#tobyreads: Journeys into Technique, Journeys into the Weird


So I read MFA vs. NYC this week. I’d encountered a couple of the essays in it earlier–some in the pages of N+1; others at readings or excerpted elsewhere. And as collections of work go, it comes highly recommended: it’s an accurate summation of the debates around writing and the studying of it as you’re likely to find. Though looking to it for defined answers might be more difficult: the anthology offers up a host of points of view, each of which seems deeply credible.

And even the essays that take a fairly clear perspective on the issue tend to issue some forms of caveat; Alexander Chee’s, for instance, makes a very convincing case for writers to get their MFA, but acknowledges that writers may have a similar effect by not going (or by being turned down by programs). His is one of the highlights, along with Keith Gessen’s pair of essays and Emily Gould’s frank discussion of economics, book sales, and work. A pair of essays excerpted from the London Review of Books provided, for me, the only slight note of discord, not because of any failings on their part, but because the tone seemed a bit different than the work surrounding them. As complaints go, however, that’s a pretty minor one; this is a work that seems designed to provoke debates, both external and internal.

It’s been a week of reading about writing, it seems. Over the weekend, I read a pair of books in Graywolf’s “The Art of” seriesJoan Silber’s The Art of Time in Fiction & Dean Young’s The Art of Recklessness. Young’s focuses on poetry; as part of my ongoing quest to read more of it, I was glad to have a look at certain aesthetics and structures, as well as a brief survey of poets Young considers laudable. (The examples of his own poetry contained in there also made me eager to read more from Young, and soon.) Silber’s lucidly broke down a number of ways of dealing with the passage of time in fiction, focusing on both novels and short stories; throughout, she emphasized a sense of unity, and her discussion helped me figure out something I needed to do on a project that’s been frustrating me for a while. Can’t really argue with that.

And after this sober discussion of literature, I made the move into a much more surreal territory, populated by unreliable narrators and hallucinatory figures. Land of the Snow Men is presented as a found memoir of an Antarctic voyage by one George Belden, and edited decades later by Norman Lock. This device allows Lock to grapple with his preferred subjects–memory, illusion, and travel among them–in a more overtly pulp-adventure vein. It’s quite good, and would fit nicely beside Mat Johnson’s Pym on the shelves of anyone who likes a little metafiction with their Antarctican lit.

Cameron Pierce recommended that I read something from Jeremy Robert Johnson, which led to my picking up Johnson’s Extinction Journals. It plays out like J.G. Ballard run through something hallucinogenic; our hero is an Everyman who’s survived a nuclear holocaust via a protective suit made of thousands of roaches. Unlikely protective suits are a bit of a motif here; Twinkies, ants, and skin are all used by various characters to varying degrees of success. It’s a short work, and while I’m not sure this degree of surrealism could have been sustained for much longer, it’s quite effective here: wonderfully over-the-top but internally consistent.

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