Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The Short, Short Story: 100 Word Story Magazine

This review should only be 100 words long. Most things should only be 100 words long. After all, we live in an age where even the approximation of totality can seem exhausting. We inhabit glimpses. We remember shadows. We listen to a snippet of a song, then watch a flash of a movie.

Now there’s a literary journal, started right here in the Bay Area, that aims to capture such a fragmentary nature of life: 100 Word Story (full disclosure: I’m one of the founding editors).

If you’re still reading (after 80 or so words), consider this journal within an ever-evolving American obsession with the art of brevity, in both a literary and a cultural sense.

Hemingway started the trend with his famous six-word story: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” You could say that the sensibility behind those six words led to our Twittering culture itself.

Such a short, short story isn’t about the word count, though—it’s about what’s left out. Remember that Hemingway’s famous dictum of writing was that a story should be an iceberg: only ten percent of it should be visible.

The 100-word format whittles that figure down to one percent. Traditional “flash fiction” is generally defined as being between 300 and 1,000 words, so a 100-word story becomes more akin to a narrative haiku.

It’s “a limit that inspires compositional creativity,” says Paul Strohm, who sparked the whole idea with his stories in Eleven Eleven. After I read Strohm’s stories, I started writing and swapping stories with a friend and was quite taken by the genre. So I decided that the last gaping hole among lit journals was a mag dedicated to 100-word stories.

The genre is a narrative snapshot, which is why we offer a photo prompt every month and a theme to write to.

In practical matters, if you have writer’s block or are the type of writer who procrastinates before diving into a longer work, the 100-word format is a perfect warm-up, a way to capture a single intense moment within a longer piece, or condense that essay or story you might never quite have the time for.

Other than that, we have great t-shirts and mugs and trucker hats for sale. And more.

Read. Write. Submit. Buy. Repeat.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Hotel Amerika's Take on Great American Literature

You know to expect something different from Hotel Amerika just from its name. It’s going to take you elsewhere, or if not, it will give you a decidedly different take on the place you call home.

In an interview with editor David Lazar, words like “disorienting,” “radical,” “transgenre,” and “flaneur” are used like others might say, “write what you know.”

Let’s just say that Hotel Amerika publishes a distinctly Amerikan prose, and it’s a journal with its own democratic sensibilities.

Tell me the story behind the name Hotel Amerika—especially since there's a real Hotel Amerika in Denmark.

I’ve always wanted to stay at Hotel Amerika. Apparently, they bring you eggs and The Trial. I think our name is disorienting, but metaphorically apt. We’re a hotel: we have somewhat continental affinities, room for different sensibilities.

You say your editors favor “work with a quirky, unconventional edge.” What do you mean by “quirky” and “unconventional”?

We like work that looks different, that tests generic boundaries, work willing to say things radically, say radical things. That said, we also like work, especially nonfiction, that is beautifully confident of his generic history, and can perform, say, the essay, in ways that are confident, originally voiced, and stylistic rare. We like sentences.

What distinguishes Hotel Amerika from other literary journals?

Fear, surprise, and ruthless efficiency. I’m sorry, I was thinking of something else.
I think the magazine looks rather lovely. I think the combinations of prose, poetry, transgeneric writing—which we now include as a permanent category in our contents—and fiction continue to be surprising—at least, I hope they are. We’re utterly open to writers at all stages of their careers. We take a lot of material from over the transom, along with solicited work, and continue to publish first-time writers, and highly rewarded, well-known writers.

What percentage of the submissions you receive do you publish?

I couldn’t tell you, and wouldn’t want to research this. Not a high one. But that’s true everywhere.

Tell me about the submission and review process.

There is a first line of readers, which consists of Adam McOmber, my managing and associate Editor, and the assistant editors, Jennifer Tatum-Cotamagana and Micah McCrary, and several student readers and other writers who serve as readers, and Garnet Kilberg-Cohen, who is fiction editor. I read much of the nonfiction, and have final say on all acceptances.

Can you point to a piece or two that are quintessential Hotel Amerika stories or poems?

I’d say our special issues were very defining: the Transgenre issue, our recent Aphorisms issue. There are writers we have ongoing relationships with, such as Peter Lasalle, Mary Capello, Cynthia Hogue, Brian Teare, Alice Jones, Colette Inez, and others.

What advice would you give to a writer submitting to Hotel Amerika?

I would not submit the kind of autobiographically narrative poems that you might be likely to see in a dozen other literary magazines. Something has to be different.

I would not submit a piece of memoir unless it’s performing something so interesting, doing something with its language or form that it’s going to stop me in my tracks.

We tend toward a more urban sensibility. Favor self-reflection. Flaneurs welcome.

If you could publish any living writer, who would you pick?

W.G. Sebald.


O.K., Max Beerbohm.

You’re mainly a print publication. Do you have any plans to put issues online?

Yes. Of course. It’s simply necessary.

As a writer, how does editing a literary journal affect your writing?

Well, it takes time away, for one thing. Which is a harrowing idea every writer-editor thinks about. But, it also hones your instincts. Continually sharpens them. It’s a bit of a deal with the devil.

Does Hotel Amerika throw publishing parties? What are they like?

They’re raucous, but also slightly melancholy, filled with a combination of readers huddled in the corners singing Doo Wop, despite the malfunctioning mist machine, and senior editors pathetically trying their hands at Gangsta Rap. We serve jello with fruit and ladyfingers.

Strictly BYOB. But we’re all teetotalers, except for . . . well, I’m just too discrete for that.

David Lazar's books include The Body of Brooklyn (Iowa), Truth in Nonfiction: Essays (Iowa), Michael Powell:  Interviews and Conmversations with M.F.K. FISHER (both Mississippi)His prose poems and essays have appeared in The Southwest Review, Denver Quarterly, Best of the Prose Poem, Gulf Coast, Sentence, Southern Humanities Review and many other journals and magazines.  He is the director of the nonfiction program at Columbia College Chicago, and the editor of Hotel Amerika.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Laura Albert and JT LeRoy: Mask as Muse

When I came across the Greek maxim “Know thyself” in my college freshman humanities class, I thought it was the key to life.

Then a couple of years later, I decided to become a fiction writer and discovered Hemingway’s dictum to “write what you know.”

Such a thing seemed simple, but it took me another 20 years or so to realize just how difficult it is to “know thyself” or “write what you know”—we’re elusive creatures by design, always changing, seeking, and fleeing.  Writing what you know becomes something like a pilgrimage, a chase scene, a dreamscape, a meditation, and a scientific experiment all in one.

In fact, according to the Suda, a 10th Century encyclopedia of Greek Knowledge, “Know thyself” has contradictory meanings. On one hand, the proverb is applied to those whose boasts exceed what they are, but on the other, it is a warning to pay no attention to the opinion of the multitudes.

I’m traipsing through such thoughts because I’ve been revisiting that crazy, fantastic, compelling “hoax” of JT LeRoy since Laura Albert (aka JT) contacted me when she stumbled on a blog piece (Finally, the Great American Novel) I wrote when the whole scandal went down five years ago.

In case you missed it, JT LeRoy was a young truck-stop prostitute who had escaped rural West Virginia for the life of a homeless San Francisco drug addict. Laura Albert and her boyfriend Geoffrey Knoop rescued JT and helped him get treatment by a psychologist. Then, with the help of literary luminaries such as Mary Gaitskill and Dennis Cooper and others, JT wrote critically acclaimed works of fiction noted for their stark portrayal of child prostitution and drug use.

Shy, wounded, reclusive, yet riveting, JT attracted a swirling flock of celebrities like Winona Ryder and Courtney Love—except it turned out that JT was Savannah Knoop, Geoffrey Knoop's half sister, who wore a wig, sunglasses, and a hat in “his” few public appearances. And Laura Albert penned all of JT’s books.

Looking at the photos again, it wasn’t as if JT was disguised with any CIA type of sophistication. Yet people believed that JT was JT, perhaps against their better judgment, for reasons that might tell a larger story (what did they see in JT that they needed to see?).

When New York Magazine and The New York Times uncovered the true story of JT LeRoy, the story turned into a scathing public drama that was the literary world’s equivalent of the press chasing O.J. as he tried to escape in his SUV (except without any blood), with many of JT’s one-time supporters caterwauling, “Shame, shame!” in outrage.

I don’t truly know Laura Albert, but from our recent correspondence I like her as a risk taker who is genuinely trying to represent a “truth” in the world—the task every serious writer takes on. She pursues such a truth more in the vein of Werner Herzog’s notion of “ecstatic truth”—a truth that is the enemy of factual truth in its aim of capturing something more sublime. Herzog says that “to acknowledge a fake as fake contributes only to the triumph of accountants.” And much of our narrow-minded, prudish literary establishment.

I’m not so concerned about the rich and powerful being scammed for what is the equivalent of loose change to them, or whether they had their feelings hurt. What interests me is the nature of writing with such a mask on, and I appreciate the moxie it took to put on such a performance.

“Performance” is the key word here. I like to think of JT’s novels not as just novels, but as part of a larger performance piece—one that put a wispy, vulnerable figure who looked like one part Andy Warhol, one part Michael Jackson, and one part blank slate on stage.

Instead of viewing it all as a swindle, I view it as an act of creation that grew in wild and unexpected ways and became far bigger than could have been imagined. I say “act of creation” because creation seemed to be at the root of it—a rollicking, gleeful, daring, probing, and carnivalesque exploration that in the end reflected our culture in a way that few acts have (I’d trade several National Book Award winners for it all).

And in the end, the fundamental question remains: If you liked the novels when they were written by JT LeRoy, why should you esteem them less when you find out they were written by Laura Albert? Perhaps the work should even grow in stature.

Just read the blurbs for the novel Sarah—blurbs that aren’t your ordinary blurbs churned out for marketing purposes. The authors who blurbed the book—Chuck Palahniuk, Jerry Stahl, Suzanne Vega, etc.—wrote truly imaginative, energetic assessments. They loved JT.

“JT LeRoy’s Sarah is a revelation,” writes Dennis Cooper. “It makes you realize how overused words like original and inspired have become. LeRoy’s writing has a passion, economy, emotional depth, and lyric beauty so authentic that it seems to bypass every shopworn standard we’ve learned to expect of contemporary fiction. This is a novel gripped by an intense, gorgeous, yet strangely refined imagination, and its experience is unforgettable.”

Laura—who might still be one part JT despite the obvious forcefulness of her personality—sent me a video of her recent appearance at The Moth (see below), where she gives her side of the story. It’s interesting to hear how her path to becoming JT wasn’t full of the calculation the press seared into its headlines, but was a mask that opened up a path to a story—a mask created from her own past as an abused child and the tales of others she took in.

Most, if not all, good writers write via a mask of some sort, whether named or unnamed, acknowledged or not. The notion of a single, pure self is antiquated (even the Greeks knew as much in their aphorism). We know ourselves principally through the eyes of others and the ways we seek to be seen. So writers put on guises, code switch, mimic, and dramatize themselves to find the story—and then the reader does the same in seeking to see himself/herself in the text.

Knowledge is a game of storytelling, as akin to fiction as nonfiction. Tell yourself you’re a victim, and you’ll get one storyline and one set of “facts”; tell yourself you’re a hero, and you’ll get another. 

I’ve always been a solitary writer, to my disadvantage. Recently, though, in the act of sharing my writing and writing with readers in mind, I’ve discovered how the context of writing (the cloak of self-mythology you write in, who you want to be seen as) informs and changes the text.

I think of Roland Barthes and his concept of the jouissance, the play, the erotics that occurs between writer and reader. “The text you write must prove to me that it desires me,” he writes in The Pleasure of the Text, claiming that writing is “the science of the various blisses of language, its Kama Sutra.”

The writer seeks a reader, seeks ways to reveal and touch, and will put on any guise available to accomplish those ends, like a good lover. There are many different ways to tell a story (“various blisses of language”), which makes the notion of “write what you know” quite complicated. We write through the “anxieties of influence” of past authors, as Harold Bloom has famously noted, but we also write through the masks we create in pursuit of self.

An outlaw’s attitude is essential. “If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate; the ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ is worth any number of old ladies,” William Faulkner said.

So I invite you to watch the video below and ask yourself whether Laura Albert is a “fake fiction writer,” as she has been called? Is she an outlaw? A charlatan? Does it matter who JT LeRoy is? Who are you when you write? Who do you want to be?

Sunday, June 05, 2011

J.M.G. Le Clezio: Loss in the Foreign Lands of Ourselves

One way to judge the significance of a book is by how much its mood affects you afterward. Such criteria doesn’t fit into any academic critical framework, but it’s the one that matters to a reader in the end.

As Roland Barthes said in The Pleasure of the Text, “The pleasure of the text is not necessarily of a triumphant, heroic, muscular type. No need to throw out one’s chest. My pleasure can very well take the form of a drift. Drifting occurs whenever I do not respect the whole, and whenever, by dint of seeming driven about by language’s illusions, seductions, and intimidations, like a cork on the waves, I remain motionless, pivoting on the intractable bliss that binds me to the text (to the world).”

Such is the way I’ve learned to read J.M.G. Le Clezio: with an appreciation of drifting, if not an indulgence in it.

I hadn’t heard of Le Clezio when he won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2008, but when I read the comparisons of him to Paul Bowles, another author best read with the sensibility of drifting, I was eager to read him.

First I read The Interrogation, his first novel, which he now calls “close to a joke.” He’s right. It reads like a noveau roman written by a young writer bursting with adventurous and daring, if not ridiculous, pretensions. It put him on the literary map in 1963, though, and because of his chiseled good looks, he became known as the French Steve McQueen (his photos, especially the ones by Henri Cartier-Bresson, are indeed quite compelling in a cinematic sort of way).

Then I read The Prospector, which gave me a sense of Le Clezio’s art as drifting, but I wasn’t taken by the novel, and in fact, I questioned his Nobel.

I rarely give an author a second, not to mention a third, chance, but then, finally and fortunately, I read Desert, which is magnificent, memorable, moody. Not Paul Bowles, but there won’t be another Paul Bowles. And Le Clezio has a markedly different sensibility—he’s less interested in seeing the danger and estrangement in others and other cultures than seeing a purity of being in the elsewheres he writes about, a truth that can’t quite be reclaimed.

Desert tells of the diaspora caused by the French colonial army in North Africa when they defeated the nomadic Tuareg, the indigo-robed Blue Men. It’s a narrative of two characters: Noura, who in 1909 migrated north across the Western Sahara in a caravan of nomadic Berber tribes, and a dreamy orphan named Lalla, who escapes the shany towns of Tangier (Paul Bowles’s territory) to move to Marseille.

The novel moves in a time that is almost lifelike: slowly, without the drive of plot. The rhythm is set by the swirling sands of the desert, the pulse of the sun, jagged rocks, and blistering heat. The caravan plods for hundreds, thousands of miles, and you feel each of their painful steps as they leave a home and look for another one far away.

Meanwhile Lalla searches for that lost home in a more mystical sense, escaping the harsh realities of life through her communion with an outcast named al-Ser, the spirit of the blue man warrior who serves as a guide to the natural world.

The desert is the main character of the novel, however. Despite all of the harshness it delivers, Le Clezio sees in it a primordial grace, a numen that deserves reverence.

The idea of loss is at the center of Le Clezio’s work—people banished from their paradise by the hostile forces of civilization. But he portrays this loss in a complexity in which there are no winners.

As he puts it in Mexican Dream, a collection of essays on the conquest of Mexico, “In destroying Amerindian cultures, the conqueror also destroyed a part of himself, a part he will undoubtedly never find again.”

As an author, he writes as one listening to the music, a witness rather than one imposing his will upon the narrative. His characters often seem to move with the wind itself. In tracing the connections between the modern industrial world and the world that existed before it, he has likened himself to a spider, “touching threads to see where the vibrations come from.”

Perhaps LeClezio has such a talent because he grew up as a child in strange lands, born in France to a family that had lived for generations in Mauritius, and of a British father who was a doctor in Nigeria. He was fascinated by the alien landscapes he lived in, the differences between his western heritage and the manners of a more ancient culture.

He’s now a dual Franco-Mauritian citizen (who resides in New Mexico). “I’ve always felt very much from a mixed culture—mainly English and French, but also Nigerian, Thai, Mexican. Everything’s had its influence on me,” he said.

The Prospector, in particular, captures his sense of the lost idyll in its rather simplistic plot of Alexis L’Etang, a dispossessed son, who escapes from a dreary job to go treasure hunting. But it’s not so much literal treasure that he seeks, but the memory of his childhood and his father.

The characters in The Prospector aren’t particularly individualized; they’re almost flat, moving through life through their senses rather than the logic of their thoughts. The desire is simple: to be at one with the world’s rhythms, its seasons—an impossibility with civilization.

“I am as adrift in this lonely valley as I was on the vast ocean,” Alexis observes, but that isn’t a complaint. Drifting is an aspiration, an idyll.

You could say that he’s guilty of overly romanticizing the primitive (anything barefooted is celebrated), but a sense of utter loss hangs over it all, and there’s really no return. Although Alexis is driven at once by a traditional quest/adventure narrative—to return to a state of being “utter savages”—he’s at the same time undermined by a more postmodern sense of a world fragmented and lost.

In fact, that’s what LeClezio is about: loss. He’s not arguing for a return to a better kind of life, he’s just saying that it’s gone.

In a life haunted by loss, it’s not the quest for what’s lost that can deliver us, but an embrace of our essential alienation. As Le Clezio says about his predilection to seek new places to live, “you have to get rid of old habits, change your points of view, adapt. It gives you a kind of youth, which is good for writing."