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 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.