A couple of weeks ago, browsing through a literary magazine, I turned — like most writers — to the final section: the contributors’ notes. As my finger traced over the two dozen or so names, I felt a giddy mixture of apprehension and excitement: Who did I make it in with? Am I sandwiched between a 68-page Joyce Carol Oates story told from the point-of-view of a Steve Bannon-a-like and a Ron Carlson piece waxing romantically about his boyhood in Utah? No. All were unfamiliar names — a combined mass of the up-and-coming MFA students of America, a respectable mid-tier covey of professors, and one or two writers from outside of the academic system.
The series of quasi-biographical statements made references to a wife here, a dog there, a college town somewhere in the Midwest. The contributors’ notes manifested as potted CVs, detailing professorships, university press books, semi-prestigious fellowships, names of MFA programs. Almost 90 percent of the biographical space listed the other literary journals the writers had been in, other places readers could hunt down their work. The stream of journal titles became an indicator of stature, a look-see-here, I’m in the Kenyon Review! And you’re not. My own note was just as guilty of journal-shaming.
Still, in my time reading literary magazines, I’ve read some egregious proclamations, including one obscure novelist declaring his work to be the heir to Franz Kafka’s oeuvre. On other occasions: I’ve ripped out the cutesy baby pictures published in Glimmer Train; I’ve wondered if anyone contacts the writers who include their e-mail addresses and Twitter handles; I’ve laughed at writers’ insistence on providing wacky lists of mundane and weird jobs, these romantic notions of the literary outsider.
Some years ago, I published a short story involving an ever more fractious dialogue between the contributors of a made-up journal The Tenure Quarterly Review. Arranged as contributors’ notes, the story assaulted the ponderous and solipsistic nature of the genre. To complicate matters, the story had its own tumultuous publication history. For some inexplicable reason, the story’s title and my name appeared above the journal’s real contributors’ notes and my story was nowhere to be seen. My name hung there as the author of other people’s lives. When I showed a close friend the magazine, he joked I was the Creator, the God of these poets and fiction writers. In truth, I was much less than this. I was an embarrassed MFA student. No doubt there had been a botch-up at the printers, or someone had figured out the actual contributors’ notes were more compelling than my story.
When I wrote the story for workshop, the year before, our teacher Matthew Vollmer had been putting together an anthology for Norton. Co-edited by David Shields, the book — Fakes: An Anthology of Pseudo-Interviews, Faux-Lectures, Quasi-Letters, “Found” Texts, and Other Fraudulent Artifacts — included stories that used the postmodern apparatus of inventive form.
We read such stories as Robin Hemley’s “Reply All” (e-mail chain), Rob Cohen’s “The Varieties of Romantic Experience: An Introduction” (lecture), Rick Moody’s “Primary Sources” (works cited), and Daniel Orozco’s “Officers Weep” (police blotter). At the time in workshop, Vollmer termed such work artifact fiction. A good deal of the forms were nonfiction and taken from academia or the world of employment. When the class took on this writing challenge, it occurred to me this sort of form appropriation were our last impotent jabs at the jobs we had left behind or were facing post-graduation.
The day of my workshop, one smart aleck noted how my chosen form had already been done. I glanced up, mystified. The student went onto discuss Michael Martone’s 2005 story collection Michael Martone, an entire book of fictional contributor notes about Michael Martone. Very quickly I realized I had written an imitation without ever having read the original. Worse than feeling parasitical, I felt derivative.
After class, I bought a copy of Martone’s book, but stopped short of reading it. I changed my story from revolving around a single character to be polyphonous, with each new contributor’s note having its own voice and role in the story. After some polishing, Vollmer liked the differences from Martone’s set-up and encouraged me to send out the story. Within a couple of weeks, a journal snapped up the story. After the misprinting fiasco, it took a long while for the story to be seen in print. E-mails to the editors went unanswered. Facebook requests were denied. It was not until AWP the following year that I managed to convince one of the higher-ups to run the story properly. In my follow-up e-mail, I included a very short and sober biography; a contributor’s note so dull and bland it would be invisible.
Let’s call this essay what it is: a call-to-action. We have the chance to make contributors’ notes better. Perhaps “Great Again,” if you are of a certain political persuasion. Yet, thanks to Mr. Martone, fictionalized pieces feel too done, too passé. Whereas polemics against Donald Trump seem too obvious, too prone to a $1 billion lawsuit. Emoji are too 2010. Morse Code panders to the longshoremen hipster crowd. We need to go post-genre, post-text.
I envision the final pages of our nation’s literary magazines to be invisibly divided into sections: each one the equivalent of a blank 4×6 notecard. The voids offer up slates for others to write-in their dreams and aspirations for us. MFA cohorts, parents, well-wishers, or frenemies can fill the spaces. They can rewrite the lives of the writers’ loved/hated ones and ink the lucrative book deals or vanity-publishing ventures. As God-like Creators, these others can tell the stories of agents, editors, cats (both living and deceased), supportive husbands and wives, bitter writer spouses, divorce lawyers, potential bunkmates. And, yes, even the names of future children. Or perhaps we should avoid these pseudo-omnipotent hijinks, and leave the spaces untouched, like a gessoed canvas. The post-text era of contributors’ notes allows us to focus on what matters, 10, 20, 30 pages back: the work.
Image Credit: Flickr/Ramunas Geciauskas.
In his debut story collection, Children of the New World, Alexander Weinstein conjures for his readers a glimpse of the future, or a possible one. Weinstein’s stories evoke a time, not too far off, when humanity has moved ever closer to the Singularity, that moment when human consciousness and technology will merge. Having not yet arrived at the utopia of faster-than-light-speed cognition giddily imagined by futurists like Ray Kurzweil, technology for the characters in these stories, typically appearing as some version of the Internet, or virtual reality, or both, often acts as an intrusion upon consciousness — as opposed to a more harmonious fusion with. What tends to get overlooked by utopian dreamers of Kurzweil’s ilk, what Weinstein chooses to examine head-on is that whatever technologies might emerge, and however they might propel our evolution, there will likely be someone with designs on exploiting them for profit. In the story “The Cartographers,” for example, the main character is a programmer who designs memories — happy vacations, a stable childhood, but darker ones too, like drug addictions and multiple deployments — which customers can upload directly into their brains. The company’s downfall comes when they agree to weave product placements into the fabric of those memories; the decision ends up killing their business, but that doesn’t mean the marketing strategy is dead. As one of the other characters says, “People resist thought ads, but soon enough they’ll be as commonplace as napkins.”
In considering the Singularity, the question is not only to what degree humans will absorb technology, but also to what degree technology will become human — that is, at what point do we accord technological beings the rights of those which we consider to be “like us.” It’s an ethical question, and one that Weinstein grapples with in several places. The opening story, for example, “Saying Goodbye to Yang,” concerns a family that has purchased a human simulacrum, a lifelike AI robot, to help them raise their adopted daughter. The robot, Yang, begins to fail and the narrator, who has always let himself believe, crassly, that Yang is merely a piece of helpful technology, begins to recognize, through a devastating and beautiful sequence of scenes, that defining the world from some narrow and arbitrary “human” perspective can often lead to cruelty. The title story, “Children of the New World,” concerns an older couple that conceives and has children in a virtual reality. The initial conception comes early on, as they are still exploring the virtual world. Soon they find themselves enjoying the pleasures of Dark City, a kind of virtual red light district, where their avatars pick up viruses that force them to reboot their virtual existence entirely, wiping away everything, including their children. In both stories we see a society prepared to think of these apparently sentient beings as something less than human, as disposable. Yang is just a robot, the narrator in that story is told, he can be replaced — although the problems of the economy, still with us it seems even all those years in the future, make this fix difficult. When the couple in “Children of the New World” first conceives, they are taken by surprise, and learn that they can “remove an unwanted pregnancy as dragging a file to the recycle bin.” But the characters in these stories are different from those around them. They can’t help feel some affinity towards these nonhumans, where others feel indifference or even revulsion, and that affinity, these stories seem to say, is what really makes them human. With the help of a support group, the couple in “Children of the New World” begins to move towards a kind of realization:
Bill’s advice has helped us get to a place where we can say what happened wasn’t our fault, that we’re not monsters, that our children didn’t die because of us. We were lonely. We were needful. We wanted to feel pleasure again, to be caressed and loved. Our longings were those of humans, not monsters. The real monsters of this world are the hackers and scammers[.]
It becomes clear early in the book that Weinstein is a master of his craft. His stories are each elegantly constructed, many with a startling reveal at the end, both surprising and obvious, which is formally reminiscent of certain Golden Age science fiction stories. The way “The Cartographers” ends (I won’t ruin it here) reminded me structurally of the classic Arthur C. Clarke story, “Star,” in which the reader discovers that the supernova that destroyed a faraway Earth-like planet was in fact the star of Bethlehem. On display is an enviable ability on the part of Weinstein to craft endings. In “Migration,” for example, a narrator leaves the cocoon of his home to go out into the waste of a climate-ravaged Midwest littered with abandoned big box stores to search for his son — the story leads to one of the most transcendent images of a communion with the natural world that I have seen in some time.
Some of my favorite stories from the collection are those that present themselves as written artefacts from the future. Like what David Shields and Matthew Vollmer have called “fraudulent artifacts” in their anthology Fakes, these stories come in the form of dictionary entries or a scholarly paper, which allows Weinstein, as in “A Brief History of the Failed Revolution,” to switch registers and foreground the collection’s ethical and philosophical questions concerning our relationship to technology, what it means to have consciousness, and so on. That isn’t to say that in these spaces the book falls over into abstraction. There is still narrative — the story of an attempt by some to opt out of technological integration — and conflict — the rift this causes amongst scientists and colleagues. What I like about “A Brief History of the Failed Revolution” and “Excerpts from The New World Authorized Dictionary,” is that they feel more immersive than the mostly literary first-person stories throughout the rest of the book and, placed strategically throughout the collection, they go a long way towards constructing the atmosphere of Weinstein’s future world, which is one where consumerism has run amok, where the so-called West (still) makes terrorists out of people who aren’t like them. The collection, I think, could have used more stories like these, but that is probably personal preference, and to most readers more of them might have felt like too much of a good thing.
At first glance, there seems to be a real pessimism running through much of Children of the New World — it is telling that the collection ends with “Ice Age,” in which what remains of humanity sits atop 20 feet of snow, the one-time denizens of America’s suburbs reduced to hunting and gathering. Weinstein seems to say that while we can make startling advances in Internet porn, we cannot clean up the mess we’ve made of our environment—but that pessimism is deceptive. There is something in the way the characters in his stories endure despite how bleak their world seems to get that seems hopeful. In the end, though many are left broken hearted — the narrator in “The Cartographers,” or Andy in “Openness,” who loses the love of his life because the technology exists now to let another person completely into one’s consciousness, which it turns out may not be such a great thing — they are also left longing, and in that longing there is a sense that they will go on. No matter how terrifying the world becomes, the parents in these stories go on loving their children, and fight to protect them. And maybe that dogged endurance is what it is to be human. Maybe that is what will save us.