The Madness of Art: Gothicism in my Short Stories

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by Caroline Sanders

I tend to be unabashedly optimistic and cheerful. I wake up early every weekday morning to do work on my closed-in front porch with my favorite, bright yellow coffee mug in hand that reads: “You Are My Sunshine” (disclaimer: if it’s dirty, I drink out of a white one that reads “SMILE, SMILE, SMILE”). It’s annoying—I know—but I like it nonetheless. It’s interesting, therefore, that my favorite genre of literature is Southern Gothic, a genre known for its grotesque imagery and its emphasis on darkness, especially the darkness found within deeply flawed characters, ultimately revealing problems in southern society and the human consciousness. I’m not sure how it happened. All I know is that one day my high school English teacher introduced Faulkner and the next day I was hooked. The questions Faulkner and other writers like him deal with in their stories are the questions that draw me in inexplicably and make me question my own existence.

And so, I, like any bright-eyed, self-discovering student, decided to pursue my interests in this topic through researching and eventually producing my own work that I will compile into a senior thesis. Drawing inspiration from great writers is easy. Flannery O’Connor, for instance, inspires me to no end. I read her work and am floored by her brilliance time and again. I thought about the ending of Wise Blood for weeks after finishing the novel, walking around in circles on campus as I pondered the implications of “the ragged figure who moves from tree to tree in the back of his mind.” The final image in “Parker’s Back,” the one of Parker “leaning against the tree, crying like a baby,” had me crying as if I, myself, had seen and lost my first glimpse of faith.

Gaining inspiration is easy. Emulating O’Connor and her contemporaries is a whole ’nother story.

At first, I hesitated to try to write a gothic story. After all, I instinctively look on the bright side of things and had never attempted to write like my literary heroes before. I don’t tend to have neurotic tendencies or gothic fantasies, which puts me at a slight disadvantage. As I’ve written more and more stories, however, I’ve noticed gothic elements slipping in. In my latest story, tentatively titled “The Best We Can,” I decided to lean a bit more heavily on gothic themes and ideas. Some of these themes are confusion, darkness, figurative ghosts, and family secrets. In fact, the title and inspiration for the story came from a quote by Southern Gothic writer, Truman Capote.

Capote’s early works are written in the Southern Gothic vein. In a 1973 interview with Andy Warhol that was published in Rolling Stone, Capote said, “For me, every act of art is the act of solving a mystery…You know what Henry James says…let me see…it was one of the short stories of his…It says, ‘We live in the dark, we do the best we can, and the rest is the madness of art.’ To me, that’s always been my motto.” This is a paraphrase of James’ quote, but the essence of it lies in a kind of optimistic Gothicism—a kind of Gothicism that I believe O’Connor uses as well through her underlying themes of faith as a constant despite the darkness of the human heart. This is the kind of Gothicism I seek to employ in my own work.

I have encountered some problems with writing my own Southern Gothic stories. Perhaps the biggest roadblock I’ve run into is the great depth and breadth of things I want to say. Because I want my story to deal with concepts like dark family secrets, the pride and shame wrapped up in one’s past, mental illness, and race, I’ve become a little overwhelmed in telling it succinctly. What I intended to be a shorter story has turned into an epic of sorts and the organization and execution are proving difficult. I want the storyline to be confusing to the reader at first, but illuminated as one reads on. I want the themes to be accessible to all.

Now, after beginning to add gothic elements to my stories, I want to do more. I toyed with the idea of Gus McNeese, my protagonist in an earlier story entitled “Radio Man,” being a grotesque character, but now I’d like to emphasize that even further in my revisions. “John, the Baptist” has many gothic qualities as well that can be intensified. In doing this, I want to show characters who are grotesque projections of themselves, deeply hurting and deeply flawed. Penuel, the setting of my stories’ namesake, after all, is the place in the Old Testament where Jacob wrestled with God. In the end, my characters do the best they can and leave the rest up to “the madness of art.”

posted by R. T. Smith

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John Montague: A Memorial Sampler

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[This is the second of a pair of posts celebrating the life and work of Irish poet John Montague.  The first can be found immediately below this one, and I recommend reading them in sequence.]
Like many Americans, I encountered Yeats for the first time in a “British Literature” survey and found him both mystifying and mesmerizing.  The Byzantium poems, “The Second Coming,” “Lapis Lazuli,” “Among School Children,” “Leda and the Swan,” the standard anthology pieces, which my professor explained in scrupulous detail, formed my private syllabus, but Yeats’ poems were examined more for their high modernist method than for their Irish political and cultural context and implications.

Even in graduate school, where Yeats was one of four modernists I studied in a seminar, I was never encouraged to much consider his national identity or ask if there were Irish poets after Yeats.  Clearly the misleading “English Lit” concept was too broad and robust, but about 1978 Kay Byer started telling me about Heaney, whose close connection to the work of the earth and the vernacular echoed with my studies of the poetry of the American South and who was suddenly well on the way to becoming my favorite poet.

I eventually managed to discover County Monaghan’s Patrick Kavanagh, author of The Great Hunger in the early forties, a poet whose harrows and horses, country dances and sexual repression balanced Yeats’ myths and intricacy in their contribution to the rough rural and yet cosmopolitan poems of Heaney.  What I didn’t discover for another dozen years was the exciting work of John Montague, both lyrics and sequences like The Rough Field, which Heaney knew intimately and admired.  It took me a trip to Ireland in the late eighties to understand how fundamental Montague’s work had been to the formation of Heaney’s aesthetic, and probably Michael Longley’s, as well.

Born in the U. S. of Irish Catholic parents but sent back to Northern Ireland as a child, then fostered away from his brothers, Montague began his life as a divided person, an explorer of thresholds and liminal emotions.  Catholic in a protestant plantation, Irish speaker in a landscape of imposed English, he displayed deep Irish roots even as he cultivated an international perspective.  His wives were French and then American, his voice was prominent in the Irish traditional music revival, yet he taught for much of his life at SUNY-Albany, as well as University College Cork, somewhat mirroring his own education at University College and the University of Iowa,  Deeply private in many of his poems, he unleashed Irish history and myth to intensify and complicate his verses.  Also at home in Paris and Nice (where he died), he was appointed Ireland’s first national Chair of Poetry, comparable to a poet laureate position.

One hears two primary camps, not always at odds, in the discussions of Montague’s poetry.  Some celebrate his lyric gift, especially as it explores the nuances of romantic love and of romantic and family loss.  The other voice brings forth “the authenticity of his anger” over sectarian and brotherly conflict, and that faction is divided over the question of how hope and sorrow interact.  Glimmers of the former and shadows of the latter strive and interlock in his poems.  One need only scan the titles of his books (The Rough Field, The Great Cloak, The Dead Kingdom, Poisoned Lands, Forms of Exile, but also and always A Chosen Light) to realize that subjects of such great pitch and moment, no matter how locally and personally they are addressed, are his obsession, and the bone of Irish animosity draws him away from the shuddered satisfactions of passion long after the marrow is gone from the bone.

Christopher Ricks wrote of The Rough Field in The New York Times Book Review, “In Mr. Montague’s fine, firm poems . . . loving force is always made real by being threatened by the angers of Ireland.”  Heaney called it “an utterance from the underworld of love and bitterness.”  Of Collected Poems Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin said, “John Montague’s poetic gift is for elegance and clarity; his voice is austere and musical, his vision is of sharp gleaming perspectives, his mentality international and modern.”

Although I enthusiastically recommend his book-length sequences where the personal and the political braid and snake and shimmer, I offer here just a sample of the shorter pieces with the urging that readers acquire the American version of John’s 1995 Collected Poems (Wake Forest, from the Gallery Press edition) and consume them till they return the favor.

I have heard many interpretations of this poem: it’s about sexual predation; about masturbation, about composition of a poem, about satisfaction and guilt; about two dozen lines, about seizing the ineffable, about being fishers of men.  Maybe all of them, but for me it is about wildness and capture, beauty and the desire to touch it.  It’s a species of early catch-and-release, but it is the prey that will not release, the angler (or guddler) who cannot shake free.  Kidding aside, it is terse and precise and radiant, from “tendril-light” to “lightly pulsing gills.”  It is a fine, firm poem.

for Barrie Cooke

Flat on the bank I parted
Rushes to ease my hands
In the water without a ripple
And tilt them slowly downstream
To where he lay, tendril-light,
In his fluid sensual dream.

Bodiless lord of creation,
I hung briefly above him
Savouring my own absence,
Senses expanding in the slow
Motion, the photographic calm
That grows before action.

As the curve of my hands
Swung under his body
He surged, with visible pleasure.
I was so preternaturally close
I could count every stipple
But still cast no shadow, until

The two palms crossed in a cage
Under the lightly pulsing gills.
Then (entering my own enlarged
Shape, which rode on the water)
I gripped.  To this day I can
Taste his terror on my hands.

This next poem is child-delicate, but also a testament to the indelible nature of love.

for Una

A firefly gleams, then
fades upon your cheek.
Now you hide beneath
everything I write:
love’s invisible ink,
heart’s watermark.

And then there is the sorrow when loves fails, regret sets in, the pain is not distributed equally.  One reviewer has suggested that the signature of Montague’s love poetry is that he does not protect himself, which is a rare stance.


Two fish float:

one slowly downstream
into the warm
currents of the known,

the other tugging
against the stream,
disconsolate twin,

the golden
marriage hook
tearing its throat.

Anticipation of nostalgia and an attempt to remember one of the monumental small moments appear in the following poem.  It should be no surprise that a poet of Montague’s stripe would eventually sour on love, only to be rejuvenated later in life.  This poem echoes Pound and his sources a little, but the narrator’s vulnerability makes it a more valuable poem to me than the elder poet’s famous Metro poem.  The address, without the source of the speaker’s hypersensitive state kept far in the distant shadows of the poem, resonates with the early photographic process but makes it livelier than any one sense can.


  1. 11 rue Daguerre

At night, sometimes, when I cannot sleep
I go to the atelier door
And smell the earth of the garden.

It exhales softly,
Especially now, approaching springtime,
When tendrils of green are plaited

Across the humus, desperately frail
In their passage against
The dark, unredeemed parcels of earth.

There is white light on the cobblestones
And in the apartment house opposite –
All four floors – silence.

At that stillness – soft but luminously exact,
A chosen light – I notice that
The tips of the lately grafted cherry-tree

Are a firm and lacquered black.

“A Grafted Tongue” is a small narrative with a large wallop.  An Irish-speaking boy in an English-speaking school is humiliated when he says a word in Irish.  The impact continues for generations.  This is surely an easy poem for Americans to grasp, now that children whose cultural identities don’t fit the “norm” are suffering so much in the current wave of bullying.


bloodied, the severed
head now chokes to
speak another tongue –

As in
a long suppressed dream,
some stuttering garb-
led ordeal of my own)

An Irish
child weeps at school
repeating its English.
After each mistake

The master
gouges another mark
on the tally stick
hung about its neck

Like a bell
on a cow, a hobble
on a straying goat.
To slur and stumble

In shame
the altered syllables
of your own name;
to stray sadly home

And find
the turf-cured width
of your parent’s hearth
growing slowly alien:

In cabin
and field, they still
speak the old tongue.
You may greet no one.

To grow
a second tongue, as
harsh a humiliation
as twice to be born.

Decades later
that child’s grandchild’s
speech stumbles over lost
syllables of an old order.

Finally, I recommend to American readers the body (and the blood and spirit) of Montague’s work, among others of his countrymen, because the United States is, quite astonishingly, now divided in a way reminiscent of the times of the Troubles in Ireland, a division that is revealing us to be as parochial and bitter as we once feared the Irish were.  Seeing such animosity through the prism of Montague’s wounded, wounding poetry may bring clarity and recommend charity to us in a time when we so desperately need it.  I close with John’s poem on the 1998 car bombing in Omagh, County Tyrone (29 fatalities, hundreds of injuries] which I can testify nearly rent his spirit in two.  It is not a poem to be memorized, but to be learned by heart.

A Response to Omagh

All I can do is curse, complain.
Who can endorse such violent men?
As history creaks its bloody hinge
and the unspeakable is done again.

With no peace after the deluge,
no ease after the storm,
we learn to live inside ruin
like a second home.

What we, too, can find in Montague’s poems over and over is simply to “learn to live.”  Not a small thing.

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John Montague: Bris-Mo-Croi

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Last Saturday I had been in the woodlot quartering a shagbark brought down last year because –  long assailed, perhaps even “farmed” for beetles, by pileateds – it was riddled with impressive holes.  Air cold, wood old and mazed – I had anticipated pleasant work.  But the tree still had heart and vigor in sections, and I tired quickly.  Indoors, I found a message noting the death of Irish poet John Montague, with whom I spent much time in the 90’s and at the beginning of this century.  He was about sixty when I met him and 87 when he passed, but his energy and curiosity, capacity for hard work and zest for life prevented me from ever seeing him as older than when I met him.  He was a man who had struggled with himself as much as external forces;  I admired his work and loved his company.

Bris-mo-croi, as they say in the Irish: “It breaks my heart.”

I’m going to post two blog posts about John, this first one more personal, anecdotal, the second celebrating his substantial achievements as a poet, though he was also a writer of stories, novels, reviews, guide books, manifestos, all manner of literary journalism.  Still, in the marrow, he was a poet, oft overlooked as the bridge between Patrick Kavanagh and Heaney, a rustic who could turn a sonnet silver, a Jungian who spoke the idiolect of Ulster turf cutters.

A voice soft as a summer mist in Galway, a shambling gait, a smile quick but a touch restrained, a high sense of irony, devotion to his wife, novelist Elizabeth Wassell, a badger tenacity when questions were raised – John was at once worldly and homely, stellar and earthy, quick and deliberate, equally a lover of a clever makeshift style and a connoisseur of Parisian rose windows.  He was sensual and randy, but he would have me turn the car toward a pub as the hour of six approached, as he did not wish to miss hearing the angelus rung on the radio.  He knew his haute cuisine but also declared, “The potato is your man.  He’ll not let you down,” as he pocketed leftover spuds from our table in a pricey Breton restaurant.  He was great craic.

On two occasions I spent a couple of weeks with John and Elizabeth in Letter Cottage, Ballydehob, West Cork.  We strolled together, sampled lamb (“almost delectable, even this far from spring”), sang ballads (our voices “tractor axles in want of oil”), and I drove them hither and yon.  Neither could operate a car back then, and they often made it the three miles to the village on shank’s mare.  Once I drove them to Dublin for an award ceremony and fund raising launch for a new magazine.  It would have been enough to hear his stories of the locals like Declan Handbag and Declan Wildlife (two locals, one a gay bon vivant, the other a forest ranger), but John had written the first comprehensive tourist guide of Ireland, and he was forever directing me to turn left at those beeches or reverse a hundred meters to a near-invisible stone.  He must have known every rath and tower, holy well and abbey ruin in the country, and I saw many of them.

I should say that the pilgrimage to Dublin engraved John and Eliza in my mind because I came down with a monstrous sinus infection just as we reached the Black Pool, early seat of Viking trespassers.  They housed me in the holy Arts Club and tended me while I produced enough mucous to make Joyce’s “snotgreen sea” seem a commonplace.  I survived to attend both a wild pub argument between Derek Mahon and some other poets, my first real taste of Irish wit and enmity loosed at gale force, and an elegant cocktail party with celebrities and outlaws mingling in fierce competition to become “the most interesting man in the world.”  (I believe the victor was Michael D. Higgins, poet and socialist pol then, President of Ireland today.)  But throughout the adventure and misadventure, Liz and John ministered unto me, introduced me around and insisted upon my brilliance as a poet.  John had been a great carouse mate with Beckett (whose birthday I share, along with Heaney), and said in French and with a twist of mischief, he wished I had known “Sam.”  What’s not to love there?

By the way, at that gala John read his newest poem, a lament for the town of Omagh, where sectarian militants had recently slain about three dozen with a car bomb.  Direct and sorrowful, broken-hearted, this small poem looms large in my mind, representing a significant portion of what John Montague was and is to me.

A Response to Omagh

All I can do is curse, complain.
Who can endorse such violent men?
As history creaks its bloody hinge
and the unspeakable is done again.

With no peace after the deluge,
no ease after the storm,
we learn to live inside ruin
like a second home.

The diction, tightness of meter and rhyme, economy, gravity of the indictment and bridge from human atrocity to Biblical-sounding disasters of weather – well, the room was a held breath before the sorrowful applause began.  Some few (I trust an Irish audience) would have recognized the opening line from the beginning of John’s “Cassandra’s Answer,” written in the eighties and published in Mount Eagle.  The new poem was a more nuanced, less myth-cloaked version, and it cut deeper while resurrecting the older poem’s Homeric resonance.

Once John, Elizabeth and I traveled to the Wicklow Mountains to visit Guinness heir Gareth Browne on his vast estate, which was also a game preserve with red deer vaulting about, hares quivered in their meaze, ravens, badger, peacocks and foxes, grouse a-plenty, a partridge striding right through the door of the gamekeeper’s lodge where we were housed and cocking its head, as if to investigate what I was doing with my stick pencil scratching on paper at the trestle table.  What I learned in the long late-night discussions, besides the volatile politics of Irish literature, included the history of the traditional Irish music, spearheaded by the Chieftains, who were conjured backed (with the other artists of Claddagh Records) by Gareth himself.  The big house was under renovation, so Gareth occupied the servants’ house, the servants the gatehouse, John, Liz and I the pristinely luxurious two-bedroom cottage a mile or so of twisty mountain road from the main compound.  There, as at home and everywhere I ever traveled with them, John and Elizabeth rose fairly early and sat silently across a table from each other to write.  It was high discipline and deeply rooted harmony, and I have more than once seen each raise eyes to glimpse the other, smile then return to work, recharged.  I had not seen love like that before.  I remember that sojourn well for those mornings and the music and poetry of the evenings, but also because a certain actress invited Gareth and Company up to the Sally Gap, where she was filming Friel’s Dancing at Lughnasa.  Later, the magnificent raconteur Michael Lindsay-Hogg (director and Orson Welles’ son) took us out to dinner, and on Sunday we learned of the death of Princess Diana, which put the whole cadre into a dark place, John especially.  He kept shaking his head and mumbling about how hard she tried to be both regal and natural, and how the effort tore her asunder.

I’m aware of the halo effect and how it can creep in, but John could be persnickety and combative, too, rantish and sly, stubborn, bitter over his position on the bardic totem pole (like nearly every poet I have ever met, Mirror Man included), but these were not the modes I most knew him in.  He was generous, courtly (approaching condescension on occasion), witty, mischievous, inquisitive, resourceful, erudite.  His daughter Oonah said of him: “He was a country boy, and mother put the manners on him.”  So, a culchie trafficking among the city mice, the cosmopolitans, the cognoscenti, the opulent and silver-spooned.  I have often seen him in the role of peacemaker and messenger, and a couple of the poets in their obituaries said that, in his last decade, he had reconciled with the higher esteem of his younger friend Heaney enjoyed and praised his Ulster countryman with no sign of irony or puckishness.

To the point of his graciousness: when I first met John, I knew little of his poetry but had read Bitter Harvest: An Anthology of Contemporary Irish Verse from Scribners.  Of course, it contains many splendid poems by poets from Heaney, Longley, Boland, McGuckian and Muldoon.  Montague as well, but 90% were men, and I had fallen into step with some of the omitted Galway women I knew and had cultivated an unearned partisan stance.  After his presentation and reading, he came over and asked me if he could sign a copy of the book for me, but I was quippish and rude, saying something about gender and how it was a wonder the Irish even managed to reproduce with such odds.  Awful, I know.

Later, in the pub, I was sitting alone, rehearsing my feeble wit and lack of tact, when he came to my table and asked, “So who are you yourself, anyway?”

“I’m nobody, who are you?’” I Dickinsoned him.

“Ah,” he replied, “and where are you from, Nobody?”

“Georgia, Carolina, Alabama.”

“The South.  I see.  Well, I’m John from County Tyrone, the North, but also from right here and right now.”  He extended his hand.  “Can I stand you a pint?”

I was ashamed, but that was not his aim.  Though we often disagreed and jousted, never again – in Albany or Rockbridge County, in Allihees or Ballydehob or Youghal or Dublin – did a hard word between us manage to outlive the sentence that followed it.

A prodigious lover of spirits, John once in Roundstone asked the woman behind the bar for a whisky.  “Large or small,” she inquired.  “My dear lady,” he responded, “There is no such thing as a large whisky.”  On another occasion, as we sat in his kitchen garden in the late summer twilight, John opened a fresh bottle of Bushmills.  It was just dark enough for the odor of the basil in the mozzarella and the olive oil scent to eclipse the work of the eyes, but I heard the snap of the separating rings on the bottle neck and smiled.  My expression must have altered a fair amount when John tossed the cap over his shoulder into the weeds.  I knew it would be a long night and a hard morning, but we did take a walk down the boreen, and atop a signpost saw a female white owl.  It was a small snowy, whose ilk I was never going to see in the wild in my life if not right then and right there.  I stared like a child, and John whispered, “Bride of the dead, if she speaks, don’t answer.”  I can close my eyes and see it still.

This was the Montague I knew, who always wrote brief occasional poems on the flyleaf or title page of the volumes he autographed for me.  I suppose my favorite is in The Rough Field, which is English for his true hometown, Garvaghey, garbh achaidh.

For Rod Smith,
Mac Gobhann.
the poet himself,
this long song
of wrong,
from the Bard of Tyrone!
Mac Taidgh,
Still sailing on – Letter College, Ballydehob, Autumn ‘97

Like the shagbark in the woods, he had heart and vigor, and now he has fallen.  As I said, Bris-Mo-Croi.

[Next week’s blog will display a few of John Montague’s poems and a brief introduction to the nature and force of his poetry.]

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Slipstream: Making the Familiar Strange (Part 2 of 2)

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by Dana Schultz

A few weeks ago I posted Part 1 of the Slipstream blog. In it I discussed the concept and fundamental problem of Slipstream, namely that it is a shorthand term for “slipping genre fiction into the mainstream” and that it lacks a concrete definition. Currently Slipstream is not a genre, rather a feeling of strangeness – i.e. cognitive dissonance – that some argue resembles the feelings one experiences from “living in the 21st century.” My research question over the past few weeks was whether Slipstream as a writing style is relevant enough to become accepted as a genre. Or, to put in less grandiose terms, if I could at least make an argument that it should be.

And now I would like to make a few disclaimers. The first is that I study Creative Writing and I have enormous respect for the Slipstream style and even attempt to model it in my own work. The second is that my two primary sources for this article are Lesley Wheeler and Chris Gavaler, two Washington and Lee professors that are well researched in speculative fiction and also happen to be married to each other. I am very thankful for their contribution of time and ideas towards this blog post. The worlds of speculative fiction and Slipstream are big seas to navigate, and they lent me a much needed oar.
Onward to my argument. The first topic to cover is whether Slipstream as a writing style is especially relevant to the 21st century. Some may argue, due to the political climate and information age, yes. The Oxford Dictionary named “post-truth” the word of the year. Today big data blurs the boundaries of truth because there is no longer a consensus on the facts. Confidence in the general existence of facts – i.e. absolute truths – is falling away… doesn’t that make you feel strange? This stretching of boundaries in the political world does seem to parallel the current challenging of boundaries in literary culture. For me to link cause to causation at the moment would be taking it too far, but I do believe that both represent a cultural trend of rethinking our assumptions. Bob Dylan’s award for the Nobel Prize in Literature is one example of a large trend of award organizations, the Pushcart Prize included, broadening the scope of literature they recognize.bob-dylan
lady-churchills-rosebud-wristletTherefore Slipstream is a timely development because the current literary judges are receptive to boundary crossing. There is also a large domain of literary magazines – online and in print – where Slipstream style writers can take flight. This domain includes, among many others, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, Phantom Drift, and Structo. However we are still faced with a fundamental problem. What does Slipstream do that speculative fiction does not? If Slipstream is simply a euphemism for “good speculative fiction,” that is not enough. However in my search to find a common thread in all the Slipstream works I’ve read, the euphemism seems to be it.

structo16Which takes us to our second topic, should Slipstream be accepted as a genre? My answer, in spite of my appreciation for writers that fall – voluntarily or not – under the Slipstream umbrella, is currently no. These writers already have their own umbrellas, and to shove them under a second, bigger umbrella is simply redundant. There need to be stylistic elements of Slipstream that sets it clearly apart from speculative fiction before the term can gain traction. For example, do the majority of Slipstream works play with reader expectations by consciously presenting and then subverting genre tropes? Some do, but not all of them. With all of the journals and websites noticing Slipstream, the Writer’s Chronicle and Wall Street Journal among them, it is difficult to argue that Slipstream is not a movement. However it is undetermined whether this movement has a direction. For Slipstream to become a credible genre, the judges simply have to get more specific about what they claim to be Slipstream. Until then we can only speculate whether Slipstream is “real or unreal,” and we already have speculative fiction for that.


Wheeler, Lesley. “Verse and the Multiverse.” Poet Lore 110.1-2 (Spring/ Summer 2015): 113-124.


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Thomas McGuane’s Canny CROW FAIR (Stories)

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mcguane-picMost of the stories in Thomas McGuane’s collection Crow Fair (Vintage, 2015; paperback, 2016) originally appeared in The New Yorker, but don’t hold that against the author; his narratives are not about or addressed to Martians.  In fact, McGuane and Annie Proulx seem to be holding onto some rich fictive Rocky Mountain territory somewhere on a holodeck connected to the offices of that esteemed magazine.

I was, initially, ambivalent about the early McGuane of Ninety-two in the Shade and Panama.  The books were pyrotechnically impressive, wild accounts of wild men driven by pharmacology, concupiscence and violence.  But I was also irritated at the exhibitionism, the coked-up style I could neither write nor live not quite understand.  Neither did I quite register the desperation of the characters.  But I jumped on board the wagon with the novels Nobody’s Angel and Something to Be Desired, which followed, best I can tell, the author’s relocation from the Keys to the high country of Montana.

What McGuane has discovered and explored is that, contrary to my own unschooled opinion, the vast big sky cowboy country can be claustrophobic, both emotionally and logistically, and when you make a misstep or suffer disappointment, the ghosts of these occurrences will stalk you over ridges, along gullies and through various social clusters.  For a few decades now McGuane has written about the inhabitants of the west – ranchers, entrepreneurs, cowhands, desperate folk living along the thread lines of that one turn of the screw which James reminds us separates good from evil.  McGuane’s people may be sulkers, whisperers, boasters, whistlers, self-destructive pilgrims, sneaks and masqueraders, but nearly all his protagonists are constructed like good sisal rope, prickly and braided tight.  Those who don’t yet know they are involved in moral dilemmas are about to find out, and McGuane seems to work at confirming this old adage:  “All men are fools, but those who know they are fools are not great fools.”  Much of the beauty of his writing – aside from swift, earthy, compelling metaphors and the imagery that comes only to an expert but mystified eye – lies in the fact that folly does not disqualify these rough customers, lost souls and puzzled pilgrims from empathy.  McGuane feels their pain and respects it.

McGuane writes about people he knows, whether from the neighborhood of Livingston or the steeps and washes of his imagination.  Some of these characters know about and love the things their author is somehow elegantly informed about: baseball, alcohol, real estate, the penal system, animal husbandry, marital discord, professional inertia, dementia, good luck and bad.  In the seventeen stories of Crow Fair he offers up a serious festival of the spiritual in which temptations are offered, embraced or not.  And McGuane knows that the damage his lonely folks have suffered does not make them noble, which does not mean that many of them are not noble.

In places like Skunk Creek, Greycliff, the Medicine Bow River and Snob Hollow, the residents of Crow Fair may build houses, inseminate cattle, sell property, while they cope with aging parents, as well as wayward spouses and offspring.  They’re often witty or erudite, combatting “clodhopper philosophy,” but their timing is often off, their wit and knowledge almost useless as survival tools, “his previous sarcasm no more than a wistful perimeter of defense.”

One story that begs to be read aloud is “A Long View to the West,” which features an exciting round-up of wild horses who “advanced his way like a bright cyclone.”  Another involves a truck jacking with suspense and promise, including the attentions of a gap-toothed bundle of female terror named Morsel.  And where else but “McGuane Country” will you encounter a brothel called the Butt Hut or the hay baling art thief of “Good Samaritan”?

However obliquely or bassackwardly (good old Polonian “by indirections find directions out”) he comes at it, McGuane is always attuned to matters of the heart and the unfortunate and graceless ways human folk have of performing their dismount when love has broken or just seeped away, leaving room for “complete ossification.”

“Telling people to relax is not as aggressive as shooting them,” writes McGuane, “but it’s up there.”  In Crow Fair he tries neither to convince his readers to chill nor to shoot them.  At least, not directly.  Instead, he reveals hope and disappointment, energy and lethargy locked in a hard sorrow dance, and many of his protagonists have “sunk into depression crow-fairand discovered that there was no other illness so brutal, so profound, so inescapable, that made an enemy of consciousness itself.”  But consciousness, McGuane suggests in these sad and yet vigorous stories proves to have its own tactics and hidden reserves which may remind earthlings and Martians alike of Beckett’s, “I can’t go on; I’ll go on.”

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“Look like the innocent flower but be the serpent beneath.”

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By Maddie Schaffer

With 2016 being the 75th anniversary of the Curious George series, I decided to delve into some of the history surrounding what has become a multi-mullion dollar franchise of a rambunctious monkey and his keeper who not so ironically looks like a banana. Upon doing so, I got sucked into a sad, dark vortex of conspiracies, alternative interpretations, and dark thoughts about not only this fluffy little monkey, but also other fictional characters that had once been cheery friends of my childhood. Apparently monkey business is not just fun and games to some people. Perhaps though, some of these stories and their political interpretations- nay, their deemed political agendas- will lend to some insight into what is being considered the worst election in history.

If you are unaware of the wild history surrounding the birth of the Curious George series, curiousghere is a brief recap:  It started with Fifi, the original primate for which George would be modeled, who was created by a husband and wife team Hans Augusto and Margret Rey. They were German-born Jews living in Paris in 1939, a combination that was less than ideal. When the Nazi’s invaded, their only way of escape was building two bikes from spare parts and peddling away, manuscripts in hand. Some say their own escape influenced the escapades and antics of the monkey, and that the political turmoil is reflected in the scenes. However much I would like to believe these children’s stories are simply that, innocent tales to entertain young minds, some of the interpretations make valid points that are hard to ignore.

The notorious Man in the Yellow Hat takes Curious George from his home in Africa because he fancies him and thinks he would make a nice pet. Thrown into a bag and shipped over seas, to a foreign city with foreign people… is this a jab at western imperialism? Did Hans and Rey create an entire book series off of the idea of early settlers travelling to Africa and displacing the natives for their personal agendas? With both authors no longer with us, it may never be known, but those with strong ties to animal rights and those still fighting for inequality today may be urging people not to allow their children to indulge in these books for moral reasons.

The classic tale of Hansel and Gretel by the Brothers Grimm, brother and sister lured to the woods and stumble upon the candy house of children’s (read: everyone’s) fantasies, is hanselsupposedly a classic representation of the disparity between classes in a feudal system. Who knew! The evil witch (but actually how evil can someone with that much candy be) represents the aristocracy and their greed and brutality in exploiting the lower class. The actions committed by the woodcutter and his wife to attempt to rid themselves of the financial burden of their children are supposed to represent the hardships and struggles that the lower class goes through, and stress the imbalance in quality of life in the feudal system. Reading this as a kid, I was more focused on the fact that the siblings got to hangout in a sweet (literally) house, and not on the fairness between the lives of the woodcutter and his family verse the witch.

“A person is a person, no matter how small.” Even if you have never read Horton Hears a hortonhearsWho!, you may be able to guess from the deep meaning and rhyme of this line (unintentional pun), that it comes from the illustrious Dr. Seuss. This famous line has been used by pro-life organizations, which did cause legal issues, for obvious reasons: the book stresses equality, specifically in our political system today. Never directly stated that the purpose of the book was to point out political inequality, it is thought that the “black-bottomed birdie” that is dropped is meant to symbolize Hiroshima bombing. Dark stuff for a supposedly innocent children’s book.

Even the simplistic nature of If You Give A Mouse A Cookie by Laura Numeroff, is giveamouseapparently teaching young children about the ins and outs of the welfare system. It’s certainly necessary a five-year old understand about tax allocation, right? The endless cycle depicted in the book is a warning of the consequences of excessive altruism, which some conservatives may apply to the structure of our welfare system. The book poses the question “when does it stop?,” because in the book, the cycle continues even after the last page. In fact, in continues for seven more “If you give a _____ a _____.”

With the holiday season now embarking and the current concerns with markets, why not read children the classic Christmas tale about the Federal Reserve? Oh, you’re not familiar with that one? Me either. How the Grinch Stole Christmas, another story by Dr. Seuss, according to some, is a representation of the Federal Reserve, the Government, the grinchAmerican people, and their labor outputs. The idea suggested is that the Grinch (Federal Reserve) steals (devaluation through inflation) the presents (labor outputs) from the people of Whoville (American people) as the dog (Government) is just there. Order and harmony is restored when the presents are returned and The Grinch is no longer stealing from the people of Whoville. To say that the only way to restore harmony is to do away with the central baking system is a stretch, as is this interpretation, though, when argued correctly, I may be convinced.

Take these interpretations as you will: with a grain of salt or the whole shaker. It is interesting how stories have different meanings at different stages in our lives. Who knew my whole childhood my parents were just trying to impart political thoughts and philosophies into my unmolded mind.

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Son of Blade

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by Chris Gavaler

Tim Seibles cuts straight to the heart. When I met him at his hotel to walk him over to my wife’s poetry class, conversation leapt from “nice weather” to “parents with Alzheimer’s” in a single bound. He was giving a reading that night and—because his most recent book, Fast Animal, includes five poems about Blade the Vampire-Hunter—visiting my Superheroes class the next morning.

Seibles was in high school when Marvel launched the character in 1973. He’s not the first black superhero—Black Panther debuted in Fantastic Four in 1966 , the Falcon in Captain America in 1969, and Luke Cage in his own title in 1972—but he beat Brother Voodoo to newsstands by two months. The comic book market was slumping, so Marvel was desperately mixing its superhero formula with blaxploitation and horror. Shaft hit theaters in 1971, Super Fly and Blacula in 1972. Hammer Films had been pounding out low budget Dracula and Frankenstein flicks for over a decade, but the Comics Code prohibited “walking dead, torture, vampires and vampirism, ghouls, cannibalism, and werewolfism” until 1971, provided the horror was “handled in the classic tradition such as Frankenstein, Dracula, and other high caliber literary works.”

Marvel pounced with Werewolf by Night, Tomb of Dracula, The Monster of Frankenstein, and a half dozen other horror-tinged titles. He sounds like a pseudonym, but flesh-and-blood writer Marv Wolfman moved to Marvel at the same moment, and soon he and artist Gene Colan were adding a black “vampire killer” to their Dracula cast.  I’ll let Seibles introduce him:

Years ago, a pregnant woman was bitten by a vampire and turned. Her son was born with the thirst but, being half-human, he could walk in sunlight unharmed. Though vampires quietly dominate the world, he fights them—in part to prove his allegiance to humanity, in part to avenge his long isolation, being neither human, nor vampire. Because of his deadly expertise and weapon of choice, they call him: BLADE, THE DAYWALKER”

It’s hard not to read the character as a racial metaphor. Barack Obama turned thirteen when the Supreme Court ruled on Roe v. Wade that year, and though President Nixon made no public comment, White House tapes reveal his opposition to abortion, except when “necessary,” as “when you have a black and a white. Or a rape.” I read all vampires as rapists, so it follows the horror of our cultural logic that the first black half-vampire would have to take a vow of blood celibacy. Note all those unconscious blonde women draped in Dracula’s arms too. Blade’s skin makes explicit more than one coded fear.

Seibles told my class that he saw the character as an “emblem of alienation,” a metaphor for what it feels like to be black in the U.S., to feel “both American and not.” The night before they heard him read his poem “Allison Wolff,” set in 1972 when “Race was the elephant / sitting on everybody.” Seibles was born in 1955, the year Emmett Till was lynched, and that horror haunts the teenaged Tim the first time he kisses a white girl.

Fast Animal includes a high school photo of Seibles, “circa 1971,” long before he met Blade. The half-vampire lurked around Marvel’s black and white magazines for a few years, vanished for a decade or so, then reawakened in the 90s.  I showed my class the 1998 film, which opens with Blade’s vampire-assaulted mother bleeding out on a delivery room table. David S. Goyer penned the screenplay, which also explains Goyer’s rise to dominance in the DC film universe since both his Batman Begins and Man of Steel screenplays open with the bloody deaths of their heroes’ mothers. Seibles said the two sequels weren’t as good, and both the Spike TV and anime series were news to him.

Apparently Wesley Snipes has spent the last three years in prison for tax evasion. He last played Blade in 2004, about when Seibles started using the character in his poetry. Seibles said it was George Bush who turned him, that feeling of “a deep trouble taking over the country,” or, as his Blade explains: “it’s almost like I can’t / wake up, like I’m living // in a movie, a kind of dream: / action-packed thriller.”

Political essayist Jonathan Schell drew the same conclusion in 2004. Since 9/11 and the War on Terror, it seemed to Schell “history was being authored by a third-rate writer” compelled “to follow the plot of a bad comic book,” with the President turning “himself into a sort of real life action figure.”

The vampires in Fast Animal do have a Wolfowitz-neocon vibe: “the ones / who look in the mirror / and find nothing // but innocence   though they stand / in blood up to their knees.” But Seibles-Blade addresses a much larger audience, everyone watching “the war on TV” while not wanting “to see / what’s // really happening,” all of us living “in / the blood,” fighting for “The right to live / without memory,” to ignore “So many / centuries, so much / death.” Slavery, Seibles reminded my class, is a kind of vampirism too, one of many ways America has exploited the world. Of course Blade longs for “this country / before it was bitten,” even as he mourns: “I don’t know how // to save anybody from this.”

Seibles called Blade his “mask,” a perfect term for my Superheroes class. He used Blade to channel his rage, he said, likening the character’s name to a pencil: “Some days // I think, with the singing / of my blade, I can fix / everything.” That’s a poet’s superpower, to reveal through language, since “evil thrives best in the dark.” He even gave us his mission statement: to fight “inattentive dumbassery.”

Seibles also has a pair of poems in the new anthology Drawn to Marvel: Poems from the Comic Books (where my wife, Lesley Wheeler, and I do too). Swapping his vampire superhero mask for Natasha and Boris of the Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoons, Seibles playfully critiques American capitalism, a theme one of my students asked him to expand on. Another asked how, if our leaders are as stupid as Seibles suggests, were they smart enough to come to power? But my favorite question came at the end of class: What would Blade do if there weren’t any more vampires to fight?

Superhero missions, like Batman’s quixotic “war on criminals,” guarantee never-ending battles. You never run out of bad guys. You never get to walk away. But instead of talking vampires, Seibles talked about his father. The idea of sitting in a room of white people and discussing race, his father couldn’t imagine such a thing. His father can’t believe there are white people who aren’t racists. Sure, at an intellectual level, of course he can, but the idea is meaningless at any emotional level.

I’m guess his father was born somewhere around 1930—a moment my class understands well in terms of American eugenics. We read excerpts of a standard high school biology textbook that explained the hierarchy of white supremacy and advocated the extermination of unfit gene pools. That’s not something you walk away from. That’s not a world that ever runs out of bad guys. Seibles described Blade’s life as a psychological and spiritual war—one his parents’ generation can never stop fighting.

The only hope, he said, is for Blade’s children.


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Dynamite Decision: Kudos to Robert, Gordon, Seamus, Akira, Alfred and All

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When, some fifteen years ago, Gordon Ball began nominating Robert Zimmerman for the Alfred Nobel Prize in Literature, I was skeptical.  I had my own favorites (Heaney had left the list by winning in 1995) and some questions about the meanings of “literature” and “song lyrics.”  Even recognizing thresholds, I like to keep definitions in play, and I was fond of quoting Paul Simon, who once responded to Dick Cavett’s “love your poetry” that he didn’t write poetry, just songs.  For poetry, he recommended Dylan Thomas.

Connections abound, as Simon songs quote Robert (Bob) Z. (for Dylan, I reckon).  Some poets, especially the university-lodged ones are in high dudgeon and wonder if they’re eligible for Grammys now.  I don’t know, and I’m not about to alter my own criteria for poems – that they should engage me viscerally, emotionally, intellectually, spiritually and (a recent emendation) rhetorically.  I know some of Dylan’s lyrics qualify under this system, hundreds of his lines, thousands of his phrases.  So why not call it poetry, no matter how much the words demand audible performance?

Truth is, when Gordon began nominating BD/RZ, readers were just beginning to take memoir and creative non-fiction seriously as literary genres (I still have my reservations, but they’re no longer very sturdy).  As one Nobel committee member put it, “The times they are a-changing,” which has a nice ring to it.

heaneyBut I have other fires to stoke.  I love reading Trevor, Oates, Roth, McCarthy, Edna O’Brien, Atwood, McGuane and several other writers of English who are eligible, but when I begin to rehearse arguments for their crowning, there’s usually a snag in the material, a “that dog won’t hunt” clause.  Sometimes it has to do with shock and awe fiction.  And okay, I can’t really think why Trevor shouldn’t get it.  And I still reserve the right to be reserved about writers I can’t read in the original, which is my shame, but neither is that a robustly held dogma.  When I read A Hundred Years of Solitude, I knew I had to do the dictionary and grammar dance to swim through Cien Anos de Soledad, and it was worth it.  Went at Neruda’s The Heights of Macchu Picchu the same way.

merwinThere’s one writer of English (and translator of nearly every tongue that came down from Babel) I long to see honored.  That’s W. S. Merwin.  For his oracular authenticity, his ecological advocacy, his elliptical spirituality, his anti-war steadfastness and for his always-surprising reservoir of observations and tropes, not to mention sheer deftness and beauty, I’d have given him the prize before Heaney’s was settled on its shelf.

kurosawaBut now that the category of literature has been expanded in a very official way (assuming Dylan accepts the prize and attends the fete), I wish I could start campaigning for another great narrative artist.  Unfortunately, the provocative and controversial Akira Kurosawa died in 1998, and (zombie and vampyr soap operas aside), I don’t want to see “living” redefined in order to “grandfather him in.”  He’s out of the running.

But think about the essential nature of Ran, Throne of Blood, Yojimbo, Rashomon, Stray Dog, Darsu Uzala, Hidden Fortress, Sanjuro, Kagemusha.  Born of Asian history, myth and custom, these films have altered the course of western narrative thought, too, cinematic and otherwise.  That the Nobel crew was too slow to develop their new panoramic view to include Kurosawa is regrettable but irreversible, so we’ll have to find other ways to keep him on the front burner.

However, Merwin in still alive and still writing vital poems.  I guess I should start my campaign there.  Gordon, could I get a little help?


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SLIPSTREAM: Making the Familiar Strange (Part 1)

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By Dana Schultz

“Telling me a piece should make me ‘feel strange, like living in the late twentieth century’ doesn’t do a lot for me, mainly because the twentieth century didn’t make me feel strange.” – Jon Hansen, “I Want My 20th Century Schizoid Art,” Feeling Very Strange.

A common goal of anthropologists is to “make the strange familiar and the familiar strange.” The authors we admire most also achieve this goal. An effective author not only makes the unique circumstances of their story seem personal for their audience (a.k.a. familiar), the author then turns the audience’s assumptions to distance the reader into discomfort and/or awe (making the familiar strange). Likewise the best short story authors, and arguably best novelists as well, cause readers to infer details that cannot fit in the narrative. By allowing readers to imagine beyond what is given, the stories themselves become substantially more interactive and personal to the reader. It may come as no surprise that one of my favorite short story anthologies is called Feeling Very Strange, and that many of the stories contained in that anthology manage to make situations appear at once ordinary and extraordinary.

feelstrangeLast January, when my creative writing Professor first assigned Feeling Very Strange: The Slipstream Anthology, slipstream quickly joined the works of Oliver Sacks and world geography on my list of topics that I adore but understand little about. Over the years atlases and Oliver Sacks’ Anthropologist on Mars have given me an array of stories and facts, but that doesn’t mean I can contribute diagnoses to Lisa Sander’s column or even find my way out of a grocery store using orienteering. As you can tell, there’s a noticeable gap between my abstract and practical knowledge.

From the hazy, noncommittal editor’s note on slipstream’s definition to the diverse and soaring stories, Feeling Very Strange caused  the old familiar excitement to grab hold of me: the thrill that I was about to get into something way over my head. And once again that abstract-to-practical-knowledge gap appeared: I’m excited to talk about slipstream and lack the concrete terms to talk about it with.

But hey, I’m not alone! No one, not even Feeling Very Strange’s editors, James Patrick Kelly and John Kessel, feel comfortable giving slipstream a definition. Feeling Very Strange’s editor’s note is titled “Slipstream: The Genre That Isn’t.” The ambivalence is framed as respectful to the anthology’s contributors, “For most of our contributors these stories are just stories. If they feel pressed to give them a label they may use ‘metafiction’ or ‘magic realism’ or ‘fabulation’… Definition does not matter to many of them, and that is a warning to us not to put too much faith in definitions (pg xi).” When you find that the slipstream’s explanation is not helpful even in the editor’s note, you know you have a problem. The editors claim slipstream is a feeling not a genre, similar to how horror can be felt in many genres. The feeling slipstream gives is cognitive dissonance, a sort of psychological discomfort the editors and Bruce Sterling agree are especially relevant for the 20th and 21st century. As a quick explanation, cognitive dissonance is when your mind can’t figure out which way is up or down, so you just pick a way and pretend the confusion does not exist. Psychologists claim that humans need to have consistency, so when ideas flip our expecations we do our best to reason it out or ignore the conflict.

lightsuffererJonathan Lethem’s Light and the Sufferer belongs to the anthology Feeling Very Strange, and is a gold standard for snappy and discomforting short fiction. The story begins as an urban drama, all signs pointing to urban stereotypes and narrative realism. Then about ten pages in, aliens called Sufferers appear. Tension builds as readers reel, is this an apocalypse story? Will there be an intergalactic battle? But no, the Sufferer ultimately plays an ambivalent role: at once active and inactive, essential and inconsequential to the story. The Sufferer does not communicate with the characters, so characters interpret the Sufferer’s purpose based on experience. The Sufferer is a vigilante. A villain. A crack addict. Ultimately, it is the ambivalence of the Sufferer that makes the story compelling. How is that possible? Because the reader must interpret, which in turn makes the story personal.

In essence Lethem drives readers to ask themselves difficult fundamental questions (How do you conceptualize real people in relation to yourself? How do you answer a question that you can never know the definitive answer to?) through a supernatural metaphor (How do you conceptualize the Sufferer? How do you come to terms with your answer when you can never really know what the Sufferer is about?). But is the strategy that Lethem uses, blending realism with the supernatural, altogether new? Or even new in the slightest? In his Electric Literature blog article “Oh Slippery Slipstream: Who Is the Weirdest Genre of Them All?” Ryan Britt points out, “I hear that the first super-popular book in the western world features dudes who can turn into burning bushes. Historically, ‘weirdness’ has always been hip.”

solomonIn Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon characters experience visions, see ghosts, and create potions all in a 20th century world. Morrison doesn’t jump over into Harry Potter and make clear that magic exists. Rather, there is a sense of superstition that crosses over into the supernatural and then, like taking a double take and realizing the cyclops vanished, crosses back again. The reader does indeed experience cognitive dissonance, the ingredient Kessel and Kelly propose as the key literary effect of slipstream. A quick explanation, psychologists claim that humans need to have consistency, so when ideas upset our world concept we do our best to reason it out or ignore the conflict. Cognitive dissonance is when your expectations are inverted, and you’re mind needs to either push the conflict into the subconscious or come to a new synthesis to remove the dissonance. Was that vision Hagar talks to an actual ghost? Morrison doesn’t say. Without the author’s guidance, the reader is free to interpret to form their own synthesis. Morrison flat out overturns the reader’s expectations when she describes an utterly impossible scene after a hundred pages of more-or-less realism. Nailing our false sense of security into the coffin, the speaker emphasizes that the scene is not a dream. Here’s what happens: the protagonist witnesses his mother getting smothered alive by garden flowers. The flowers are literally attacking her, growing larger by the second and bending over her while she laughs at bats them back. The protagonist watches dumbstruck, and when he recounts the incident to a friend he claims it was a dream. But it wasn’t. Morrison made a clear effort to say so. And still the reader finds himself wanting to side with the dream thing. After all, what about those one hundred previous pages of realism? Morrison’s Song of Solomon contributed to Bruce Sterling’s coinage of slipstream in 1989: it’s literature that breaks the narrative realism barrier.

But who ever said literature needs to be narrative realism? Why then are Lord of the Rings and Watership Down on the classics shelf? Literature to me is writing that informs culture- writing that says something new through symbolism and character growth. Morrison’s Song of Solomon achieved that, and it did not need the label “slipstream” to do so. And honestly, I doubt that authors in the slipstream anthology need the label either. I checked the websites of two of my favorite writers, Kelly Link and Aimee Bender, both anthologized in Feeling Very Strange. On the “About the Author” page, a mention of slipstream was nowhere to be found. But I do have to say thank goodness Kelly and Kessel provided this anthology to put Kelly Link, Aimee Bender, and so many other talented and daring writers together. If slipstream achieved one thing it placed writers of a “common sentiment” together. In this light, we make progress by thinking of slipstream’s description more in terms of a thesaurus than a dictionary. Instead of a solid definition for slipstream, in the anthology you get a list of authors (the “similes” of this metaphor) to learn about in relation to each other. Look up Kelly Link in this hypothetical thesaurus, and you’ll get George Saunders, M. Rickert, and Michael Chabon to expand your reading arsenal with. Writers of a “common sentiment,” yet far from interchangeable. Thesauruses, after all, provide approximations of words, and those approximations are not always a close match. “Hands on” and “everyday” appear to both be similes for “practical,” but each applies only in certain contexts.

At first the idea of slipstream fascinated me. The noncommittal, barely tacit agreement purported by Kelly and Kessel that slipstream’s definition is supposed to be confusing made slipstream somehow attractive to me, as if being interested in it made me smart. But then I read Ryan Britt’s article, and I came to my senses. I still haven’t wrapped my head around the definition of slipstream. What’s so great about something unexplained? Wouldn’t it be better to forget definitions and just appreciate a good story for what it is, a good story? Ryan Britt suggests that slipstream might just be a marketing tool, a way to justify “slipping” more genre elements into the mainstream. And as for cognitive dissonance? Perhaps calling it slipstream is more of a way to solve a critic’s cognitive dissonance of what writing style they can call “good” or “bad”. Because the stories in Feeling Very Strange are good.

So it’s an even playing field, everyone’s confused about slipstream and has been confused ever since Bruce Sterling coined the term in 1989. Slipstream’s influence on writing is forming but not yet defined. We will explore this issue further in my next blog which will appear in a couple of weeks.
To be continued.


Feeling Very Strange: The Slipstream Anthology. Ed. James Patrick Kelly and John Kessel (2006)

Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison (1977)

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The Official Plea to Bring Back Traditional Courtship in Fiction

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content-logobeach-readBY MADDIE SCHAFFER

I’m lying on my stomach, starting to get that prickly needle feeling in my back from a lack of SPF.  The swarms of kids squealing and splashing are just white noise as I chew my way through yet another novel, It Ends with Us by Colleen Hoover, that falls under the category “romance.” As it’s summer, and I still have a few weeks before my pleasure reading is replaced with mundane textbooks written by professors adorned with multiple PhD’s trying to make statistical analysis funny, this is my choice of literature.

I’m fairly certain that I am not the only one who enjoys an easy, fantastical read when lying poolside. One that lets you forget you’re not on your own secluded island being fanned by a well-sculpted pool boy. When I say “easy read” this is no slight against the piece itself, the opposite in fact. When a book is so well written that the words on the page transform into a motion picture in my head, I begin to think I may have found something itends-bookworthwhile.


Unfortunately, the movie is interrupted when I find myself too preoccupied with hiding what I’m reading, than I am actually reading. I begin feeling uncomfortable, sprawling my hand across the page, and even tilting the book at ridiculous angles as though the person four lounge chairs next to me could read the same words I am.


Since when has the category “romance” been interchangeable with “soft porn”? If I missed that press release, please, let me know and I will take back this whole rant.

I find it so frustrating to be reading a fantastic story, one where I have become so invested in the character that I have no choice other than to finish it in one sitting, for reasons of sanity, and then feel like I am invading that character’s private life on a level I am not comfortable with. The author has made me a peeping tom as I’m reading the specifics of how John Doe is sticking his ding-dong into Jane Doe’s hoo-ha. Can I just get a rabbit euphemism or something, please? I am not naïve, and I am perfectly aware that with love and romance come sexual interactions. Why though, has it become necessary to interrupt the flow of the story with uncomfortably detailed and vivid scenes?

Of course, these scenes and depictions have their place, but the explicit displays of them are not needed in the true romance novel. There is something to be said for modesty, and a lot to be said for needing to say little.

The media promotes sex constantly, for the simple fact it sells. It’s use of celebrities in ads for makeup, movies, cars, even perfume commercials are so insane as to basically say, “wear this perfume and you’ll get laid.” For example, take the axe commercial that starts by panning over a woman, sparkling with perspiration, sporting simply a bra and underpants, performing a shot-put and a pole jump to launch herself through the window towards a man spraying axe. Entertaining…maybe. Necessary…probably not. Compare this with the Ralph Lauren ad for the scent “Romance” where a man and a woman gallivant around on white horses through lush fields, gorgeous locks flowing in the wind. The ads are like night and day, similar to the old romance versus the new.

The easy sell of sex is exemplified by the author of 50 Shades of Grey, El James, raking in a meager $95 million for her dominance trilogy[1]. I would place a hefty bet (not as hefty as Ms. James could place) to say this has influenced what writers are putting in their stories, and they are clearly feeling the pressure to appease the public. Why can’t there be a happy medium? One where writers allude to the sexual interactions, but leave it to the reader to play the rest out in their head? Keeping up with the times is one thing, but it can be done in a fashion that leaves room for some imagination on the reader’s part, which has the potential to be even more erotic than what can be put in words. I know I might be listening to Paul Simon in a time everyone is listening to Kanye, but hear me out.

Romance, by definition, according to Merriam-Webster, is:
1) A medieval tale based on legend, chivalric love and adventure, or the supernatural
2) A prose narrative treating imaginary characters involved in events remote in time or place and usually heroic, adventurous, or mysterious
3) A love story especially in the form of a novel

Chivalric love is in the definition, people! Books are where we go to find chivalry; a word linked to knights on horseback (knights…shining armor…sweeping off feet…see where I’m going here?). The one place where we think it can’t die since they can so easily take you prideandpback centuries into an entirely different era. What will people think of our generations’ love lives if hundreds of years from now they pick up 50 Shades of Grey? I have a feeling people won’t be looking at our literature and lusting over the romance like we do for stories like Romeo and Juliet. Instead, they’ll probably be thinking we should all be put in padded white rooms for even being able to conjure up something like The Red Room.

Can we go back to the time of Pride and Prejudice that follows the exciting and alluring courtship of Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy and forget the ravenous, animalistic behavior we find in “romance” novels like 50 Shades of Grey? Kudos to the authors for their ability to create images and descriptions I could only hope to one day be able to do, but can’t it be describing the way he opens doors for her instead of her blouse? 50 might be a few shades too many.

I am more confused why books with such great, unique story lines, like Colleen Hoover’s It Ends With Us, feel the need to dilute their important messages with these scenes when there are so many other ways to convey to the reader the attraction between characters. I 50-shadesdon’t want to feel guilty for what I am reading, and I would also like my artistic license as a reader back, and have the author leave some things to the imagination.


By Maddie Schaffer

posted by R T Smith

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