Wednesday, September 26, 2007

New Issue Review: Creative Nonfiction no. 31, "Imagining the Future"

"It requires neither imagination nor acumen to predict that our current conglomerating, lowest-common-denominator, demographically targeted publishing industry will soon achieve its streamlined apotheosis--a single, worldwide, Exxon Mobil-owned literary empire offering a list of seven books twice a year."
-from "The Writers in the Silos" by Heidi Julavitis, editor of
The Believer

It is hardly an opinion to say that the future of book publishing is uncertain, what with Apple's recent iPhone release, Google's continual digitization of American libraries, and talk from more and more publishers about serious consideration of print-on-demand technology. Certainly books themselves will be around for some time, but their locations and the amount of use they receive is in question. It seems possible for them to disappear from our everyday lives, to be replaced by electronic paper, or to have their value negated by the next phase of Google's information empire takeover, the physical texts then relegated permanently to some Library of Congress vault forty feet below street level. That this hypothesising increasingly goes on today asserts what we all intuitively or consciously realize: our relationship with printed matter is changing rapidly.

This is the subject Creative Nonfiction tackles in their latest issue, number 31, which became available this past summer (see cover image above). Looking at the issue's unassuming cover and graphic-lite content, a reader may not readily assume the issue contains a wealth of intellectually dexterous and engaging writing about the future of book publishing by some of the most interesting minds in the business, including Heidi Julavitis (The Uses of Enchantment; co-editor of The Believer), C. Michael Curtis (fiction editor for The Atlantic Monthly), Amy Stolls (literature specialist for the National Endowment for the Arts), Philip Lopate (Art of the Personal Essay), Dinty W. Moore (editor of Brevity), and many more. If, say, Tin House or Zoetrope: All Story did an issue on the same theme, the cover would have a futuristic image adorning it, the text, a heavy techo-typography (possibly even embossed), and the inside would be laden with graphics depicting the wild and exuberant world of the near future of books. Something attention getting, to say the least. Creative Nonfiction, on the other hand, has always been more reserved in their public image (and less well funded, obviously, than Mr. Coppola's or Mr. McCormack's magazines). The only thematically revealing aspects of Creative Nonfiction's cover are the two subtitles: "Writing and Publishing in 2025 and Beyond" and "Imagining the Future," which are hopefully enough for readers to locate this find among the mass of newsstand possibilities.

Lee Gutkind, editor of Creative Nonfiction, asked the issue's contributors to imagine the future of book publishing in the year 2025. Though the writers each at least refer to the year at least once in their essays, the content and predictions of the essays are refreshingly all over the map (something always nice to discover in themed issues). The essays could easily have all discussed the usual suspects of book future--the fear of literary digitization, downloadable e-books replacing print books, the distractions of new media eliminating new readers or "real" books, etcetera--but the writers in this issue are able to push down different tracks and explore new possibilities to seek out publishing's future. (Image at left was done by creative studio Little Kelpie; it is one of the many graphics about the future of books the studio created for this issue of Creative Nonfiction.)

Take Heidi Julavitis's essay, "The Writers in the Silos" (recently republished in Harper's readings section). In a subtle high-irony, Julavitis takes us from an Exxon Mobil (yes, the oil company) global takeover of literature, through an elimination of all the world's books, to a final resurgence of literature in an Adam-and-Eve-grassroots like rebirth of reading at--of all things--your local farmers market. "Soon a slogan will attach itself to the phenomenon--'Read Locally,'" Julavitis writes, "and the new AgriCultural movement will begin." In less than three pages Julavitis takes literature from its pessimistic free market destruction to a warm recreation within local communities--a future which, though obviously somewhat comic, contains a nice element of hope.

The rest of the issue ranges from explorations of the possible necessity of gatekeepers in the literary world to cities where digital books are accessible from anywhere 24/7. And the complete issue feels not like an off-the-cuff prediction of an unknown future, but instead like glimpses into publishing's crystal ball explained by the sort of people you think might know a thing or two about the field. The result is both an eye-opening look at the many diverse possible futures of the book world as well as a reaffirming assertion that, no matter where the future takes us, writing is something we will have to deal with--even if, as Lopate amusingly imagines, its "a book-lozenge which dissolved novella-sized works on the tongue, or the book-shot, devised for cultivated diabetics who requested a literary dose with their daily injections."

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Found in Boston Review vol. 32 no. 4: Fiction by Patricia Engel

"You know how it is when you're a teenager. Just when things start getting good your mom calls you in for some urgent bullshit reason like your aunt is on the phone and wants to ask if you liked the crap she sent you for your birthday."
-from "Lucho" by Patricia Engel

"Our intellectual range distinguishes us from any political journal or literary quarterly, while our seriousness of purpose sets us apart from other general-interest magazines....We give due weight both to public reason and the independent life of the cultural and literary imagination."
-from the Boston Review mission statement

Since its founding in 1975, Boston Review has never been known to publish mediocre fiction. On the contrary, they have since the beginning published fiction from the likes of Stephen Dixon, Alan Lightman, and Harry Matthews, along with many more stunning stories from known and unknown authors. As well, BR has supplied readers with exceptional offerings of interviews (with Sontag, Paley, Appelfeld), nonfiction (on Elizabeth Bishop, pornography, and getting out of Iraq), and poetry (by Ashberry, Weir, Brock-Broido). Taken as a whole, BR has had a surprisingly fabulous literary track record for a magazine that--due to their primary and continual engagement with contemporary political issues--could easily be assumed to be a political forum that just happens to publish the occasional poem or story now and again. One need only look more closely at BR to see this isn't the case--to see that their progressive political bent is founded on humanism and literature; the cover of BR's most recent issue is backgrounded by a wash of Nabokov's butterflies.

Yet since Junot Diaz became Fiction Editor of the magazine a few years back, the quality and power of the fiction published in BR has moved up a notch on the scale of good American fiction--has gone from good to nuclear. Here is Diaz's own idea of what BR fiction should be, quoted from the BR website: "I’m looking for fiction that resembles the Thirty-Mile Woman from Toni Morrison’s Beloved: ‘She is a friend of my mind. She gather me, man. The pieces I am, she gather them and give them back to me in all the right order.’ Or as Takashi Murakami puts it: ‘We want to see the newest things. That is because we want to see the future, even if only momentarily. It is the moment in which, even if we don’t completely understand what we have glimpsed, we are nonetheless touched by it. This is what we have come to call art.’ I’m looking for fiction in which a heart struggles against itself, in which the messy unmanageable complexity of the world is revealed. Sentences that are so sharp they cut the eye." Diaz is very specific in what he wants: writing so sharps it cuts the eye to read it. His publishing track record so far--electric, pop-off-the-page stories by exciting writers like Vivian Chin, the amazing Ivelisse Rodriguez, Ibarionex Perello, D. S. Sulaitis, and Padma Viswanathan--has been one of the best of any fiction editor in the nation. (BR fiction has also since Diaz came on board taken on a noticeable and refreshing aesthetic of diversity, an aesthetic in many ways representative of the contemporary moment around the global community, certainly in major cities like Boston. Many writers published by Diaz seem to have a decidedly rich and intriguing bi- or tri-national flavor to their work.)

Patricia Engel's first published story, "Lucho," flies off from the BR newsprint and into the reader's own consciousness. Like the best stories, Engel's sad tale of a fourteen year old girl named Sabina's friendship with a sixteen year old boy named Lucho is so richly told and filled with compelling characters that the story is remembered not as words on a page, but rather as an indie film the reader watched or an event heard of in youth. The simplicity of Engel's writing is reminiscent of the American dirty realist authors (as Granta named them) such as Richard Ford, Frederick Barthelme, and Jayne Anne Phillips--but Engel's prose is also suffused with the charm and intelligence of today's best young inner-city authors, a style also found in the writing of Nell Freudenberger, Daniel Alarcon, and Diaz himself. It is a clear, sharp prose at the same time nostalgic and cynical, sentimental and coarse. Engel's narrative seems to accurately capture the hunger and possibility of a youth at once becoming conscious of both injustice and desire.

"It was the year my uncle got arrested for killing his wife," Engel's story begins, "and our family was the subject of all the town gossip. My dad and uncle were business partners, so my parents were practically on trial themselves, which meant that most of the parents didn't want their kids to hang around me anymore, and I lost the few friends I had." The young Sabina--estranged doubly for her uncle's murder charge and her family's ethnicity ("We were foreigners, spics, in a town of blancos")--is soon befriended by Lucho, a new boy in town. Lucho smokes cigarettes "like an old pro," curses constantly, hardly seems to bathe, and is much more sexually aware then Sabina. As Sabina's mother comes to determine, this isn't usually the sort of young man a woman wants her only daughter hanging around with.

But hang around with Lucho Sabina does. And it is this relationship seen through the viewpoint of Sabina (a shy, introverted, extremely bright young girl) that creates the stories emotional impact. We see the enigma of Lucho, the town's gossip, the strangeness of school and parents, and the story's eventual tragedy all through Sabina's eager, confused eyes--which is how we all see everything, though we are accustomed through work, relationships, and social relations to not acknowledge this, to keep our ignorance and joy hidden. To hide our hurt, just as Sabina does. We don't wear out hearts on our sleeves, and much of the work of youth is the taking of our hearts off our sleeves and putting them far away below the chest plate where they will be (we think) protected.

Luckily we have story writers like Engel who reproduce that time in our lives when our hearts are being put away for good, when confusion and desire are so real they can be touched, tasted. Engel tells of this strange injustice we all do to ourselves called becoming civilized, called acting right, which Sabina knows isn't the point. "And I thought of Lucho," Sabina thinks in the end, "and how he'd say that was fucked."

Friday, September 14, 2007

From the Newsstands: Essay on Literary Magazines from Antioch Review vol. 65 no. 1

The following is an essay on literary magazines by Thomas Washington from a recent issue of Antioch Review, vol. 65 no. 1 (Antioch has already released newer issues, vol. 65 nos. 2 and 3.) We are putting this piece up out of order--cutting in line before previously slated lit mag reviews and commentaries--because essays such as Mr. Washington's are scarce in the publishing landscape, so much that we leap at the opportunity to publish one (interested writers, please take note). Mr. Washington's opinions are, of course, his own, and not identical to ours. Yet we agree one hundred percent with him that literary magazines need to be discussed, as they are as much a form of literature as a book of Chekhov stories or Baudelaire's Flowers of Evil and therefore should be dealt with by reviewers and critics in an equal manner.

Antioch Review is published quarterly from Antioch College--and though the college is on a temporary hiatus, Antioch Review editor Robert S. Fogarty assures us that the review will continue printing as usual. They have been publishing literature for 65 years, and show no sign of tapering off. Issues are $9.50 and can be purchased online at the Antioch Review website or from your local bookseller.

A Quarterly Reader (And Writer)

By Thomas Washington

The first thing I look for when venturing into one of my quarterly subscriptions—I rotate a dozen or more journals annually and decide to retain or eliminate based on numerous factors, which I need not get into just yet—is the editor’s note. Most of the time I don’t find one. This is a sly move. Editors must think the art speaks for itself; they needn’t stand between the artist and the reader like some clingy real estate broker. Except when an editor kicks off a spring issue with an obscure poem or an essay on bee habits, I don’t know about other subscribers, but my seating is sometimes lost within the first few pages, and often I never really manage to get back in the saddle until I arrive in the book review section. I, for one, would like to have my hand held for a moment, at least at the outset, to see where the editor is leading me.

Perhaps this is one of those situations where if I don’t get it, then I don’t belong. I shouldn’t be subscribing. For example, before I knew anything about wine, I used to frequent a wine shop on Chicago’s North Shore. The owner probably didn’t realize it, but I had money to burn back in those days. I had a circle of associates whom I needed to impress and would have gladly walked out of the store with anything the merchant recommended, no matter the price. As things stood back then—I had a circle of associates whom I needed to impress and presenting fine wine at the business and dinner table seemed the best way to go about doing it—I needed guidance from the shop owner. He never bothered with me, however. He either assumed I knew my wines well enough and thought I was beyond the coddling stage, or he was sending me a subtle message to stay away from his shop and go for the grocery store selections instead.

So, if this is the sort of message editors are trying to send dim-witted readers by not including a note on the opening pages, I can understand their position. The quarterly is not about chumminess, after all. A certain standard of intellectual rigor is at stake with each issue. Maybe this seasonal greeting practice is better left to the monthlies or a corporate newsletter. Omitting the introduction note might also be a way of keeping the Yahoos out. Its absence maintains a high mystique. It creates a kind of Skull and Bones quality where those who should know do know.

But pretend for a moment that the literary quarterly reader represents a certain tourist class, not a member of the mindless hordes we see jumping off the coach and scampering up the steps of the Jefferson Memorial, but someone with a more urbane air—museum, lecture, and concert goers, for instance, the sort whose minds are always hungry for another bite of haut culture. And imagine the editor here as a riverboat tour captain. His crew, a coterie of writers and readers, retirees, librarians, the merely curious, or the intellectual hangers on, has boarded ship. They mingle in the stern with a glass of chardonnay in one hand and a tiny plate of cheese squares in the other. (I’m picturing a sunny Thursday afternoon in May, somewhere in the Midwest, home of the eager and unassuming, on the Fox or the Mississippi.) The crew trusts that the captain will navigate the river’s bends, snags, and sandbars without ado and at the same time regale them with the storyteller’s knack for anecdotal river lore. It’s a voice of tender familiarity this tourist class secretly hopes for at launching point, a seafaring authority who can help turn the inevitable shifty current and rocky crag toward gentler shores, toward a place that feels like home.

Yet as soon as the deckhand uncoils the dock line and the paddlewheel churns downstream, the crew is greeted only by silence. The guests split and fend for themselves along starboard and stern. The trip progresses downriver smoothly enough without the captain’s observations. This is not the type of audience who demands a fussing over, after all. But still a fog settles in. Like arriving at a cocktail party without a proper greeting from the host and hostess, without one of them putting a martini in your hand and introducing you to Mr. and Mrs. Miller from across town, the absence of the editor’s note in winter, spring, summer, and fall leaves readers awash in a room of unfamiliar voices.

Whether as a loyal subscriber (The word “subscriber” assumes a charming twist here, the quarterly reader as a kind of invested deputy author, a sub writer.) or a newcomer to the journal, I want to know what the view is like from Florida or Missouri. How many manuscripts floated over the transom this past season? How are we all faring with the apparent imminent demise of readers? Any funny anecdotes from editorial headquarters? Any predictions on what we’re going to see around the next bend in the river? It is not necessarily words of wisdom I’m looking for here, although an aside about our political or spiritual state is always welcome, as it is something that reminds me why I subscribed to your journal and not the dozen or so others that clamor for my attention on the end pages of each issue.

Just about anything goes in the editor’s note, so long as the editor takes the time to welcome the reader into the fold. Consider the editor’s note as a kind of “What’s My Line?” game show where the reader has a boat load of questions for the mystery guest. (And wouldn’t we agree that in this trade, the editors and their team of readers really do work behind a baffling veil of secrecy…all those returned envelopes boomeranging back to the mailbox over and over without so much as a scribble in return, a kind of twisted pen pal correspondence where the writer might be better served penning notes to himself. . . the occasional three or four month lapse between subscribing and the subsequent phone calls that go unanswered until the first issue finally arrives. . . ) The more readers (very often the writer in sheep’s clothing) learn about the editorial mission season after season, the better clue and sense of belonging we have.

If this Love Boat motif outlined above appears silly, then consider one last point about the crucial opening note before I move on. Think of the your opening address as an analogy for leading a group of backpackers (your loyal readers) up the side of a mountain. On the way up, everyone is wheezing, huffing and puffing, wondering why the hell they chose you to lead them. When you arrive at the peak, however, their world transforms. An hour earlier the pack toiled and trekked with their eyes glued to their feet, and now you’re presenting them with a breathtaking panorama, literally a view of your own making and design. In other words, your opening address is where you get out from behind those five-foot stacks of slush piles and take credit where credit is due. This is where you show us, your readers, the artistry behind the issue, how you happened upon such and such a writer among all the other competitors. Just how does the eventual published poem or short story make its way to the top, anyway? Surely, the quarterly is ultimately about the writers’ work, but the reader’s failure to recognize the arrangement behind the final product is like seating oneself at the Thanksgiving dinner table without giving thanks to the powers of creation in the kitchen.

Another mystery in my seasonal reading is the question of why many quarterlies are in fact not quarterlies at all any longer. More and more, they fall under the unofficial name of annuals or bi-annuals. I admire the courageous publications who are staying with the original spirit of the seasonal calendar, even though a handful each year are undraping their spring 2005 issue in summer 2006. The reader can just imagine the chaos here. (Actually, the reader cannot imagine the chaos behind a publishing schedule. If many writers, hell bent on sending another manuscript, were readers, then they would ease up on their submissions.) Under this modern day, shrink-wrapped time schedule that traps everyone in a pinch, we can only conclude the quarterly’s headquarters must operate in perpetual disarray, the same as any other industry operating under a production timetable. Perhaps a team of readers called it quits under the onslaught of submissions. Maybe the guy who works the midnight shift at the printing press tips the bottle at night and confuses the orders. Financing, or the lack thereof, is also a likely culprit. These pitfalls are understandable. Yet editors should remember that what sets the quarterly apart from the commercial pack of weeklies and monthlies is its seasonal ties.


While some critics treat the quarterly as some sort of endangered species, perpetually on the verge of falling out of favor unless it learns to strike new ground, I would argue just the opposite. However staid, slack, or retro the quarterly may sometimes come across to others, however much it appears to suffer a decline against the mountains of hypermedia vying for a minute of our attention, the quarterly can hold its own as a model of eclecticism. It is a cultural bulwark in its own right.

The challenge here for the quarterly editor, it seems, has little to do with keeping ahead of the reader with new fangled design, e.g. an online edition, eye popping graphics, or inventing a new literary genre (quiction anyone?) It’s all about defining the tempo. Each season the quarterly reader hopes to find a literary work that illuminates the world’s changing landscape, some poem or short story that is finely attuned to the tempo of our varied experience. In this sense the quarterly editor is a pacesetter of sorts, not necessarily a maverick standing beyond a knoll waving us forth as the prophet leads his flock.

Think of harness racing. The thoroughbreds race under a specified gait, pulling those sulkies around the track. The driver / editor carries the whip and signals the horse (the writer?) by striking the sulky shaft to establish the two-beat gait. Defining the tempo and significance of these changing times (the race) is the editor’s great talent and privilege, not only as an allegiance to the reading community but also to the writers whom they publish.


The more I searched for state of the art models, essays on which I could base my own writing aspirations, the more I hoped to identify and feel with the writer in that church pew, the more I encountered sad, isolated voices traversing the fringe. Even when a writer does invite me to witness the exotic, say a trip to La Paz or the Silk Road, I’m unmoved. It sounds as though the writer picked up the psycho detritus from one end of the room—a drug habit, or suburban boredom exported to a street corner in Tijuana—and shoveled it to another. The writer never comes across as more interesting than the story itself.

I was bothered enough by my cold reactions to draft letters to various editors, asking why, as a loyal patron of the journal, I wasn’t coming across more reporting, more stories that kept the narrator out of the picture. I understand this is the beauty behind the craft, the narrator’s insistence on being in on the story’s action (if, in fact, we find a story), except I couldn’t help thinking the reader would be better served if the narrator stayed out of the picture altogether.

The only response I received came from an editor who scolded me with an email message: “Don’t read, don’t subscribe, and don’t bother submitting. This publication is not for everybody. And if I had any further doubts about the quality of the work,” the editor advised, “have a look at the Best Essays series, where you’ll find numerous entries from our publication.”


Clearly, quarterly membership is a lonely hobby. This is the idea, I suppose, to be alone with something one enjoys doing. But sooner or later it might be good to exchange stories. In trying to gather a feel for what works, for what editors are looking for among the mountains of incoming submissions, I feel left out, as though I missed out on the first day of creative writing class when the instructor handed out the course objectives and syllabi. Since the acceptance rates in these journals run between one and two percent, I presume the work that does succeed to publication represents a model of excellence. I’ve either got a tin ear for the extraordinary, e.g. realizing that a trip to La Paz or the Silk Road is the essence of exoticism, or these global avenues are so over traveled that the only place for the essayist to retreat is back to that kitchen table, for continued reflection on Cezanne’s table of fruit.


I am happy to stay on board with the quarterlies, indefinitely. Sometimes it feels masochistic, all this silence between submissions and between readings, no discernable quarterly club members in my neighborhood, the sometimes cheerless design format, the covers as unassuming as a high school theater program passed out by a student usher.

For all the quarterly’s supposed refinement, its place as a cultural cornerstone, it appears pleased enough to inhabit society’s fringe. Weeks ago, however, I noticed a recent issue of Ploughshares in my high school library. One of our library paraprofessionals assumed it was a circulating paperback instead of a periodical. (The English department normally claims these issues.) She catalogued the issue and slapped a barcode on it, just as we do our fiction and nonfiction shelf items. Then she wrapped it in a shiny book jacket and placed it on the new arrivals shelf, face out on a tiny book stand, alongside Capote’s In Cold Blood and Kunkel’s Indecision.

A student has yet to check out Ploughshares. Perhaps it’s just as well that it remains on display

[To read the rest of Mr. Washington's essay, pick up a copy of Antioch Review vol. 65 no. 1]

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

From the Back Issues: DoubleTake, Special Edition 2001

"The reality of 9/11, or the surreality of 9/11, was devouring my invented reality. It wasn't that the city was destroyed; it was the consequences, which I misread. I actually thought it would send the country's efforts not outward, but inward."
-Junot Diaz from the Sept/Oct issue of
Poets and Writers

As nearly everyone in the world is aware of, today marks six years since the horrendous New York World Trade Center attacks of September 11, 2001. The days' attacks had such sudden and violent repercussions worldwide in the shapes of the American Iraq and Afghanistan wars that--though they were certainly suffered through and memorialized--it could be argued that the events of 9/11 were not allowed enough time to be sufficiently digested by the American nation. The images were flashed repeatedly on televisions and newspapers. Talking heads worked from behind podiums. Wars were begun.

Literary journals are largely a medium of and for reflection. They traffic in reflexive thought, thought that doubles back on itself, makes statements and reconsiders them. They are not generally the mouthpieces of individual taste (though some certainly have been), but they tend to function more in the vein of F. Scott Fitzgerald's definition of genius: one who can hold two opposing views in their mind at once. Flash and pizazz is not typical of literary magazines, either. Nor are they known for bold or dramatic statements about subjects. And it is much due to this reflexive nature that such magazines are often months, even years, behind the flow of current political events and social discussion. In this sense, they are the opposite of the majority of newspapers and glossy magazines who make it their job to break news--or to at least cover the same stories at the same time everyone else is.

Though such a distance from the "hot moment" can make literary magazines seem culturally behind the times, there is much to be appreciated from such editorial patience, as it is usually only with such patience that publishing venues (and the artists within) are able to get a broader and more complex view of events. When events are covered in the literary magazine world--like Atlanta Review's recent issue on the Iraq War or New Orleans Review's Katrina issue--the result can be a publication rich in considered historical and contemporary detail.

In Decemeber of 2001, just months after the attacks, Robert Coles's photography and literature magazine DoubleTake (which ceased publishing in 2003, but has been recently relaunched as DoubleTake/Points of Entry) did a special edition on the 9/11 disaster that, like every other issue of the magazine up to that point, included succinct and powerful writing from some of the best around. Some writers in the 9/11 issue are Seamus Heaney, Francine Prose, Bill McKibben, Stuart Dybek, and Billy Collins, their writing laid out alongside photography capturing what Coles wanted the magazine to capture overall: "the voices and visions of ordinary folk." Which, in the end, is everybody.

It is commonly thought that horrific events such as 9/11 are historically difficult for art to represent very quickly, as artists require a certain undefined period of gestation before they can produce anything worthwhile. The same might hold true for literary magazines, as they are by definition devoted to aesthetic concerns above political and capital ones. It is understandable then why nearly all the writing DoubleTake chose for their special issue on 9/11 was written before the WTC attacks. Even given this fact, at no time does the issue feel dated or discontiguous. On the contrary, the entire issue reads as though it could have been written the day after the attacks, or many years later, as the amount of exposed emotion and careful reflection--of direct declaration and skillful explication--are evenly balanced throughout.

The issue opens with an excerpt of Seamus Heaney's translation of Sophocles Philoctetes, retitled by Heaney as The Cure at Troy. "Human beings suffer/" Heaney's translation begins, "They torture one another,/ They get hurt and hard./ No poem or play or song/ Can fully right a wrong/ Inflicted or endured." The poem, written by Sophocles over 2,000 years ago and translated by Heaney in 1991, feels as though it could have been written just moments after the attack, in a direct response to the bloodshed and violence brought onto the people of New York City. Such, Heaney shows us, is the power of literature.

The rest of the issue continues in this manner, with very few mistakes or overstepping of editorial bounds (which near everyone writing was worried about in the immediate wake of 9/11). There is an essay on what we remember about traumatic events by Francine Prose; a handful of eerily fascinating photographs of airports and the people in them by Adam Shemper, a both surprisingly gentle and painful poem about the WTC attacks by James Hart, a piece about Ghandi's peaceful revolution by Bill McKibben, and a spread of evocative photographs taken of Northern Afghanistan from 1999 and 2000 by Robert Sanchez.

One of the most surprising and disturbing pieces in the issue was written in October 1958 by William Carlos Williams, about a child from Paterson, New Jersey playing with building blocks. W.C.W. tells how the child built a tower with the blocks meant to suggest "those huge buildings in New York City where a cousin of his dad's worked." As W.C.W. watched, the child knocked the building down. "What happened?" Williams asked the young boy. "Someone real mean came," the boy says, "and he got his way."

Saturday, September 8, 2007

From the Newsstands: Fiction from New England Review vol. 28 no. 3

The following is a lengthy excerpt of Rob Ehle's heartbreaking story "Not the Ocean" from the new issue of New England Review, vol. 28 no. 3. The journal--one of the crispest designed and consistently fascinating high-quality literary journals around (this issue even includes a piece by Tolstoy)--is edited by Stephen Donadio and published out of Middlebury College in Vermont. Single issues are 8 dollars and can be purchased in bookstores or from the NER website. NER is distributed nationally by Ingram and Ubiquity.

Not the Ocean
by Rob Ehle

The sun had not shown itself for twenty days, and only six of those had been dry. Today it was drizzling. Still, the boys were playing in the back as if it were mid-July. Dan heard their shrieky voices from the front of the house. The voices went from loud to extremely loud, then back to loud again. They had not played in the yard for three days. If he had let them play inside today, he might have hurt one of them. There was a lull, and he began to be able to think again. He looked back down at the checkbook register and then heard a boom—something very large and heavy had hit the back wall. Dan jumped from his chair, which crashed to the floor, but before he was at the back door the boys were already shouting, It’s okay. He’s okay. We’re okay. When he got outside, he saw the aluminum tool shed tipped off its concrete bed, leaning on the house. The boys were already at the opposite corner of the yard, as if it had been an act of God.

Aaron crouched at the base of a rose bush. He was examining dirt. It didn’t look like he’d been doing anything else for at least an hour. His little brother stood in front of him facing the back door, his expression blank with guilt. He held his hands behind his back as if he were hiding something.

“What’d you do, Aaron?”

“We can fix it, Dad. Satch wanted to see the top.”

He didn’t get the checkbook balanced. By the time Cheryl got home he’d barely finished getting the shed back on its foundation, bolted now into the concrete. He had tried for about ten minutes to make the boys pick up and reorganize all the spilled nails and screws, nuts and bolts, mollies and copper wire, until the sheer lunacy of effort was too much for him. Instead he had them clean their room.

“That’s not a punishment,” Cheryl said.

“Have you looked at that room?”

“That’s what they were supposed to do today, anyway. I told them before I left.”

They didn’t eat until seven. Dan had planned on having supper ready when Cheryl got home, but events had again found their own sluice. It was ten before the boys were in bed and as soon as she’d turned out their lights, Cheryl went straight to a bath. Dan thought he might have a drink. When he opened the cupboard above the refrigerator and remembered he was out of Scotch, his desolation surprised him.

“Dan,” Cheryl said from the tub.

He walked down the hall to the back room, out to the yard. The clouds were finally blowing off, and he could see some stars. They were pretty and new, and it had been so long since he’d seen them that it made him think of night in the mountains. He thought he might take a few days with a pack and a bag and just go up, all by himself. He had all the time he needed. It wasn’t the kind of thing he did, ever.

Cheryl called him again. He couldn’t always hear from the back porch, not always, and he took a couple of steps further out. He smelled the wet under the clearing sky and he could feel the rarefied night on his skin. The smell of grass and dirt started to go musky, and he knew a skunk was out somewhere. The smell didn’t fade off. The neighbor’s dog started barking, and Dan went inside.

“Where were you?” Cheryl said when he came into the bathroom. The water was so hot that steam still ribboned off it, and her skin glowed like Christmas.

“A skunk’s outside.”

“I wanted to talk to you about something.”

“What?” Dan said.

“Larry and I talked tonight.”

He finally couldn’t think of anything else to do, so he smiled.

“I think it’s the right time for something like this, Dan.” She looked at the ceiling as she spoke, as if she were practicing. “While you’re looking for something new. Larry’s got an idea—an opportunity. He says if I stay around any longer, I’ll just learn all he knows anyway and then there’s nothing stopping me from setting myself up and competing.”

“Setting yourself up? With your own produce stand?”

“It’s not a produce stand.”

It was a booth in a gutted movie theater. There were about twenty other vendors, selling specialty olive oils, beeswax candles, kites—anything a person could think of to sell (though not necessarily to buy). But Larry’s instincts were good enough, and he’d finally been able to hire some help. Cheryl went in three days a week to relieve him. She hadn’t worked for nine years, and she was flush with purpose.

“It’s a whole store, and business is doubling every two months. Organic is finally mainstream, Dan. People are really into local produce.” Now she looked at him, and he just let her, stared dumbly back. “Larry’s thinking butters and cheeses now.”

“He’s thinking butters and cheeses?” Dan opened the medicine cabinet, took out the box of floss. “Plural?”

“There’s a space opening next to us. The rent’s almost nothing.”

They had just gotten twenty thousand dollars in inheritance from her grandfather. Before that, there had been only the checking account.


Dan slept badly. The smell was finally so rank he knew the skunk had to be under the house. He had the midnight certainty that one of the boys would surprise it early in the morning and get sprayed point blank. Blinded, maybe. The idea finally consumed him, and he had fitful, dreamy thoughts about hospitals and sunglasses. When he woke again, though, he couldn’t smell a thing, and he was so relieved that he got up, put on his robe, and went to check on the kids. To see them, he turned on the hall light. It half woke Cheryl, who sighed a question and rolled back to sleep. All he could see of Aaron was the rough grain of his hair at the edge of the blanket. Satchel lay sprawled and coverless as if he’d just dropped off the ceiling. His breathing sounded like waves. Dan had taken lately to watching his sons sleep the way he’d once sat on the beach gazing at the ocean—emptied, quiet. That his sons were not the ocean, were small and full of love for him, didn’t always soothe him. He bent to put a blanket over Satchel, felt the damp at his hairline and moved the cover down a little. He went back to his room, slipped into bed, and tried not to think about money.


He heard Cheryl on the phone in the morning, talking to Larry. TV noises came from the back room. There was a sliver of sunlight at the baseboard, the first in weeks. It was a minute or two before he remembered what day it was, and when he did, he rolled on his side and put a pillow over his head. A minute later, Cheryl came in and said, “You’re still in bed?”

“Time’s it?”

“It’s nine, Baby. Larry’s picking me up and we’re going to the farmer’s market.”

She had started calling him this after he was laid off. She’d never used the word
before, not even in sex. “Okay?”

“You taking the kids?”

“To the farmer’s market?”

“They like it. Satch likes the . . . things.”

“I’ll be back in a couple of hours. Then we can all do something fun.” She snatched up the blinds, and the room cracked open like an egg. “It’s gorgeous out.”

A minute later she was in the back room saying goodbye to the kids and five minutes after that Satchel was on the bed. “I’m hungry.”

Dan told him to get some Cheerios. “Have Aaron help you.”

“Mom says you’re being a lazybones.”

He pulled the pillow further down over his face.

“Lazy Bones,” Satchel said.

“Mom’s just a crazy bones.”

Satchel laughed and stared. Dan’s eyes were shut, but he could feel Satchel crouching, his nose an inch away. “Lazy Bones,” Satchel said. Dan growled, low and wolfish. Satchel began a quiet squealing, almost inaudible. It got louder as Dan’s hand moved slowly toward him under the blanket. When Dan had him by the leg, he yodeled and thrashed in happy terror.

Who you callin’ lazy?

Once Dan was up—that bulwark fallen—he resigned himself to French toast. He knew the boys were sated on television. Aaron broke the eggs and Satchel ground the coffee—something destructive for each of them.

“Watch that griddle. Hospital’s closed Sunday morning.”

“Is not,” Aaron said.

The boys ate at the table while Dan stood at the counter with his coffee, frying his own toast. They argued about cartoons. He tried to tune them out with the morning paper, but gradually he realized it wasn’t the boys who were distracting him. He set the front page aside and picked up the classifieds. GRAPHIC ARTIST needed for 6-month assignment; GUI DESIGNER for dynamic new gaming and VR company; R U a SELF-STARTER? He scanned the columns, circling nothing, until he smelled the burning toast. He picked it off the griddle and threw it in the trash, turned back to the paper.

“Dad!” Satchel said. “You just threw away your French toast!”

Dan was still in his robe when Cheryl came home. She was talking as she opened the front door, and he went to the bedroom to get some clothes on. He heard Larry’s voice, the low slight sway, and Cheryl’s laugh, and bags set on the kitchen table. She said, “Where is everybody?” Aaron and Satchel were playing in the back yard. Dan looked for some jeans.

She had met him in her yoga class. Before the organic produce, he’d been an engineer. Engineering what, Dan wasn’t sure—flexible computer screens maybe, microphones the size of bacteria—things strange and wonderful enough to make him tidy money, which Dan didn’t begrudge him. Larry had paid his dues. Cancer had taken sixty pounds and a kidney off him, and in his eyes you saw the Lazarus wisdom. Dan hadn’t known him before he was sick, but he wondered if he’d looked as good—sallow and wiry, hands that reminded you of Lincoln. He had wrinkles that women would still be falling for twenty years from now. Either way, he now knew what was what. Larry said he hadn’t done the organic thing for his health—coming back from the grave, he just liked being around stuff that grew. He might have been married once, Dan could never remember.

“Hey, farmers.”

Cheryl smiled at him when he came into the kitchen. She held out a carrot: “Carrot?”

Larry stood behind the bags with his hands in his back pockets, shy as a cowboy, and Cheryl took a chomp of the carrot herself and grinned with a full cheek.

“Smells tasty in here,” Larry said.

“Was. French toast with catsup—it’s a House Satchelty.”

Cheryl came up to Dan, aimed the carrot at his mouth, and he opened up. He held it there like a cigar, half-grinning at Larry. Larry grinned back. He had the warmest smile Dan had ever seen—not a grinner, really. (Did that mean that you could trust him with your money, or that you couldn’t?) There was the sound of the door in the back room, and a moment later Aaron walked into the kitchen and opened the refrigerator as if he were the only one in the house.

“Hello, kiddo,” Cheryl said. “What are you up to?”

“Can I have a soda?”


He closed the fridge. “Okay,” he said, and he walked back out of the kitchen.

Larry laughed and looked out after him and said, “That’s me.”

The carrot was as sweet as an apple in Dan’s mouth, and he almost mentioned it. Instead he said, “Didn’t look like you.” Cheryl looked over at him and he pretended not to notice.

“That’s what I did all the time,” Larry said. “Asked for stuff I knew I couldn’t have. Then I’d go back out and play.”

He really was a good man. Better than Dan, actually, which was a strange thing to think about.


Sometime in the soggy recent past a trip to Point Reyes had been promised to see the gray whales. Dan didn’t remember. After Larry left, Cheryl started packing some of the fruit and cheese she’d gotten at the market. Satchel had wanted to see whales ever since Aaron had gone with his class the year before and come home talking about flukes. Pretty much everything had been flukes now for about a year. They had a fluke poster in their room, and when he took a bath, Satchel turned on his stomach, lifted his fluke-flared feet and dowsed his head, trying in eight-inch water to make sounding. As Cheryl packed, Dan rummaged through a couple of closets for the binoculars. The closets yielded nothing, and Dan began to fear the binocs were impacted somewhere in a tent or sleeping bag down in the bowels of the house. Twenty minutes later he was rifling and muttering in the space under the basement stairs when Cheryl came down.

“What are you doing, Dan?”

“We have too much stuff, you know that?”

“We’ll have a garage sale. But not right now.”

He knelt on a plastic packing box, peering, the flashlight in his hand no brighter than a candle, when the lid gave way and he slipped. His fist went through the weave of an ancient lawn chair.

“Goddamn it!”

“What are you looking for?”

“I’m looking for the damn binoculars. How are we going to see a damn whale without any binoculars, Cheryl?”

She didn’t answer, and when he looked at her there wasn’t a trace of interest he could see. She sighed and finally said, “We’ll be in the car.” He dug and rummaged for another five minutes, until the boys started yelling. Cheryl pulled out of the driveway, and Dan marched down and got into the car. At the corner, she turned right instead of left and said, “I’m sure Larry has some binoculars.”

“Sure,” he said. As she flipped opened her phone, he said, “You know, why don’t you just invite him? I’ll bet he’s—”



“Wait!” Satchel yelled. “I know where they are.”

Back at the house, Satchel ran into the garage and came back in less than a minute.

“We were reading with them last week. Frank and me.”

“The hell?” Dan said under his breath, and Satchel said, “Dollar,” and no one asked any more questions.

As Dan drove through the city, across the bridge, Cheryl and the boys took turns looking through the binoculars. Satchel said he saw a whale, and Aaron told him it was the Farallons. Cheryl kept saying it didn’t matter if they saw whales or not, it was a beautiful day. She was buoyant and chatty. She talked about Marin and free-range chickens and the fascists in Washington. She told Aaron there was definitely a God, no matter what his friend said. At the rainbow tunnel, Satchel and Aaron both sucked in their breath. Just before the other end, Aaron poked Satchel in the ribs, and Satchel laughed and then got mad.

“Not fair!”

“It’s bad for you to hold your breath that long when you’re only five.”

“I can hold it a lot longer than that.”

“You lose five million brain cells for every second you hold it.”

“I do not.” Satchel was quiet a moment. Then he said, “Do I, Mom?”

“Jeez.” Dan didn’t even have to look in the mirror to see his older son rolling his eyes. “You better hope not. You don’t have many left to lose.”

He worried sometimes that Aaron was picking up his sarcasm a little quick. The boy wasn’t even ten. At this rate, how dry would he be by the time he was sixteen? Partly it was having a little brother—a walking bull’s eye for irony. Everything in Satchel that brought out tenderness and delight in his parents was, Dan knew, proof to Aaron that he was the stupidest human in America. Dan had had his own stupid little brother, a man who was now a school superintendent in Oregon. All he wished for Aaron, for a boy so frighteningly like himself, was that he not mistake for stupidity what was actually happiness.

They drove along Bolinas Lagoon past dozens of egrets planted out on the water like pennants. Dan thought briefly what it would have been like if he’d been out by himself.

“Ospreys!” Cheryl said suddenly. “Dan, stop! Look at them!”

He pulled into a gravel turnout. They all got out of the car and followed two of the birds as they flew out over the water. When he got his own chance at the binoculars, Dan could make out the stark face markings and crests of the birds as they flew, their feathered legs.

“They look like Mexican wrestlers,” he said. “Don’t they? Those faces.”

“Strong-Bad!” Aaron said, in a Strong-Bad voice.

The boys got their chances with the glasses, and then Cheryl said, “My turn.” Just as Satchel handed the binoculars up to her, one of the ospreys took a dive. Cheryl gasped. The osprey came up with a fish, turning it in its talons straight on to the wind as it flew off. “Look!” Cheryl whispered. “Look at that!”

But Dan was looking at her, not at the bird. Her lips were just parted. She peered through the binoculars like a child peeking through a keyhole. As a wisp of her blond hair blew back and forth from her cheek to the top of the binoculars, desire hit him like a little gust of wind.

“I am Strong-Bad!” Satchel said, giggling. “And I like . . . fish!

Larry was not the kind of person to take someone’s wife. Dan knew this. But as he looked at Cheryl now, all girlish and bursting, it wasn’t enough. She didn’t have to have a thought in her head of betrayal. Just the happiness alone felt like it. As weeks went by, then a month, then four months without a job, there was a meanness he couldn’t shed, that he felt doomed and hobbled by.

“I thought they couldn’t fly,” Satchel said.



Aaron stared at his brother, and Cheryl smiled and furrowed her brows at Dan.

“You thought ospreys couldn’t fly?”


Aaron looked up at the one remaining bird. They all watched a while longer as it kited above the lagoon.

“Ospreys,” Aaron said finally. “Not ostriches.”

[To read the rest of Rob Ehle's touching story "Not the Ocean," purchase a copy of New England Review vol. 28 no. 3 from the NER website or your local bookseller.]

Monday, September 3, 2007

New Issue Review: ZYZZYVA* vol. 23 no. 1

"For hours, off and on, he gave me kind of stares a child throws Christmas mornings, when he has torn the wrappings from every present and stands waiting for the gift that will never arrive."
-from the story "Exit Wounds" by Charles McLeod

"...For you she builds a body, a list
from hip to waist, a weight in breasts best set to anchor
the architecture of your mouth."
-from the poem "Husbandry" by Jennifer Borges Foster

For the past 150 years, American little and literary magazines have mainly existed to publish new and original writing yet unaccepted by mainstream publishing/reading venues, either because of the writing's form or content, or simply because the name of its author isn't well-known enough (such as the early Sherwood Anderson, Philip Roth, or Miranda July). It was due to just such editorial vision that Emerson and Fuller's ever-copied mid-nineteenth century magazine, The Dial, never amassed more than 300 subscribers. And hardly has anywhere suffered to publish unrecognized quality writing as thoroughly as did Margaret Anderson's The Little Review, its issues packed with experimental new work from Ezra Pound, Malcolm Cowley, T.S. Eliot, Vachel Lindsay, Djuana Barnes, William Carlos Williams, and Jean Cocteau, its famous slogan printed across the later covers: "Making No Compromise with the Public Taste." (Further proof of its publishing temerity: The Little Review was sued by the U.S. government after publishing 4 installments of Joyce's Ulysses; 3 of the 4 installments were burned by the Post Office.) Though West Coast literary magazine, ZYZZYVA, is very different from both The Dial and The Little Review, it is their cousin in its thankfully stubborn insistence to find and publish fascinating new writing by under-recognized, sometimes unheard of, literary authors and artists.

"The last word: West Coast writers and artists," say covers of ZYZZYVA, a literary journal published thrice-yearly out of San Francisco by a staff led by the magazine's founder, Howard Junker. In photos, Junker looks eerily like John Updike (as Junker himself has often pointed out), and one might wonder if some higher power didn't create a renegade literary twin of Updike for the western seaboard, in a zen-like balancing of American letters. Such a thing, in metaphor, at least, is necessary. Though the United States is 3,000 miles wide, the wealth of good writing is considered to be found almost wholly in New York, because the largess of good publishing is found there. One need only look around (which, understandably, takes time and effort) at such literary destinations as City Lights Books, Powell's bookstore, Tin House, McSweeney's, Black Clock, and Zoetrope (just to name a few of the more prominent ones) to see that the western edge of the nation is publishing and selling a considerable amount of the most exciting writing around.

All this to say that the latest issue of ZYZZYVA is a good a place as any to read outstanding new writing--the kind of writing that will, as Francine Prose once described a good story, feel as though the top of your head has just been removed for a moment. That "ah-hah" feeling. The feeling a reader might get from Charles McLeod's haunting short story, "Exit Wounds," from this issue of ZYZZYVA. "When the buzzing rose up and reached me," the narrator of the story tells us upon seeing thousands of bees rise up from an overturned semi-trailer, "I was saddened; they had named themselves and we had to act accordingly. All around us were cornfields and farther off farmhouses, their porch lights like code on the flatland. The insects pushed on and I kept walking west. The sky was so wide it was startling."

Like McLeod's story, much of the writing published in this and most issues of ZYZZYVA is somehow distinctly western, infused as it is with references to western landscapes, or tinged with aestheticisms reminiscent of the Beats, but mixed with modern doses of cynicism and post-Marquez wonder. Though somehow the magazine on the whole retains a non-regional feel, as though the writers could be from some pueblo in southern Mexico or writing at some coffee shop in Kansas City. While only publishing work by West Coast artists, Junker's ability to publish writing that resonates with all readers speaks highly of his editorial eye. The pieces in this latest issue of ZYZZYVA are as diverse as they come, ranging from Native American memoir (Sarris, "All this Family") to humorous fantasy (Houser, "Piranha-Otter") to the slippery ontology of sexual experience (Howard, "Bolero") to celebrity photography (Fernandez, "Self Portrait with Charles Bukowski") to mixed media art (Mulvey, "Virtual Couch") to a different type of graphic novel (Madonna, "All Over Coffee"). In the diversity of these pieces, Junker continues to map the literature of the West, expanding its borders. That this issue of ZYZZYVA deserves readers is not the question--Madonna's graphic novel and McLeod's story alone are reason enough to drop the 11 dollars for an issue. Instead, the question this and the best issues of ZYZZYVA brings to mind (along with the best issues of McSweeney's and Zoetrope) is to what the future holds for San Francisco, Los Angeles, Portland, and Seattle as bright new cities in the literary geography. New York will not soon fade as the center of literary publishing. But with people like Junker, Ferlinghetti, Winthrop McCormack, and others continually finding a home for writing to equal that coming out of New York, it seems like the landscape is certainly flattening, if not yet shifting.

*Our sincere apologies to everyone at ZYZZYVA for our previous miscapitalization (as Zyzzyva) of the name of their fine mag.

**This review regards the spring issue of ZYZZYVA, while a newer issue has already been released, vol.23 no. 2.