Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Bakeless Doesn't Rise


I sent in a book of creative nonfiction for the 2008 Bread Loaf Writers' Conference Bakeless Prize.  Sadly, though, no dough.

14 comments:

puc said...

So I read “The 13th Egg.” It’s a 50’s TV sitcom, or something from The Twilight Zone series. I thought of Ray Bradbury. It’s a comic book idea story, the origins of a new superhero... I wondered if kids would use the F word like that, in 1946 – soldiers at war, sure, but to their small town girlfriends back home? But there were too few clues to any local idiom, just the F word every now and then, so I thought its use gratuitous. I also looked for accuracy, wondering why he called it a Johnny Mercer song, when Mercer wrote only the lyrics, but I decided this was unfair of me (yet, what’s the Mercer song in the story for? Is it a pun on light, “Travelin’ Light,” for our hero? But’s that’s not the meaning of light in the song). I noticed some consistency, which might be described as sentimental: "mouf" for example, from the sailor whose face is heated off; and, "assignment...had come down the pipe" the military gives orders, not assignments, and do things “come down the pipe”? Again, they do on TV – it’s a form of shorthand. Is supe a word? I don’t think so; the OED would use "soup" for souping up a car, his meaning here, not “supe.” "Yolks on you" is forced, but suits the 50's sitcom or Twilight Zone emulation we've got going here. "Sheriff Gilgoff." What kind of name is Gilgoff? It brings too much attention to itself coming so late in the story. "Fingers like tiny microphones" isn’t bad. The pilot falling from a clear sky and landing on the deck hits with the intended surprise. The iceberg motif works. The clubfoot (one word, I think, not two, but OED shows it with a hyphen) is an easy explanation that TV would use, and allows for the ending to take shape, which is how TV stories are constructed. Is it a war story? Is it even a story about how WWII affected soldiers, their girls and families and friends? No. Is it history? No. But you can’t criticize a story for being something it’s not intended to be. It’s a “Jody was home when you left” story: boy goes off to war, comes home to find his girl’s dating another boy, the boys fight – our hero wins in a nuclear fantasy ending. Is this a “good” story? Well, it’s not Hemingway’s “Soldier’s Home.” It’s not Bob Dylan’s “John Brown,” (which should get a listen if you want to know what can happen to a soldier’s face). It’s not Adam Haslett, not Breece D’JPancake. No, this is not a very hard-boiled story (sorry for the pun). But it’s not supposed to be. It’s 1950’s TV. But even on those terms, it’s only moderately successful, because it lacks unity of purpose. It’s certainly not literary, not in the way any of Joyce’s “Dubliners” are. “Scraps of molten steel spun across the ground, turning the sand to black glass.” Not a bad sentence; a great sentence in a comic book. The S’s do their job. But you need more than a little alliteration for the whole to achieve what we might, reluctantly in this environment, call art. But I don’t think “art” is this writer’s intention. I think he’s having fun. In the end I guess I’m surprised that VQR prints this story when we’re spending close to $400 million a day in Iraq. Seems irreverent. Which may be part of the problem. I don’t know if the writer was ever a soldier, but I doubt it. I think this writer is having fun. The story is probably informed more by the writer’s interests than by his experience, like someone talking about their hobbies. I do not think war is his interest here (if it is, and we compare to something like “Letters from Iwo Jima,” we’ve got a problem). I think his interest here is sci-fi. But more power to him. I would like to see his short story book, to see, if placed in the context of other stories similarly built, there emerges a sharing of his interests in a way that builds a world. At close to 10K words, he had the chance here to build a world, and he may have, but in the end, it’s a shorthand world. I think of Joyce’s Farrington in “Counterparts,” or Little Chandler in his “A Little Cloud.” Or Stephen Crane’s “The Monster.” If “The 13th Egg” is evidence, I no longer think the argument is about the slush pile, but I don’t know what it is about. (also commented at Ward Six).

Writer Reading said...

Is the story longer than your comment? Let's face it. The stuff published in journals is no better than the uneven stuff you read and critique in writing workshops, and that unfinished.

puc said...

Writer Reading... Ha! Good one. Actually, my comment is approx. 8% of the story (story about 9,600 words as I recall; my comment just over 700 words). Well, I understand yr comment, but I just try to play the words I'm given. As for your response to the length of my comment, I read that as a rejection, since no one complains about the length of a good time. Yet I could have said more, but I didn't want to overstay my welcome. I will work on shorter comments.

Writer, Rejected said...

Dude, your comments are the perfect length. Don't go changing.

puc said...

OK, thx for that. Got 3 rejections this week: Poetry magazine (and who do you think you are?); small midwestern college journal (that, yes, I do read), but with a handwritten note - it's cool; and i can't mention the third one. Oh, well. There you have it. And it's only Wednesday. I don't know, the 13th egg; that's what we writers are - 13th eggs. Ah, jeez! Is he kidding? Who, Puc? He doesn't even know what site he's on! Is this Tuesday? Must be LROG. What? What just happened?

Pauline said...

Puc, I didn't think your comments on the story were too long. You were fair in your assessment, although I found parts of the story very moving (his memory of the blast (not the right word), for instance). I don't think to write about something you have to necessarily write from experience, although in this case, I think you're right that some aspects don't ring true.

puc said...

Pauline, Yes, there is some good writing in "The 13th Egg" - the happy sailors waiting unknowingly for the blast "like paper cutouts." That moment when Everett realizes his girl has cheated on him though - that is television (good television, but still TV; which is to say, sentimental, and cliche). And no, you don't have to write from experience, and there's vicarious experience that is valid and inspirational. In any case, he said (check over at Ward Six) that he heard the war stories from his grandfather. That's cool. But I think in the end we get better stories if we do write from our own experience, not narcissistically, but trying to find the universal, which is what connects - which I think might be the issue that got this whole thread going (the Frey case is interesting in that regard). In any case, where the story primarily fails is in the end when he says he's giving the town what they want, what they asked for - but there's no foreshadowing of that, there's no sense that the town has done anything wrong. Why in the end does he do what he does? Is this the creation of a super-hero or a super-villain? This is why I said it lacked unity of purpose. Also I found lacking: music - no one works on cars without a transistor going somewhere in the background - I touched on that with the Johnny Mercer; he might have continued that thread. That said, he clearly did research or knows his cars, and did create a kind of impressionistic picture of those car crazy days (which I guess is still going on in places around the country). But even all that is no big deal. But I wasn't breathing the So Cal air in this story (see Kem Nunn, for example, his Unassigned Territory, also sci-fi in the desert). But the question was, and remains, how did this story find its way into VQR? I can't believe it came thru the slush pile. Doesn't it contain exactly the kind of thing they critized in Waldo's original post? Something about planet of the apes (it does appear they've now removed the comments). That's what I think most commenters here have joined in on: i.e. lack of equal access. Perhaps it's simply impossible.

Anonymous said...

Puc,

I think you offer a just critique--you talk about the story on its own terms, what it sets out to accomplish and how it gets there. And you show some of the ways--again, on its own terms--that the story doesn't always live up to its best qualities.

Hard to say whether this came up through the slush pile. It's certainly possible. That said, we should ask Occam if a writer who went to Brown and Columbia might have any connections. Not that there's anything wrong with going to school and making connections.

Anonymous said...

if you look at that issue of the vqr (w/the 13th egg), it's clear that it didn't come through the slush. the story is one of three from an upcoming anthology in which literary writers write super-hero stories. so there shouldn't be a debate. those 3 were taken from the book. no slush.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous and Puc. Look at the VQR issue. It says the 3 "fantastic" stories are from a book.

Puc said...

Thanks, Anons... I did not have that copy. At Ward Six I did say that I did purchase a 1 yr subscription to VQR (Fall 06 to Summer 07), and while I liked the VQR format, the photos, the mix, I particularly liked the Robert Frost new poem discovery and how they linked that into a memory of war issue, I can't pay for and read everything. Though I'd like to. Which brings me to a final point I'd like to make, if anyone is still listening: I think it's only natural that writers trying to find a toehold get frustrated at the rejections, particularly when they see evidence of elite access or examples of inferior work being given a chance; what these rejected writers may not see is that published writers (those with a few stories or even a first book) feel the same emotions. It's often more difficult for a writer to publish a second book than a first. And there's nothing more demoralizing for a writer than seeing their books start to get remaindered, their publisher losing interest, their agent not returning phone calls, their books going out of print, and their new work getting rejections. They're back into the slush pile. In that sense, we're all in this thing together. A classic example is the great southern writer Sylvia Wilkinson - but you would have to research the story, no space here. But this is why I said earlier with regard to publishing, careful what you wish for. I also want to say I'm amazed and grateful that TG came by, I think Waldo handled the crisis well, Scott Snyder showed some real class, and rmellis and jrlennon are performing a service, a kind of volunteerism, and put themselves at risk in doing so - because they don't post using Anonwhatever. Which leads me to my last thought, and them I'm out of here: all you anons, think about this: this LROD is making literary history, and you're going to wish someday that you had used your real name, like I did!

Writer, Rejected said...

LOL--puc. We'll be talking about you for eons into literary infinity.

Jenny said...

Finally! Someone who talks more than me!

Anonymous said...

Isn't this the contest run by Ian Poundcake?