Book Review: Aurorarama by Jean-Cristophe Valtat

This is the kind of book where a character will say to another, “So, you are the one who ransacked my room,” leading to a three or four page expositional monologue wherein “mysteries” that the reader had already forgotten about are explained in excruciating detail by the ransacking character. Then a new civilization will appear and every detail about it, from its economic system to its racial tensions, will have to be encyclopedically cataloged, again, by expositional characters expositing. Then another character will appear and say, “No, I’M the one who ransacked your room,” and so on.

Aurorarama

In other words, it’s a literary novelist’s idea of what a contemporary SF novel must be like. It doesn’t reek of parody or condescension. It reeks of missing-the-point-but-earnestly-trying-to-cash-in-anyway, which is a word. Now.

Chicken with Walnuts, Raisins, and Cream

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Last night I made this up with ingredients that were in the house. I’m writing it down here so that I can make it again. It’s not a formally structured recipe, but it’s close. It was pretty nomlicious. I’m sharing this publicly so that my friends who are more experienced cooks than I am can maybe make suggestions on how to improve it.

You’ll need:

about a cup of Kalamanta olive brine
a couple of cloves of garlic, minced
small amount of olive oil
3 boneless chicken breasts
one tablespoon each mustard seed, celery seed, and paprika
salt & pepper
handful each of walnuts & raisins
about a cup of half & half

Marinate chicken breasts in olive brine for no less than an hour.

Preheat oven to 350 Fahrenheit.

Heat olive oil on the stove eye in a skillet that you can also put in the oven safely.

Cook minced garlic in the olive oil until it’s brownish.

Pat boneless chicken breasts dry, then season with mustard seed, celery seed, paprika, salt and pepper.

Brown chicken breasts on both sides, quickly, in the skillet.

Cover chicken breasts with a handful of walnuts and a handful of raisins.

Put skillet in oven for about 15 or 20 minutes, or until internal temp of chicken breasts is where you want it to be (I go for 145 degrees).

Take chicken out of the skillet and set aside, leaving walnuts & raisins in the skillet. Put skillet on stove eye & turn up to “high.”

Deglaze pan with half & half; cream will thicken. This happens quickly. Soon as the half & half gets bubbly, take it off the eye (don’t just turn the eye off) and pour cream, walnuts and raisins over chicken breasts. May want to add salt to sauce.

Crimes Against Nature

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Alabama Constitution of 1901In 5th grade, I learned the phrase “Crimes Against Nature” from the Alabama penal code and/or the state Constitution (I don’t remember exactly), which we were reading through as a class. My teacher, Mrs. Goss, wouldn’t tell me what this phrase meant.

“What do you think it means?” she said, finally — I think she thought I was just messing with her to get her to say something dirty.

I took her seriously, though. I pondered long and hard. Eventually I decided it must mean stuff like clearcutting, polluting, littering, and strip mining. Turns out it was actually a reference to homosexuality!

Boy, did I feel stupid!

Journals and Magazines Publishing Gay Fiction

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I have been compiling a list of literary journals and magazines who specialize in gay-themed fiction. I mean “gay male” when I say “gay-themed.” I’m looking for venues for my own work, so a lesbian-only magazine (for example) won’t work. They don’t want to bother with me, and I don’t want to bother with them.

Anyway, it occurs to me that you guys a). might find this list interesting, either because you’re writers, or because you’re readers looking for gay-themed fiction to read, or b). might be able to help me add more venues to my list, since you are many, and I am only one, and your collective knowledge of the field is probably vaster than mine.

I have tried to weed out magazines, websites, or journals who haven’t published a new issue in a long time (holy shit there’s a lot of those), or whose focus seems to be erotica or pornography (not because I have anything against those genres, just not what I’m writing).

As you’ll see below, it’s kind of difficult to tell which of these projects are still active, and which aren’t. Generally, if more than two years has gone since any kind of update to their website or publication schedule, I’m counting them as inactive. Others are on the cusp. Some of these journals publish fairly infrequently (even the ones that are supposed to be quarterly don’t always hit that schedule), and there doesn’t seem to be a culture of constant website updates among the editors, to say the least.

Here’s my list so far:

Bloom Literary Journal

Description: “A publication of Arts in Bloom Project, Inc., a non-profit dedicated to queer artists, writers, and audiences. BLOOM was founded to support the work of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered writers and artists and to foster the appreciation of queer literature and creation.”

Type of Publication: Quarterly/Print

Last issue published: Fall 2012

Notes: Not sure if this project is still active. They claim to be accepting submissions for their next issue starting September 1, but there hasn’t been a new issue for quite some time. Does anybody know if these guys are still publishing? I signed up for their email list to see if there’s any activity there.

Gertrude

Description: “Showcasing and developing the creative talents of lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer-identified, and allied individuals.”

Type of Publication: Quarterly/Print
 
Last Issue Published: Winter 2013
 
Notes: Not sure if this project is still active, but I think it probably is. They have a blog — the last post there coincides with the last published issue (January 2013). So they’re either still active, or they died 6 months ago and haven’t told anybody (which is common for these literary journals’ websites). Again: anybody know?
 
 
Description: “The magazine of gay speculative fiction.”
 
Type of Publication: Quarterly/Print & Digital
 
Last Issue Published: Summer 2013
 
Notes: The previous two were literary in nature — this one’s all about genre fiction, which may be a perfect answer for me, as a writer and as a reader. Covers have a DIY/zine-ish feel to them, which I like, but others may not.
 
 
Description“A brand-new journal featuring short fiction by queer male writers. Named after the lesser-known close friend (and speculated lover) of King David in the Old Testament. Jonathan features gay writers and their short stories in each issue.”
 
Type of Publication: Quarterly(?)/Print & Digital
 
Last Issue Published: They list three issues, but no dates for each. Submissions for the next issue expire at the end of this month (August 2013), so I think maybe they’re still active.
 
Notes: Very attractive graphic design on the covers.
 
 
Description: “A new magazine devoted to gay writing, is published one to four times a year.”
 
Type of Publication: Quarterly (?)/Print & Digital
 
Last Issue Published: May, 2013
 
Notes: Associated with “Chelsea Station Editions,” a book publishing outfit that either arose out of the magazine or vice-versa.
 
So that’s not very many. I found many more whose current publication status was much more suspect, even, than these. Can any of you help me out here? Please share links in the comments — especially to online venues that update frequently! 
 

Freedom of Speech. Let’s Understand It!

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Freedom of speech, as enshrined in the First Amendment of the United States Constitution, means that the government itself is not allowed to impair your ability to say whatever it is you want to say — within certain boundaries laid down by various Supreme Courts over the years. The government can prosecute you for shouting ‘fire’ in a crowded theater (um, maybe), for example, or for uttering ‘fighting words,’ whatever those are.

Ender's Game

Ender’s Game

Freedom of speech does not mean that you can say whatever you want to say without consequence. It just protects you from legal consequence. Non-governmental consequences often follow controversial or inappropriate statements. For example, if you smart off to your cranky old grandmother, she might slap you in the face. If you submit a plagiarized story to your editor, you might get fired from your job as a reporter. If you make up stuff in your memoir, you might make Oprah angry. In none of these cases will you go to jail.

More to the point: if you are a prominent and raging anti-gay activist, I’m not going to pay money to see your movie, even if the movie has nothing to do with your anti-gay activism or your rage. The government isn’t involved in this decision of mine. The First Amendment doesn’t apply. I’m also going to be encouraging everybody I know to Skip Ender’s Game, which is my own exercise of my own free speech rights! Ta da! See how it works!

Speech has consequences, because speech matters. It would be a terrible world to live in if the things we say were completely irrelevant all the time, because they were “just words” or “just opinions” or “just” whatever. There’s no “just” about it. Words and opinions are powerful; they matter, and like anything that matters, they have consequences. There would be no reason to speak at all, otherwise. A world where anything can be said because nobody cares is a world where nothing is really said — and that’s the opposite of a world with free speech.

I don’t understand why this is a difficult concept for Orson Scott Card or his whiny-ass fans to understand.

“Very Casual” is Unsurrealistic

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I’m still reading “Very Casual: Some Stories” by Michael Deforge.

People told me that dude’s work was an example of “surrealism,” but it’s not — at least according to my understanding of the term. Surrealism exists outside of story. There’s no possible hint of a reasonable, sane explanation for Dali’s melting clocks, or the day it rained bowler-hatted men.

The best of Deforge’s stuff, though, often reads as if it could make sense, somehow, in some context, if only we knew the context. It implies a story in ways that the Surrealists never wanted to. You don’t ask questions of the Surreal, because juxtaposition and disjunction are all that it is. Narrative is one of several things that the Surrealist rejects.

(Of course, somebody who is an expert on Surrealism is likely to come along and give us definitive proof that what I’ve just said was bullshit — I am willing to be wrong on this, but I don’t think I am).

Deforge’s stories (when they are really good, which they often are) leave us constructing scenarios where what we have just read might actually fit into a post-Enlightenment understanding of the world and still be meaningful and sane.

For example: why is the snowman made of meat? What is the connection between the snowman’s body and the sleeping man’s body, and why is there a connection? How did the kid know that eating the snowman’s flesh would cause a psychedelic experience — had he done this before? Was it his goal to seduce the other kid? One can imagine an entire seven-volume Dark Fantasy series of novels explaining all this. That Deforge doesn’t give us the One True Explanation for the events in the story allows us to construct (or at least vaguely imagine) our own — but that’s not the same thing as Surrealism.

wtdsm3a

I like Surrealism, and I like Deforge, too, even though they are not the same thing as each other.

Quick Notes on Rutu Modan’s “The Property”

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Rutu Modan deserves all the hype she’s getting, though the work itself (I’m talking specifically about “The Property” here, but this applies to her previous book, “Exit Wounds,” as well) is more low-key and subtle than the bombastic reviews might lead you to believe. She doesn’t feel like she’s reaching for any kind of Major Literary Genius Awards — which is good. She even points one of her jabs in that direction, with a character who wants to create “the Persepolis of the Warsaw Uprising.” She’s just telling a story, well.

The first thing you’ll notice, even if you’re not much of a comics fan, is the Tintin-ishness of her line and her layouts. It’s undeniable. The biggest key to Modan’s success as a cartoonist, for me, though, is not the clearness of the line, the beauty of the drawings, nor the economy of the layouts (and they are clear and beautiful and spare), but the “acting” of the characters. Each character is so distinct and realistically rendered — their reactions to one another, their reactions to their own thoughts — that you forget they are drawn so simply. Most comics, even most good ones, rely on the short-hand of cartoon conventions (sweat beads, lines radiating from faces, etc), stock poses, and expositional words (in dialogue, caption, or thought balloons) to get across the kind of subtle emotional message that Modan’s characters can express with a glance or a shrug. You “read” their movements and thoughts the way you do those of real people. At least, I did.

Grandma Goes to Meet an Old Lover in Warsaw, City of Her Youth

What Could a Literary Agent Do For Me?

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I should mention that I’ve never had an agent. I sold my first (and only, so far) novel to St. Martin’s Press a long time ago without one. It is possible that I should have had an agent. It is likely. I don’t know.

I’m planning to self-publish my second novel. This is not because I have been rejected roundly by “real” publishers. I’ve rejected them roundly, I guess, though not angrily.

After my disappointing experience with St. Martin’s (the world did not rise up and kiss my ass upon publication of my book), I decided that that whole scene was not for me. There were so many things I didn’t like about the experience that writing books and having them published just dropped off of the list of my personal ambitions for a couple of decades. I didn’t like having to wait 9 months until the book came out. I didn’t like hearing nothing about sales except once a quarter, and only getting a vague little tiny piece of information then. I didn’t like the small advance I was being offered for my next book. I didn’t like the lack of feedback, generally.

I am not saying I was made miserable, or mistreated. I’m just saying the experience itself was not particularly exciting or fun, after that first flush of victory when the book came in the mail. It was a huge crashing letdown, actually, to see how little it matters that you have had a book published by a major publisher. The book went out there and then it was gone. Boom. Thud. I felt like I would probably have reached more people standing in the street reading it aloud. And I probably would have made as much money. I would definitely have gotten more feedback.

This was a long time ago, and I didn’t have any other options. My street-reading idea was impaired by my shyness, as well as the fact that I lived in a fairly rural place, where there’s not a tradition of street theater, so I just moved on to another career: making websites. This turned out to have a much more satisfactory feedback loop, in terms of money, and in terms of attention, and in terms of feeling like I was having an impact on the world.

I’ve been told that what I should have done was write another book, and another, and another, and another, very quickly, and I would have eventually built up the kind of audience that would have given me the feedback loop and financial rewards I craved. Fine. I can accept that. But I didn’t do that. That path is not currently open to me.

I’ve decided to write a novel again. I’ve been working on it for a couple of years. I do not intend to submit it to book publishers, big or small, for publication. That just doesn’t interest me. I do hope to make a bit of a small business out of it (I’ve made small businesses before, out of websites that I created — it’s what I do), but I think that I could use some help, maybe in the form of an agent.

Despite the generic meaning of “agent,” though (somebody to act on my behalf — in this case, in business matters), it seems to me that most (all?) literary agents serve primarily as gatekeepers to book publishers. As mentioned before, I don’t want that. Just don’t need it. That business model is fine, it’s just not for me.

I’d like a good editorial sounding board who is market-aware and market-minded (this will sell, this won’t sell); a person who could help me negotiate contracts (not with publishers, but with vendors and contractors and so on); someone who is well-connected in the media, and who could help me drum up PR. That stuff. I believe that those are all secondary functions of agents today. Right?

I just don’t need the one thing agents do that they actually get paid to do, which is sign a deal with a publisher.

Would an agent be willing to forego the gatekeeping-to-publishers role in order to do these other things for me? And if so, under what terms? And how would I evaluate which one to hire?

I have no idea. I guess I’ll have to do it myself.

What do you think?

My Problem with Christopher Bram’s “Eminent Outlaws”

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In an attempt to argue for a continuous tradition in “gay male lit,” Christopher Bram’s “Eminent Outlaws” emphasizes two “crossroads figures,” Gore Vidal and Edmund White — each the “magnet” that drew his “generation” together, per Bram. Their friendships and rivalries are the cloth out of which Bram cuts the pattern of his history of the genre.

81kGoiZO9SL._SL1500_What this does is perpetuate the myth that you can’t possibly be a good writer if you don’t already have famous writer friends, and the related myth that you have to be upper-middle class (or at least middle class with enough pretension and education to “fake” upper middle, like White) and live in a cultural capital like New York, San Francisco, or Paris, in order to make a name for yourself.

I’m sure these myths are nothing more than a side effect of literary historians like Bram trying to make connections and tell a unified story about their subject matter. As a historian, it’s easier to make transitions from one generation to another if you can use a friendship or a mentorship, for example, to talk about batons being passed (a phrase which Bram uses very specifically and weirdly, in describing a photograph of Edmund White and Truman Capote, even though he himself admits that the two were “running in different races” and even though it was Vidal, not Capote, whom Bram has identified as White’s predecessor). It’s also bound to be the case that cultural capitals like New York are easier to write about because they provide so many examples of people running into one another and either becoming friends or bitter enemies. The lonely writer out in the boonies is not nearly so interesting, from a literary history perspective, because there’s less activity and motion — just somebody sitting at a desk, writing — so he (they’re all “he” here because it’s about gay male lit) is in danger of being ignored altogether, not only during his own lifetime, but by history, too.

I feel strongly about this because I used to believe it. I was a non-famous kid from northwest Alabama who wanted to be a gay writer and who, by those rules, didn’t stand a chance. (Yes, Capote was from Alabama, too — but his childhood best friend, Harper Lee, was another famous writer! And mine was not! I was doomed!) I got over that. I wish Bram (whose background is much more similar to mine than it is to the patrician Vidal’s) had, too.

Worse, this concentration on the tony, incestuous social circles around these two slick dudes (which, let me be fair, include some very, very powerful and important writers — tony and incestuous and also talented and influential) also allows him to ignore or glide over a ton of other very powerful and important writers who didn’t run in those circles — early, vital, and brashly uncloseted writers like James Purdy, for example. How do you leave out James Purdy? Makes no sense. The seminal (pun intended) John Rechy can’t be avoided, but he is mentioned only as a publishing phenomenon. There is not one  mention of Quentin Crisp! Samuel Delany, possibly the best writer of the bunch, is mentioned, but only once, when he gives a speech at Out/Write.

Once we get to the 80s and 90s, Bram focuses on Michael Cunningham and Tony Kushner (two fine writers indeed), as well as the later work of Vidal, White, and so on.  Writers as different from one another — and as major, each in his own way — as Dennis Cooper, Hilton Als, Martin Duberman, David Sedaris, Augusten Burroughs and Ethan Mordden are all notable by their absences. David Leavitt is mentioned in passing, twice — the first time because he had something memorable to say, once, about Edmund White, and the second time in the context of a discussion about book sales.

Bah.

Otherwise, I liked the book okay.

What’s the Difference Between a Graphic Novel and a Comic?

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101 BEST GRAPHIC NOVELS Jacket CoverI’m on record as being uncomfortable with the term “graphic novel,” but it has become so ubiquitous that it can’t be avoided anymore, if you want to communicate with actual people. For example, the other day I referred to “Maus” as a comic, and this confused a friend, who said, “I thought it was a graphic novel? What’s the difference between a graphic novel and a comic?”

His question was sincere, because he wanted to understand.

My quick answer: all graphic novels are comics, but not all comics are graphic novels. For example, “Peanuts” is not a graphic novel.

This leaves open the obvious follow-up question: “What is a graphic novel?”  Which I was hoping he wouldn’t ask, but he did.

Different people use the phrase to mean different things. Here’s what I told him. For me, a “graphic novel” has to:

1). … be a complete work in one volume. “Sandman” is a serial comic, and at the highest possible level it is complete, but most individual volumes of it do not qualify as “a graphic novel.” This isn’t to say that serials like “Sandman” or “Love & Rockets” have no value. It is just to say that they are not graphic novels. They bear the same rough relationship to graphic novels that the entirety of the television series “The Sopranos” bears to a movie — similar, but not the same.

2). … have narrative unity from beginning to end, and tell a complete story. Item (1) eliminates books that tell one story over multiple volumes. This eliminates books that have multiple stories in one volume — story collections, anthologies, and strip reprints. 

3). … be presented to me in book-form: cover, spine, and physical pages. As ebooks become more common, this will matter less and less in the future, and I may change my mind, but for now, a graphic novel needs to exist somewhere as a bound paper book before I consider it a graphic novel.

4). I’ve been picky about things so far. There’s one area where I’m not. A graphic novel can be fictional or non-fictional, even though, in the prose world, where we borrowed the term from, “novel” always means “fiction.” Technically, “Maus” is a “graphic  history,” and “Persepolis” is a “graphic memoir.” Neither would be shelved with the novels if they were written in prose form. But the practice of calling nonfiction books “graphic novels” is so widespread that even I can’t imagine correcting it at this point.

I know many of you probably have slightly different definitions in your head for the term “graphic novel,” and I am not trying to make my definition canonical, so don’t get mad at me or anything. It’s still a young category, and the boundaries of it are still being staked out, in part by conversations like this one.

Fortunately, my friend didn’t ask “What are comics?” Because that’s an even bigger can of worms!

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