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?

Friday, February 2, 2018

James Baldwin
In the end of "Sonny's Blues," arguably the most beautiful short story in the English language, Baldwin turns our attention to a "Scotch and milk." First the narrator's brother drinks from it and looks at his brother. Then he puts the drink back on the piano. Stay with the narrator's gaze and his wonder and his fear and his love, all the emotions you can conjure, and you'll be transported outside yourself into the music of this story. In this story and the other two you're reading, notice how Baldwin takes elements and explode them so as to take on surreal, transcendent dimensions.