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Posts tagged ‘notes’

SEA SWALLOW ME and OTHER STORIES by Craig Laurance Gidney

my notes on Sea Swallow Me (2008), RF Brown

A young Japanese monk, yielded to a life of prayer and ministering to the poor is marked for love by a mischievous yosei, a shimmering male fairy with a fetish to tempt mortal chastity and piety. This chassis supports many of Craig Laurance Gidney’s stories: a young character in the ordinary toils of  earthly existence, crosses paths with a metaphysical experience. As in the case of the monk, “He who was studious and practical had caught the eye of something supernatural.” More often Gidney’s protagonists are young black and/or gay men in modern settings. A bored club kid unwittingly keeps psychokinetically murdering his sex partners. A lonely, island tourist pulled in by over-curiosity is dragged to the floor of the ocean and given physical wholeness from a benevolent, giant serpent. A nebbishy, underachieving artist chases off the cloying  ghost of his racist mother by deliberately having sex with a black man on her antique bed [respectively: “Etiolate”, “Sea Swallow Me”, and “Her Spirit Hovering”].

Gidney’s visionary universe exists in a literary dimension somewhere between James Baldwin and The Twilight Zone. The author’s imagination is alternately funny, melancholy, and fantastic and there is the consistent thread in this collection of his expressive narrative voice. He has dazzling skill at painting amorphous scenes with tangibility-  colors are carnal and smells are emotional. It’s never explicit whether the bizarre experiences of these characters are something truly supernatural, or if these phenomena are the delusive manifestations of their broken black and gay souls. Are they cursed or crazy? The character lives are humdrum, but not normal. Whose life is?

I have a couple of quibbles with the actual publication of Sea Swallow Me. First, the book was put out by an indy press and there are frequent typos. I know some readers for whom mistakes are maddening and others who would regard it as bohemian charm. I seek the noble path on the presence of typos because ideally it should be easier for a great writer like Gidney to find a big-six publishing deal that pays for unlimited editorial resources. But readers dropping $13 bucks on this book should be aware there are errors. Writers who are constantly encouraged to go indy or self-publish can take a sip of reality here: even a brilliant writer can get sandbagged with a sloppy book. Second, two of Gidney’s stories, “The Safety of Thorns”, about a young American slave who finds out the Devil is an apathetic drunk, and “Strange Alphabets”, a transcendental roman à clef about French poet Arthur Rimbaud in Jail, are pleasant guests here but otherwise foreign to the rest of the collection. In my editorial opinion they would be at home someplace else. It’s feels weird to launch this criticism given that these two stories in particular are each excellent standing alone, perhaps my two favorite in the book. If there is a collection of historical fiction somewhere in Gidney’s future canon he certainly has the background, discipline, and command of voice to put one together. Those two problems aside, Sea Swallow Me is a magnificent and mysterious body of work.

REBLOG: SUCKER LITERARY MAG: Which Sucks Worse? My Story or Your Feedback?

On Giving Feedback


We writers are very sensitive about…well, everything : ) But mostly, we are sensitive about our work.  And that’s why when we give one another feedback, we need to choose the kindest approach.

I prefer a certain approach when giving feedback. This approach was further reinforced by Meg Kearney to me when I was a student at Solstice: When faced with having to criticize another writer’s work, choose kindness over harsh criticism. What this really boils down to is tone, use a kind tone when responding to a writer’s work.

I  think that sometimes when we read a piece and are asked for feedback, our own mood is really the determining factor in our tone and approach. My advice is this: if you find yourself irritated with the writer’s work, take a breath and walk away before you compose your feedback; you might choose harshness as oppose to kindness.

Helpful Versus Hurtful

Recently I read a feedback sheet from one of the Sucker Staff Readers (don’t worry, I’m not naming names). Anyway, this feedback sheet was very useful, and I agreed with all of the commentary, including that, ultimately, we have to reject the piece. What I made me pause while reading was the tone of some of the criticism.

For me, there is a helpful way to tell someone their piece isn’t very good, and then there’s a way that will just result in a writer getting defensive, which means they won’t “hear” the feedback.

It’s About The Delivery

While I think it’s helpful to tell a writer that their piece, well, bored me, I don’t think it’s helpful to add insult to injury in the form of an added metaphor or hyperbole: “Your story bored me out of my mind…The story was so long winded, I prayed for the end to come soon.” Or, “this story is SO pointless” and “the characters were SO poorly developed, that I actually hated them”.  Other cringe-worthy comments I’ve seen are: “The writing in this story is VERY corny and VERY lazy.”

There’s nothing wrong with any of the above criticism…except the tone is kind of mean. The very’s and so’s in all caps could be interpreted as yelling, so this writer might feel reprimanded rather than constructively criticized. The use of the phrases “your story bored me out of my mind” and “I prayed for the end to come soon” are borderline cruel. : ( A better way to say the same thing is: “I didn’t find myself turning the pages quickly while reading. Some of the paragraphs of description seemed too long, and I wanted to get to the action faster.”

Doesn’t that sound nicer? Isn’t that more helpful?

Antidote: BE SPECIFIC (and, yes, I’m yelling : )

Being specific in your feedback actually can change the tone from harsh to helpful because you are providing the writer with concrete evidence to support your opinion. If you just say that the piece was “filled with corny language and lazy writing”, the writer will probably take that to mean the whole thing plain sucks.  If you tell the writer what parts were corny or even just provide an example of the corny writing, than they might just feel empowered to fix the problem:  “The dialogue was corny because it used words like “golly” and “gee whiz”. Likewise, if you say the writing is lazy, point out exactly what parts were lazy, and, furthermore, explain what lazy means: Do you mean there’s an over use of certain words? That the writer chooses to “tell” rather than “show”? Does the writing have too much clichéd language or need more careful and exact word choice?

Bottom line, when you give feedback, be specific and point to the writing to support your comments, that way your commentary comes across as based on evidence in the writing and not a more subjective place…like your mood.

Encourage Rather Than Discourage

Ultimately when you read someone’s work and provide criticism, you want to encourage rather than discourage. Tone is what really makes the difference with this; constructive tone rather than destructive tone is crucial.

Our staff of readers are doing the very best they can to be kind and encouraging to our submitters, but sometimes I think we all forget or don’t notice our tone…Tone is subtle but super important in any form of communication and especially in writing. We don’t have inflection of voice or facial expressions to assist us in conveying our intended tone, so you have to choose your words very, VERY carefully.  : )

REBLOG:Paris Review – Letter from T. S. Eliot, the “Prince of Bores”, to Virginia Woolf

I love this self-effacing letter from T.S. Eliot to V. Woolf. BTW, anybody know to what MSS refers?

link: Paris Review – Document: T. S. Eliot to Virginia Woolf, T.S. Eliot.

Document: T. S. Eliot to Virginia Woolf

Printed with the permission of the T. S. Eliot Estate.

38 Burleigh Mansions, St Martins Lane, London W.C.2.
27 August 1924

My dear Virginia,
Forgive the unconscionable delay in answering your charming letter and invitation. I have been boiled in a hell-broth, and on Saturday journeyed to Liverpool to place my mother in her transatlantic, with the confusion and scurry usual on such occasions, and the usual narrow escape from being carried off to America (or at least to Cobh) myself. In the tumult on the dock an impetuous lady of middle age, ‘seeing off’ a relative going to make his fortune in the New World, by way of the Steerage) stuck her umbrella in my eye, which is Black. I should love to visit you, seriously: the Prince of Bores to refresh his reputation: but the only pleasure that I can now permit myself is, that should I come to Eastbourne (which is doubtful) we might visit you by dromedary for tea: if I leave London at all I am most unlikely to get done all the things that I ought to do (such as my 1923 Income Tax Return) and certainly not any of the things that you want me to do. I have done absolutely nothing for six weeks. One thing is certain: I MUST stay in London, where Vivien will be, after this week, is uncertain. But
When do you want to publish my defective compositions?
When do you want the MSS?
I should like at least to provide a short preface, which might take two or three nights’ work, and make a few alterations in the text to remove the more patent evidences of periodical publication. These three essays are not very good (the one on Dryden is the best) but I cannot offer you my ‘Reactionary’s Encheiridion’ or my ‘By Sleeping-Car to Rome: A Note on Church Reunion’ because they will not be ready in time. But you shall see for yourself, as soon as you wish, whether you think these three papers good enough to reprint.
But what about a FRAGMENT of an Unpublished Novel from you to me? One exists most of the time in morose discontent with the sort of work that one does oneself, and wastes vain envy on all others: the worst of it is that nobody will believe one. But no one regrets more that these moods should occur to Mrs. Woolf (of all people) than
Yr. devoted servt.
Thos. Eliot

Document from The Letters of T. S. Eliot, Volumes One and Two, edited by Valerie Eliot and Hugh Haughton, published by Yale University Press in September 2011. Reproduced by permission.

The letter is a part of the T. S. Eliot collection of the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin.


The Social Network (2010, d. David Fincher)

I respect bullshit.  Sometimes.  Aaron Sorkin, the screenwriter of The Social Network freely admits to taking artistic liberties with the story of Facebook and it’s founder Mark Zuckerberg partially because Zuckerberg declined to participate in the bio-pic, but also because it was Sorkin’s artistic preference, “I feel like, had I met Mark, I would have felt a certain obligation to make the character sound like Mark, walk like Mark… I probably would have had an affection for him that I wouldn’t have wanted to betray…I don’t want my fidelity to be to the truth; I want it to be to storytelling.”   That’s a more sophisticated way of admitting the screenplay is full of bullshit.  All dramatized biographies necessitate storytelling.  There’s nothing new about movies that reprocess history, id est bullshit, for dramatic impact.   The Social Network film is in part adapted from the book The Accidental Billionaires by Ben Mezrich.  Remarkable, because Mezrich himself opens his book with a note that he re-created scenes using “my best judgment,” altered descriptions, compressed several conversations into one, and changed the settings.  As if the bullshit cocktail weren’t strong enough,  Social Network’s creators have carefully clarified that their film was inspired only by Mezrich’s original proposal for the book, not the book that Mezrich published and that Sorkin read neither the book proposal nor the book until after his screenplay was nearly finished.  Still, all okay by me.  Hell, I’m currently writing a book I casually refer to as “autobiographical fiction” which is perhaps a more sophisticated way of admitting my book is full of bullshit.  Why?  Because what I’m in the middle of making up is more interesting than anything I’ve actually done in life.    Even the real Mark Zuckerberg said on Oprah that a film about him had to be fiction because he lived the real story and it wasn’t all that entertaining.  Yet, what I see discussed across the internets is all about which parts of The Social Network are fact and fiction and were the filmmakers ethical and responsible in presenting the Facebook story less accurately.  I’m not actually going to get into that ethical debate (I am including some article links at the bottom).  My concerns lie more with what’s in the film instead of what it isn’t.

Sorkin’s story, directed by David Fincher, takes place during 2003 and 2005.  Mark Zuckerberg, a Harvard University drop out and the billionaire creator of Facebook, the worldwide social networking website, is being deposed in two coinciding lawsuits.  The story flashes back to Zuckerberg, as an undergraduate, being spurned by the girl of his dreams, and feeling shut out of elite Harvard social clubs.  Zuckerberg is imagined to have a complicated personality- verbose yet self-conscious, quick-witted yet prickly, and either an asshole or a nice guy trying to be an asshole.  One late night he directs his rejection hostility into an online prank called FaceMash, comparing photos of girls on campus and crashing Harvard’s computer system.  The prank gets him academic probation but it also earns the attention of several students from an elite club who hire him to develop FaceMash into a campus dating site.  He churns their idea into the first version of Facebook, and this becomes the basis for the first lawsuit; that Zuckerberg stole the idea.  The second plotline and lawsuit is in the form of Zuckerberg’s former business partner and friend, Eduardo Saverin, who is forced out of the blossoming company, as the victim of Zuckerberg’s corporate backstabbing, Zuckerberg’s suppressed animosity toward Saverin, or perhaps simply out of disagreement on which direction the company was going.  We don’t know for sure and we never will.




We will never know because Sorkin, being a brilliant writer of dialogue, chose not to commit to one point of view, to decide whose bullshit was truer.  In a non-fiction novel I think this could work.  For the screen, I’m not so sure; same goes for taking on the story of an invention.  Sorkin wanted to write a movie about the legal battle for Facebook’s intellectual property and it doesn’t completely translate.  Sorkin says he wanted




to avoid a depiction of people friending each other and falling in  love through a social network.  I think a story about how technology and Facebook changed the way people communicate is a more compelling starting point; especially because Sorkin’s invention of character Mark Zuckerberg for the screen lacks poignancy.  Some people are taking issue with Social Network’s factual frivolities.  The problem I see is that Sorkin’s deliberate gloss over facts doesn’t take us to any better truth.  Actor Jesse Eisenberg’s Aspergers-like portrayal of Zuckerberg is well executed, but this fictionalized Mark Zuckerberg is a cipher.  We are afforded almost no information into character Zuckerberg’s background, motivations, or retrospection.  Sorkin wanted to invent a Mark Zuckerberg but his leap of imagination lands nowhere.  Character Mark Zuckerberg, the protagonist and apparent anti-hero in this tale is practically faceless.   Additionally, as filmed by the talented and original director David Fincher, I found the project to lack imagination.  I’m not calling it a bad movie.  However, I am stretched to find anything special or noteworthy about the filmmaking itself beyond the sharp dialogue and fine acting.

In regard to writing about people who are still alive Sorkin has said, “On one hand, you don’t want to screw around with people’s lives, you never want to say anything that isn’t true, and you don’t want to mess with history. On the other hand, this isn’t a documentary. Art isn’t about what happened, and the properties of people and the properties of ‘characters’ are two completely different things.”  Sorkin and Fincher’s work on The Social Network is drawing attention via Citizen Kane and what its fictional character did for the real biography of William Randolph Hearst.  Critics have said that whoever the real Mark Zuckerberg is, The Social Network defines him and the story of Facebook and that the filmmakers have irresponsibly messed with history.  Zuckerberg is 26.  The imminent danger from a reckless act of bullshit and the passive associations with Kane sounds like bullshit that gets planted by movie studio p.r. people.  The Social Network is good, but it’s a dwarf compared to Citizen Kane.  I wish it were a better movie but the fact that The Social Network is bullshit doesn’t bother me.  Aren’t most people’s Facebook profiles all bullshit too?