Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Jess Walter (Plot Twist: Another White Guy)

Jess Walter is an American author of six novels, one book of short stories and one nonfiction book. He received the Edgar Allan Poe Award for his novel Citizen Vince in 2005, and his short story compilation We Live in Water (2013) won the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Award. His work has been featured in Best American Short Stories, Best American Nonrequired Reading, Harper's, Esquire, McSweeney's, and Byliner. Walter lives in Washington with his wife and three daughters.

Being a straight white male, Walter is a man who fits perfectly within the classic literary canon. He has a habit of writing “loser men” who are down on their luck and turn to questionable means to make things write. In The Financial Life of Poets, a down-on-his-luck poet who turns to illegal activity to provide for his family. So, it’s a bit of a surprise that this short story would take place from the point of view of a successful woman who is entertaining a movie star who is questioning himself.

The only part of the story that is consistent with his larger body of works is one thing: his voice. Famous Actor’s narrator and actor have very strong and clear personalities through the pages. Walter takes his typical miserable guy setup and tells the story from the perspective of a woman. It is through these voices that we learn more about these characters and begin to care about them and their histories.

What do you think the author is trying to say with the voice of Katherine? Do you think the story works better in her POV than the Famous Actor or not? And why?

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Eudora Welty

Original post (Sunday, 3/18): My post on Welty's stories is forthcoming...feel free to post your comments before I get myself in gear ...

Second post (Monday, 3/19): Referring to "A Worn Path," Lee Smith calls Eudora Welty's language "plain yet poetic." Come up with your own analysis of Welty's language (in any of the three stories you've read). Especially: look at how her language choices affect and direct the reader.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Flannery O'Connor (Nic)

Flannery O'Connor is one of the most respected short-story writers of the 20th century.  Her introduction in 3x33 crowns (or halos) her "the patron saint of the contemporary American short story" despite her last published work being written just before her premature death in 1964.  O'Connor was born at the tail end of the women's suffrage moment, joined the Iowa Workshop the year World War II ended, and spent her post-MFA life in her hometown of Savanna, Georgia throughout the Civil Rights movement. 

She fictionalized some of the most country-shaping movements of our modern history, bringing voices to the unseen and the uncomfortable.  She was unflinching in her work, as well as her commentary on such.  On the content of her work, she was quoted, "The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it." What a BAMF. (Sorry for the language, Catherine) While dealing with incredibly heavy subjects like sexuality, sexism, racism, religion and more, O'Connor's work is never heavy handed.  She doesn't villainize or victimize a single character, refusing to let her readers take the easy way out and choose a good versus bad character to love or hate. Everyone is redeemable, everyone is questionable, everyone is complex.  This, I think, is what makes her short stories so perfectly reflect human nature.

What characters in "A Good Man Is Hard to Find", "Everything That Rises Must Converge" and "Good Country People" did you feel the most conflicted over? Who did you want to dislike, but sympathized with in the end, or vice versa? Most importantly, how did O'Connor evolve these characters as you read? Find specific moments/lines that support your idea of each character, whether it caused, confirmed, or conflicted with your initial opinion. 

(You don't need to respond to this specifically in the blog, but be aware of how she balances drama with subtlety.  These stories' plots have "big" moments, murder or theft combined with an all-consuming epiphany or divine intervention [O'Connor was raised Roman Catholic and drew heavily from Gothic literature]. However, those plot moments never actually overtake the emotional resonance of the piece. The what never overshadows the who. We're going to talk in class on how the characters exist through the plot versus the story (like the 2nd subject in nonfiction), so be mindful of that as you read!)

Sunday, February 25, 2018

T.C. Boyle (on behalf of presenting group)

T.C. “Straight White Baby Boomer” Boyle was born in Peekskill, New York. At the State University of New York, he began as a music student but switched to English and history. He earned his M.F.A. from the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and while there, he studied with John Cheever and John Irving. The one and only story he submitted as a portfolio for entrance to this workshop was “The OD and Hepatitis Railroad or Bust.” 
While there, he studied many canonical literary works, but his favorites included “dark comedy” writers John Barth and Robert Coover. His first novel, Water Music, was published in 1982. His first short story collection was called the Descent of Man which dealt with just that, issues of humanity told in absurdist/fabulist/magical realist fashion. In 1988, his novel, World’s End, won the PEN/ Faulner Award in Fiction. 
As a teacher, he encourages his students to not “write what they know,” instead they should “write what they don’t know and discover something.” When writing he has been said to listen to gloom, rain, and suicidal cello conciertos in order to help him get in the modd to write the kind of fiction he writes. 
In his home, he found that it was built by Frank Lloyd Wright and decided to write a novel called The Women which is about Wright’s many mistresses as told through a Japanese “intern” that was used as a sort of slave labour. Lorrie Moore, author of “How to Become a Writer,” when talking about T.C. Boyle’s writing, describes it as a failure of satire, that it is “cut off from the oxygen of morality.” His most recent novel to be published is an eco-humanist work called The Terranauts.
In the last paragraph of the story, T.C. Boyle writes this:
“The girl—the genius—looks confused for a moment. ‘But, but,’ she stammers, ‘how can that be? You don’t mean you—?’
But before Allison can answer, a crowparrot sweeps out of the nearest tree, winging low to screech ‘Fuck you!’ in our faces, and the smallest miracle occurs. Tiger, as casual in his own skin as anything there is or ever was, erupts from the ground in a rocketing whirl of fur to catch the thing in his jaws. As quick as that, it’s over, and the feathers, the prettiest feathers you’ll ever see, lift and dance and float away on the breeze.”
How does T.C. Boyle view the future for humans? Do you agree or disagree?
What two animals would you have the CRISPR combine and why?

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Kevin Canty (post by Ryan Beckwith)

Kevin Canty was born in 1953 in Lakeport, California. He grew up in a family of artists, and his brothers Brendan and James both became musicians. In 1990 he received his master’s degree in English from the University of Florida and in 1993, he received his M.F.A. in Creative Writing from the University of Arizona.

Known for his concrete style of realistic fiction, his stories are inspired by tidbits from his everyday life, and he is said to be influenced by writers Raymond Carver and Harry Crews. He also draws inspiration from the poet Charles Bukowski. In a survey of his six novels and three short story collections, we found that Canty does not typically focus on religion as a subject. In our reading of the story “God’s Work” in Best American Short Stories 2017, we find a story by an established writer whose subject material in this story, on its surface, departs somewhat from his other work.

In class, we have discussed the concept of a literary canon, and how canon(s) may or may not shape contemporary writing. Does finding “God’s Work” in the Best American Short Stories 2017 tell us anything about the current state of the canon?

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Donald Barthelme

Barthelme, drawing by David Levine
I just ran across an interesting book review of a 2009 biography of Donald Barthelme. The review is by Lorrie Moore. I appreciate her analysis of Barthelme's writing and so paste it here for you to inhabit:

"In a way, Barthelme’s work was all inner life, partially concealed, partially displayed. His stories are a registration of a certain kind of churning mind, cerebral fragments stitched together in the bricolage fashion of beatnik poetry. The muzzled cool, the giddy play, the tossed salad of high and low: everything from cartoon characters to opera gets referenced in a graffitti-like chain of sentences. Conventional narrative ideas of motivation and characterization generally are dispensed with. Language is seen as having its own random and self-generating vital life, a subject he takes on explicitly in the story “Sentence,” which is one long never-ending sentence, full of self-interruptions and searching detours and not quite dead ends (like human DNA itself, with its inert, junk viruses), concluding with the words “a structure to be treasured for its weakness as opposed to the strength of stones.” 

If interested, you can read "Sentence," an amazing, crazy text, here.

Meanwhile, to inspire comments, I'm going to lean into something Johnathan Letham says in his introduction to Barthelme in 3x33, Lethem's idea of drifting into "silliness, gloom, parody, restlessness, self-mocking." Without referring to categories mentioned in the introduction or elsewhere (postmodern, minimalist, metafiction, or, as Moore says in her book review, fabulist), please comment on the stories you've read. What do you think about drifting and these results?

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

George Saunders (Nic Schmidt)

A geophysical engineer, a Beverly Hills doorman, a roofer and a slaughterhouse laborer walk into a bar. George Saunders orders ...  probably a scotch, but I hope something with pineapple and a pink paper umbrella.  Saunders's past sounds more like a hodgepodge joke set-up than the more traditional steps to becoming a writer we're familiar with.

Incredibly, his life and writing parallel each other: His short stories take unconventional, even ridiculous, routes, they follow unbelievable characters living in hilariously absurd worlds. Yet, we still wholeheartedly believe in Saunders because of, as Aimee Bender called it, the "trust, that inside knowledge" of the worlds he builds for us. We don't know how we're going to get there, but we trust Saunders to make it happen.

Saunders's writing makes us think "impossible" but feel honest, genuine emotion upon arrival - and the arrivals are never small.  His works usually center around a socio-political commentary that, if in traditional realism, would likely read as either irritatingly peppy or infuriatingly depressing.  Because his commentaries are made by a mute Civil War ghost, a hand in a bowl of soup, or a zombie auntie, however, by the time Saunders's true subject peeks out from behind the curtain, we finish out the piece wondering how we didn't see its toes poking out earlier.

Saunders calls his experimental strangeness necessary to producing the emotions and statements that his writing is known for. No matter how fantastic, hilarious, or just unbelievable his work gets, he attributes every moment as essential, the weirdness is "not a fancy side-project", but pivotal every step of the way.

What moments in "CivilWarLand in Bad Decline" and "Sea Oak" seem like pivotal weirdness to you? (You can comment on "Winky" too, but focus on the first 2.) How did Saunders make wide-reaching socio-political commentary in the same sentence he made you laugh? Where did Saunders's signature eccentricity bring you moments of current, emotional commentary on our own world?