Opinion: To Hell and Back… the Direction of U.S. Literary Fiction

Courtesy of Worthy of EleganceOriginally I planned to start the article talking about ebooks.  Talking about the Internet.  I was going to quote Calvino’s Six Memos for the Next Millennium.  I was going to say that more people are reading on screens than ever before, and that bloated, antiquated conceptions about “the novel” would have to change to meet the new ways in which we read.  This isn’t that article.  That one is still rattling around in my head somewhere, and I think it would’ve turned out pretty alright in the end.  But that’s not the article I’m writing right now.

This is going to be something else entirely, because, as of this writing, Donald Trump has been President Elect of the United States of America for five days.  In the first 72 hours alone there have been an alarming spike in incidents of hate across the U.S.  Protesters pour into the streets.  The tension is like nothing I’ve seen before, and I’m watching at a distance, seeing it all unfold from an ocean away.  It’s got me scared.  It’s got me angry.  And it’s got me—once I finally managed to shut the news and close Facebook and sat down to write this article—thinking about how truly irrelevant literary fiction has become in American culture at large.

You could blame it on all kinds of things.  Technology’s a fun scapegoat.  Our world moves fast.  There are a million distractions.  Sitting with a book takes time, and a great deal of attention must be paid.  Reading is a rewarding experience, no doubt, but the skills required to engage with it fully are starting to degrade in the culture at large.  Or maybe it’s just me.  I know I can’t concentrate like I used to, and I consider myself a fairly quick and capable thinker.

We’ve heard these arguments before.  Then you look at what’s happening now.  You look at a map of the election.  You see the great sea of red that stretches across the country.  You think about all those people, living their lives, working in small communities that are overwhelmingly white and impoverished—a generalization, yes, but not an unfair one—and then, because you’ve been asked to write an article on the subject, you ask yourself how many of these people are actively reading literary fiction?

Not many, I feel safe to say.

If they’re reading anything, they’re reading genre.  Or maybe comics.  More power to them.  Both are great.

More likely still, they’re watching TV and playing video games.  And once again I can’t fault them for making that choice.  TV and games happen to be where all the real innovation in narrative storytelling is going on at the moment.  We’re in the midst of a veritable renaissance of storytelling on the screen—again, another article for a less insane time.

It might sound like I’m saying these people are stupid, plopped down in front of their games and their Netflix and their fantasy trilogies, unwilling to pick up a “proper” book.  I’m not.  They’re absolutely not.  What I’m doing is asking a question.

I’m earnestly wondering why these people should bother taking time out of busy, tiring days to read works of literary fiction, when literary fiction is so overtly not speaking to them in return?

In my opinion the literary world—at least the big business, NY Times Bestseller List, National Book Award, MFA-factory farm side of things—is as closed off to anything outside itself as those rust belt communities I just described.  It’s an echo chamber, only liberal in its politics.  It differs from its conservative counterpart mainly in that it lacks the size, relevance, or any degree of violent intent—that last one being a good thing by the way.  But let’s be clear, it’s an echo chamber head-to-tail.

The great tragedy of literary fiction slowly concretizing into just such an echo chamber is that it robs people outside it of one of literature’s most glorious side effects: a chance to engage directly with their imaginations.  And it’s only through radical acts of imagination that we’re going to stitch this world back together.

Do I sound silly, talking in hushed tones about “imagination”?

Do you see me as Gene Wilder, walking amidst candy mushrooms in a big purple hat?

Maybe you do, or maybe you’re picking up what I’m putting down.  Whatever the case, I firmly believe that empathy, compassion, all the best traits our species has to offer, are fed directly by the human imagination.  The ability to visualize someone else’s pain, to put yourself momentarily into someone else’s suffering, is at its core an act of imagination.  As a human, you can’t know anything outside yourself.  But you can pretend.  And the more you do it, the more you feel, both about the world and the people living in it.  Your mental picture becomes more accurate.  It informs your actions.  They are kinder, more decent.  Premised on a foundation of respect, because you have begun to see that people are more or less like you.  From there we get progress.  We get social and technological innovation.  Books help with this.  Stories help with this.  People read and they imagine, and they begin to see things outside themselves.  Begin, hopefully, to respect “the other” that had once seemed so alien.  The world becomes—ever so slowly, and with a great deal of relentless effort—a slightly less shit place to be.

In practice it won’t work anywhere near as smoothly as I’ve outlined, but I firmly believe that the principle is sound.  At the same time, there is no greater threat to such a potential blossoming of imagination than our own laziness, our tendency to moral entropy, an inability to maintain the vigil.  Imagination dries up in such cultural environs, and the variety of stories we tell dwindles to a trickle.

I recently had this exchange on social media, in response to something I reblogged about “non racist” Trump supporters being held accountable for the hateful views of their candidate.
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When I say I’m tired of understanding white male pain, I don’t just mean in terms of this election.  I mean in every respect.  It feels like it’s what I’ve been doing my whole life.  In school, in reading the literary canon, in perusing the bestseller list, in engaging with basically any and all fields of entertainment, the oh-so complex pain of the white man is enshrined above all else.  And I’m sick of it.  Sick of hearing about it.  Sick of imagining it.  Sick of putting myself—a brown man, for what it’s worth—in the shoes of a person who most likely wouldn’t give two shits about doing the same for me.  In life or in print.  I’m not saying there aren’t other voices out there.  I’m not saying black American writers aren’t doing amazing things.  I’m not saying women aren’t absolutely killing it on the page day in day out.  It’s just that if you don’t already know where they are, you have to hunt like a dog to find them.  And there is no guarantee you will.  The culture at large would be perfectly happy to keep you cycling through the pain of white men.  Putting it in print.  Throwing it up on the screen in a thousand different versions of the same movie about some sad white dude in a cape.  They’ll say it’s about money, about maintaining the necessary profit margin in uncertain economic times.  It’s just their fear.  Their inability to imagine that the pain or joy or laughter or just plain being of someone that doesn’t look like them might be equally as valid and engaging as their own.  Might just as easily connect with a readership at large.

And people are so hungry for stories.

That momentary escape, that rush of connection.

Sometimes it’s all that gets you through the day.

So I can’t tell you where American literary fiction is headed.  I can’t tell you where America is headed.  It’s too early to tell, and if I’m being honest, all I see ahead is fire.  I’m scared, more than ever before.  But what I can say is that if there’s to be any hope at all, for America as a nation or for literary fiction as a force within the cultural fabric of that nation, something has to change.  White America, specifically white male America, needs to loosen their vice grip on narratives of pain and “importance”, at the exclusion of others.  It’s so important we hear these untold stories.  That the ocean of imaginative possibility afforded by the vast, pluralistic population of our world be allowed to burst the banks that have held it in check for so long.  We have heard the old stories, and now it’s time for those who cling so tightly to them to sit, listen, and imagine.

And make the necessary room for new ones to be told.

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Photo_Bob SchofieldBob Schofield is an American writer of British, Chinese, Pakistani, and Egyptian descent.  He currently lives in the Netherlands.  He is the author and illustrator of The Inevitable JuneMan Bites Cloud, and Moon Facts.  He likes what words and pictures do.  He wants to be a ghostly presence in your life.

Opinion: Black Friday in Brazil… What a Bad Idea

Courtesy of blackfridayworld.comInflated black balloons drift inside shopping venues!  Black signs hang in department store windows! Marketing firms and modeling agencies post Gisele Bündchen hopefuls at traffic lights.  They’ll smile while handing out black fliers announcing grandiose discounts and sales.  The catchphrase is repeated on national TV, in public squares, shopping malls.  Expectations have been nurtured to go through the roof.  Welcome to Black Friday in Brazil!

The scourge of American-branded commercialism reverberates well into the tropics.  Over the past decade it has turned Brazil into Black Friday spectacle.  It started with images from the heartland of unabated consumerism—shoppers of all stripes pitching tents in front of chain stores, staying awake throughout the night, not as a vigil to bring awareness to any social malfeasance, but to stampede into those stores at dawn, pushing, shoving, and brawling their way to discounted merchandise.  It’s as if securing a half-priced cellphone, laced with tungsten, tantalum, and other minerals extracted from the Democratic Republic of Congo will halt a seventeen-year-long conflict that has taken the lives of over five million people.  Maybe purchasing a clothing item on sale will magically force U.S. owned companies to improve working conditions in their outsourced sweatshops in India, Indoenisa, Bangladesh, and elsewhere.  That such zeal and vigor is expended on a day of frivolous, erratic shopping is yet another indicator of the bankrupt moral coffers of a society reared to value material possessions more than anything else.

No matter the ironies of a day like Black Friday, the frantic images of a chance to scoop a hot deal proved irresistible in Brazil.  A meaningless hodgepodge of consumerist fervor now drapes over a nation that, in 2013, had to implement Mais Médicos (More Medics), a health care program that imported 4,000 Cuban doctors to work in impoverished and remote areas.

It’s been disappointing, to say the least, to witness the ease with which Black Friday has taken hold in Brazil.  America’s mass consumerist ideals and its media influence abroad are no joke.

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photo_jun-colaJun Cola is a translator based in Brazil, who has translated everything from Marvel Comics to academic papers, travel & tourism magazines to fiction, real estate contracts to poetry, and then some.  Jun is working on bringing Brazilian voices to the world stage.

Reflections: The Importance of Reading Fiction

Courtesy of Lacie SlezakI remember my college lit teacher ranting about how both the writer and the reader are selfish little animals that are “in it” purely for personal gain – about how a writer always writes about himself and a reader always reads about himself, and all-in-all they are both just self-centred little scumbags.  A bit of a gross generalisation there, if you ask me, but I was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.  In the end, I guess that is roughly why I always enjoyed reading – because of the kick I got out of it, not because I was keen on picking someone else’s brain.  And speaking of picking brains, some neuroscientists and psychologists seem to be quite partial to finding out what reading fiction does to us – neurologically.  And from their findings it seems that we might not be such selfish little dirt bags after all.

It hardly comes as a surprise that there is no special part of the brain dedicated solely to understanding stories (or at least we didn’t evolve that far yet, ha!).  Instead, we use basic cognitive functions to make sense of what we are reading.  In other words, our brain uses the same tools for understanding the stories as it does for understanding the real world.  Therefore, when we read stories, we invoke our personal experiences.  Have you ever read a story and had a “been there, done that” moment when the protagonist was going through a situation very similar to one of your own experiences?  Raymond Mar, a psychologist at York University in Canada, says that we can not only relate to fictional characters (duh!), but through reading, we are also able to gain new insight into things that have happened to us in the past.  And like that, real life shapes fiction, which shapes real life, which shapes fiction, which… you get the idea.  I think this also sums up the reason why two different individuals can interpret the same art of fiction completely differently. Read More

Writing Prompts: Settings

Courtesy of Kirsten WürthMy favorite novel of the past ten years is almost certainly Light Boxes by Shane Jones.  I love it for all sorts of reasons, too many to name, not the least of which being its ability to make me feel like I’m deeply inhabiting its setting.  And this is all the more impressive when you factor in that Light Boxes is a surrealistic text.  Little of what happens in this book is possible under the known laws of physics and rationality.  Yet when I read it, I feel like I’m there.  I feel like I’m in snowbound.  I feel like I’m one of the villagers in this town that cannot exist, part of a war effort waged against the month of February, which casts a long shadow over their lives, and refuses to end.

I feel this because Jones’ prose emphasizes the tangible.  He highlights the physical.  Part fabulist, part poet, he uses simple, direct language to draw the reader’s attention to equally simple and direct elements, which he often repeats.  A kind of rhythm develops.  Again and again we see balloons, snow, clouds, birds, moss, honey, smoke.  These are simple, tangible building blocks, yet they come together to build a rich and fascinating world.  Despite a surface-level simplicity, Jones’ world conjures its own kind of complexity through the use of familiar language in unfamiliar contexts, and the depth of feeling this relationship evokes in the reader. Read More

Reflection: Madam Bovary’s Disillusioned Romanticism

madam-bovaryIn the summer of 1848, a young woman from Rouen, France — Delphine Delamare — who is unsatisfied with the routine of married life, commits suicide.  She is in debt, under financial and emotional pressure.  When Madame Delamare ends her life by taking prussic acid (known today as hydrogen cyanide), she leaves a young daughter and a mourning husband behind; and her story appears in many newspapers in Normandy.

Inspired by this incident, Gustave Flaubert creates his groundbreaking novel “Madame Bovary”, which became a cornerstone in modern literature.  The hype about the book was not indeed overrated.  Its literary brilliance can be understood when we look at the socio-economical criticism and the realistic feature of a romantic novel.  In Vladimir Nabokov’s words, it being a book that “lives much longer than a girl” makes the book a strong sociological reference still in today’s society.  Emma Bovary, without doubt, is a solid character that in every era people can identify themselves with. Read More

11th Edition Cecile’s Writers Magazine: Special Poetry Edition

During our editorial staff meeting in the summer of 2015, we debated whether or not to focus on a special edition of our digital magazine for the following year. All options were on the table, we thought about a theme-based issue, we played with the idea of word-restricted submissions, or maybe a flash fiction edition, but in the end, we decided on publishing a poetry edition.

We were amazed at the number and the quality of the poems we received and we proudly present 15 poems in this edition.

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Review: The Chalk Circle by Tara L. Masih, Ed.

13561800This polished collection of prize-winning essays is a result of a call the editor Tara L. Masih placed in 2007 for intercultural essays dealing with subjects of culture, race and sense of place.  Masih is a dedicated writer and editor whose work (herself a Native Indian American raised in New York) is deeply concerned with intercultural relations.  The Chalk Circle collection reflects many complex issues of this seemingly shrinking world and its many cultures.  Through arranging the particular essays into comprehensible chapters – each dealing with a different issue, Masih shows keen insight in intercultural relations and what it means to be “the other”.

The mere fact that the authors are people of different backgrounds inevitably supports the mosaic design of the collection, but is by far not the only element of diversity.  Topics vary from sense of place, self-identity, war and race, to encountering “the other”, being “the other” and spirituality, all while being neatly arranged into seven easily manageable topical “bites”.  This collection is an extensive what-if game that authors play with both the reader and themselves: what if things had been different?  What if circumstances changed?  What if roles were reversed?  What if identity is more complex than we think? Read More

Review: Karate Chop by Dorothe Nors

41otnj0t5kl-_sx326_bo1204203200_The short stories in Dorothe Nors’ collection Karate Chop speak to the depths we lock away inside ourselves.  Together they form a brief but profound exploration of our interior lives under modernity; a sweeping survey of our own unspoken inner landscapes.

As I read this book I could not help but imagine a stone well.  I felt something a little cold, and endlessly deep.  I pictured someone boring a hole through solid bedrock.  I thought of water rushing where no one could see it.

Dorothe Nors writes beautiful prose.  Maybe that is where we should start. Her text feels cultivated, honed.  Pruned to perfection.  Nors is a writer that knows how to craft a sentence.  No part of it seems out of place.  Every word adds to the overall effect of its respective narrative, and the fact that the arc of these narratives feel largely unstructured, almost improvised—Nors actually drafted the entire collection over the course of two weeks—makes their obvious precision on a sentence-by-sentence level all the more impressive.  There is abundance here, but no mess. Read More