Sunday, November 28, 2010

The New Yorker: "The Yellow" by Samantha Hunt

Good news. You can read this story online, and, more good news, it’s worth the read. It’s fresh both in its plot and its language. And while the particular conflict that’s explored in the story is resolved, the main character’s problems certainly aren’tleaving the reader with plenty to ponder.

Roy’s a mess. He’s 42 and back living with his parents, although the author leaves it completely to the reader to imagine what’s gone wrong with his life. A wrecked marriage? A sour career? Drugs? (Compare Jim Shepard’s “Boys Town” which also features a disturbed son who is back at home, but in that story Shepard gives us a fair amount of the backstory.) While his parents are away, he moves the excess furniture out of his room and paints the walls bright yellow. (The color brings to mind “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, the color on the walls may be as far as the parallel goes, except that both Roy and the protagonist from that story are a little nuts.) When his parents return Roy flees the house. Meanwhile, Suzanne has her own problems and is in danger of exploding under the pressure of her husband and kids who have mercifully left her alone.

But Roy runs over a dog in front of Suzanne’s house and brings the body to the door. She confirms that the victim is her children’s dog Curtains and as they both mourn the dog they . . . have sex on the floor. Um, sure, okay, why not? Except that Roy is awakened by the dog licking his shoulder! He’s not dead after all! (Hmm. Earlier Roy concludes “the dog was dead for certain,” “the neck was soft and floppy”; and he observes “there was blood on Roy’s jacket. Blood on her arm, in her hair. Curtains’s insides made pornographically public.” So if the dog’s not dead, and in fact seems to be fine, what’s all that about?)
And because they’ve had this bit of mournful sex, Suzanne decides the dog needs to be killed! Except Roy doesn’t want to, and just at that moment her family returns, sending both Roy and the dog into the back yard.

So what happened? Is Roy dreaming? He’s gone without sleep for a couple of days, apparently. The only thing he’s eaten is an onion and Cheddar sandwich. And the walls in his room are bright yellow. Has he passed out and dreamed all this? Or is he dreaming the resurrection of the dog, sleeping on the floor of Suzanne’s living room? Or did he only imagine all the details of the dog’s death, and now it’s actually alive?

Weird story. I like it.

November 29, 2010: “The Yellow” by Samantha Hunt

Writing the Short Story: Make Your Story Great!

A new section of my online course in writing the short story begins in January: Writing the Short Story: Make Your Story Great!. Sign up now to ensure your place in the class.

This is a combination lecture and workshop class that previous students have found very useful. (Check the student testimonials - scroll down.) Not only will we discuss the fundamentals of short story writing, we'll study examples from the masters and we'll conduct weekly writing exercises for practice. The workshop portion of the class allows all participants to receive class critiques of one twenty-page story AND a revision of that story.

I've also got sections of a more advanced story workshop and a unique course in how to publish short stories--both beginning early in the new year.

For more information about my classes and other writing courses, check out Writers.com.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Holiday Shopping Suggestion: In an Uncharted Country

Time for holiday shopping, and I've got a suggestion. My book! In an Uncharted Country is a collection of short stories that in some ways reads like a novel; the stories are all set in the same small town, themes resonate from story to story, and the characters overlap and reappear.

It's a pretty good book, if I say so myself. Some terrific writers like Tim O'Brien, Elizabeth Strout, and Peter Ho Davies had some very nice things to say about the book, and you can read their comments: here.

The book also picked up some very nice reviews, which you can read here, here, and here.

Two of the stories actually take place at Christmas, so it's a wonderful read for this time of year.

You can get a signed copy from my website or from most of the independent bookstores in and around Staunton, VA. Or you can ask your local bookstore to order it. You can also get it through Indiebound or directly from the publisher, Press 53. And if you're a Kindle owner, or want to give a gift to someone who is, you can buy the Kindle Edition.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

100 Notable Books of 2010 - Holiday Gift Guide - NYTimes.com

100 Notable Books of 2010 - Holiday Gift Guide - NYTimes.com

It's always exciting when these year-end lists appear. It's especially interesting today as I try to organize the piles of books on the floor and find places for them on the shelves. This is impossible, as there isn't enough room, but perhaps I'll find books that can be removed. Hah. Also, I'm terribly embarrassed by the number of books I own that I haven't read, especially those by friends. To everyone: I'm sorry!

But to the list.

Of the fiction titles, I own about 13. And haven't read even one. On the fiction side I own two that I haven't read. What the hell have I been doing?

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

2010 New Yorker Story of the Year--Nominations are Open

As the year winds down, it's time to think about the best short stories from The New Yorker. Last year, as you may recall, we declared two great stories co-winners of the 2009 Story of the Year honors: Chris Adrian's "A Tiny Feast" and George Saunders's "Victory Lap."

To nominate, send me an email or leave a comment here mentioning your favorites. I'll take those nominations into consideration in formulating a list of the Top Ten New Yorker Stories of 2010, and then in late December I'll post a poll for voting. I'll announce the winner on January 1, 2011.

All of this year's stories (and a considerable number of novel excerpts) have been discussed to some degree on this blog. To refresh your recollection, brows through the posts: 2010 New Yorker Fiction.

I'm very curious to know what your favorites are!

The New Yorker: "Assimilation" by E.L. Doctorow

Another story NOT available to non-subscribers (but next week's is, so take heart!).

Ramon is a smart guy. His brother, at the beginning of the story, is in prison. Even in prison, though, he has access to information, and at the end of the story he looks like he has access to the kind of protection Ramon is going to need. Because our hero has pissed off the Russian (or some other unspecified East European) mob and things are going to get ugly.

Ramon, looking for money for graduate school but trying to avoid his brother’s world, takes a job as a dishwasher in Borislov’s restaurant. He’s promoted to bus boy—he’s being set up—and then to waiter, if he will agree to a green-card marriage. He heads to Russia (or wherever), marries Jelena, and then works with her at the restaurant. He decides he’s in love with Jelena, although she has a boyfriend at home and treats Ramon badly. Borislov and his mob friends put pressure on Ramon to make sure that Jelena will get her papers. Jelena, softening toward Ramon, tells him he should beat her, that she deserves it, but Ramon’s brother clues him in: if he beats her, or if they can make it look as though he beats her, they can cut him out of the picture that much earlier because the court will grant a divorce and Jelena will be free.

At this point, the reader—this reader, anyway—suspects that Jelena is in cahoots with the mobsters. Instead, though [spoiler alert], she agrees to run away with Ramon, and they head straight to Ramon’s brother, the only one with the firepower to protect them.

Uh oh. But that’s the end of the story. It’s going to get nasty, probably, but we’re not going to get to see it. Unless this is a novel excerpt. But I don’t even want to think that.

So it’s a readable story with a somewhat sentimental, unexpected ending that leaves a major question unanswered. It’s okay. Not my favorite, but okay. What’s okay about it is that Ramon is forced, for the sake of the girl, to enter his brother’s world, and it’s obviously a tough choice for him. It may still end badly for him, but it’s the kind of difficult decision that is interesting to see in fiction. I also like the multiple meanings of the title. What’s not so great, though, is that Ramon’s feelings for the girl are kind of a cliché. Sure, go through with the fraud, even feel sorry for her because she’s in a tough spot herself, but fall in love? I’m not buying that.

Also worth checking out for more insights into this story is Deborah Treisman's chat with Doctorow: This Week in Fiction.

November 22, 2010: “Assimilation” by E.L. Doctorow

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Q10

In early October I wrote about 750Words.com, a site that pushed a subscriber to write at least 750 words a day. The problem, as I eventually discovered, is that your work is being saved onto their site. While one can always export, there's a risk in the meantime that work will be lost, which is what happened to me one day when the site's server was down or malfunctioning and my output wasn't saved. Goodbye 750Words. It didn't work out for me, but I know others who love it, and I say good for them. If it helps with discipline, it's a good thing.

But today I saw a note on Galleycat about Q10, a program that attempts to help you block out distractions by blacking out your computer screen so that you're just typing words, not word-processing. It even has sound effects--like a typewriter. It has a built-in timer and other settings that one can use to help keep one's mind on the work, and I'm looking forward to using it when I begin working on something new. (I don't think it's so great for editing a long manuscript that's already in MS Word.) But take a look and give it a try . . .

Monday, November 22, 2010

"15 Top Online Journals Speak" -- Huffington Post

Over the past several months, Anis Shivani has been speaking his mind in his Huffington Post column on literary matters--the best books, the most over-rated books, etc. Usually a negative wave of comments follows these columns, as if the guy isn't entitled to his opinions. Now we have an interesting and timely (for me) column about online journals, in which Shivani has editors of 15 magazines talk about the industry. Nothing wrong with that, but of course editors of other journals who weren't asked to speak are doing some sniping.

Whatever. It's an interesting compilation and you can read it: here.

Here's Shivani's lead-in:
After at least a decade of sustained presence, what can we say about the status of journals that promote literature online? We asked editors of some of the oldest online journals, as well as some new ones, these questions: What are online literary journals doing that print journals are failing to do? Have online journals come of age yet? Can you point to specific examples of areas where online literary journals are in a league of their own?
Excellent questions, and we get some good answers from people like Rebecca Frank (Memorious), Greg Donovan (Blackbird), Thom Didato (failbetter.com), Steve Seighman (Monkeybicycle), Kim Chinquee (formerly with elimae), and several editors and magazines I don't know as well.

Anis didn't ask me, but I thought I'd offer my answers here, speaking as editor of Prime Number Magazine.

One thing online journals are doing is reaching readers. I don't know exactly how many people have read Prime Number in the 4 months we've been around, but I know it's a lot. You don't have to buy a subscription. You don't have to buy it on the newsstand. You don't have to store it on a shelf until you get around to reading it. You read it. It's archived. You come back and read it again. Furthermore, we do updates. We're quarterly, but between issues we have 4 mini issues with flash and poetry. Print can't do that--except that many print magazines ARE doing it through their online presences.

Come of age? I have no idea. I think that's out of our control. I know that we're attracting a lot of submissions from good writers, and I'm pleased with the work we've published. When the prize anthologies take the work that appears online seriously, then maybe we can say for sure that online magazines have come of age.

Multi-media. We haven't done this yet, but simply the ability to post audio, video, and images makes online magazines a jump ahead of print magazines which, at best, include a few color prints--at great expense. I also like the fact that we can include hyper links--especially for our contributors with books out where I can link to the Indiebound page for the book, or to the contributor's website or blog.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Take your child to a bookstore

December 4 is Take your child to a bookstore day. Actually, every day should be Take your child to a bookstore day, but December 4 is a good day to start.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

National Book Awards Announced!

The National Book Awards were announced this evening:

Kathryn Erskine wins in young people's literature for Mockingbird
Patti Smith wins in non-fiction for her memoir, Just Kids
Terrance Hayes wins in poetry for Lighthead
Jaimy Gordon wins in fiction for Lord of Misrule

Congratulations to the winners!

Pushcart Prize Litmag Rankings -- Debate and experiment

As always, my ranking of literary magazines based on the number of Pushcart Prizes and Special Mentions they've won (see 2011 Pushcart Prize Ranking) has attracted some attention and some detractors who object to the list on one ground or another. Some people just don't like rankings, it would seem, and I understand that--usually there is some unavoidable subjectivity in a ranking that may render it valueless, or not of general applicability. I've tried to avoid this criticism by being as objective as I can based on data, understanding that the Pushcart Prize itself is the subjective judgment of the editors.

A respectful commenter on the above-linked ranking (I emphasize the respectful part because critics of the list aren't always so respectful) doesn't care for the list because, among other things, it encourages careerism in writers. (I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing, although I don't think the list encourages anything.) You can read his comments for yourself and judge whether you find them valid. I don't, particularly. A writer must always take into account whether the work he or she is producing FITS into a particular journal, and whether the writer LIKES the work in a journal. One shouldn't submit to Ploughshares solely on the basis of its standing in my list. This seems to me to be understood. Perhaps I need to make a bigger point of emphasizing that. On the other hand, if Ploughshares is recognized in the industry as winning the most prizes (as evidenced by its place in my ranking), and I think my work would fit its aesthetic, then that would be a place I'd want to submit.

The commenter seems to think that there is no way to measure "quality" in a literary journal, and I would disagree with that.

Now, methodology in the list is a different matter. The commenter objects to the ten-year time period I use in my calculations. Fair enough. I like ten years maybe because I'm older and think a decade is a good amount of time to achieve some perspective. Yes, the industry is changing rapidly and there are new, high-quality magazines that don't show up very high on the list. On the other hand, a couple of years isn't much of a track record. Anyone can go out and buy this year's Pushcart Prize Anthology and see what's winning prizes and special mentions this year. In fact, you should do that. But one year isn't a lot to go on. What's the right number of years?

So I plan to stick with my ten-year list, but as an experiment I ran the list based on five years, and I've included below the top fifty magazines based on that period. Maybe you'll like this better.

I few observations. Ploughshares is still No. 1, but only barely, just ahead of Conjunctions, the No. 2 on both lists. One Story leaps to No. 3. Paris Review drops. Narrative, the only online journal on this shortened list, climbing a few spots from its ranking of 53 on the ten-year list.



2011 (5-years)
Magazine
1
2
3
4
5
5
5
5
9
10
10
12
12
12
12
16
16
16
16
20
21
21
21
24
25
26
26
28
28
28
31
31
31
34
34
35
36
36
36
36
41
41
41
41
41
46
46
46
46
46


Monday, November 15, 2010

The New Yorker: "The Trojan Prince" by Tessa Hadley

Sorry, non-subscribers, you can’t read this one either. No great loss, however.

Tessa Hadley has a novel coming out next year, and I thought at first this was an excerpt, but it doesn’t seem to be. First, the descriptions of the novel that I was able to find seem completely unrelated to this story. And second, the online feature that I’ve only just discovereda short interview with the authormakes no mention that it’s an excerpt. See: This Week in Fiction: Tessa Hadley

So, I suppose it isn’t an excerpt.

But if sure does feel like one. This story feels very told, as if it is background material for something that is about to happen. (We even get a flash-forward, as if the author is confirming this very idea.)

It’s the 1920s, ambitious young James is hanging around with his rich cousin Ellen and their other cousin Connie. He think he’s interested in Ellen, although there are clues that he begins to lose interesthe doesn’t like the way her hair smells, for example. He then goes off to work for a shipping company and survives a shipwreck in Canada. When he writes home to announce his survival it is to Connie. And it’s Connie who meets him when he comes back.

End of story.  Not much here that I like, although James has potentialfor the novel that this feels like it wants to be.

November 15, 2010: “The Trojan Prince” by Tessa Hadley

Friday, November 12, 2010

The New Yorker: "Boys Town" by Jim Shepard

Here’s another story that’s only available to subscribers. Next week is the same. It looks like The New Yorker is pulling the plug on free fiction. (My comments are late because my issue still hasn’t arrived and I really didn’t want to log onto the eNewYorker site to read it that way; now I have no choice.)

So if you don’t have access to this story, that’s a shame. It’s excellent, mostly because of the voice of Martin, the first person narrator. Martin is a loser and probably disturbed. His mother, with whom he lives, thinks he has post-traumatic stress disorder, but there are no mentions of deployments to Iraq or Afghanistan, although he was in the Army for four years and the reserves for another 4. He’s got some problems, though, that’s certain. He abused his wife and so has limited time with his son. He blames everyone else for his problems. And when he visits a woman he’s interested in and finds her ex-husband at her home he fires a gun through their window. He hears the police coming after himhe’s holed up in a tent in the woodsand he knows it’s not going to end well (fulfilling a prophecy that had been made about him years earlier).

His mother is no prize either, and it’s not hard to understand Martin. But lots of people have lousy mothers and don’t turn out to be the losers Martin is. And that’s why the titlea reference to the great movie with Mickey Rooney and Spencer Tracyis significant.
If anyone ever tells you that you can’t write a story with an unsympathetic main character, point to this story as evidence that you sure as hell can.

November 8, 2010: “Boys Town” by Jim Shepard

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

2011 Pushcart Prize Rankings

[Note: The 2012 Rankings are now available. Go here.]

It’s that time of year again. The 2011 volume of the Pushcart Prizes arrived in my mailbox today, and I’m pleased to present for the sixth year my Literary Magazine Rankings. (All previous years’ rankings are linked in the sidebar, should you want to compare.) There are several developments this year that I want to point out, but first I need to make my customary disclaimer. Rankings of literary magazines are of questionable value. Most such rankings are subjective. Others depend on data that may not be available for all magazines, such as circulation or payment to authors, or response time. These are important factors to some and I don’t discount them. It’s just that diversity in these areas, and the advent of high-quality online magazines, make such factors problematic.

This ranking, on the other hand, is extremely simple. I look at the annual volume of Pushcart Prize winners and the list of Special Mentions included in the back of the volume. I award a certain number of points for a winner and fewer points for a special mention. I add up the points and make a list.

There are two important factors to note. I began this list six years ago using data from the volumes beginning with 2001. My theory was that older volumes included too many defunct magazines and, perhaps more importantly, most magazines have evolved along with literary tastes, so that the most relevant recognitions would be the most recent. This year, for the first time, I am shifting forward in time and have dropped the points awarded for 2001. This year’s ranking, then, includes 2002-2011, and I plan to keep using a ten-year rolling system. Next year I’ll drop 2002. As a result of this shift, a few magazines and presses that have been on the list thanks to points earned in 2001 have now dropped out. So that readers will know which those magazines those are, I’ve left them on the bottom of the list with zero points and designated them with a “DO”.

The second factor, as I’ve noted in the past, is that my ranking uses only the Pushcart Prize—not BASS, not O. Henry. The reason for this is that there is overlap among these different anthologies, so that some stories may appear in all of them or two of them. The “glossy” magazines are considered for BASS, but not Pushcart. Online magazines are not considered for O. Henry but are beginning to be recognized by Pushcart. While I admire both BASS and O. Henry, the Pushcart Prize anthology seems to me to best reflect the literary magazine world in which I participate.

Which brings me to the purpose of this list. I began the rankings as a way of prioritizing my submissions of short stories to magazines. I still use it that way, and I think many other writers do also. If Ploughshares wins the most Pushcart Prizes and Special Mentions, then that’s the magazine I want to publish my stories. If One Story is on the rise, I might target them before a magazine that is lower on the list. It’s as simple as that.

Note that I’ve referred to short stories. This ranking is only about the fiction prizes and special mentions. It would be a productive exercise to look at Poetry and Nonfiction, but I have not yet done so. I think these would need to be separate lists, since not all magazines publish in all three genres, and then it would be interesting to see where a particular magazine sits on each of the lists. Maybe soon I’ll get to that.

Now, what observations can I make about this year’s list?
  • Ploughshares lost ground, having earned only one Special Mention this year, but still holds a commanding lead.
  • Online magazines are more evident this year — notably Narrative, but there are several others on the list, as well. Kenyon Review is represented by both its print and online components, although I’ve combined them here.
  • Tin House jumped into 4th spot and Paris Review slipped to 6th
  • Ontario Review, which is defunct, actually moved UP in the rankings because Georgia Review lost points when I dropped 2001
  • One Story leaped from 23rd to 15th on the strength of two Pushcarts and two Special Mentions, the most of any magazine this year
  • A Public Space also made a nice move, entering the top twenty.

For more comparisons, take a look at last year’s rankings: 2010 Pushcart Prize Rankings 

Now, for some other innovations.
  • This year, the list is hyperlinked to the magazines’ websites, which I hope will be helpful.
  • I have again used the symbol © to indicate that a magazine is closed, but I think I’ve been more diligent this time around in discovering which magazines have disappeared. Two of the dead magazines are actually making their first appearance on the list.
  • I’ve also used a question mark (?) where I’m unsure about a magazine—if I can’t find a website, for example.

I welcome feedback. Do you have a correction? An updated web address? News of a dead (or resurrected) magazine? Send me an email or leave a comment below.

And now for the list:




    
2011
Magazine
2011 Score
1
113
2
82
3
77
4
74
5
69
6
56
7
55
8
48
8
48
10
47
11
45
12
40
13
39
13
39
15
38
16
37
17
36
17
36
19
35
20
31
20
31
22
30
23
29
23
29
25
28
26
27
27
25
28
24
29
21
30
20
31
18
31
18
33
16
33
16
33
16
36
15
37
14
37
14
37
14
37
14
41
13
41
13
41
13
41
13
41
13
46
12
46
12
48
11
48
11
48
11
48
11
48
11
53
10
54
9
55
8
55
8
55
8
58
7
58
7
58
7
58
Speakeasy ©
7
58
7
63
6
63
6
63
6
63
6
63
6
63
6
63
6
63
6
71
5
71
5
71
5
71
Bridge ©
5
71
5
71
5
71
5
71
5
71
5
71
5
71
5
71
5
71
5
84
4
84
4
84
4
84
4
84
4
84
4
84
4
91
3
91
3
91
3
91
3
91
3
91
3
91
3
91
3
91
3
91
3
91
3
102
2
102
2
102
2
102
2
102
2
102
2
102
2
102
2
102
2
102
2
102
2
102
2
102
2
102
2
102
2
102
2
102
2
102
2
102
2
102
2
102
2
102
2
102
2
102
2
102
2
102
2
102
2
102
2
102
2
102
2
102
2
102
Timber Creek Review (?)
2
102
2
102
2
136
Amazon Shorts ©
1
136
Antietam Review ©
1
136
1
136
1
136
1
136
1
136
1
136
1
136
1
136
1
136
1
136
1
136
1
136
Canio's Editions (?)
1
136
1
136
1
136
1
136
1
136
1
136
1
136
1
136
1
136
1
136
1
136
1
136
1
136
1
136
Eggemoggin Reach Review (?)
1
136
1
136
EWU Press ©
1
136
1
136
1
136
1
136
1
136
1
136
1
136
1
136
1
136
1
136
Hampton Shorts (?)
1
136
Happy (?)
1
136
1
136
1
136
High Plains Literary Review (?)
1
136
1
136
1
136
1
136
1
136
1
136
1
136
1
136
1
136
1
136
1
136
Lynx Eye ©
1
136
1
136
Margin (?)
1
136
1
136
1
136
1
136
1
136
1
136
1
136
Nebraska Review ©
1
136
1
136
1
136
1
136
1
136
1
136
Northern Lights (?)
1
136
1
136
1
136
1
136
1
136
1
136
1
136
1
136
1
136
1
136
1
136
1
136
1
136
1
136
1
136
RBS Gazette (?)
1
136
1
136
1
136
1
136
1
136
1
136
1
136
Small Town (?)
1
136
1
136
1
136
1
136
1
136
1
136
1
136
Stolen Time Press (?)
1
136
1
136
1
136
1
136
1
136
1
136
Transformation (?)
1
136
1
136
1
136
1
136
1
136
1
136
1
136
Words of Wisdom (?)
1
136
1
136
Xconnect (?)
1
DO
0
DO
American Voice (?)
0
DO
APA Journal (?)
0
DO
0
DO
0
DO
Heart (?)
0
DO
Joe ©
0
DO
Larcom Review (?)
0
DO
0
DO
0
DO
0
DO
0
DO
0
DO
Press (?)
0
DO
0
DO
Story ©
0
DO
Two Girls Review (?)
0
DO
WordWrights (?)
0