In the Times (UK), a look at the forthcoming Rough Guide to Cult Fiction begs the question: what is cult fiction? “The editors note in an introduction that Toby Litt once said that in their purest form, cult books ought to have been out of print for ten years,” Erica Wagner writes. She also notes that in order for there to be “cult fiction,” the fans of such fiction must be cult-like in their devotion. The Rough Guide apparently contains some odd inclusions as well as omissions, but the concept made me think of my experience with cult fiction. Based on working at a book store, I would say that, among contemporary authors, Chuck Palahniuk, Douglas Coupland, and, to a certain extent T.C. Boyle had cultish fans. During my reading life, I’ve only gotten really cultish about one author, Richard Brautigan, of whose poetry and fiction I was enamored as a teenager. Brautigan, I would imagine, fits the “cult fiction” label pretty well. Curious if anyone else uses this label, I found an interesting list of books that a library in Indiana has labeled “cult fiction.”
[Ed. Note: Emre is back with another multi-part reading journal. Here’s the first installment. Enjoy.]Hello everyone, it has been a long time since I sent a post, but I go in spurts, so here it is. When I last left off, I had just finished reading Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer, after which I was thirsty for a piece of non-fiction. What better, then, to turn to Ryzsard Kapuscinski’s The Soccer War, which I had knowingly put off in an effort to not finish all his works at once. Upon reading The Soccer War, I understood better why Cem Ozturk, ambassador to Japan, refused to lend me his copy. The Soccer War is Kapuscinski’s most romantic work, especially with regards to the unbelievable stories he narrates and the naked truth and language with which it is related to the reader. The straightforward and brief history of the actual Soccer War is so interesting that I ended up going online and researching the event further out of sheer curiosity. Despite the title, Kapuscinski’s main focus is, again, Africa, but he also touches on life in Poland and there is a brief chapter on Cyprus after the Turkish invasion. The stories are, as usual, very humane and Kapuscinski’s tone and approach to his subjects is awe inspiring. I got the usual urge to go forth with the rest of Kapuscinski’s works, but am – probably for the last time – putting that urge aside for later pleasures.Next I turned to Karen Heuler’s Journey to Bom Goody. Forbes, the main character, is an ordinary man living in peace and harmony until one day he loses his family. As a result, he takes on a project long contemplated but never dared. When the reader meets Forbes, he is already in Latin America, traveling up the Amazon River to perform his tests. Forbes, however, is an aspiring scientist who lacks the training, and therefore makes rather ignorant and arrogant moves in the name of bold experimenting. Switching to a guide, Ping, who believes to be the love child of his mother and a dolphin and does not speak a word of English, is the first big move Forbes makes. Along the way, Forbes loses his guide and meets a white woman, supposedly doing medicinal research. While the Tina abhors the chummy, helpless white man, Forbes is both loving, and contemptuous of Tina for being comfortable and fluent in such foreign lands. One day, Forbes realizes that his experiments have long been out of control and starts observing the outcomes which weave together him, Tina, local tribes, Ping and the Amazons. Journey to Bom Goody takes a rather trite idea (what if Latin American natives examined us, instead of the opposite) and creates an interesting story around it. The novel is a mix of ordinary characters in unusual circumstances, usual ego wars in unlikely settings, and fresh viewpoints of the society that we live in.See also: Part 2, 3, 4
I’ve been submitting my fiction to magazines big and small for six years, since I was a senior in college. It took two years to receive my first acceptance, and another two years to receive my second. Since then, my record has improved: I had a story published last year, and two more are forthcoming. Still, the rejections come. My first year at Iowa, I took a seminar with Cole Swensen called Poetics of the Book. Our first assignment was to make a book out of unconventional materials. One student wrote a poem on gingersnap cookies; another student silkscreened words onto panes of glass. I took my big pile of rejection slips and sewed them together with some ugly brown thread. The stitching was poor (I can’t even replace a button), and because I hadn’t done much planning, the book unfolded in many different directions and was difficult to puzzle back together. Still, my work was impressive (Wow, look how many times I’ve been turned down!), and also pathetic (Wow, look how many times I’ve been turned down!). At the very least, it was proof of my tenacity. I’ll admit, the process was therapeutic. Those slips, some small enough to fit in the palm of my hand, now had an artistic function, and if my stories weren’t going to be bound, at least something could be. I continued to sew new rejections to the collection, and it didn’t take long for the thing to grow unwieldy. Finally, I put it aside. Now I’ve got a drawer stuffed with new rejections. What should I do with them? Sometimes I imagine having a dress made out of the slips, a shift maybe, or some slinky thing with an open back, to wear on a future book tour. Or I consider building a mobile to hang above my desk – as a threat, perhaps? I’ve heard that Amy Tan wallpapered her home’s bathroom with past rejections, and in his book On Writing, Stephen King talks about the spike on which he impaled his rejections. And there’s always this idea. But why I am keeping the damn things anyway? On author M.J. Rose’s blog, Dr. Susan O’Doherty explains: It is the childish, hypersensitive, irrational aspects of our psyche that connect us with the deep, primal themes and images that drive our most powerful writing. That primitive self is woven into the manuscripts we have the highest hopes for–and that self experiences every rejection as a blood wound, no matter what we know intellectually. I suspect that it’s this self that doesn’t want to let the slips go.Dr. Sue suggests a ritual of letting this pain go, perhaps by lighting a fire and burning each rejection, bidding goodbye or a fuck you to each one. I found Dr. Sue’s advice via Literary Rejections on Display, a blog devoted to the anger, pain and frustration that follows every “Good luck with placing your work elsewhere” from an agent or editor. This blog is itself an answer to what to do with your rejections: throw them away, but first, complain about them on the internet! The posts, penned anonymously, are sometimes funny, but the bitterness and wrath sadden me, especially when they’re aimed at small literary journals. Stop blaming them, and start subscribing. As much as I fret about my rejection slips, and get pissed off when I get a new one, or wonder when such-and-such magazine will get back to me, I try my hardest not to encourage the fixation. Too much attention on publication means less attention on the work itself: to the sentences, the images, the characters. Whenever I get frustrated by a rejection, I remember something my teacher Lan Samantha Chang once told me. “Publishing a story won’t change your life,” she said, “but revising it until it’s the best it can be, will.” Let’s all remember that the next time the mail comes.
Wanting to know a bit more about me and the site? I’ve been interviewed at the literary community site LitMinds. In this interview you can find out the answers to such burning questions as why I started the blog and how it got its name. And for the truly obsessed Millions fans, they’ve even managed to score a picture of me to adorn the interview.
There is a paperback on my bookshelf that doesn’t exist, but it managed to change my life anyway. I found this book among other homely paperbacks on the ninety-nine cent cart at the Montague Book Mill, a used bookstore in Massachusetts’ Pioneer Valley. True to its slogan — “Books you don’t need in a place you can’t find” — nothing stocked is guaranteed to be there again, making this book a quintessential one-of-a-kind find.
What arrested me first was its size: a little smaller than one of the classic mid-forties Penguin editions, narrow and flexible, ideal for slipping into a purse or pocket. What caught me next was its barefaced plainness. The jacket was entirely white, the cover crinkled from its stint as a coaster. Its title was an italicized Times New Roman second-cousin. It appeared to be a self-published book; inside, the author had written a note in an unassuming small-caps scrawl, wishing a friend the best of luck with his own career.
Although I have searched the title and the author more than once, the novel remains nonexistent. Unlike I’d first imagined, this author had no website or author’s platform. Search engines brought up many potential origins of the title (it has a fantasy flair) but an exact match remained elusive.
All signs point to the author not having “made it” as we expect authors to ascend in this century’s frenetic flux of multimedia attention. In effect, here lies the only copy; rest in peace.
This novel has been on my bookshelf ever since, surrounded by the greats: Dante Alighieri and Leo Tolstoy, Emily Dickinson, William Faulkner. But this book has a special status compared to its neighbors, albeit an infamous one. It is my bad-mood effigy; I turn to this book for an adrenaline shot of self-indulgence whenever I’m in the throes of apathy, bad writing, and rejections.
Simply put, the writing of this book is bad. In fact, it’s often laughably bad, an unremarkable and derivative species of the speculative genre. In my more magnanimous moments (or so I delude myself), I think self-righteously, This author — the nerve! The self-published pretension! As my literary voodoo doll, I believed I could turn to this novel as a concrete specimen of the written word that was — undeniably — inferior to my own work.
But books do not defer meekly to the morals we have assigned them. A bad book, so-called, has just as much to teach us as a good book. It is often a far better teacher than any work that is uniformly artful, where excellence disguises the nuts and bolts of craft. A bad book also teaches us something a better book cannot: humility. Not the humility of resignation — that of admitting that we will never be very good at what we do, no matter how earnestly we try. Such humility can easily morph into the indulgent self-flagellation that either demands the commiseration of friends or brings our vocation to a standstill, where thereafter we are those people who petulantly claim we “could have been somebody.”
Rather, it’s the humility of acknowledging that time and effort lead to changes in our abilities as writers. Instead of ascribing a moralistic verdict of good or bad, less or more, we humbly acknowledge that nothing more could be asked of us than what our creations can attest to at the time.
The great works of literature are all relatively alike in their excellence. Their perfection is consummate, constantly out of reach. We become comfortable saying, amused and defeated, “I’m no Shakespeare,” as if that is that. But every bad specimen of writing is lit up by the harsh fluorescent lighting of reality. Each pockmark, scar, and slip-up is visible; we have our favorites to trot out in conversation like ghouls in chains. Moreover, what makes for a bad book is a constantly shifting parameter. Is a book bad if it is merely written poorly? Is a book bad if it’s successful with the masses? (Fifty Shades of Grey, for instance, being one of those “bad” novels that is known — if not read — by everyone.)
But my own unique bad book quickly transformed from a voodoo doll to a mirror. This person’s writing is cheap and unmarketable, I start to think — and before I finish the thought: So was your writing a year ago. A week ago. Yesterday.
Bad books remind us of our failings and that such failings are always closer to us than we imagine. As writers, we have to be our own best advocate; we have to invest in the underdog. And by the same token, we must be our first critic, our arch nemesis. Anne Lamott posits in Bird by Bird that radio station KFKD (“K-Fucked”) is playing in our heads each time we write, with “the endless stream of self-aggrandizement” blasting in the speaker of our right ear, while “out of the left speaker will be the rap songs of self-loathing.” We can tune these out but not turn them off. Similarly, Orson Scott Card contends in How to Write Science Fiction & Fantasy, “Writers have to simultaneously believe the following two things: 1. The story I am now working on is the greatest work of genius ever written in English. 2. The story I am now working on is worthless drivel.” The bad book on my shelf reminds me that I will contend with both ideologies at any given moment, and at any given moment they are true.
We are destined to be continuously judged and ranked on a scale of lesser to better in our work. In reality, art is a highly competitive realm with no real rules. By turns, we will be winning in the arena, and we will be losing. And KFKD is always playing in the background, whichever speaker is blaring louder at this moment. And thus the most marvelous lesson of the nonexistent book on my shelf: that of artlessness. We do not write good books or bad books. We are all teachers, capable of leaving a lesson behind.