Like millions of good Americans, I spent part of the holidays playing a parlor game. It’s meant different things over the centuries, but for the purpose of this post, I’m designating as a “parlor game” that species of organized leisure activities more “creative” and often more interactive than a board game—that have likely shed their cumbersome “board” altogether—but which nonetheless requires rules to be read, and of course hardware to be purchased.

There are many to choose from: the old stand-by, Trivial Pursuit, the “open-minded yuppie” bestseller, Pictionary, the geeky tech-boom darling Cranium, and a host of newer spinoffs. What we played was Taboo. In Taboo, you have a set amount of time (I think two minutes?) to make your teammate guess a word appearing at the top of a card. You are given a list of five or six “taboo” words/phrases you may not use in your attempt. Like all such parlor games, it’s frustrating, slightly annoying, quite fun, and of course most importantly, gives people suffering from minor panic attacks and cabin fever something to do.

But let’s face it. It beats around the bush. So a month or so later, with a clear head, I share with you my idea for a parlor game that cuts through to what parlor games are really all about. The name? Conversation. I haven’t ironed out all the details yet, but here’s roughly how it would be played:

I’m not always fond of conceptual art–the self-reference is, for me, often tiresome, and after the first chuckle upon discovery, most pieces quickly succumb to a system of diminishing returns. But artist Caleb Larsen’s “A Tool to Deceive and Slaughter” gets pretty much everything right (except maybe the name).

“A Tool” is an object which continually tries to sell itself on ebay. In one simple, elegant movement, then, it challenges notions of ownership, possession, value, trade, self-interest and, of course, capitalism. By purchasing it, one agrees to abide by the rules established not only by the author, but by ebay. Meaning you can’t bid again on it once it’s in your possession. In other words, you can’t keep it. But you can turn a profit. And because the artist gets 15% of each transaction, so can he. The temporary custodian of the piece has an interest, therefor, in bringing the work to people’s attention, and quickly. It is a brilliant, and quite active, statement about art-as-commodity.

It’s one of those rare pieces of art that makes you suspect the artist is laughing at your expense, but is so excellent in its execution that you happily submit to the (s)laughter.

This is when being an “official” blogger at the Feed really pays off. With not a sliver of compunction, I now point you to a page where you may pre-order my book of prose poetry, In This Alone Impulse, published by Noemi Press.

Here’s a fancy blurb about it from Brian Evenson:

“Locating itself on the boundary between poetry and fiction, In This Alone Impulse is beautifully replete with silence. One has the sense that the world outside is still there but dampened, and being reordered and reformed by the particular and peculiar logic and structures that these syntactically inventive prose blocks have. And yet, despite the formal concerns these pieces seem remarkably human and remarkably painful, opening up the blank avenues of a lone life. With each reading these pieces change, seeming less and less enigmatic and more insistently full of lyrical human meaning. A marvelous and original sequence; there’s really nothing else out there like it.”

Upon reading about the Supreme Court’s decision to reject a corporate spending limit for political advertising, I couldn’t help but think about the movie The Corporation.

The Corporation is an editorializing documentary whose premise is that the modern corporation—given many of the same rights in the U.S. as an individual citizen—has the textbook behavioral markers of Antisocial Personality Disorder.

In other words, if the corporation is an individual under the law, it is, from a psychological perspective, a sociopath.

Manipulative? Check.

Pathological liar? Check.

Remorseless? Yup.


What kinds of politicians do you think a sociopath will support with its near-unlimited advertising budget? I’m gonna hafta say not the same ones I think would be good for, oh, the sustainability of life on earth.

I don’t mean to drive this blog into the Bog of Eternal Stench (politics), but does it feel to anyone else like we’re witnessing (well, some of us are waging, I suppose, but I feel more like a witness) a kind of epic battle to determine the very narrative of what it means to be America these days?

Ten Minutes

By Shya Scanlon

The Feed

I check my email roughly every ten minutes. This is true even when I’m reading, and I have recently begun to check my email while watching movies. When I leave my apartment to either walk the dog, or run an errand, I now leave my iPhone at home, and it is the only time of the day during which I have any peace of mind.

Let me see if I have this straight. A long-trusted Democratic stronghold replaces the face of universal healthcare with a Republican who’s sworn to fight the national healthcare proposal on the basis that it would negatively effect the state’s own 4 year old universal healthcare plan—a plan for which he himself voted? That’s a piece of tragic irony dumb enough to make Jonathan Swift himself jealous. Who needs literature?

I’ve just started reading John Haskell‘s latest novel, Out of My Skin, and I’m going to recommend it before I even finish. I read and loved his first book, I Am Not Jackson Pollock, and this new one bares some similarities to that, but it marks a formal advance.

He has a very interesting way of using simple language to convey complex emotional and psychological states, as well as philosophical ideas. Below is the final paragraph before the first section break. It occurs after the narrator–a transplanted New York writer in L.A.–has been submerged under water in a shark tank, and it includes many of the hallmarks of Haskell’s writing: the simple language, the repetition and tendency toward self-reflexive observation, and the interest in movies/acting (Haskell is himself a playwright and actor).

“I was drinking my tea, tasting the tea and the sugar in the tea, and seeing this person in front of me, her teeth when she smiled, and the gums above her teeth. And her lips. The shape of her lips reminded me of a certain movie star, and I began thinking about the various roles I’d seen that particular movie star play, and while I was thinking, and while I was involved in the various narratives that led from that thinking, I wasn’t actually seeing the wide blue eyes of the assistant scientist. It wasn’t that I wasn’t paying attention; I didn’t even know I wasn’t paying attention. I was sitting there, in the middle of what might have been a normal conversation, and I was creating, not a cage exactly, but a sense of who I was.”

I think the only other author whose work seems similar is Jean-Philippe Toussaint–though his work is more… I don’t know, pathological. Has anyone else read either/both of these authors?

Whenever I begin to feel bad about the sorry state of my memory, I like to consider the Borges story “Funes the Memorious.” The titular character, Ireneo Funes, “suffers” from having an outlandishly excellent memory–so good he has to hide himself away in a dark room, so all the intricate detail of his own experience won’t haunt him forever.

In the story, Funes essentially loses the ability to understand abstraction and generalization, because he’s so mired in the particular. He becomes a kind of monster, inhuman. Truly, it’s a redeeming story for those of us with sieves for a mind. Memory can be a disability.

It is an interesting story because it’s a Borges story, of course, but it’s always been of particular interest to me because my memory has always been so terrible. I’ll often forget a certain word–even quite common words–or name, and in the process of trying to remember, forget even those word clusters around it that should be helping me remember. It’s as though my forgetfulness is a metastasizing tumor that feeds on my will to recall. The harder I try, the more I forget.

So, as anyone with any self-esteem would do, I’ve sought to find a silver lining, something about my forgetfulness that will save me from feeling like an absolute failure. My solution–whether reasonable or not–has been to associate forgetfulness with fiction. More specifically, to associate the capacity to forget, with the ability to create. Nice trick, huh? (Of course, as a teen, this impulse also resulted in a whole lot of lying, but that’s a different post.)

I wonder how many other fiction writers suffer from bad memories.

Matthew Simmons wrote an hilarious post over at HTMLGIANT about the “Five Stages of Publishing“: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance. I’m not sure it’s a linear path, but I can definitely attest to the grim reality of each stage. Right now I’m hovering somewhere between Depression and Denial, though some of my actions certainly amount to Acceptance, and I’m no stranger to bursts of uncontrollable Anger.

When does this damn game get easier?

Last weekend, The New York Times ran an article in the Magazine encouraging people to default on their mortgages because, essentially, this is what big business does all the time under the rubric of “strategic defaults.”

Basically, the argument goes, when big business does it, it’s strategic. When individuals do it, it’s unethical. So why not adopt the morality of big business? After all, they were the ones who duped us into taking the mortgages in the first place. Right?

The author gives two reasons such defaults are frowned upon. The first is that defaulted mortgages depress neighboring property values. The second is that “default (supposedly) debases the character of the borrower.” Gotta love that parenthetical word. It’s as if “keeping one’s word” were something that we’ve all just been kind of force-fed by a society which wants nothing more than to exploit our good, trusting natures.

Well, so maybe that’s so. What then? Do we return to the Wild West? Obviously, one op-ed piece isn’t going to change anyone’s mind (well, maybe a few), but it just strikes me as another symptom of our deepening sense of ambivalence about what, after things we believed in begin to fall way, we should keep of the “old ways.”

Aren’t things like “character” worth keeping? Do we want to relive the Wild West? I don’t know. Anyway, who am I—a novelist—to complain? It may have been hard living, but it sure made for some good storytelling.

I’m 100 pages into a novel (which shall go unnamed, for the sake of the as-yet-innocent), and am trying my best to give it a “fair shake,” but failing. The problem? The language. It’s just clumsily written. It’s also full of cliche and poorly drawn characters. But I persist! I persist because the novel promises some interesting situations, and I really want to at least make it past the rising action and get to the goods. The author is obviously smart and interesting, and I’m sure she has something to offer me–at least I think I’m sure.

Does this ever happen to you? How many pages do you give a poorly written book before putting down? Is there a magic number? Or is it entirely case-by-case?

I just saw Richard Kelly’s recent film The Box, and was happily surprised: it was a bad movie, but it wasn’t Southland Tales bad. Just average bad. In it, Kelly tried his Donnie Darko formula of 1 part character drama, 1 part horror, and 2 parts inexplicable dreamscape, and since it fell short, it got me wondering just what exactly it was about Donnie Darko that made it so successful?

Because it is successful.

It’s that rare kind of narrative that makes great use of genre but also breaks away in critical moments to reveal… what exactly? Something, well, inexplicable. Oh sure, there are “answers” provided in the film for the kind of double-helix time signature of the story line, but really, the great part about it is that you’re left scratching your head. There’s an aura about Donnie Darko that transcends one’s need to understand, and lets one just bask in the charming, quietly unsettling mystery. So why is all the head-scratching caused by his two subsequent films so dissatisfying? Can he possibly ever top Darko?

A big hello from the Fiction Editorial Team–Stacy Bierlein, Alex Chee, Shya Scanlon and yours truly.  We’re all so excited to unveil this section of the new-and-improved TNB that if we told you how thrilled we really are, you might be a little alarmed.  You might even suspect that we have too much time on our hands . . . which is so far from the truth it would be comical.  So suffice it to say that we’re really, really glad you’re here, and both proud and humbled to be on this journey through the terrain of contemporary fiction with you.

First, a little story:

This September my son Giovanni, who is three-and-a-half, started preschool.  The plan was that once he was in school, I would finally have enough hours “to myself” to get all my work done.  On that list: running Other Voices Books‘ flagship Chicago office (well, flagship may be a rather grand term for a desk in my basement), teaching at two universities, raising three small children–and then, in my nonexistent spare time blogging for both TNB and HuffPo, in addition, of course, to writing my own fiction and prepping to market my second book coming out in 2010.  Oh, I think I recall that I was also going to kick up my yoga practice this year in all my “free time,” and start reading some books that weren’t: a) fiction, b) submissions to OV Books or c) by writers I know.

Um, yeah.  Sometimes the best laid plans go awry.  Or maybe it’s just that sometimes the best laid plans are not really all they’re cracked up to be.

Giovanni had been at his first day of preschool for exactly four hours when my phone rang.  It was Brad Listi, who at that time (this now seems like a distant memory) didn’t frequently call me.  He proceeded to explain his idea for a TNB Fiction Section.  Then, to my surprise, he asked if I would consider editing it.

Absolutely anyone who knows anything about what my life looks like would tell you that I should have run for the hills.

Instead I was ecstatic.  I think within a minute and a half, I had basically signed away not only my own name in blood, but that of my longtime business partner Stacy Bierlein, Exec. Ed. of OV’s Los Angeles office, who is now my co-Editor in this venture too.  I recall buzzing around my house for the rest of the workday making lists of all the writers I couldn’t wait to let know about TNB.  When Shya and Alex joined the fray soon after, the conference calls and barrage of emails that commenced were dizzying.

If you care anything about contemporary fiction (and you wouldn’t be reading this if you didn’t), you know that review venues are shrinking by the day.  Books sections in papers and magazines are closing or radically reducing space; longtime literary magazines are losing funding and folding.  Corporate publishers are spending less on book tours and indie presses often can’t afford to spring for them to begin with.  It is harder and harder for writers to market their work in traditional ways.

This is where TNB’s Fiction Section comes in.  Our aim here is not only akin to that of all good literary magazines–to showcase some of the most vibrant writers working today–but also to help provide these writers with a vehicle to market their books.  This is why we provide links to authors’ websites and sales pages: to help directly connect the writers we love with their audience–TNB’s large, loyal and growing readership.  We also aim to provide you insights into these authors and their work that you can’t get just anywhere, which is what’s behind the “self-interview” concept.  Here, authors answer all the questions they were always afraid to answer in other interviews, or that they wished all those other guys would’ve asked instead of asking what time of the day they write and whether their desk faces west or east.  TNB’s Fiction Section is a tantalizing triple-threat on that week’s Featured Author, so that by the time you’re done, you should be as smitten as we are.

Some writers we’ll be showcasing this year include Stuart Dybek, Steve Almond, Stephen Elliott, Antonya Nelson, Jonathan Evison, Joshua Mohr, Aimee Liu and Terese Svoboda . . . among many, many more!  Please stay tuned.  New work goes up every Sunday night.

Finally, on behalf of Stacy and myself, I’d also like to say how truly fun it’s been to work with such a wide variety of writers again.  When we closed Other Voices magazine in 2007 to focus on book publishing, we gained many exciting opportunities to champion indie books out in the world, but we considerably narrowed the pool of writers we were able to champion, since Other Voices Books publishes only two titles annually.  So it has truly been a joy to be able to reach out to more writers again, to consider so much new work, and to merge our passion for book and magazine publishing here at TNB.

We hope to hear from you soon and often.  Onward, and go TNB!