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Heavy Feather Review –> DEADLINE JULY 15th!!!!!

In Submissions on July 13, 2012 at 1:04 pm

I would like to introduce you to Heavy Feather Review!!!!!

It is a small, independent on-line journal dedicated to publishing fiction, poetry, non-fiction, etc.  It is edited my two of my former college classmates, Jason and Nathan.

Currently the magazine has one issue out right now, along with a few writer interviews; but if you’d like to send some work in I’ll provide the links below:

Remember the deadline is July 15th, 2012!!!

Submit!!!!!

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LETTER FROM THE PULITZER FICTION JURY, PART II: HOW TO DEFINE GREATNESS?

In Articles on July 12, 2012 at 12:44 am

Posted by 

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Yesterday, I wrote about the remarkable if agonizing experience of selecting three Pulitzer Prize nominees in fiction from over three hundred books by American writers. Today, I’d like to reflect a bit on the search for an unassailably great contemporary work of fiction, which, as I’ve learned, resembles an attempt to appreciate an entire train while you’re a passenger in one of its cars.
You can read Part One here.
We kept waiting for the Big Book.Every few weeks, as a new shipment of books arrived at each of our different addresses, Susan, Maureen, and I slit open the carton and said to ourselves, Please, let this box contain the One.
The One would be the novel so monumental, so original and vast and funny and tragic, so clearly important, that only an idiot would deny it the Pulitzer Prize.We wanted a foolproof book, a book about which we could be absolutely certain. Or two such books. Maybe even three.

We were glad to have been asked to be judges, but we were nervous as well. Because any jury that awards an important prize is trying to second-guess the future; to honor a book that will endure. Jury members are, or should be, trying to use their own particular passions and acumen to catch a whiff of greatness rising up off the page. Jury members aren’t just selecting their favorite books, they’re trying to stare down their personal biases, to let the books speak as themselves, and not as the books the jurors generally tend to prefer. You don’t like family sagas? Too bad, this is a great one, get over it. You think of science fiction as frivolous? Consider the possibility that this particular work of science fiction transcends what you’ve always believed to be the limits of the genre.

Jury members also, naturally, know that they’re carrying on a long-established, impossible project: the attempt to name a “best” book, as if books were cucumbers at a county fair. Even at the grandest possible level, it’s a doomed proposition. Is “The Sound and the Fury” better than “The Great Gatsby,” or vice versa? They’re both great. But is one better than the other? It depends on whom you ask.

Add in the fact that significant works of literature don’t appear on a reliable, annual basis. Some years are unusually fertile. In 1985, for instance, we saw the publication of Don DeLillo’s “White Noise,” Cormac McCarthy’s “Blood Meridian,” Larry McMurtry’s “Lonesome Dove,” and Paul Auster’s “City of Glass.”

So. It’s 1985, and you’re a Pulitzer juror. Which of the above four titles is clearly better than the other three?

“Lonesome Dove” won the prize that year, a choice with which I have no quarrel. But the other three didn’t win. Couldn’t win. The Pulitzer board is obliged to acknowledge only a single book and declare it the best.

And, finally, one must confront the most nervous-making aspect of all the jurists’ and board’s duties: those who award prizes are wrong at least as often as they’re right. There is, for instance, the fact that Pearl S. Buck went to her grave with a Nobel Prize and Nabokov did not. That Dario Fo got one but Borges didn’t. The list of past Nobel winners is formidable—those Swedish prize-givers are sharp—but a list of non-winners would be surprising and not entirely reassuring.

Among the books that have not won the Pulitzer (which was established in 1917): “The Great Gatsby,” “The Sun Also Rises,” “The Sound and the Fury,” “Absalom, Absalom!,” “The Catcher in the Rye,” “Invisible Man,” “The Adventures of Augie March,” “On the Road,” “Catch-22,” “The Moviegoer,” “Revolutionary Road,” “Slaughterhouse-Five,” “Deliverance,” “The Complete Stories of Flannery O’Connor,” “Ragtime,” “J R,” “The Collected Stories of Grace Paley,” and “Underworld.”

The list of past prizewinners, it should be noted, also includes many significant and enduring books. Still. Although it feels unseemly to name any of the less-than-stellar books that triumphed over the ones that proved to be classics, look up the list if you’re so inclined. There are some shockers. It’s true as well that a number of the authors of all those great but unselected books got the prize eventually, though most of us would agree that the prizes, when finally awarded, gave off a hint of redress, unless we believe that Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea” (which won in 1953) outshines “The Sun Also Rises” and “A Farewell to Arms,” or that Faulkner’s “A Fable” (1955) and “The Reivers” (1963) (only Faulkner, Booth Tarkington, and John Updike have won twice) leave “The Sound and the Fury” and “Absalom, Absalom!” in the Mississippi dust.

The Pulitzer board has denied a prize in fiction nine times before, most recently in 1977, when Norman Maclean’s “A River Runs Through It” was one of the candidates. The prizeless year 1974 was the year that “Gravity’s Rainbow” was eligible.

It’s shortsighted. It’s offensive. And yet…

As Maureen, Susan, and I opened box after box, cracked book after book, we found a certain number of them that we liked very much and, among those, a smaller number that contained one or more actual marvels: a great character, a powerful and original style, a remarkable theme, a few scenes that raised the hairs on our arms, or some other accomplishment that approached the miraculous.

But none of them was unquestionable, none so flawlessly and obviously great as to quell all doubts. Juries are assigned, in part, to doubt. To weigh and question, to wonder over the balance between virtue and lapse.

We were not—at least I like to believe we weren’t—saps, prigs, or pedants. We were not looking for the safe, if ever so slightly bland, option. We were looking for the new “Great Gatsby,” the “Sound and the Fury” of 2012, the book that could stand unembarrassed alongside “Invisible Man.”

So, for argument’s sake, let’s imagine that the juries and Pulitzer boards of the past were not necessarily saps, prigs, or pedants. That includes the ones that didn’t acknowledge “The Great Gatsby,” “The Sound and the Fury,” or “Invisible Man.” It includes the people who, in 1974, believed it was better to withhold the prize entirely than to give it to “Gravity’s Rainbow.”

It’s easy to attribute past oversights to some imaginary band of the cowardly and nearsighted (one pictures them in dowdily sensible outfits, owl-eyed, prim, and self-righteous, speaking to one another in carefully rehearsed boarding-school accents). And, yes, the cowardly and nearsighted do exist in the realm of literature. They sometimes thrive.

It’s more interesting, though, to think about how elusive greatness can be before history delivers its verdict, even to those who are neither prim nor self-righteous.

Among the more infamous critical and popular failures in its time is, of course, “Moby-Dick” (which was published before the Pulitzers were established). “The Great Gatsby” and “The Sound and the Fury” fell like Icarus immediately upon publication. Time magazine called “On the Road” “a barbaric yawp of a book.” The New Yorker declared “Catch-22” “a debris of sour jokes.”

As we jurors continued to find books we loved but failed to find the One, the Great Invincible, I confess (I can’t indict Maureen or Susan along with me) that I wanted not only to recognize genius but also to escape going down in history as one of the people who failed to recognize it. Someone who missed the Northern Lights because they were fussing with a lapdog; who proved unable to see beyond their readerly peccadillos and prejudices or their flat-out limitations.

This ongoing state of agitation was not helped by the knowledge that a great new book, more or less by definition, doesn’t much resemble the great books of the past. Nor was it helped by my suspicion that many of the long-forgotten critics and prize-givers who decimated “Moby-Dick” or ignored “The Sound and the Fury” failed to understand that the future wouldn’t mind Melville’s insistence on all those longish chapters devoted to whaling arcana, or Faulkner’s devotion to a lexicon that could seem simultaneously oracular and impenetrable, that sometimes barely resembled the English most of us had spoken, with relative confidence, since childhood.

It’s partly a question of what future generations will and will not overlook. What seem fatal flaws to one generation strike the next as displays of artistic courage. Who cares that Henry James went on sometimes at questionable length because he was being paid by the word? Who cares, for that matter, that Marconi merely invented radio transmission when his actual goal was to pick up the voices of the dead?

Finally, there was the question of shifting sensibilities. When Maureen, Susan, and I talked Big Book, we were thinking almost literally—a book that was, if not over five hundred pages long, vast in its scope, enormous in its concerns.

But as I scanned the cartons for Big Ones, I found myself thinking more and more of the Impressionists. I wondered over the fact that, in the course of several centuries, “serious” painting ceased to favor great historical or religious subjects, which tended to incorporate at least two dozen figures, facial and bodily expressions that ranged from despair to ecstasy, a landscape, a horse or two, symbolic vestments, symbolic gestures, and (optional, but recommended) various saints and angels, approving or angered, up among the roil and brilliance of the clouds.

And then, a mere minute later in historical time, a “serious” painting could be a Monet haystack. It could be a Cezanne portrait of a local farmer in overalls. It could be an empty Van Gogh field under an empty sky.

The Impressionists don’t strike us (don’t strike me, anyway) as lesser artists simply because they worked on an outwardly more modest scale. At the Metropolitan Museum of Art, do I hurry past the paintings by Monet and Cezanne and Van Gogh to get to those by Tintoretto and the Delacoix? I do not. I’m happy to see all of them, but the Monets and Cezannes and Van Goghs don’t look small compared to the Tintorettos and Delacroixes. They’re just big in different ways.

As are “The Great Gatsby” and “The Sound and the Fury.” As are “On the Road” and “Catch-22.”

The search for a significant new book, an enduring book, is, in short, a crapshoot, and, as is true of all gambles, the odds favor the house over the player. I like to think that history will vindicate all three of our choices; that someone like me will someday be appalled to learn that “The Pale King,” “Train Dreams,” and “Swamplandia!” were all passed over in 2012. There is, however, no telling. We may be castigated by future generations for failing to nominate a book we dismissed early on, because it struck us as trivial or overwritten or sentimental.

Which is probably one of the reasons those of us who love contemporary fiction love it as we do. We’re alone with it. It arrives without references, without credentials we can trust. Givers of prizes (not to mention critics) do the best they can, but they may—they probably will—be scoffed at by their children’s children. We, the living readers, whether or not we’re members of juries, decide, all on our own, if we suspect ourselves to be in the presence of greatness. We’re compelled to let future generations make the more final decisions, which will, in all likelihood, seem to them so clear as to produce a sense of bafflement over what was valued by their ancestors; what was garlanded and paraded, what carried to the temple on the shoulders of the wise.

A literary prize is, at best, one way of drawing readers to a book that deserves more serious attention than it might have gotten without a prize. A faulty track record doesn’t invalidate the attempt to say, annually, to anyone who might be listening, “You really should read this one.”

Which is why the committee’s decision to withhold the prize entirely is so unfortunate. An American writer has been ill served and underestimated. Readers have been deprived of what might have been a great literary discovery or might have offered them the bittersweet but genuine satisfaction of saying, “Really? That book? What were those people thinkingof?”

Illustration by Maximilian Bode.

LETTER FROM THE PULITZER FICTION JURY: WHAT REALLY HAPPENED THIS YEAR: PART I

In Articles on July 9, 2012 at 9:00 pm

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Posted by Michael Cunningham

On April 16, 2012, the Pulitzer Prize Board announced that it would award no Pulitzer for fiction in 2012. This was, to say the least, surprising and upsetting to any number of people, prominent among them the three fiction jurors, who’d read over three hundred novels and short-story collections, and finally submitted three finalists, each remarkable (or so we believed) in its own way.

The nominees were David Foster Wallace’s “The Pale King,” which was not only unfinished at the time of Wallace’s death but left in disarray, and brilliantly pieced together by Wallace’s editor, Michael Pietsch; Denis Johnson’s grim but transcendent “Train Dreams,” set in the American West at the turn of the nineteenth century; and an accomplished first novel, “Swamplandia!,” about an eccentric Southern family, by the alarmingly young writer Karen Russell.

The fiction jury, which changes yearly, puts forward three books to be voted on by the eighteen voting members of the Pulitzer board, who are primarily journalists and academics, and who serve for three-year terms.

The jury does not designate a winner, or even indicate a favorite. The jury provides the board with three equally ranked options. The members of the board can, if they’re unsatisfied with the three nominees, ask the jury for a fourth possibility. No such call was made.

I was one of the jurors for 2012, and am a novelist. The other jurors were Maureen Corrigan, the book critic on NPR’s “Fresh Air” and a professor of English at Georgetown University, and Susan Larson, the former book editor of the New Orleans Times-Picayune and host of “The Reading Life” on NPR. (Both Corrigan and Larson have agreed to be portrayed in this article.)

We were, all three of us, shocked by the board’s decision (non-decision), because we were, in fact, thrilled, not only by the books we’d nominated but also by several other books that came within millimeteres of the final cut. We never felt as if we were scraping around for books that were passable enough to slap a prize onto. We agreed, by the end of all our reading and discussion, that contemporary American fiction is diverse, inventive, ambitious, and (maybe most important) still a lively, and therefore living, art form.

And yet, no prize at all in 2012.

How did that happen?

The board’s deliberations are sealed. No one outside the board will ever know why they decided to withhold the prize.

I did, however, learn a good deal about how short lists are formed, how “best” books are selected—a process that had hitherto been mysterious to me. Like many, I’ve often greeted the announcement of certain prizewinners with bafflement.

Really? That book? What were those people thinking of?

I can tell you what three people, in 2012, were thinking of.

First, and probably most obvious, the members of any jury are possessed of particular tastes and opinions, and, however they may strive for it, absolute objectivity is impossible. A different Pulitzer jury in 2012 might very well have put forward three different books, one of which might have pleased the Pulitzer board better than ours did.

Still, they could have called.

Utter objectivity, however, is not only impossible when judging literature, it’s not exactly desirable. Fiction involves trace elements of magic; it works for reasons we can explain and also for reasons we can’t. If novels or short-story collections could be weighed strictly in terms of their components (fully developed characters, check; original voice, check; solidly crafted structure, check; serious theme, check) they might satisfy, but they would fail to enchant. A great work of fiction involves a certain frisson that occurs when its various components cohere and then ignite. The cause of the fire should, to some extent, elude the experts sent to investigate.

A proper respect for the mysterious aspects of fiction is encouraged by the Pulitzer’s guidelines, which are gratifyingly loose. The winning book, be it a novel or short-story collection, must have been written by an American, and should, ideally, be in some way about American life.

That’s it.

When we first spoke (we all live in different cities, and met in person only once), in June of 2011, Maureen, Susan, and I made a few fundamental agreements that had, surely, been made by other juries in the past. We would not favor writers for their obscurity (who doesn’t love an undiscovered genius?), or penalize them for their exalted reputations. We would tend to favor the grand, flawed effort over the exquisitely crafted miniature. We preferred visionary explorers to modest gardeners, and declared ourselves willing to forgive certain shortcomings or overreachings in a writer who was clearly attempting to accomplish more than can technically be done using only ink and paper.

Soon after, the books started to arrive.

There would be three hundred of them—culled from the year’s output by America’s wildly various fiction writers—but they came in increments of about thirty. We three were all reading from among the same thirty books at the same time, but not necessarily reading the same book at the same time.

A lot of them, you will not be surprised to hear, were fairly easy to dismiss. They were trivial, or badly written, or lurid, or overblown, or mawkish—the list goes on. Some were delightful, but too slight for a prize of this magnitude.

We each kept a list, however, of any book that seemed even remotely plausible as a contender. When we’d all finished a shipment of hopefuls, we presented our lists of “keepers” to one another and talked about why we’d liked or, on occasion, loved the books on our lists. We made no eliminations. We simply combined our three lists, and went on to the next thirty-plus.

The members of most literary juries, it seems, find themselves to be in almost miraculous agreement during the initial phases of judging. It’s not particularly difficult to agree that certain books have no chance at all and that others have merit. The arguments come later, when some of the variously meritorious books need to be struck from the final list.

My own most dramatic reading experience occurred when, from the third shipment, I pulled Wallace’s “The Pale King.” I confess that I was not a huge fan of his novel “Infinite Jest,” and further confess that I thought, on opening “The Pale King,” that it was a long shot indeed, given that Wallace had not lived to complete it.

I was, as it happened, the first of us to read “The Pale King,” and well before I’d finished it I found myself calling Maureen and Susan and saying, “The first paragraph of the Wallace book is more powerful than any entire book we’ve read so far.”

Consider its opening line:

Past the flannel plains and the blacktop graphs and skylines of canted rust, and past the tobacco-brown river overhung with weeping trees and coins of sunlight through them on the water downriver, to the place beyond the windbreak, where untilled fields simmer shrilly in the a.m. heat: shattercane, lamb’s-quarter, cutgrass, sawbrier, nutgrass, jimsonweed, wild mint, dandelion, foxtail, muscatine, spinecabbage, goldenrod, creeping charlie, butter-print, nightshade, ragweed, wild oat, vetch, butcher grass, invaginate volunteer beans, all head gently nodding in a morning breeze like a mother’s soft hand on your cheek.

Maureen and Susan both started the book, and both agreed. It was a little like having heard a series of chamber pieces, and been pleased by them, until the orchestra started in on Beethoven. Needless to say, “The Pale King” was added to the ongoing list.

We spoke to each other, by phone or e-mail, once every two or three weeks. And, as we asserted our own opinions and listened to those of the others, our general predilections began to make themselves apparent.

Maureen was drawn to writers who told a gripping and forceful story. She did not by any means require a conventional story, conventionally told, but she wanted something to have happened by the time she reached the end, some sea change to have occurred, some new narrative continent discovered, or some ancient narrative civilization destroyed.

Susan was a tough-minded romantic. She wanted to fall in love with a book. She always had reasons for her devotions, as an astute reader would, but she was, to her credit, probably the most emotional one among us. Susan could fall in love with a book in more or less the way one falls in love with a person. Yes, you can provide, if asked, a list of your loved one’s lovable qualities: he’s kind and funny and smart and generous and he knows the names of trees.

But he’s also more than amalgamation of qualities. You love him, the entirety of him, which can’t be wholly explained by even the most exhaustive explication of his virtues. And you love him no less for his failings. O.K., he’s bad with money, he can be moody sometimes, and he snores. His marvels so outshine the little complaints as to render them ridiculous.

I was the language crank, the one who swooned over sentences. I could forgive much in a book if it was written with force and beauty, if its story was told in a voice unlike anything I’d heard before, if the writer was finding new and mesmerizing ways to employ the same words that have been available to all American writers for hundreds of years. I tended to balk if a book contained some good lines but also some indifferent ones. I insisted that every line should be a good one. I was—and am—a bit fanatical on the subject.

This is not to say that any of us was obdurate or inflexible about our inclinations, but rather that it was good for all three of us to know what our inclinations were, so as to allow for them, in ourselves and one another, as we continued to talk and talk and talk about the books. I might say, of a particular book, “Maybe I’m being too easily seduced by the language.” Or Susan might say, “Maybe I’m a little bit blinded by love.” That, it seemed, was one way to move toward relative objectivity. We declared ourselves. We wanted to be called out by the other two, if calling-out proved necessary.

Once we’d read all three hundred and some books, we found ourselves with a list of thirty or more. We fairly quickly crossed off a number of them. This book had seemed more impressive before we read the next two hundred. That book was greatly admired by one of us but not all that much by either of the others.

The disagreements (always civil, we truly did respect one another) started when we’d finally pared the list down to six or seven candidates.

Each of them was remarkable in certain ways. Each of them inspired doubts, in one or more of the three of us.

It was time, then, to get into judgment mode. We’d been excited, to different degrees and for different reasons, about all the books that remained on our still-too-long list. We loved each of the authors for their triumphs over the forces of banality, contrivance, predictability, thinness, falseness, randomness, tidiness, and all the other forces that defeat almost everyone reckless enough to write fiction at all.

It was time, however, to get tough. It could no longer be, “Why shouldn’t this book be honored?” but “Why should it?”

The nitpicking began.

A ravishingly beautiful, original novel went down when one of us pointed out that, lovely as the book was, Toni Morrison had already told a version of that particular story, to similarly powerful effect, in a single chapter of “Beloved.”

I lobbied to eliminate another because its language was sometimes strong and sometimes indifferent. At one point I said to Maureen and Susan, “Please don’t make me read you a dozen limp, lifeless sentences taken from the book. I don’t want to be that guy.” But I insisted that although there were plenty of good lines, there were simply too many slack, utilitarian ones. And, in that case, the language crank got his way.

A third fell under the wheel (and this one was particularly heartbreaking to all of us) when we reluctantly acknowledged that although it was wonderfully written and fabulously inventive, its central love story, while moving, was insufficiently complicated and a bit sentimental; that it failed to depict the body of darker emotions that are integral to love: moments of rage, disappointment, pettiness, and greed, to name a few. All three of us wished love to be as simple as the author imagined it to be, but we acknowledged that love, as far as we could tell, is not only not simple, but that part of its glory is its ability to survive incidents of rage, disappointment, and etc.

And so it went.

We didn’t enjoy that part of the process. We didn’t like putting aside any accomplished book because its author had made a single fatal misstep.

Literature, however, is a tough business.

Our final three picks were all controversial, each in its own way. “The Pale King” was, of course, unfinished, but so are a number of great works of art. We have only fragments of Sappho’s poetry. Chaucer was a little more than halfway through “The Canterbury Tales” when he died. And, of course, there’s Haydn’s unfinished symphony, and all those magnificent sculptures by Michelangelo, only half emerged from their blocks of marble.

It seemed, too, that a Pulitzer for “The Pale King” would be, by implication, an acknowledgement not only of Wallace but also of Michael Pietsch, the editor. As a novelist, I well know how much difference an editor can make—and there’s no major prize given to editors. The best an editor can hope for is mention on the acknowledgments page, when, sometimes, that editor has literally rescued the book.

Denis Johnson’s “Train Dreams” had been written ten years earlier and been published as a long short story in The Paris Review. It was, however, magnificently written, stylistically innovative, and—in its exhilarating, magical depiction of ordinary life in the much romanticized Wild West—a profoundly American book.

It contains lines like:

All his life Robert Grainier would remember vividly the burned valley at sundown, the most dreamlike business he’d ever witnessed waking—the brilliant pastels of the last light overhead, some clouds high and white, catching daylight from beyond the valley, others ribbed and gray and pink, the lowest of them rubbing the peaks of Bussard and Queen mountains; and beneath this wondrous sky the black valley, utter still, the train moving through it making a great noise but unable to wake this dead world.

“Train Dreams” had only been published as a novel in 2012, which made it eligible, for the first time, for a Pulitzer. We checked with the Pulitzer administrator about that. He gave us the O.K.

Karen Russell’s “Swamplandia!” was a first novel, and, like many first novels, it contained among its wonders certain narrative miscalculations—the occasional overreliance on endearingly quirky characters, certain scenes that should have been subtler. Was a Pulitzer a slightly excessive response to a fledgling effort?

However, it seemed very much like the initial appearance of an important writer, and its wonders were wonderful indeed. Other first novels, among them Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” and John Kennedy Toole’s “A Confederacy of Dunces,” have won the Pulitzer. One is not necessarily looking for perfection in a novel, or for the level of control that generally comes with more practice. One is looking, more than anything, for originality, authority, and verve, all of which “Swamplandia!” possessed in abundance. For instance, this memory of the narrator’s mother:

Nights in the swamp were dark and star-lepered—our island was thirty-odd miles from the mainland—and although your naked eye could easily find the ball of Venus and the sapphire hairs of the Pleiades, our mother’s body was just lines, a smudge against the palm trees.

When we’d agreed on our three choices, Susan, Maureen, and I drank two consecutive toasts over the phone. First to the finalists, and then to the valiant, gifted almost-finalists. We were truly sorry about some of the books we’d rejected. We were enormously pleased with the artfulness and fearlessness and unorthodox beauties of the books we’d decided to nominate.

And so, we submitted our choices to the members of the board and waited, with gleeful anticipation, for their announcement on April 16th.

This is the first part of a two-part piece. The second installment will appear on Page-Turner tomorrow.

Illustration by Maximilian Bode.