Apr 16 2018

Midwest Mod Squad no. 03: What is the Essence of a Work of Fiction?

book spines

Midwest Mod Squad no. 03: What is the Essence of a Work of Fiction?

(Read Midwest Mod Squad no. 02 here)

The age of argument appears to be over…. (Is that what’s implied when someone says we live in an age of anxiety?) … But let’s walk away from that question and leave behind the game of Who Can Best Guess this Zeitgeist? Leave that contrivance to the book peddlers….

All I can do is read a story and see what grabs my attention. And what grabs my attention is usually the essence of the story. (I say usually, because any first appearances that grab one’s attention can of course be deceiving.) And just because the essence of a story grabs my attention doesn’t mean I’ll be able to articulate a definition of that essence.

By essence I mean the thing (moment, symbol, character, idea, etc.) that the entire work of short fiction seems to hinge on—the essential thing without which the story would have no reason to be read by the average casual, curious reader. It may or may not mean a Joycean “epiphany,” or an Aristotelian catharsis, or the thesis of a classical rhetorician. The essence may even be something “whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”[1]

To find the essence of a story, a reader asks questions, like the four questions of Alfarabi, or other things like:

  • What topics does each story contain and concern?[2]
  • What of things I’ve previously read that concern and compare and contrast with those topics and subjects?
  • Who is the storyteller of each story? (Which is not the same as asking, Who is the creator of each story?)

And in asking these questions I assume the storyteller is separate from the story creator, but I don’t assume or deny any reliability in what that storyteller tells me the reader/listener. At this early stage in the investigation, I don’t even have to worry about defining the word reliability.

The next two posts in this series will examine a pair of short stories by a pair of New York writers: Chris Arp and Nicole Cuffy. And while no one ever confused the Big Apple with the Midwest, Edward McClelland’s How to Speak Midwestern (2016) does include much of Upstate New York to be, in terms of regional dialects, part of the Midwest. Keep in mind, however, that both Arp and Cuffy have written pieces of historical fiction set neither in New York or the Midwest.

(Read Midwest Mod Squad no. 04 here)

NOTESwood

[1] Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus § 7.0.

[2] An infinite number of topics might exist for any story, sure, but see Bateson on Kant:

Kant argued long ago that this piece of chalk contains a million potential facts (Tatsachen) but that only a very few of these become truly facts by affecting the behavior of entities capable of responding to facts. For Kant’s Tatsachen, I would substitute differences and point out that the number of potential differences in this chalk is infinite but that very few of them become effective differences (i.e., items of information) in the mental process of any larger entity. Information consists of differences that make a difference. (Mind and Nature: a Necessary Unity, (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1979) 81, 99.)


Apr 5 2018

Midwest Mod Squad no. 02: Materials for Investigation

Mark Twain in Athens

Midwest Mod Squad no. 02: Materials for Investigation

(Read no. 01 in this series here.)

Let’s now see who the subjects of investigation are:

New Pop Lit is a publishing organization putting out contemporary short fiction. As a publishing group it appears to be placeless and ageless, for there’s nothing on their About Page to indicate otherwise. Incidentally (or as the investigation proceeds we may say, not so incidentally) three of the six stories I read from here all took place within a school setting. New Pop Lit appears to want plot-driven stories over style evangelists and politics disguised as fiction. The first six writers I read were:

  • Jon Berger of Saginaw, Michigan and his story “Eighty Pounds.”
  • Kathleen M. Crane, a contributing editor at New Pop Lit, and her story “Red Panties and a Guitar.”
  • Tianna Grosch from the woodlands of Pennsylvania and her story “Unraveling.”
  • Clint Margrave of Los Angeles and his story “The Fetus.”
  • A. K. Riddle of “in the Middle of Nowhere, Illinois” and her story “The Professor.”
  • Don Waitt of Tampa and his story “Raquetball.”

*****

Five on the Fifth is also an ageless, placeless publication putting out contemporary short fiction. One recent story I read was a horror (?) tale “Jonah and the Frog,” set mostly in a (New Orleans?)  bar by James Wade. I’ve read at least half-a-dozen stories of his over the last few years, and he happens to be someone I know personally. I know he’s from Texas and is currently engaged in a cross-continental drift across America. And this reminds me of Ray Wylie Hubbard’s memoir, A Life … Well, Lived (2015) where he reflects on how, sometime between the 1990’s and the Aughts, it became better to be called an American songwriter, rather than just a Texas songwriter. Therefore, I don’t know if I would call James Wade (or if he would call himself) a Texas writer.[1]

*****

The Masters Review is a publishing house out of Bend, Oregon. Its sixth volume of contemporary short fiction contains ten stories selected by Roxane Gay, two of which stood out well in front of the others. Coincidently (or not), not only do these two stories both fall under the genre of historical fiction, but both writers are from New York:

Chris Arp is a rather unknown quantity (much like Pop Lit and Five on Five), but he does disclose graduating from NYU’s Creative Writing Program. His story “Gormley,” is set somewhere in the mid-nineteenth-century British Empire. Nicole Cuffy is a New York based writer with a BA from Columbia University and an MFA from the New School. Her story “Steal Away” takes place in the early twentieth-century sharecropping South.

*****

Belt Publishing of Cleveland, Ohio is an outfit that caters to readers and writers of all things Midwest. I’ve recently read two chapbooks that they’ve put out, but don’t let their small size fool you. The contents of both Edward McClelland’s How to Speak Midwestern (2016) and Mark Athitakis’s The New Midwest (2016) are quite concentrated and deserve multiple readings.

McClelland is based in Chicago, and his is a book of regional language and dialects. Athitakis lives in Phoenix but is a native Midwesterner. His book surveys the literature from that region from about the last 100 years with a focus on works since 1960.

Like Alfarabi’s four questions, mentioned in no. 01 of this series, I will mostly be using these two books as tools to analyze and understand the stories under consideration.

*****

The next post in this series will begin to analyze all of what’s mentioned above.


NOTES

wood

[1] Ray Wylie Hubbard with Thom Jurek, A Life Well, Lived, (Wimberly, TX: Bordello Records, 2015).


Apr 5 2018

Midwest Mod Squad no. 01: Method of Investigation

porticos in Bologna, Italia

Midwest Mod Squad no. 01:
Method of Investigation

I don’t believe all art is political, just as I don’t believe all political activity is artistic.

Alfarabi (872–950 CE) was a medieval philosopher from Persia. In The Attainment of Happiness, he asks four questions that political science seeks to answer––a particular kind of political science meant to be understood in terms of the ancient city (polis), not the modern nation-state.[1]

The modern global Anglophone culture contains within it a North Atlantic culture,[2] and within that North Atlantic culture is a regional culture called the American Midwest. The Midwest is certainly neither a single city nor an entire nation-state (it even includes parts of Southern Canada), but the recent short fiction coming from this region reflects some of the culture of the American heartland that I think are worth writing about and reflecting on.

Following Biblioklept’s hybrid of meditation and manifesto toward writing a better book blog, I will begin an investigation of writers and books concerning the Midwest using Alfarabi’s four questions as an initial guide. For each work of short fiction under consideration, my investigation will ask:

  1. What is the work? What is the essence of each story, each book?
  2. How does it work? How does each particular publisher and author contribute to what that essence is (however it may be defined)? How is each story told? How was it published?
  3. From what did the work come from? Author’s origins, regional influences (or lack thereof)?
  4. For what purpose was each work written?

I expect this investigation to be a series of an undetermined number of blog posts. Applying what Alfarabi asks to what I’ve read does not mean I will engage in any political criticism of contemporary fiction.

Here and there will be mention of outliers, that is, writers and their work (usually contemporary short fiction) not from the Midwest. It may seem that I mention more outliers than insiders, and that may even be true in the beginning. But once momentum is attained, I expect the investigation to narrow its focus.

Lastly, I am not an expert on anything of or about the Midwest, just a curious observer and occasional visitor, nothing more.

(Looks for the Wendigo in the woods  of Michigan)

Continue to “Midwest Mod Squad no. 02

NOTES

wood

[1] As Alfarabi puts it:

[The political philosopher] should make known what and how every one of them is, and from what and for what it is, until all of them become known, intelligible, and distinguished from each other. This is political science. It consists of knowing the things by which the citizens of cities attain happiness through political association in the measure that innate disposition equips each of them for it….

This happiness is virtuous, and what is virtuous, continues Alfarabi, is useful:

There is a certain deliberative virtue that enables one to excel in the discovery of what is most useful for a virtuous end common to many nations, to a whole nation, or to a whole city, at a time when an event occurs that affects them in common. (There is no difference between saying most useful for a virtuous end and most useful and most noble, because what is both most useful and most noble necessarily serves a virtuous end, and what is most useful for a virtuous end is indeed the most noble with respect to that end.) This is political deliberative virtue. The events that affect them in common may persist over a long period or vary within short periods. (Alfarabi’s Philosophy of Plato and Aristotle, trans. Muhsin Mahdi, (Chicago: Agora Books, 1969), “The Attainment of Happiness,” p. 24, i, ¶ 20; pp. 28–29, ii, ¶ 28.)

[2] See Charles Taylor’s definition of North Atlantic culture in A Secular Age, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2007) 1, 15.