Galley fever. That was the diagnosis Michael J. Seidlinger gave me a few months after I started reviewing books at Electric Literature. In all fairness to Seidlinger, it’s possible I’d just given him a list of four books I was going to review (that month? that week? that day?), two of which were (again, possibly) by Salman Rushdie and Milan Kundera. No pressure, no worries.

“Textbook case,” Seidlinger added. “Trust me, man. I’ve seen it before.”

Turned out Seidlinger was right. I did have a case of galley fever. And I still do. In fact, it’s starting to look like this galley fever thing is more or less permanent.

Galley fever: n. The pathological desire to review books. Said desire may conflict with eating, sleeping, and other activities once thought necessary. (In spite of common usage, has nothing to do with viruses, physical temperature, rowboats, or micro-kitchens.)

I started this column so I could put my fever to use; so I could cover more books in less time. It’s working, too. At least I think it is. But there are still issues, laws of time and space to be dealt with. By which I mean reading time and editorial space. The greater problem, to put it bluntly, is that there’s too damn much talent out there in the literary world.

In addition to the latest from one of my writing heroes, Don Delillo, this month’s Microbrew features National Book Award-nominee and literary triple-threat (poetry, fiction, nonfiction), Kim Addonizio, Shawn Vestal, Lori Ostlund, Zoe Zolbrod, and Sean Beaudoin. Obviously, our line-up’s pretty heavy. And that’s a good thing. It’s just that there’s so much more out there. So many books that deserve coverage, so little time. So, get out there and review a book or two. But don’t forget to buy these…

“Thank you for your interest in Zoetrope: All Story,

 

We are a staff of two, assisted by a small team of brilliant and generous volunteers, who are collectively dedicated to reading and responding to the 12,000 submissions All Story receives annually…

…All-Story does not accept submissions via e-mail. Send stories to:…”

The above guidelines come from Zoetrope: All Story, one of the top tier literary magazines of today. My response:

Dear Zoetrope,

Your submission guidelines are fucked up. Snail mail had a purpose…once. There are better options, and the time is now.

The list of deservedly established writers published at your magazine is formidable: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Woody Allen, Margaret Atwood, Julian Barnes, Roberto Bolaño, Robert Olen Butler, Don DeLillo, Mary Gaitskill, Kathryn Harrison, Ha Jin, Jonathan Lethem, Yiyun Li, Naguib Mahfouz, Alice Munro, Salman Rushdie, Kurt Vonnegut, & David Foster Wallace. Many writers would love to join this crew, do not mind submitting, and hope to be “discovered” on the slush pile. Yet how do the majority of your authors submit? I doubt Woody Allen stuffs an envelope and drops it in the mail, fingers crossed, hoping Zoetrope will make his proverbial day. But that’s what you demand of the regular scribe, and while all writers are not stereotypical “starving artists,” they would love to save a dime or two, unlike ol’ Woody, who can afford the postage. Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know, Woody’s earned the privilege, but then why bother taking submissions from the masses? No matter how good an unknown’s story is, Woody and friends aren’t gettin’ bumped. Fetid grapes aside, The New Yorker now accepts E-subs, but even The Diddle Ass Review should. And so should Zoetrope.

Electronic mail or submission managers are no longer science fiction, and function more efficiently than snail. E-subs might create an overflow of stories, but there are solutions: short windows for submissions or charging nominal fees (not writer friendly, either, chief sinner Narrative Magazine, charging nasty clam so they can pay all the writers they solicit, but that’s another rant). Here’s the analysis:

Estimated annual cost of 12,000 nine-page stories plus cover letters:

  • $ 600 12,000 8½ x11 envelopes 120 x $5 per packet of 100 envelopes
  • $14,040 $1.17 Postage for 12,000 submissions
  • $ 240 12,000 4×9 envelopes for SASE 120 x $2 per packet of 100 envelopes
  • $ 5,280 $0.44 Postage for 12,000 SASE
  • $ 1,200 120,000 pages @240 x $5 per 500-page ream
  • $ 960 Printer ink cartridges @10,000 pages per cartridge = 12 x $80

Total = $22,320 or over $1,800 per month.

  • Not included but should be considered wasteful:
  • Gas to deliver 12,000 submissions plus 11,998 rejections and two rewrite requests
  • At 3 inches a 500-leaf ream, a 60-foot tall tree of paper

Time at printer preparing envelopes, etc. @five minutes/submission = 100 hours (not to mention time spent by “brilliant and generous volunteers” who, with Bartleby-like futility, refine skills in a Sisyphean search for fabulous stories that will never be accepted by Zoetrope)

Fifty Zoetrope clones would push the cost over a million dollars. Smaller mags? Every 100 subs/month = $2,232/year. Yet as the smaller mags regularly publish from slush, the waste not as egregious.


Zoetrope, your guidelines continue: “Before submitting, non-subscribers should read several issues of the magazine.” What a deal! I’m sure you’re not intentionally trying to screw writers, but c’mon, this is way totally like effin’ really just absolutely too fucked up.
Certainly, writers should do their part, not waste editors time with inappropriate submissions, and buy, read, and support literary magazines; that’s yet another topic. Bottom line: writers might buy more magazines if they had more money, and they might read more if they had more time. Right? If one writer has ten stories and submits each story twenty times that’s over $350 a year a writer could spend on food, rent, books, and subscriptions to literary magazines. Sure, Zoetrope, you are not the only guilty party. Those lovable stalwarts over at The Sun, despite their concern about social issues, environment, and poverty, refuse to evolve. Others? The list includes The Atlantic, Crab Creek Review, Creative Nonfiction, The Georgia Review, The Iowa Review, The Texas Review, Zyzzyva, etc., not to mention the publishers and agents that postpone electronic. The cost rises into millions of dollars, a forest of paper trees, and oodles of wasted hours. So Zoetrope and cohorts, big and small, agents and editors and publishers, take heed: Stop the snail. Or be fucked up.

Sincerely,

Caleb “The Mad Writer” Powell

As I write this, the world has spent the past four days transfixed and deeply saddened by Japan’s 9.0 earthquake and its resulting tsunami and nuclear disasters. Within my extended family, for the second time this year, one member just almost killed another, not by assault, but through a split-second accident. (No, I’m not a member of the Flying Wallendas.)

This is where Mike Sacks comes in. I’ve interviewed Sacks before, in conjunction with 2010’s tome, Sex: Our Bodies, Our Junk by the Association for the Betterment of Sex and nowhere in my research did I uncover evidence the Vanity Fair editor and author of the new, hilarious essay collection, Your Wildest Dreams within Reason, oversees plate tectonics or prompts sundry family members to nearly give me a fucking heart attack.


DH: Kyle Beachy’s heartland debut, the coming-of-age novel The Slide, was published by the hyper-selective Dial Press in January of 2009. The Slide takes place in St. Louis and I joined a St. Louis Cardinals fan club while I was reading that book. I’m not even a baseball fan. But I was carried away by The Slide’s uplifting regionalism.

Right now, Kyle is gearing up to teach a course in David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. I was able to catch up with KB between semesters and he provided the Guys with the knockout post below. Reading Kyle’s post made me wish I could audit his class.

When We Fell in Love by Kyle Beachy

My first reading of White Noise took place outdoors, in a reclining deck chair with my feet up against the log railing outside of a friend’s parent’s log home built onto a mountainside in Summit County, state of Colorado. I mention this for two reasons. First, to clarify that I was then, as I had been all of my life, plugged neatly into a world of American wealth and wasteful consumption, which made the big red DeLillo target on my back all the bigger and redder. I had also just finished college, and so (second reason) having the freedom to read this way and not have to think in terms of analysis was weird for me and sort of uncomfortable. Halfway through I realized I was underlining and writing marginalia, though I didn’t know why. It was also, incidentally, the first week of September, 2001. (If the date matters, which it might, it matters in such a nuanced and personal way I probably shouldn’t even begin.)

I can’t recall where I was when I first read Haruki Murakami’s Norwegian Wood. I do know that when I tried to read it a second time it did not take, and so I was for certain in Chicago, where trains rattle overhead and the wind carries knives and winter comes like a trade embargo, fully-armed with tanks and warships; a city, God bless it, that is frankly no place for a love story. The only reason I went looking for this most famous of the early Murakamis was because I’d read Hardboiled Wonderland and the End of the World as an undergraduate and fallen deeply for the novel’s quiet take on apocalypse. It is a mad scientist and his fat daughter in pink, Inklings crawling through dark tunnels beneath Tokyo, and a protagonist (who is two protagonists, actually) caught between two warring systems (that are one system, actually). Plus also unicorns that do just fine without rainbows, which good luck finding too many of those.

I bought my copy of Denis Johnson’s The Name of the World from one of the grumpy, ageless men who unfold their tables of books on Bedford Avenue, in Williamsburg, and then stand towering over them while avoiding eye contact and seeming just outrageously put out when you ask how much one of the books costs. It is a hardback first edition of a book I had read in paperback years earlier while traveling, and then left on some bus somewhere and forgotten almost completely about except for one line that stayed with me, and which was the sole reason I handed the man four of my dollars even though he was a big fat asshole and my luggage was already full and I was running late for meeting a journalist, and was nervous because he (the journalist) was going to interview me about writing, and “struggles” and I had never really been interviewed before, and I was scared. It really is an amazing line, subtle and easily grazed over but surely the sort for which we should all bow to Johnson, one which equates the farthest limits of human emotion with our smallest efforts of mere existence.

The flight home from New York gave me time to read in search of that line. I didn’t find it until page 87, and by that point I had decided that the younger me had gotten the book all kinds of wrong, and wrong in the way that only the older, aspiring writer me could diagnose. Because, though bizarre and puzzling in terms of structure and movement and scope, The Name of the World is stacked full of magic moments of grace and horror and wonder, all described in language that is, if nothing else, distinctly Johnson’s. That is to say, the novel is perhaps not great but the lines it contains most certainly (sometimes) are. Here is the sentence I went searching for, plus the set-up that comes just before:

Her blouse was sleeveless and her armpits stained with wide blotches of sweat. I made a note to myself — I had to get to a chemist someday, and ask if sweat is the same substance as tears.

If White Noise educated me through its trafficking of negatives and its America of misinformation and misunderstood systems, and Hard Boiled Wonderland taught me the value of a steady narrative hand in treating wild imagination, then The Name of the World opened my eyes to the beauty of imperfection, the simple truth that writing, like reading, is a process, one in which small successes will often find themselves surrounded by larger failures, and that the resulting imperfection, each unique admixture of good and bad, is, in a very real sense, the entire point.

Since we’re in holiday mode, you may be walking into a lot of rooms that you don’t ordinarily visit. I’ve been thinking about what’s most interesting to an autistic temperament like mine about such experiences: the background, the part that you don’t quite notice: the height of the ceiling, the quality of light, the footfall in the next room (Are there dishes clattering in the kitchen?), whether the room feels crowded or spacious, the ambience awkward…I’m-trying-to-be-a-good-host-but-I’m-not-quite-making-it, or, full-tilt, these are such cool people!

The background, like the quiet guest who you wonder about;…”Will he ever open his mouth…and if he does…what will come out?”…also seduces me in fiction.

I found “Midnight in Dostoevsky,” a story in the November 30th New Yorker by Don DeLillo, indispensable. So buy the New Yorker, read the story…and I’m also reading James Wood’s take on Paul Auster for sure…and then throw the New Yorker out. Especially avoid all those cloy-infested cartoons…as bad as junk food. New Yorker cartoons will literally rot your teeth.

Two serious boys, as serious as I can imagine only freshman can be, are walking from dorms to class in a desolate, because wintry, setting somewhere in the boondocks. Stage set: the dorms and the classroom complex, built like a blockhouse, the “Cellblock”, are some distance away from each other so, fine, we can eavesdrop on the boys as they walk and talk.

I love that these guys talk for the sake of talking. Makes you wonder if they’re gay. Only wonder, mind you, they probably aren’t. They’re guy friends. They focus on an elderly man shuffling much ahead of them with his hands behind his back. I commend DeLillo that he makes the gent they notice several generations older than the boys. This helps make the oldster “the other.”

First person narrator and Todd, his school friend, debate the old guy’s coat meticulously. It’s a private contest between them. They debate the facts. What kind of coat is this guy wearing? They point at each other a lot while they talk and when they meet on campus. This is cute. This  is also where in my reading I turned down the dial from gay to homoerotic adolescence.

I don’t know if these boys are going to be writers but they certainly talk with a mastery of detail that indicates that the first person narrator is a pro. Is his friend, Todd, also a Don DeLillo in the making? Nope. Todd’s a just-the-facts kind of guy. It’s the narrator who throws wild details into his arguments, making this conversational brew heady with subversive fictions. So fine, now you can tell these guys apart by their contrasting characters. Nice going, double D.

Of course you know that a duffel coat has toggles but I bet only 5% of the population could define “duffel coat” accurately in this way. Anorak? Define. Loden Coat? Parka? Define. These guys can. Defining atomic facts is part of their language contest.

The old guy being observed, in wintry weather, is not wearing gloves. If you write a superfluous detail into your story then shame on you. But this detail is telling. Why? Because it makes the old guy seem offbeat. And you don’t have to explain this detail in the end. It’s done its job already. It’s held your interest, forestalling the moment when you throw out The New Yorker.

I’m just in the first paragraphs and already “Midnight in Dostoevsky” is snowing gems of details. This is a master story.

I think if a writer has his boys walking to class then he should show the class. Why? Because not to de-energizes the narrative. You’re showing an action, walking to class. Why not show the class or do your students just walk into a blank wall somewhere past the page that you’re reading? Disagree?

There’s a break in the text and we’re in the class. When I read Adam Haslett’s Union Atlantic, I was impressed by how AH worked details of finance into his story by making them expressions of character.

Here DD has our guys attend a philosophy class. Let me tell you, concepts from the language philosophy of Wittgenstein, Frege and Russell saturate this text. Some Oxford dons could have a field day, if that’s what dons have, trying to look around their shoulder and grasp the escaping theory that’s running just out of sight of the reader. Atomic facts? Come on, DD! Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, battered from 5 plus readings, sits on my fucking desk.

Not that you’d notice this background, deftly introduced by depicting a class and by throwing out casual phrases, like “atomic facts”, that are really terms from mathematical logic, if you haven’t read Wittgenstein.

A beauty of this text: you don’t have to care! It’s part of what’s behind you in the room and you don’t have to turn around and notice if you don’t want to.

I could write a post about this story that’s longer than the story. I’ll stop here. Who’s the old guy? Read. You’ll find out plenty. But mostly, you’ll be satisfied with a full-course holiday meal of story.

Next time you enter a room as a guest, you may want to focus like a good autistic on the background of your party. Sensing what’s in the background is also part of writing or reading a great story.

But here’s some culinary advice, never forgot, from a philosophy professor that I had as a college freshman. At a feast, leave the table before you are full…while you are still hungry. If you’re the host, the writer, maybe you should snatch the plate away before your guest finishes the meal.

Is that what Delillo does in this story? You tell me.

-DH

here are three chapters in American Psycho—“Huey Lewis,” “Whitney Houston,” and “Genesis”—in which Patrick Bateman, the narrator, ruminates on three of his favorite musical acts. In the third such chapter, he writes:

I’ve been a big Genesis fan ever since the release of their 1980 album, Duke. Before that I really didn’t understand any of their work, though on their last album of the 1970s, the concept-laden And Then There Were Three (a reference to band member Peter Gabriel, who left the group to start a lame solo career), I did enjoy the lovely “Follow You, Follow Me.”

By this point in the book, Bateman has already mutilated a homeless saxophone player, chopped a co-worker to death with a chainsaw, and served his girlfriend a used urinal cake dipped in chocolate. But it was only upon reading the preceding paragraph that it really kicked in: “He thinks Phil Collins is better than Peter Gabriel?!?! Holy shit! That guy’s fucking nuts!”