Sunday, December 31, 2017

A Look Back on a Disappointing Year

My Own Writing

Three stories of mine were published this year. If you want to read "Ruins of a Future Empire," you will need to order a print back-issue of Salvage No. 4, since they do not put their fiction and poetry up on their website. I think it's worth it, not merely for the story, but because Salvage is a serious journal of political thought that deserves to be more widely read. "A Summary of Menistarian Law..." is, for now, only available to subscribers to Lackington's, another publication whose purchase I would recommend, but if either the money or the inspiration fails you, note that they will make it available online for free at some point. The flash-fiction piece "Cynthia" may be viewed by all on the website of Asymmetry.

As of now I have 13 pieces out on submission, 12 fiction and one creative non-fiction (essay), and I am doggedly, perhaps delusionally, optimistic about some of them. But at the moment I have no contracts in hand, so no concrete publication plans on deck for 2018. It is the first year since 2015 to begin that way for me. Which is to say, if someone reading this is a fiction editor who has been considering commissioning something from me, now would be an excellent time for you to reach out.

Translation: The Der Nister Project

Things finally settled well enough in my workday life that I can contemplate applying for grants and fellowships to further my literary endeavors--I am no longer a one-person office, but the Director of a two-person office, so I now have reliable back-up at work. Thus, if I am fortunate enough to receive something, I can arrange to take a bit of time off and know that the grant-seeking endeavors of my colleagues will be in good hands. My debut effort in this vein was to apply for a translator's fellowship from the National Yiddish Book Center. However, even if I do not get the fellowship, the preparatory work for the application stirred in me a great enough passion for the stories of Der Nister (pen name of Pinkhus Kahanovich, lit. "The Hidden One") that I shall proceed with the project one way or the other. (Or, as Der Nister would say, vi-nit-vi.) The initial stage of the project, proposed for completion within one year if I get the NYBC fellowship (longer perhaps if I don't), is translation of the stories he had published under the collection title Gedakht. I have already translated two stories ("In vayn-keler" and "Geyendik") and am working on a third ("A forshpil"). The tone and subject matter of the stories is such that they would fit readily, if perhaps a bit uneasily, in contemporary fantasy publications, which are increasingly open to the publication of work in translation. However, I have not yet sent them out for submission or query, since I need to finish my due diligence either to secure the rights or (what I think is more likely, since Der Nister died in a Russian gulag in 1950) to document that these are in fact orphaned works. Also, the story I am now working on, "A forshpil," has some references to Yiddish theater, so I will likely need to do some archival work in YIVO's excellent collection to try and pin down those references before finalizing that translation. The other two stories stand well on their own, and will likely be ready to go out once I have sorted out the rights question. Let the hidden one not be quite so hidden any more.

Other People's Writing (aside from Der Nister)

The amount of money I spend on things like memberships (e.g., to be able to nominate for the Hugo or Nebula awards) or magazine subscriptions (to keep on top of what is going on in the world of short fiction) is directly tied to my income from story sales. So the former have expired, and on the latter, I am down to The New Yorker, Lackington's, and The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction (and I think my F&SF subscription will expire soon). This is all to say, only slightly apologetically, that I am no longer really trying to keep on top of new short fiction as it comes out. Therefore, this section will focus on what I read within the bindings of books, checked out from one of the libraries to which I have access. Of the books I read in 2017 that were published in this year, the following are those I believe to be worthy of note (arranged in alphabetical order by author's last name, to avoid the futility of ranking):

  • Lesley Nneka Arimah, What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky
  • Elif Batuman, The Idiot
  • Roxane Gay, Difficult Women
  • Nick Joaquín, The Woman Who Had Two Navels and Tales of the Tropical Gothic
  • Arundhati Roy, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness
  • George Saunders, Lincoln in the Bardo
  • Jim Shepard, The World to Come
  • Pajtim Statovci, My Cat Yugoslavia
  • Jeff VanDerMeer, Borne

Some summary comments, in lieu of full reviews.

  • I had been looking forward to the publication of Arimah's first collection of short fiction since her story "Who Will Greet You at Home" first came out in the New Yorker. There is no shame in acknowledging a greater talent. The only notably weak piece in this collection was, ironically, the title story; I am so caught up in the dismal mechanics of climate change that I found its underlying world-building distractingly implausible. The rest are worth seeking out and reading again and again.
  • I am honestly not sure how well Batuman's first novel would stand up to reading by anyone who did not attend college in the mid-1990s. Since I did attend college in the mid-1990s, I loved it as a Bildungsroman that rendered obsolete my own potential contribution to the genre. I am glad she was bold enough to undermine the very genre of the Bildungsroman, ending it with the sentence, "I hadn't learned anything at all." And that it is a love story, not about falling in love with a boy (there is a guy, kind of a jerk) but with language.
  • Gay is not as great an essayist as she has been built up to be, and while I think she is a good novelist I recognize that there is room for debate. But if anyone makes so bold as to question her command of the short story, we will have to fight. Nearly every story of hers that I have read has been like attending a master-class on form; they are some of the best published in recent years. So finally she has a collection out. Particular favorites of mine from the collection include "I Will Follow You," "FLORIDA," "North Country," "How," and "Strange Gods."
  • In retrospect, it appears that Nick Joaquín was one of the best short story writers of the 20th Century. And yet despite his having written in English, he is hardly known by anyone who is not Filipino. So perhaps we should remedy that oversight and all read this new Penguin collection of his work. I don't think he's as strong a playwright as a prose writer--"A Portrait of the Artist as Filipino" has some compelling stagecraft in the first two scenes, but lapses into melodrama and sentimentality in the third. But unlike the play, all the stories are worth reading straight through. I suspect that for readers that share a background knowledge of Catholic religion, there are points of reference that this Jewish atheist cannot identify with, but their emotional and intellectual range was evident to me even with such barriers to shared comprehension or experience.
  • The irony of my inclusion of Roy's new novel is that it reinforced my suspicion that she is a better political essayist than a novelist, so unlike many critics I was in no great rush for her to "get back" to writing fiction. Two data points is not enough, but the hypothesis seems to accrete further evidence. Thus my review of the novel, even though I enjoyed and respected it, focuses more on its fundamental structural weakness than its strengths: By starting with Anjum's story, Roy has deceived several lazy critics into thinking that she is the main character. Wrong: The main character is Tilottama. The book written accordingly, through shifting points of view and montage, would have been amazing. But by framing it within the excess detail of Anjum's character development and backstory--rather than allowing those to be revealed, Cubist-style, in glimpses, as was the case with Tilo and her classmates--the overall pace of the resulting work is dragged out.
  • I was neither hoping for nor expecting a novel from George Saunders, and I am glad that his contribution to that saggy genre was so experimental in nature. Here's the thing with experimental writing (speaking as a sometime practitioner): Sometimes experiments don't work. But the narration built some momentum, the writing of the Lincoln father-son relationship was sufficiently touching, to get me to overlook some early bumps and become invested in seeing the book through to the end.
  • When I like Jim Shepard's short stories, it is because they defy my expectations. He is frequently included in The Best American Short Stories and the Pushcart Prize, and through those means keeps ending up, to my surprise, included in my Meta-Anthologies. So when I saw a collection on the library shelf, I figured I ought to give it a shot, and I am glad I did. Shepard, at least in the stories of this collection has a knack for the catastrophic: its prefigurations, causes, manifestations, and consequences. "HMS Terror" alone makes it worth seeking out.
  • I recommend Statovci's novel (written in Finnish, by an author of Kosovo Albanian origin, and translated into English this year) to any first-generation immigrant queer boys with abusive Balkan dads. The rest of you may find the cruel, emotionally manipulative cat who walks on two legs to be the most reassuringly familiar part of the novel.
  • If my SFWA membership were still in good standing, VanDerMeer's overdetermined apocalypse is the novel that I would nominate for the Nebula.


Where to begin? The reassuring thing about the Trump presidency is that, when one points out the horrors, they are not dismissed as the ravings of a paranoid radical. However, locally, I have been shying away from any sort of organizing for the better part of the year, for reasons I have already detailed. The good news since then is that some of the more competent and committed socialists in Maine have begun to take the upper hand and initiative from the egomaniacs and slackers. But, because of the national weaknesses of the party, and the geographical distribution within the state of the people I can stand (i.e., they're mostly not near me), I am not inspired enough to throw in my lot with them once more. I made a slight step forward in how I think about political organizing, but no forward motion on attempting to put such understanding into practice.

On this uninspiring note, forward to 2018! What can we look forward to? Who knows?!

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