hopeful that the future of publishing, whether digital or physical, will include a place for the kinds of books I like to read and that a system will somehow develop such that I'm able to stumble into books I love in the same way as I stumbled into Revolutionary Voices when I was a teenager. It's an experience I would hate to lose and one I would hate for others to miss out on.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Waiting On Empty Air

I was scouring the Web the other day when I came across a talk by Steven Johnson on TED.com titled "Where Good Ideas Come From." I clicked on the link, expecting the usual litany of generic promises found under this kind of title: meditation techniques to clear your head of synaptic sludge, a diet program that augments imaginative output by 13.354%, and a list of books you must buy before you too are capable of producing ideas of merit. I readied myself for Johnson to peddle his snake oil and refused to join the audience of nodding, thoughtless bobble heads. But, as is usually the case with my preconceived notions, I was wrong.

It turns out that Johnson isn’t in the market of prepackaged epiphanies. Rather, his purpose is to debunk the power the “Eureka! Moment” holds over our cultural imagination. Johnson’s sell is that our ideas are not flash-in-the-pan moments of inspiration that come to us because either: A) our head is an idea making factory of unadulterated amazing, or B) we have been blessed by some deity of intellectual bounty. Instead, he proposes that good ideas need two important processes to mature. The first of these he calls the Liquid Network. To put it simply, the Liquid Network is a pattern of interconnecting ideas you construct by immersing yourself in the chaos of other people’s ideas. This chaos is mandatory to change and mature your ideas, and — let’s face it — an idea that doesn’t evolve will ultimately prove worthless. The second process is called the Slow Hunch a.k.a. time, the long, arduous, and painful variety.

Once said, Johnson’s system seems quite obvious, the commonest of common senses. However, when we turn our attention to the subject of creative writing, we find writers operating as if these facts do not apply to the creative process. Just stop and think about how many writers you know that act as though this system doesn’t pertain to them. How many wait day after day for their “Eureka! Moment” to visit? How many only write and read from that comfortable, safe genre and never venture forth into the chaos of something new? (And, yes, even the supposed anarchy of the postmodern or avant-garde will eventually render itself safe and formulaic given enough time.)

The reason for this fallacy is that we writers of stories and ideas have been wooed by our own creations. So many of us listen to the story of Isaac Newton under his apple tree and decided to sit under our own trees, hoping for the arrival of the consecrated fruit bludgeoning. We never bother to climb into the tree and drop a few of our own apples because we confused the metaphor of the “Eureka! Moment” with the actuality of the growing, struggling idea.

So many writers are raised hearing about the life of the mythic, lonely writer, the social Walden locked in a broom closet, her only means of escape her thoughts and a Remington (typewriter that is). Now, any writer will have long, drawn out periods of solitude; I’ll concede to that. Yet, any writer who writes something that resounds with others must obviously have had contact with people, whether from reading, socially interacting, schooling, and so forth. Those people will shape the author the same way she will in turn shape them. Otherwise, the author’s ideas would be of interest to only one person, herself. We fall for the obvious ploy of the writer as purely isolated because it makes for a great metaphor about the creative lifestyle, but, again, we confuse the metaphor with the reality.

Why this confusion? Simply because art is long and life is short. Metaphors provide us with mental short cuts to complex ideas and concepts, but in our rush to make long art compatible with our short lives, we can sometimes misconstrue the short cuts and the actual path. This misunderstanding is why books titled "How to Write a Novel in a Month," "The Shortcuts to Writing a Masterpiece," and "No Time, No Idea, No Problem!" not only exist but greatly appeal to writers, both new and seasoned alike. They fill their pages with metaphors and simplified stories that are completely believable at first glance since they contain that tiny, tiny granule of truth swimming in a bottle of nostrum.

Did an apple fall on Newton's head? Probably not, but even if it did, I'll bet Newton had had gravity on his mind for years beforehand (staring into what he eloquently called "the ocean of knowledge"). Do writers sometimes find themselves locked in lonely broom closets with their typewriters? I'm sure they do, but I'm also willing to bet they surround those typewriters with piles of books and have tack to the wall a list of people they are going to call when their book is finished.

Johnson may not be selling advice directly, but the advice that comes free with his intellectual wares is worth having. Write a lot. Read even more. Engage in a community, the more chaotic and varied the better. Be patience. Are you guaranteed a good idea? No, but it can't hurt your chances, and at least you won't waste twenty bucks on a copy of "The Shortcuts to Writing a Masterpiece."