Novels exist in the reader’s mind. It is a shared act of creation, and each novel is at least a little different according to the reader. How much of the novel belongs to the writer and how much to the reader? This varies depending on the individuals involved. Some of us are high custody authors who insist on specific interpretations of our narratives, and some are low custody authors who prefer to leave much of the creative work up to the reader. Chekhov was a very low custody writer and Tolstoy (especially in the late stories) was a high custody writer. James Salter is a low custody novelist who demands that readers engage and interpret the actions of his characters. Richard Yates in Revolutionary Road displays the virtues of a high custody writer, revealing characters’ desires and motivations down to the smallest detail. Salter and Yates are both great writers, but Salter wishes for the reader to fully share in the creative act, while Yates is working to keep the reader from slipping away from his vision, to force the reader into the self-indictment he feels is necessary. The danger the low custody author faces is reader bewilderment (recall the first time you ever read Chekhov), while the high custody author risks over-controlling a narrative to the point that the reader feels excluded or even redundant.
All of the clichés that are heaped upon Midwesterners—that we’re simple, quiet, unassuming, honest, generally good-natured, and so on—help create tension when a writer engages them in fiction, because a lot of readers (and many editors) on the coasts don’t expect those of us in ‘the flyover’ to have rich inner lives.
I think writers can use that mindset to our advantage as we unleash increasingly complex books that get after all manner of truth, not just about the Midwest, but about America, the world, the nature of humankind. Some of the most brutal books of the past few years have come from the Midwest. I’m thinking of Bonnie Jo Campbell’s American Salvage, Donald Ray Pollock’s Knockemstiff, and Daniel Woodrell’s Winter’s Bone, for starters. But some of the funniest books take place here, too. We can laugh at ourselves more effectively than people from either coast.
Verso & Recto
"Running heads" appear at the top of book pages that aren’t in the front matter or back matter. Usually the author’s name on the left side (verso), and the book’s title on the right (recto). Obviously, there are some middle pages, too, that shouldn’t have a running head, such as the first page of a chapter. But the majority of pages should have them.
Or so I thought.
I’m doing layout work now for the first Lacewing Books title, so I pulled a bunch of YA novels from the shelf to study their guts, as one does. And what I learned surprised me—about half of the YA books I sampled did not use running heads at all.
Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak? No running heads. Ditto for Sara Zarr’s How to Save a Life, Matthew Quick’s Sorta Like a Rock Star, and Barbara Shoup’s Everything You Want.
John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars does have running heads, as does Jesse Andrews’ Me and Earl and the Dying Girl—the coolest running heads ever, perhaps. (Sorry for the fuzzy photo.)
At first, I wondered why. I hoped it wasn’t just laziness, or less care spent in the publication of books meant for younger audiences. I suppose running heads are, in some way, redundant. After all, the author’s name and and the book’s title already appear on the cover, the title page, and so on. But to me, books without running heads look partially finished. Incomplete. Less than professional.
It’s hard to imagine that publishers would give authors the option to not have them, although I suppose it’s certainly possible in YA books that take an interest in the visual presentation of text. (Personally, I want to chuck any novel that uses a sans serif font for its main text—and, worse, when different fonts are used to indicate who is speaking. You don’t see this kind of font-foolery in most novels for adults.)
But I wanted to be sure, so I sampled some books for adults. I’d say about 25% of the adult books I examined either didn’t have running heads, or else did something a little wacky with them. In one Mavis Gallant collection, her name never appears in the running head, but the title of each story does—which seems useful. Some older story collections use the book’s title on the left and the story’s title on the right.
Novels published through Lacewing Books will have running heads. No question. But I’m intrigued by how varied this seemingly concrete design rule really is.
A Word (or 900) on Humility and a Former Friend
Every time one former friend of mine publishes a story or essay online, a dozen people link to it on Facebook and Twitter. Six years ago, this writer disparaged online publishing and the journal I co-founded in a way that meant we could not remain friends. We primarily communicated through email, and he couldn’t avoid a few digs on his way out of the friendship. When I responded in earnest, trying to be helpful, he merely pasted his previous response, word for word, as if to say, I’ve said my piece.
Here’s my piece, then, in response.
That lack of humility still bothers me, in part because his many online friends would be surprised by this anecdote. Online, his persona oozes gentility and grace and hard-won writerly wisdom. To give him the benefit of the doubt, perhaps his Twitter persona is genuine. People do change, whether they want to or not, because life is hard and full of unexpected developments and disappointments and disasters.
We met in a creative writing workshop. Later, when I was an editor at Puerto del Sol during graduate school, this writer sent me a few submissions, but I could not single-handedly accept work for publication. Puerto used a response system common at many of the best literary magazines: a submission needed to score several “Yes” or “Yes/Maybe” responses on its way up the chain of command, with the fiction editor having final authority to accept or reject. I did what I could under such circumstances, and his submissions to Puerto were always read by at least three editors. These editors noted each story’s promise, but I couldn’t help him find publication during my three years there. But you know what? I tried. I never asked this writer for any kind of comparable favor, not that he was ever in a position to help me, actually. Even today, I would be thrilled to have three editors at a journal read my story submission, even if it was later rejected.
One of the cool things about being in charge is that you can do what you want—and when I co-founded Freight Stories, I still wanted to help this writer. I believed in him, in his abilities, and in the kind of fiction we was trying to write. In retrospect, I kind of had to believe in him—he was a lot like me, and if I didn’t believe in him or his work, what kind of future did I have as a writer? I didn’t have many publications at that time, either, and we each wrote stories of psychological realism set in the same general region.
I kindly asked this writer to send me an unpublished story I knew well—I had read an early draft—and wanted to publish in Freight Stories. Instead, this writer sent three pieces I had not asked for—a novel excerpt, a novella excerpt (?), and a sentimental short story that was far from his best work. When I rejected these submissions—admittedly, I could have conveyed my dismay more delicately—this Thoreau-come-lately with surprisingly Luddite tendencies finally told me he was saving his best work for the cathedral of print.
I told him that if he knew the names and general high quality of the authors and stories I had to reject with alarming regularity, he might be humbled. Writers with five, six, seven books. Winners of the O. Henry award, or whose stories had been in Best American Short Stories. Full professors of creative writing. Endowed chairs of creative writing, even. Writers whose stories we had read when we were classmates in creative writing workshops. Even one of our professors, whose first submission to Freight Stories I had to reject.
He wanted to publish in print to help his teaching prospects, he said, so he would only send them his best work. I argued that an online presence mattered, and that publishing good work online—not mediocre, unfinished work—would appeal to potential employers who were sure to Google his name at some point in the hiring process. (I should have said that publishing work you don’t think is your best, in any forum, is not a good idea.)
A quick look online now reveals that nearly all of his story and essay publications are online-only. He published a book with his alma mater’s university press, too. This about-face is interesting. He’s apparently quite adept at Twitter, having amassed a lot of followers who retweet his many clever, but ultimately disposable thoughts. It’s fair to say that if he gets a good teaching job anytime soon, his online presence and Twitter account will have played no small part in shaping the hiring committee’s overall impression of him in this new media age.
You know what I mean, right? You’ve no doubt witnessed writers with new teaching jobs make obvious attempts at self-revision and self-invention. Writers who land a new job in the spring make sure, in the fall, that 50% of their posts are about teaching, how much they love their students, and so on.
This former friend of mine is probably on the teaching job market right now. Maybe he just interviewed at MLA, or maybe he’ll interview at AWP. I bet he gets a nice position soon. His book has received a few good notices. (I bought my copy for a dollar when Borders was going out of business, but I don’t think I’ll be able to read it, so I’ll probably donate it to the library.) The competition for tenure-track teaching positions in the humanities is brutal. But when he does get one of those nice jobs, I hope he thanks the editors of the online journals for giving his words an audience.
MFA reading list
For my MFA class this semester—a literature course called “Fictional Forms”—I’m asking students to choose one debut story collection and one contemporary novel from the following lists:
Alan Heathcock, Volt
Amber Sparks, May We Shed These Human Bodies
Chad Simpson, Tell Everyone I Said Hi
Claire Vaye Watkins, Battleborn
Ethan Rutherford, The Peripatetic Coffin
Eugene Cross, Fires of Our Choosing
Jamie Quatro, I Want to Show You More
Michael Nye, Strategies Against Extinction
Nina McConigley, Cowboys and East Indians
Roxane Gay, Ayiti
Bryan Furuness, The Lost Episodes of Revie Bryson
Jesmyn Ward, Salvage the Bones
Joshua Ferris, Then We Came to the End
Kelly Braffet, Save Yourself
Lauren Groff, Arcadia
Myfanwy Collins, Echolocation
Owen King, Double Feature
Pamela Erens, The Virgins
Rachel Kushner, The Flamethrowers
Snowden Wright, Play Pretty Blues
In addition, everyone in the class will read Matthew Quick’s The Good Luck of Right Now (Feb. 2014 release), more than a dozen craft essays (some of which are actually audio lectures or panel discussions), and more than two dozen short stories by the likes of Matt Bell, Sarah Layden, Cary Holladay, Jared Yates Sexton, Robert Boswell, Antonya Nelson, Patricia Henley, Elizabeth Stuckey-French, some guy named Chekhov, and a whole lot more.
So, yes, I am excited about this semester.
On Using Superheroes in My Freshman Comp. Classes
Superhero narratives offer a wealth of topics and themes, influences, inspirations, and more to enrich and challenge one’s intellectual pursuits. They are artifacts that both shape and reflect many aspects of our culture, so whatever topic students choose, they’ll really be researching and writing about social concerns, culture, philosophy, religion, race, gender, history, science, politics, or some other important aspect of human life.
The goal is for students to honestly pursue new knowledge through research and writing, but my hope is that by making the research process fun and less intimidating, they will discover something new about themselves as writers, readers, and thinkers. I’ve done this for one semester already, and anecdotally, at least, I have to say it’s working. Plus, no student can write about the same “been there, done that” topics without at least injecting those topics with new life. Generally, though, students move away from them entirely, finding new and surprising topics to write about during the semester. (Most students only write about euthanasia, say, because they think that’s what college students are supposed to write about.)
If a student wants to write about the X-Men, for instance, she might explore themes related to civil rights or larger notions of “the Other” in American culture by looking at the films or narratives such as X-Men: God Loves, Man Kills. After all, the comic book series made its debut at the height of the Civil Rights Movement in 1963—around the time Martin Luther King, Jr., was sent to a Birmingham jail—and the series later reemerged in the 1970s amid an ever-changing social dynamic.
Batwoman: Elegy challenges its audience to reckon with assumptions regarding gender and sexuality, while the Catwoman film starring Halle Berry, some might say, only reinforces old Hollywood stereotypes. The gender imbalance in The Avengers film is obvious to most viewers—it fails the Bechdel Test, despite director Joss Whedon’s supposed reputation for developing strong female characters. And what does it mean that Warner Brothers, the parent-company of DC Comics, does not think that Wonder Woman—one of the first superheroes and among the first to be developed for non-comics audiences in a popular 1970s TV show—is not worthy of a movie, while Marvel’s formerly C-list characters (such as Iron Man and Ant-Man) are shepherded to the silver screen?
Captain America might be The First Avenger, but he’s also the beneficiary of performance-enhancing drugs, to put it mildly. Further, a closer look at Iron Man might suggest an exploration of the military-industrial complex or other corporate shenanigans; consider that while Iron Man saves many lives and, in The Avengers film, even brags about the benefits of self-sustaining “green” energy used to power his newly-built Stark Tower, he’s also a billionaire whose business, if it behaves like most corporations, likely skirts tax laws to save money.
Zach Snyder’s presentation of Superman as a Christ-like figure in Man of Steel captivated some moviegoers, but the character’s Jewish creators actually modeled the character on Moses. Plus—spoiler alert—should Superman (or any Christ-like figure, for that matter) kill his enemy at the movie’s climax? What does such an action, which angered many long-time fans of the character, say about the world we now live in?