Sunday, February 24, 2013

What I learned about the Writing Life from the Founding Editors at Full-Stop Magazine

Earlier this month, the Kelly Writers House at the University of Pennsylvania brought the editors of Full-Stop Magazine in for an interview and conversation. Max McKenna interviewed Eric Jett, Jesse Montgomery (of Philadelphia), Max Rivlin-Nadler, and Alex Shepard about the why and the how of starting up an online magazine, their philosophy and mission, and the practical detail of running a magazine when it isn't your day job. I think that all four are Oberlin grads, and, as one is supposed to do--in full disclosure--my daughter, also an Oberlin grad, Helen Stuhr-Rommereim, is a regular contributor to Full-Stop.

As a librarian, I hear plenty about how "these days" "no one reads" "anymore." I put each segment of that phrase in quotations because each segment can be applied to any number of similar sweeping statements that when one looks at particular cases seem to be quite unsupported. We hear that "we" no longer have the attention span to read long thoughtful essays.

Jonathan Franzen has an essay in his collection How to Be Alone. I'm not sure which one--maybe "The Reader in Exile"--but in an essay in that collection he writes about his pessimism about readerly audiences, writing and publishing. I have to gloss because I don't have the book with me, but in essence, he looks back at the statistics for bestsellers back maybe 50 or 60 years ago, and the figures required to hit bestseller status were so much lower than they are now--suggesting that there really aren't fewer readers now than then. At least the statistics for bestsellers then and now would not be evidence to support such a claim. We also know that publishers, when they were once privately owned,  labored out of love (there were some of those out there and there still are) and were looking for talent and making money along the way was a bonus. They didn't have to infinitely increase their profit margin from one year to the next and so who was published was not so much determined on the possibility of bestseller status. Franzen concluded, and I would concur, that we don't necessarily have fewer readers--there never were that many readers of literary fiction or long form prose to start with.  In sum, it is possible that there are as many readers and as many readers of long form prose as ever, we just care more about the profit margin now than we did in the past. "We" constituting some abstract unidentified entity.

Okay, well, back to our friends at Full-Stop Magazine, profit margin is not part of the equation for them yet, but long form, thoughtful prose about literature, culture, new media and information is. Here might be a good place to add that the editors are not planning on leaving their day jobs anytime soon. If they make money, they choose to pay their writers first.

In starting their magazine, the editors at Full-Stop made a decision to create their own opportunity to write the kind of material into which they wanted to pour their energy. In addition, they had a network of friends who they could ask to contribute. This was, infact, part of their motivation to begin the magazine, it gave them a vehicle to create a community of writers and a way to remain connected as friends. How much does it cost to start your magazine, not including the sweat of your brow and the carpel tunnel syndrome developing in your wrists? Just a few dollars--somewhere between $10 and $20 (and that may be on the high side).

Part of the mission of Full-Stop is to highlight writers who aren't necessarily being highlighted elsewhere. You may have a new take on a heavily reviewed writer, but maybe you've discovered someone that others are not yet reading. Besides their offerings of interviews, reviews, and special features, Full-Stop contacts writers asking them to fill out a survey. This year's survey is called Pathos: "This year, we’ve crafted a questionnaire asking writers about the effect writing has had on their physical, emotional, and economic health; on the idea of poverty being a precondition for writing well; on what makes writing truthful to one’s self and to readers. Ultimately, we are interested in the consequences of pursuing writing as a vocation."

I have not been a close follower of online magazines, barely managing to read the magazines that come through the mail slot at my house. But I learned about these online journals before the evening was through:  The Millions (they do not aspire to be another Millions), The New Inquiry (started up about the same time as Full-Stop, and also edited by young writers), or The Jacobin ("modify your dissent), and The Awl (which has a lead story on poet and Penn English Department faculty member Kenny Goldsmith  and his new book Seven American Deaths and Disasters)

I also learned from the evenings presentation about some writers I should be paying attention to:

George Saunders, whose most recent collection of short stories is Tenth of December: Stories published in 2012. If library circulation is any indicator of hotness in writers, then George Saunders is very hot. All of his books are currently checked out of the Van Pelt Library at Penn, and Tenth of December is not available at any of Penn's borrowing partners. I guess you'll have to buy your own copy for now.

Teju Cole, Open City (paperback 2012) (I've linked Cole's name to a short commentary on his writing at Full-Stop.)

Lars Iyer's trilogy of novels Spurious, Dogma, and Exodus. I've just read Spurious, and based on the New Yorker review of Open City, I would say that there are similarities, both at least somewhat autobiographical, both plotless, unless the process of the complete submission of an apartment to damp can be called a plot. Iyer's work is written with a definite sense of humor although its two heros are self professed failures waiting for the the end of all things. I would say, again, based on my reading of just the one novel, that Iyer's could be compared to Gary Shteyengart (also an Oberlin grad), and James Boswell (although Lar's Samuel Johnson, W., specifically states that Lars is no Boswell).

Alex Gilvarry, Memoirs of a Non-Enemy Combatant: A Novel and

Nicole Krauss, author of Great House.

Full-Stop Magazine is a place for discovery and new perspectives fruitful for readers of all ages. If you are a young writer, pay attention and perhaps you will intersect with this outstanding community of writers. 

I left the Kelly Writers House feeling satisfied that their is a healthy future for writers and their readers (if we don't think too hard about that profit margin), and unlike Lar's and his W., I feel there is at least some small reason to hope that we are not at the end of all things.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Wish You Were Here by Graham Swift

Wish You Were Here by Graham Swift. NY: Vintage, 2011.

The plot and substance of Swift's most recent novel slowly rolls out at a pace and transparency that echoes the slow, deliberate, withdrawn nature of its main character, Jack Luxton. It's setting is a remote English dairy farm in farming community in Devon. As the novel opens, Jack is remembering the first two tragedies of his life, his mother's early death and the destruction of the family's cattle herd as ordered by the British government following the first signs of mad cow disease on another farm in a different remote area of England.  Jack is 15 at his mother's death and he lives with his father and his brother Tom, eight years his junior. Jack's father never recovers from losing his wife and the boys suffer for it. In the opening pages of the novel, Jack recalls that as the three surviving Luxton men watch their cattle herd burn, his father does not offer any comfort to his sons; he does not put his arms around the boys. "He'd looked hard at his  feet, at the ground he was standing on, and spat." Many years later, when Tom is 17, the boys beloved dog has aged and weakened. The father decides to shoot the dog. Tom cannot forgive his father for how he handles this final act toward their dog and he decides to leave the farm as soon as he turns18. On his next birthday, he leaves the farm to join the army. Jack's father disowns Tom and, when the father later commits suicide, he leaves Jack  the farm and all the land. Tom doesn't return for the funeral although Tom writes to him and informs him about the will.

Jack's father's death leaves Jack the last Luxton in Devon, and he would be all alone on the farm except that his childhood sweetheart, Ellie, lives with her father on the neighboring farm. Her mother left their farm when Ellie was quite young, and although Ellie never sees her again, her mother leaves her some property on the Isle of Wight after she dies. When her father dies not long after Jack's father, Ellie convinces Jack that they should sell up and move to the Isle of Wight. Jack can do this, but it weighs on him that he sells his birthright without consulting Tom first. Ten years later, Jack receives a letter from the government announcing Tom's death.

Although the novel begins at the point following this final tragedy of Jack's life, the novel is nearly over before Swift brings the reader back to that point with all of the threads finally knit together.  Tom's death leads Jack to look back over his life and lay out and fit together the pieces that have brought him to a near fatal crisis. Questions are raised throughout the course of the narrative and the details that provide the answers to the questions are only slowly revealed as the narrative moves backwards and forwards through time.

 Jack's past is an enormous burden, one that he finds nearly impossible to bear. Jack's head and heart are full of "what if's." But the novel is more about loss and grief than about Jack's guilt. Tom's death in Iraq is in stark contrast to the deaths of two earlier Luxton brothers who died during the first world war. One of the brothers received a Medal of Honor posthumously, but the family and village considered it a shared honor. Their deaths were remembered yearly for more than a generation. But Tom's death leaves only questions of why and how and to what end. And so the losses that define Jack are losses shared by the nation. The loss of a way of life as farming becomes unsustainable and the loss of loved ones at home and at war, humans and animals. Jack's father was not the only farmer to commit suicide as the government instructed the destruction of cattle and livelihoods. Just so, Tom is not the only death during a war. The loss of life, returning with honor, but from a war that is little understood or supported.  In Jack's mind, the events of September 2001 aligns with the loss of his mother, the first devastation of cattle because of Mad Cow Disease, the second devastation years later because of Foot-and-Mouth disease, and finally Tom's death.

"Wish You Were Here" is a sentence on a postcard, but it is also a cry of pain for those who have been lost, and in particular, it is Jack's pain as he considers the possible loss of Ellie who has, for her own little understood reasons, refused to join him as he goes to receive Tom's body and attend Tom's funeral. Jack's odyssey to bury his brother is also an odyssey through his past. The act of burying his brother and his reliving of the past drive him to madness, but in the end it is a madness that draws him closer to Tom, and it is this closeness that saves him in the end.

So much loss and grief and sadness--Jack's and England's and the world's. The ghosts of the past reveal the hollowness of the present time. And yet .... the story isn't over.

In our society, the events of 2001 changed many things including the priorities of government. The loss of a particular way of life is trivialized and forgotten in the wake of the disaster, but tragedies surround us and as they happen they are of no less consequence than that of 2001, but perhaps more easily forgotten. Their repercussions radiate out none the less--over time and over space. Jack is chiseled away at, sculpted by each event and loss, he is formed by tragedy almost to the point of no formation at all... and yet he survives.