Four Fictions

The feature well of this week’s issue of Washington City Paper is dedicated to fiction for the first time in a long time. I sifted through the 50-odd submissions to pick three short stories, and also invited a pro, Eugenia Kim, to contribute—happily, she took me up on the offer. Here’s a bit from my intro:

Asking people to write a story about the District is a way to unlock a city’s id, and one of the more entertaining aspects of sorting through the submissions was learning what they’ll come up with when loosed from the demands of strict accuracy. Some ran off from the city limits­—stories rambled up to Glen Burnie, Md., and over to West Virginia. Others sank into Metro trains, which—sorry, WMATA—are consistently metaphors for darkness, confusion, and fear. But many of the writers who submitted for this issue concentrated on a theme that’s become its own cliché: The Two D.C.s. If there were few cases of federal power vs. just folks in the submission stack, there were plenty of attempts to find other ways to assert that there are two tiers of control in Washington. Black and white. Black and black. Entry-level and senior. Rich and poor. Carefree and button-down. Good girl and bro. Every story needs a conflict, but the instinct to render that conflict in terms of divided tribes was an unusually pervasive one.

Or you could just skip to the stories: Kim’s “Two White Feet”; David A. Taylor’s “Bingo”; Arnebya Herndon’s “Everything at Once”; and Anca L. Szilagyi’s “The Zoo.” Editing and assembling an assortment of fiction was an interesting project, and it was the first time I’ve done it; hopefully I’ll have a chance to do it again.

Links: Discussion Group

A local programming note: If you happen to be in the greater D.C. area tomorrow, I’ll be at the Annapolis Book Festival, moderating a panel of three fine local novelists: Howard Norman (The Bird Artist, Devotion, What Is Left the Daughter), Eugenia Kim (The Calligrapher’s Daughter), and Tania James (Atlas of Unknowns). The entire lineup is pretty impressive, and I’m told that the Key School is a great venue for the fest.

In the letters page of the latest n+1, Paul Maliszewski pushes back against the clean delineations of the magazine’s “MFA vs. NYC” essay:

MFA programs long ago discovered that the surest way to compete for the best students is by hiring big-name writers from, that’s right, NYC. Just look at any advertisement for an MFA program, with its obligatory roll call of bold-faced names, those literary luminaries whom applicants might one day work with. Just a few years ago, when a writer at one of the top creative writing programs retired, the department sought to woo a young bestselling author who had no MFA and no experience teaching. In the end, the author wasn’t interested even in applying, but I doubt that stopped the school from gazing longingly over the hedges, to NYC.

Related: The Iowa Writers Workshop turns 75 this year.

Maybe Terry Castle‘s critique of Susan Sontag was more on-point than she was given credit for.

Porochista Khakpour on her anxiety as she finished her first novel. And an equally good essay on her discovery of James Salter‘s Light Years.

Ta-Nehisi Coates on the novel he’s working on, set in antebellum Virginia: “Black history is so often rendered as series of episodes of suffering, stunning triumphs, and painful disappointments. I don’t have much interest in any of that. There’s a basic black narrative that goes something like this: Chains!–Whips!–Rape!–Lincoln!–Free!–Lynching!–King–March.–Dream–Free!–Crack!–Murder!–Obama!–Free!! Or some such. I want something different.”

Louis Menand on the death of monoculture as a boon for criticism: “[Y]ou want to have available to people lots of opportunities to experience literature, art, movies, whatever it is, without feeling that there’s some moral question that’s involved in that appreciation. Sometimes there is, sometimes it’s important to engage it, but I don’t think that taste should be the decider of moral issues.”

A passage from Cormac McCarthy‘s Blood Meridian as an accidental commentary on our primal need for videogames. (Or games, at least.)

John Steinbeck played fast and loose with the facts in Travels With Charley. Frank Wilson doesn’t feel that automatically diminishes the book; D.G. Myers considers the book “silly and forgettable” but doesn’t think much of the squabbling over its “authenticity” either.

Smelling dirt with William Faulkner.

Mary Karr isn’t going back to read her old poetry: “It feels scatological to me, like a turd you just left. It’s none of my business if it’s any good. I’ve thought about it all I can think of it, and if I’m not actively engaged in thinking of something, I move on.”

Madison Smartt Bell on his forthcoming novel, The Color of Night, which deals with 9/11 (or at least footage of it): “The 9/11 sequence of events, after briefly bringing the country together, seems to me to have deepened a rift which existed before, this one regional and cultural. We all abhor the idea of Islamic fundamentalist theocracy, but there’s a significant minority of our citizens who would embrace a Christian version of that. We are fortunate that, since the blue states surround the red states (I should mention that I divide my time between the two regions), civil war is geographically unfeasible.”