This Is Just A Great Story…

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Every once in awhile, in the literary world, a really fantastic book written by an “unknown” comes out of nowhere and knocks the “big-boy” books (the ones written by the famous authors, and promoted by the literary machines) out cold. That’s what happened this year with the Pulitzer in Literature when Paul Harding’s “Tinkers,” a novel published by Bellevue, a small Literary Press, took the Prize. The book almost didn’t get published at all (several large presses passed on it before an editor at Bellevue agreed to give it a look. The editor stayed up all night reading it, weeping at the loveliness of the prose, and agreed to give it an initial 500 copy run). It’s the first time a book by a small press has won the award in almost thirty years.

Harding is 42, this is his first book, and no one called him to tell him he’d won the Pulitzer. He found out by accident, after looking at the Pulitzer site to see who’d won. When the book got taken he and his family had been living off of unemployment and his wife’s small income. Now Random House has given him a lucrative contract for his next two books, he’s teaching at the prestigious Iowa Writer’s Workshop, and “Tinkers” hit the NY Times Bestseller list. All due to word of mouth from small Independent Booksellers, who promoted the book to their customers and to each other. No reading tour, no big publicity machine, just enthusiastic readers excited about a book they read and loved.

I haven’t read the book yet. Last week I hit 3 different bookstores and no one had it in stock (!!! But all three stores had plenty of books by Stephanie Meyers, on her own end cap). So it’s on order from Amazon.

Here’s a great article about Paul Harding and his little book that could…

-Laura Kopchick

Published in:Laura Kopchick |on May 3rd, 2010 |1 Comment »

What I Learned About Writers (and Writing) At the AWP Conference in Denver Last Week

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Last week, approximately ten million writers (or what felt like it, at least) descended upon the Hyatt Regency Hotel (we also took over the convention center across the street) in Downtown Denver for the annual Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference. When I first started going to the conference, back in 1995 (it was in Pittsburgh that year) the conference registration fees were twenty bucks (this year? $185), there were about 500 people in attendance (this year? about three thousand. Easily), the journal room had about 20 tables (this year? The entire second floor of the Denver Convention Center), a somewhat manageable ten-page selection of panels spanning 3 days (this year? A giant phonebook size book-worth of about 500 panels, and readings, spanning 4 days). The sheer size of this conference is a testament to the burgeoning popularity of Creative Writing Programs at Universities across the country. Famous luminaries mingled with unknown writing teachers, graduate writing students, and first-time published novelists and poets handing out postcards promoting their newly-published tomes. The only way to enjoy this smorgasbord of writing is to put away your complimentary planner for the conference (given to you along with your giant conference panel book upon registration) and just allow yourself to wander in and out of reading rooms, panel discussions, bookfairs and happy hour celebrations. That’s what I did this year and I had a blast. I learned some things, too, about the writing world. Here are the top five things I took away from my three days in Denver:

1. Writers like to drink
I know it’s a cliche, but the bar at the Hyatt Regency was at capacity from the time it opened up at 9 AM until it closed down at 2 AM. On Saturday night, the night the conference ended, they had to open up 2 extra temporary bar carts to accommodate the drinkers. When my friend Jason went up to order his sidecar (I know, I know, but he’s a wonderful poet with 2 great books out. So he’s allowed to drink whatever he wants, in my opinion) the bartender mentioned that they were out of vodka, and almost out of rum, and most mixers. “Who are you people?” the bartender asked him. “What conference is this?” He’d been working that bar for five years, and had served conferences every weekend, and had never seen his bar go dry before.

2. Writers like their Apple products
It’s just a rough estimate, but I’d say 99.9 percent of conference papers were delivered using an IPAD. These IPADS (and accompanying I-Phones) were also happily deployed at happy hour gatherings, or at dinners, or book launch parties, for any number of reasons. Seriously, I’ve never seen so many Apple products in my life. Denver was one big Apple commercial.

3. There are way too many writing students who will be seriously disappointed when they don’t get tenure-track teaching jobs when they graduate this year
I found out from a friend of mine I graduated with that at Michigan (my MFA Alma Mater, which was recently ranked as the #2 MFA Program in the country, after Iowa, by Poets and Writers Magazine) they received 885 applicants this year for 12 fiction spots. There are now 150 MFA programs in the U.S. (and this isn’t counting low residency writing programs or MA and PHD writing programs). All of these programs are dumping out graduates each year onto an already over-saturated market. It seems the smart applicants are using MFA programs now (at least the top-ranked ones, like Iowa, Michigan and UVA) as paid internships to finish up writing their novels already under contract at major publishers. This is what Nami Mun (a fiction writer I’ve been in awe of since her debut novel came out a couple of years ago) told me she did when she went into the Michigan program a few years ago. Sure, you have to take a few classes while you’re there, but really the top programs have serious money to offer their students, and who else is going to pay you to finish up that novel?

4. Even big-name writers still get rejected
This is the bomb Sherman Alexie let drop at his reading for the Beloit Poetry Journal’s anniversary celebration. He gets tons of rejection slips (many without even any writing! just the standard blank rejection slip!) and has taken to calling them “spankings.” He admitted that he’s still a bit bruised when he gets the slips, but it’s proof that in the saturated writing world, when the top journals are getting a couple of hundred submissions every month, even the big names can’t count on automatic acceptance. (That’s a blurry cell phone picture of Alexie at his reading at the top of the page).

5. And Finally, Writers are Insecure
The lines are drawn at AWP. Between non-book people, one-book people, one-book people whose books have won awards, two-book people, and heavy-hitters like Michael Chabon (who gave the celebratory opening night talk) and George Saunders. At AWP, you quickly realize that there’s always someone more important above you on the totem pole of the writing world. So just go with it. Take those spankings you get from potential agents, editors and publishers in stride.

-Laura Kopchick

Published in:Laura Kopchick |on April 18th, 2010 |4 Comments »

So, What DO We Look For When We Read?

Recently, Tim Morris sent me the link to an editorial by James Woods in the New Yorker that explores, among other things, the predictability of the tropes many contemporary writers employ in their novels. Mr. Woods argues that tropes aren’t a recent development in novels (he points out that the 19th century novels relied on popular plot manipulators such as eavesdropping, or gossip, or evil wills that leave the protagonist destitute) and that perhaps the more contemporary tropes (his scathing critique of gestures used in language by contemporary writers is hilarious) are in fact reminiscent of ones used in the past, only tweaked in response to what readers of “realist” fiction in today’s world expect. Mr. Woods ends the editorial by taking to task the problems (as he sees them) in Chang-Rae Lee’s new novel Surrendered (which, as it turns out, I’ve read a couple of great reviews of. And these reviews praise exactly what Mr. Woods, it seems, finds problematic about the novel).

After reading the article I found myself agreeing, in many ways, with Mr. Woods. Lately I’ve found myself beginning novels and then abandoning them, leaving a stack of discards on my bedside table that blocks my alarm clock. And it seems that I give up on many of these novels for the same reason–I grow desperately bored with them. And it’s usually not due to the predictability of the plot (which is what Mr. Woods ultimately complains about with Surrendered) but rather the “writerly, MFA graduate” tropes that I’ve noticed lately in many much-ballyhooed novels. There’s the alternating first person point of view chapters (or, sometimes, the alternating third person limited point of view), the enigmatic alcoholic (or depressed, or heroin addicted) love interest for the protagonist, the broken families and wrecked marriages, the prose that wanders on for paragraphs describing exactly the way the sun looks as it sets over the cornfields (or the suburban mini-mart, or shopping mall). It seems to me that these are tricks we’re taught in writing programs (pay attention to those objective correlatives! Introduce a new problem for your protagonist as soon as the old problem is resolved!) and I’ve found myself growing bored to death with these writerly tricks (my most recent put-down? Let the Great World Spin, which won last Year’s National Book Award.  Why? Well, I didn’t really find the characters all that interesting, and there’s the alternating third person limited POV sections, but–most annoying for me–there’s the language that’s trying really hard to make the ugliness in our world seem beautiful, and to guilt the reader into feeling shame for the crime of wandering around, blissfully unaware of all of the suffering people around us.  But maybe the book gets better in the second half.  I’m too busy turning my head as I drive past those guys asking for change out on Division Street and so am currently stalled out in the middle of the second section of the book ).

All of this has me thinking about what it is that we look for when we read. What makes us stick with a book? What makes us put one down? There must be some universal “it-ness” that we’re looking for (or maybe that editors and agents are looking for) but what is this “it-ness”?

So what do you look for when you read? And what’s the latest book you’ve decided to put down (or one that you just kept on happily reading?)

-Laura Kopchick

Published in:Laura Kopchick |on April 5th, 2010 |2 Comments »

Publish or Publish

In a recent essay for the Chronicle of Higher Education, David Alpaugh bewails the proliferation of poetry in America. He notes that, at a conservative estimate, American journals, print or on-line, will publish 100,000 poems this year, and that’s a bit much. Like, about 99,900 poems much.

My first reaction to Alpaugh’s thesis was: OK, let’s also crack down on the millions of Americans who play musical instruments. Some of them really should be stopped. And while we’re at it, there are way more than 100,000 Americans painting in watercolors or tempera or oils. Surely they could do with a little reining in.

But Alpaugh isn’t steamed about people merely practicing an art.

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Like golf, poetry is becoming a sport that multitudes pursue and enjoy—and if it were simply a matter of more and more men and women writing poetry, I would be cheering. . . . Exercising language at its highest level is an absolute good, and (Plato be damned) in an ideal society everyone would write poetry.

But there’s a difference between writing and publishing. Golf, after all, has an agreed-upon scoring system that lets every player know his or her standing, stroke by stroke, game by game. Mediocre amateurs cannot deceive themselves (or be assured by pros) that they are contenders.

And that, for Alpaugh, is the rub. Lots of poetry = good. Lots of poetry getting published = very, very bad.

Alpaugh is anxious about bad stuff getting published, good stuff getting lost in the welter of bad stuff, and the impossibility of sorting the good from the bad. At the heart of his anxiety is the notion that getting a poem published should be like breaking 80 from the championship tees. After all, when you pick up a publication, you are reading something published, and “published” implies a certain hallmark of quality, like the gallo nero on a bottle of Chianti.

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People take the notion of “being published” very, very seriously indeed. Several times a month, I get a phone call from some prospective graduate student who confides that they “are published.” They suggest an aura somewhere between being “a made guy” and being “washed in the blood of the Lamb.” Personal investment in the mystique of publication is tremendous. Publishing just any old thing, we feel, would be like giving the Congressional Medal of Honor to anybody who shows up at a recruiting office.

It’s easy for me to snark, because, after all, I too am published. It’s true: every morning, I rise, admire the publications on my bookshelf, and then scrape up $1.89 for a Tall Decaf. I don’t mean to mock writers’ ambitions, or editors’ dreams, or readers’ appreciation of published writing. I just think that every writer and reader, from David Alpaugh to the most print-thirsty novice in a neighborhood writers’ group, should get a little perspective on the issue. And so, I’ll propose a principle that might make everyone less anxious:

Publication Does Not Guarantee, and Has Never Guaranteed, That a Piece of Writing Is Any Good. Even aside from the vexed question of telling what’s good from what’s bad. Let’s say we can. Fact is, bad poetry has been published ever since some stonemason gave in to nagging and carved his brother-in-law’s fan-fiction sequel to Gilgamesh onto a temple wall. Bad poetry filled the bookstalls of Elizabethan London and the salons of the Sun King and the chapbooks of Beat-Generation San Francisco.

Take The New Yorker, synonymous in the U.S. with literary “publication,” because it is the only magazine on most newsstands that publishes poetry and stories (as against 50 magazines that advise how to publish poetry and stories). Well, here’s an open secret: the poetry in The New Yorker has always been bad. Not that a good poem has never appeared there – what would be the odds of that – but that nearly every poem there is bad. There have been whole identifiable eras in the badness of New Yorker poetry, from the 1980s/90s “Dull poem that mentions a summer resort that Upper-East-Siders frequent” era to the current “Drab poem that self-consciously mentions something plebian” era.

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It is OK to say things like this, by the way. It’s not sourly grapish. Even if you’ve gotten six or eight rejections from The New Yorker. It’s even OK to knock New Yorker poems if you can’t produce a line of poetry yourself. As Samuel Johnson pointed out, “You may scold a carpenter who has made you a bad table, though you cannot make a table.” You may even scold the magazine that features it as Table of the Year. And you know what? It doesn’t matter. The world is not falling apart because the most prestigious American magazine publishes bad poetry.

If we step back a bit from the fetish of being “published,” we can perhaps be more sanguine about the fact that 100,000 poems are published each year. Very many of them are bad. No appreciably higher percentage of the ones that appear in prestige venues are good than those that appear wherever, and that’s been the case forever. Poems are not chosen for publication because of any replicable standard of quality. Poems get into print because editors, with widely different subjectivities and attention spans, actually like them, or just have pages to fill, or are inveigled by their authors’ names, their provenance, the pretty stamps on their return envelopes, who knows. Some of these poems are good, and due to their sheer volume, perhaps more of them are good today than ever before.

Which brings us to another of Alpaugh’s fears: how can we know which ones are good? The world of American poetry is a lot more decentered than it was 50, 100, or 150 years ago. But that’s another post, perhaps, and another principle to discover.

Published in:Tim Morris |on March 11th, 2010 |3 Comments »

Texas Writers? Let’s start with Highsmith…

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One of my favorite “guilty pleasure” writers to read (“guilty” in that enough of my creative writing professors rolled their eyes when I mentioned her name that I learned soon enough to keep my mouth shut about her) is Patricia Highsmith (writer of all the Ripley Books and Strangers on a Train). I’ve always been able to pick up stacks of her books at Half Price stores and library book sales for only a couple of bucks. And there are so many of them, too! All of them filled with morally corrupt characters who all seem incapable of any human feelings at all–and yet so determined to fake being human! Many of the stories, and novels, would be classified as suspense dramas, or maybe crime thrillers, but I really enjoyed them for the prose more than the plot. It’s as if Highsmith herself were incapable–like her characters–of describing human emotions. As a result, the characters wandered through exotic lands (a remote beach in Africa, a small town in Italy), often alone, meeting up with colorful locals (and awful American tourists) with usually catastrophic results (you can count on at least one dead body to pop up in a Highsmith story). The language just seems so stripped down in a Highsmith story. Like the characters just want to get themselves down on the page before someone has the chance to delete them. And they always end up rooting themselves in those exotic locales until they do enough damage that they have no other choice but to move on.

So imagine my surprise when, one day, after reading her stories for years, I happened upon Highsmith’s Wikipedia page. And where was this writer of stripped down killers who visit exotic locales from? Fort Worth, Texas. Yup, gateway to the West. City where cattle drives still take place daily. The same city where I live now. I’d seen dozens of author photos of her, of course. Most often black and white, usually a cigarette poised in one hand, a subdued cardigan sweater buttoned up to the neck. She just always looked so (forgive me, Jackie) British to me. Or maybe it was her characters’ adherence to proper social graces (and their willingness to kill in order to maintain a proper tea time, or to punish someone who wears the wrong kind of trousers with their cashmere blazer) that led me to think of her as British.

But a Texan? Really? Granted, it seems she high-tailed it out to NYC (and eventually to Europe) as soon as she reached adulthood. But there’s a good chance those years in Fort Worth made some sort of impression on her as a writer. And it’s made me wonder what sort of writer a Texas writer is. Is there a commonality that exists? Some linking characteristic?

Discuss.

– Laura Kopchick

Published in:Laura Kopchick |on February 21st, 2010 |1 Comment »

As Soon As I Get Some Free Time, No Revision Necessary, and Other Myths About Creative Writing (and Writers)

It was my final semester in the MFA in Fiction program at the University of Michigan and I was meeting with my thesis advisor, Charles Baxter, in his near-empty office on campus (he wrote at home, in a lovely book-lined office above the garage in his Ann Arbor house). As he red-penned my stories, pausing every few minutes to complain about my obsession with first person narration and my lack of redemptive male characters, I imagined that he would rather have been at home, polishing up the final draft of Feast of Love. It was no secret that he taught because he had to (he often told us that all American writers taught because they had to–who could make enough money just selling books besides Stephen King?). After he finished with my manuscript, red pen finally exhausted, he sighed and looked out the window at the snow covered expanse of ground outside. Then he told me about going to the doctor that morning for a check-up. I imagined this great writer, a man I admired (and whose writing floored me) sitting on one of those doctor’s tables, blood pressure cup around his arm, making small talk with a doctor who probably didn’t have a clue about Baxter’s literary accomplishments.

“He asked me what I do for a living,” Charlie said, “and when I told him that I’m a writer he told me he has a book he’s going to write as soon as he retires and gets the time.” Then he launched into a fairly long complaint about how he should have shot back something about practicing medicine as soon as he got Feast of Love out of the way, because how difficult could surgery be, after all? We all watch television. We see doctors perform surgeries all the time these days. “As if just having time is all that’s required of a writer,” he said. “Can you imagine?”

This conversation has always stuck with me (along with some of his more memorable quotes on teaching students to write literary short fiction, such as “I can only help you to write stories about characters who live on planet Earth–you’re on your own with aliens”) because since becoming a teacher of creative writing I, too, have had people tell me pretty much the same thing–that they’d be able to write the next great American novel, too, if they only had the time. And who knows? Maybe they would be able to write a fantastic novel with no formal coursework in writing. In fact, the winner of this year’s Katherine Anne Porter Award in short fiction works with computers at Harvard–he’s not an MFA graduate (or, as far as I know, a formal student of writing at all). But this writer, like all writers I know, worked and reworked those stories, making sure that the narrative point of view was consistent and clear, the plots of the stories had clear catalysts, climax scenes, and resolutions, and the exposition balanced nicely with the dialogue and action. In short, he had read (and learned to work and revise) enough to create finely polished, wonderful stories with resonance. That doesn’t come merely with enough writing time, but with work and effort.

So, the first myth of creative writing would be that anyone can produce well-crafted fiction, if given enough time. And another myth would certainly be that writing is divinely inspired, and any revision ruins the original inspiration. I always think of Coleridge and his poem “Kubla Khan” when I think of this myth. My Modern Poetry Professor in grad school told us that Coleridge claimed the poem to be inspired by either God or opium, depending on the myth, and that he wrote the poem in one draft without revisions. As far as I know, he’s the only writer to claim to eschew revision. After his death, however, multiple drafts of this poem were found. Even divine inspiration, it seems, benefits from sober revisional practices.

I always try to end my creative writing classes with a quote a former professor told me. He told us “Be a producer rather than a consumer, and surround yourself with beauty that you create yourself.” I think that everyone should produce something that they’re proud of–and writing is certainly one way to create beauty in the world. But also students and aspiring writers should remember that writing is difficult, and has a tradition, and a set of expectations that readers demand (whether the writing is divinely inspired or not). Ben Marcus, another former professor of mine, once told me that “Writing should practically kill you.” I think he was joking, but I’ve found these words to ring true, especially when I find myself debating the means of perception in a story, or whether or not to let go of my obsession with first person and to go ahead and try a third person point of view. It’s certainly not easy, this business of writing, and even when you’ve finished with a draft of something you’re proud of there’s always an editor, or an agent, waiting to tell you all of the mistakes you’ve made. Even so, there’s nothing better than seeing a creation come to life, and knowing all of the terribly difficult effort that went into that creation.

Published in:Laura Kopchick |on February 5th, 2010 |No Comments »

Oh, Christmas!

Here’s a poem by a former professor of mine.  He used to read it to us at the end of every fall semester, on the last day of class, as a final send-off before the Christmas break.  I’ve always loved this poem for the way that it so perfectly explores the mixed blessings the American holiday season bestows upon us.

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By: Scott Cairns (from Figures For The Ghost)

Well, it was beginning to look a lot like Christmas—everywhere,
children eyeing the bright lights and colorful goods, traffic a good
deal worse than usual, and most adults in view looking a little
puzzled, blinking their eyes against the assault of stammering
bulbs and public displays of goodwill. We were all embarrassed,
frankly, the haves and the have-nots—all of us aware something
had gone far wrong with an entire season, something had eluded
us. And, well, it was strenuous, trying to recall what it was that
had charmed us so, back when we were much smaller and more
oblivious than not concerning the weather, mass marketing, the
insufficiently hidden faces behind those white beards and other
jolly gear. And there was something else: a general diminishment
whose symptoms included the Xs in Xmas, shortened tempers,
and the aggressive abandon with which most celebrants seemed
to push their shiny cars about. All of this seemed to accumulate
like wet snow, or like the fog with which our habitual inversion
tried to choke us, or to blank us out altogether, so that, of a given
night, all that appeared over the mess we had made of the season
was what might be described as a nearly obscured radiance, just
visible through the gauze, either the moon disguised by a winter
veil, or some lost star—isolated, distant, sadly dismissing of us,
and of all our expertly managed scene.

-Laura Kopchick

Published in:Laura Kopchick |on December 6th, 2009 |No Comments »

In Praise of the American Short Story

Last year, in an article for the New York Times lamenting the lack of appreciation many American readers have for the short story, Stephen Millhauser said, “…here in America, size is power. The novel is the Wal-Mart, the Incredible Hulk, the jumbo jet of literature. The novel is insatiable — it wants to devour the world. What’s left for the poor short story to do? It can cultivate its garden, practice meditation, water the geraniums in the window box. It can take a course in creative nonfiction. It can do whatever it likes, so long as it doesn’t forget its place — so long as it keeps quiet and stays out of the way. ‘Hoo ha!’ cries the novel. ‘Here ah come!’ The short story is always ducking for cover. The novel buys up the land, cuts down the trees, puts up the condos. The short story scampers across a lawn, squeezes under a fence.” And I think it’s this squeezing under the fence bit that best sums up the quiet power of a really well-written short story–the best ones are able to sneak up on you, offer an emotional wallop, and are able to do so in the same small amount of time it would take you to watch a re-run of “Saved By the Bell.” These days, it seems that any writer showing up on an agent’s and editor’s doorstep, polished short story collection in hand, is met with pity. “Where’s the novel?” The agent will ask. “I can’t sell these!” The editor will wail. If this writer is lucky she’ll get a two-book deal, which involves a publishing house accepting her short story collection only along with a novel. And the novel will probably make its way to print, and eventually to the bookshelves of Borders. And the short story collection? No matter how craftily written, this poor manuscript will forever remain in “editing,” until the publisher releases the collection from contract (with pitying looks for the poor writer who has wasted everyone’s time). This seems to be a recent development, and it makes one wonder if a writer like, say, Raymond Carver (a writer known for brevity whose longest works are in the 12-page range) would even have a shot today in the publishing world. And there’s Cheever and Barth, both writers who are best known for their short stories. I think proof of this bias can be seen with Lorrie Moore (immediately buy Birds of America if it’s not already on your shelf), a master of the short story form, who, it seems, is forced to put out the occasional sub par novel (the problematic Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? was originally a much-loved short story in The New Yorker called “Paris.”)

Recently there has been a lot of discussion about the place of the short story in the American reading landscape. Publishers don’t want them because, well, they don’t sell. But there’s something beautiful in the way a short story invites you briefly into a world, lets you glimpse the grace of this world’s inhabitants (or perhaps the horror of their lives), and then releases you before you have a chance to even sit down and take your coat off.

Here’s a brief list of just a few of the stories that–no matter how many times I re-read them–punch me in the gut (almost all of these are contemporary, but since she’s my favorite short story writer, I had to slip in one by O’Connor):

“Hunters In the Snow” by Tobias Wolff. Not many writers can get away with a story that relies almost completely on dialogue and action (no exposition here, my friend). This story is chilling, and the ending is downright frightening.

“People Like That Are the Only People Here” by Lorrie Moore. This story has the perfect narrative voice. It’s like one of your best friends is telling you about a really, really bad experience while you share a glass of wine with her. It’s heartbreaking.

“A Good Man is Hard to Find” by Flannery O’Connor. I know most Flannery-ites don’t think it’s her best, but I get chills every time the Misfit shows up. And, like Wolff’s story, the ending is tough.

“City of Boys” by Beth Nugent. The protagonist of this story is wise and smart and sad and hopeful all at the same time. And there’s that chilling refrain that occurs throughout the story, gaining menace as the narrative progresses (“rent control is not going to last forever in New York!”)

“Gryphon” by Charles Baxter. It’s difficult for me to bond with child narrators. But I find this story charming. Plus, it was made into a film by PBS.

“Cathedral” by Raymond Carver. The scene where the protagonist traces the cathedral with the Blind Man is gorgeous.

“Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” by Joyce Carol Oates. Uh-oh, I’m starting to see a trend in my favorite stories (it seems I like the ones with the creepy predators).

Okay, I’m going to stop there. Those are just a few of mine. What are yours?

-Laura Kopchick

Published in:Laura Kopchick |on November 20th, 2009 |7 Comments »

The New Fabulists

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Does even the idea of reading one of those contemporary, New Yorker-ish short stories about yet another middle-aged couple with a wounded relationship make your eyes close and your snoring begin? Well what if a UFO suddenly landed in the pristinely-landscaped front yard of that middle-aged couple’s suburban New Jersey house? Or if a ghost suddenly turned up and impregnated the mild-mannered wife while the husband, unaware, kept right on sleeping? Or perhaps this family struggles through their marriage in a post-apocalyptic world where their slightly charred Colonial two- story is the only one left standing on their tree-lined block?

If reading genre gets you to stop snoring, but if (as a respectable literary type) you’ve always kept your hankering for aliens and zombies closeted, then maybe the new wave of “Fabulist” fiction is for you. The term comes from Bradford Morrow, novelist and editor of the literary journal “Conjunctions,” which has published stories by Robert Coover, William Gass, and Ben Marcus. “Fabulist Fiction” is a nod to the New-Wave science fiction movement of the 1960s and 1970s, where experimentalism in writing sought to create a new literary landscape. As Morrow puts it, “A new wave fabulist is a writer who has transcended the conventions of sci-fi and fantasy fiction, lifting the traditional genre form into a new literary realm. Any effort to narrow down the category much further than that would be like trying to nail a raindrop to the wall.”

As a fan of George Saunders, Angela Carter, Aimee Bender, Cormac McCarthy, and many other writers who have been blurring the line between literary fiction and genre fiction for many years now, I don’t quite know what makes this new “wave” different from the old wave (maybe the snazzy label?). Still, I’m thrilled to see all of the new anthologies coming out. Currently I’m reading McSweeney’s Enchanted Chamber of Astonishing Stories, edited by Michael Chabon, and then I’ll probably move on to Kelly Link’s collection Magic For Beginners. There is also, apparently, an anthology of Caribbean Fabulist Fiction (Whispers From the Cotton Tree Root) and a Jewish mid rash collection (On Moonflowers and Magic).

Like many writing instructors, I’ve always steered my students away from genre fiction because each genre requires its own set of rules and methodologies.  But inspired by this new enthusiasm for genre-bending literary writing,  I have recently begun to allow genre stories in workshop because (I have finally realized) the rules seem to be the same for a fabulist short story as for a good ole, New Yorker-ish, taditional literary short story. Give me  precise prose, an interesting main character, and a compelling plot.  I don’t care what you call it.

-Laura Kopchick

Published in:Laura Kopchick |on October 8th, 2009 |1 Comment »

Fall Brings….NaNoWriMo

On November 1, the (10th year!) of the National Novel Writing Month will commence. For those unfamiliar with the event, it’s essentially a “contract” that you make to write a novel in one month. You agree to write a certain number of words per day, and you also agree not to go back and edit those words until the whole blasted thing is over and done with. It’s all about getting something down on the page. Each November my writer-friends keep me updated on their words-per-day count, and every year I’m a bit jealous of just how much writing they’re able to get done. A whole novel! In one month! I’ve always been daunted by this commitment, basically because the whole idea of just getting words down seems to go against my entire writing process (which basically involves six hours spent agonizing over an opening paragraph to a short story, and then another six hours spent re-thinking and then eventually scrapping that opening paragraph). But lately I’ve been warming up to the idea of rethinking this (admittedly non-productive) writing process. Why not dump some words onto a page and just keep plowing on until I’ve got a draft of a novel? There must be something so satisfying about taking on such a task, even if the end result will probably never win me a National Book Award.

So for those of you who want to join me (and I’m still not 100% committed to this yet) first visit: http://www.nanowrimo.org/

Still interested? Okay, then. I’m going to help you get started by helping you create a character by doing what’s called a character sketch. Get yourself a piece of paper and a pencil. Now draw a box in the middle of the page. Inside the box write your character’s name (I’ll call mine Samantha Plain). Next, draw a series of lines away from your box and begin to fill the page with details about your character. What does your character look like? (Samantha Plain is in her early 30s, has a scar on her left leg and a tattoo of a butterfly on her back, etc.) Where did your character grow up? What sort of education does he/she have? What sort of music does he/she listen to? Family? Friends? Job? Habits? The idea is to cluster up the entire page until your character begins to take shape. Don’t be afraid if your character begins to take on characteristics that conflict with each other (Samantha Plain listens to punk music, for example, but likes to wear nice button down shirts with bows at the neck). This will keep your character interesting and realistic. When you’ve gotten to the point where you can imagine what your character might have had for breakfast this morning you can go ahead and stop. You’re ready for the next step. You’ve got your character and now you need a catalyst for your novel. Something to start those words flowing. I find it helpful to think about the worst day of my character’s life (Samantha Plain accidentally hit a bike messenger on her way to her job at the University library!) and then the best day of my character’s life (Samantha Plain woke up to find her front porch filled with flowers!). Chances are one of these moments will provide an interesting moment for your story to begin.

And then you keep on writing. Until the month is over and your fingers are tired. But in the end, Samantha Plain (or whatever name you choose for your character) will have come to life, and maybe she’ll have gotten married, or divorced, or will have reconnected with a long-lost father. And you’ll have written a novel (a whole novel!) in only a month.

Good luck writers,

Laura Kopchick

Published in:Laura Kopchick |on September 24th, 2009 |No Comments »