Blip Magazine Archive

 blipmagazine.net

 

Home : Archive : Links

Gary Percesepe

Introduction

This online issue of the Blip Magazine Archiveis the first installment of an "all fiction joint issue," the second installment of which is a print issue, slated for publication in the fall of 2007. The print issue will include these stories and additional work by John Barth, Rick Moody, Mary Grimm, John Holman, Victoria Lancelotta, James Whorton, Jr., Tao Lin, Hannah Pittard, Will Boast, and others. It also includes a long interview with T.C. Boyle.

You can pre-order your copy of the print issue by clicking here and becoming a subscriber.

There is a moment in Ann Beattie’s "My Life at the Very Top" where I begin to get vertigo from the switchback twists and turns, and then I tell myself, "trust her," and give myself over completely to the ride, like a kid back at Coney Island, and it’s surefire—she brings me down to those last two sentences, which are pitch perfect and filled with exquisite longing for lost time, and I am in love all over again with Ann Beattie, whom I first came to trust over thirty years ago in her debut novel Chilly Scenes of Winter, racing ahead in those last pages to find Laura at last in Charles’ arms, which is to say, in my arms, safe at last. (Years later I felt cheated when I saw the movie version and Charles doesn’t get Laura—were they kidding?—but the dreary mess was redeemed for me by the sight of Ann Beattie in a bit part, playing an astonished waitress. Ann!)

I love the image of Beattie in her little apartment at the Altamont, writing late into the evening, then signaling goodnight to one of her best friends across the way, whose light was also glowing. It reminds me of something Elizabeth Bishop once said, that poets wrote letters to keep each other warm through the long, lonely winter nights. Writing is a solitary profession, seldom understood by people met on planes who ask, "What do you do?" Says Beattie, "I’ve learned never to say I’m a writer. I don’t even need to tell you, parenthetically, what heartbreak such a statement engenders. (Oh, okay, I can’t resist: they, too, are writers, though they haven’t yet written.")

Beattie’s story helps frame this online issue of the Blip Magazine Archive, which (as a non-Catholic) is what I imagine as transubstantiation—the host being fiction, in different manifestations, a real presence in, under, before, behind and around us, creating in us a kind of magic as we open our hands and hearts to receive. I picture Ann Beattie still up there at the Altamont, signaling to the rest of us, "Hey, it’s yours now, do good work, I’m going to bed." It’s comforting to know that Ann is still with us, and that she’ll be up working in the morning, but we know also that the future of fiction (and of our own lives) is not a straight line. Reading through the stories in this issue, it’s comforting to know that gifted young writers are signaling back.

University writing programs help. In fact, two of the young writers featured in this issue are former students of Ann Beattie at the University of Virginia (Hannah Pittard and Will Boast, in the print issue). Pittard’s online story "Some Nights" is a lovely coming of age story; I like its honesty and its firm sense of responsibility to its two young female characters. Two more are former students of T.C. Boyle at USC (J.A. Chisum and Bonnie Nadzam); and K. Kvashay-Boyle ("Not Me Shot Dead"), a lovely and amazing writer in her own right, whom the future promises to be good to, turned me on to two of her friends from the Iowa Writers Workshop (Mark Lafferty and Vinnie Wilhelm), where Tom Boyle himself once studied with John Cheever and Ray Carver. More switchbacks, more blinking green signal lights. In this way we move forward in the new world of fiction, against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past (yes, Scott).

New forms of writer’s communities have emerged as well, not attached to universities. I was bombarded with submissions from "virtual" workshops, where writers from around the world "woodshed" their stories together. One such community introduced me to the work of Kim Chinquee, Jeff Landon, and Mary Miller, whose stories all contain what Ray Carver called "a fine sense of menace." Chinquee’s "Shot Girls" is both sexy and disturbing, and puts me in mind of Stacey Richter’s new story collection Twin Studies, which occupies its own shelf in the literary territory marked new, capital N, as in "make it New." It does. Landon’s "Lifelike Baby Girls" had me laughing out loud, then catching myself a moment later; pure feeling. Miller had me from the first sentence—OK, she had me from the title. The truth is, I felt bad having to pass on any of the stories that were submitted from this community of talented writers keeping each other warm in cyberspace.

All of these writers have been working their craft for several years now, and have other publications to their credit, and that was kind of the idea in this issue—to feature the work of emerging young writers, combining them with established writers like John Holman (whose stories continue to astonish me), Ted Ross and Jane Armstrong, as well as Ann Beattie and the others mentioned in the first paragraph, above. Holman (who directs the Creative Writing program at Georgia State), Ross (who is an editor at Harpers) and Armstrong (whose work I have long admired) are writers with a keen sense of social conscience and precise detail. What we have here is what Veronica Geng called "a relentless commitment to whatever the story set in motion."

And then there is Tao Lin. I have quietly admired his writing from a safe distance, but now that he is up on this screen there is nothing that seems safe to me. He’s the real deal. You’ll be hearing from him. At 23, he writes like a bunny Hemingway who wandered onto the set of a Heidegger shoot, Zein und Zeit meets Rad Girls on Fuse. Or something. I like what Miranda July has written about him: "Tao Lin writes from moods that less radical writers would let pass—from laziness, from vacancy, from boredom. And it turns out that his report from these places is moving and necessary, not to mention frequently hilarious." Well, OK, see what you think.

When we put out the call for stories in this issue, we said: "What are we looking for? Characters we can care about. Some weather, maybe. Dialogue that’s spot on and never tiresome. Stories that engage our senses and make us feel things, maybe break our hearts."

About 300 writers responded. We are grateful to each of them.

As always when we read, we seek the problematic, the troublesome, the curious, the ill-fitting, the remarkable and the mundane, work that stays with us after we read it, work that challenges our tastes and imaginations, our spirits. We thank you for your help in sending this work our way.

Finally, on a personal note….

Years ago I worked at the Antioch Review in Yellow Springs, Ohio. I mention this because Antioch College had its death announced early this summer, yet again—and this time it looks like its for real, not greatly exaggerated. This is sad, for many reasons which I won’t go into, but I just wanted to say that from what I hear, the Antioch Review will go on publishing. This is a small good thing in a world of bad news.

I mention Antioch because it was there that I received my education in "aesthetic preference." You cannot be an editor without acknowledging this thing called aesthetic preference, but no ones seems able to slap a saddle on this rough beast. Maybe the best description is the one Veronica Geng cites from George Orwell: "Gut reaction rationalized afterward." Geng, writing in the Blip Magazine Archive, Volume 23, says that you might say "reasoned" or "tested" instead of "rationalized," "but clearly the process seems to work in only one direction." As she memorably puts it, "Reason first, gut reaction afterward is a recipe for a bar fight." As the philosopher David Hume once said (the impish Scotsman may have known a thing or two about bar fights), "the principles of art are grounded in experience, not in reason."

It was at Antioch that I learned to trust my gut reaction to stories that I read, and I read a lot of them. The best times were when I would read and discuss them with Gabrielle. She was, like me, an east coast Italian-American with attitude, a bit lost in Ohio but writing her way through it. She was altogether lovely. I still recall Gabrielle in her Antioch commencement costume: an elegant black cocktail dress that showed off her hairy armpits to perfection, and her string of pearls. One night she surprised me by reading me pages from her journal, a journal she had showed no one else in this world, the entry she had just written days before, the week she came out and the day she interviewed Ani DeFranco and knew she was in love.

I’d see Gabrielle once a week in the cramped office of the Review, which was housed in a stale upper room in the library. The magazine had a good reputation. Thousands of hopeful writers sent their short stories to a post office box downtown. Gabrielle logged them in. The managing editor scanned the pile for names she recognized--writers we’d published previously, like T.C. Boyle, James Purdy, Gordon Lish--and for "agented work." The rest was slush. The slush was stood upright in two large boxes in the far corner of the magazine’s one room office. There it would sit until one of the "readers" took home a pile. Gabrielle and I were readers.

One day I read a story that knocked me out. The author had no credits. Straight from the slush, wrapped in a plain brown envelope, the story was about two lonely and alienated teens who are surprised one morning to find each other. A story I’d heard a thousand times. But it was the way the story was told—full of feeling, accurate, without a trace of condescension, right as rain. It filled the heart. I called Gabrielle.

The office was closed. We met at the park. I read the story out loud. Toward the end, the boy and girl meet at the high school, at first light. There is the sound of a lawn mower in the middle distance, and the smell of fresh cut grass. They are seated in silence on the steps of the school. The girl raises her shirt.

I finished reading. There was silence for the space of a minute. Then Gabrielle kissed me and told me she wanted to take off her shirt. Then she did. We laughed. "Shirt raising fiction," she said.

That was a gut reaction.

Around the same time I was getting to know Nolan Miller. Nolan lived in the village and was a longtime editor of the Antioch Review. He was the author of four novels (Sarah Belle Luella Mae; A Moth of Time; The Merry Innocents; Why I Am So Beat) and in 1957 edited the widely circulated New Campus Writing which contained the best of creative writing from America’s campuses. His 1959 short story "A New Life" was included in the O. Henry Prize Awards. He came to Antioch College in 1946 from a career as novelist and high school teacher to become a professor of literature in the English department. He taught many wonderful students in his years at Antioch, including the poet Mark Strand (who insists to this day that Nolan Miller was the best teacher that he ever had), and TV pioneer Rod Serling, of Twilight Zone fame. Once hailed as "the next Hemingway," by the time I knew him he was long retired. He lived quietly with his brother Richard, a wonderful painter and sculptor, in a house the brothers had designed for—well, two artists. Each brother had his own identical space: bedroom, office, workshop, library, bath, with a common living room and kitchen. The house was set back from the road, and backed up against Glen Helen. It blended perfectly with its surroundings, a wooded retreat from the world.

Richard was deaf. He lost his hearing as a result of a childhood illness. Nolan was legally blind. So here they were in the woods of Yellow Springs: two bachelor brothers in their late eighties, taking care of each other and still practicing their craft. Visits to the Miller home were inspiring.

Nolan taught me to read. Specifically, he showed me how to read fiction, an ongoing tutorial, one story at a time. We used the Antioch Review submissions as raw material. In his home laboratory, seated in his living room, he sat close by, nearly on top of me, as I read stories I thought were possibilities for publication. He would listen quietly—no longer sighted, his ear was keenly attuned to the musicality of stories, the right words in the right order. Every now and then he would stop me. I then became a one-person recipient of the Nolan School of criticism. He disliked "talky"stories, which he called "reportage" rather than stories. "Show don’t tell," he advised the invisible authors, at home somewhere in the world, awaiting our literary evaluation of the merits of these manuscripts they had posted in all those manila envelopes, long weeks ago. It felt like an awesome responsibility, to read these stories to Nolan, and he gave each one the weight they deserved. There was no hurry.

What did he want in a story? He wanted something made up. He wanted to be surprised, and infused with a sense of wonder. He wanted dramatic pace, for we as readers to be involuntarily asking "And then? And then?" He admired stories that were told confidently, with authorial precision and lack of pretense. He disliked "show offs." (He bolted John Updike to the wall with this category.) He once wrote, "The writer must work with a mind ever open, ever free, ever alert." His favorite authors were Wordsworth, Proust, Joyce and D.H. Lawrence. Chekov and Carver, sure. I introduced him to Mary Grimm at the Winds Café in Yellow Springs, and he fell in love (with her work, too). Experimental writing? Nonsense, he said, every story is an experiment. Most of all, he liked a story that engaged his imagination, treated its characters fairly, no matter how unlikable, and required that a story be honest. No tricks, please. He preached the truth in fiction.

Soon enough he was listening to my stories. He helped me immeasurably. When he was disappointed, my heart sank. When he was delighted, I felt as if I’d lifted off the earth.

Nolan died last year, a few months short of his one hundredth birthday. His obituary included these words: "Miller was an engaging and provocative conversationalist who could turn heads in a restaurant with a comment and who challenged students to shape their own education for their own ends, to write for their own pleasure and the discerning few rather than for commercial gain and to expand their taste for music, art and fine literature."

Richard still lives in the house by the glen in Yellow Springs. When Nolan died, Richard wrote the following:

"None among my brother’s many students during his years of teaching could have been more enriched by his knowledge and understanding than I was throughout our lives together. His patience and care in helping me to understand the world around me followed and reinforced the moral and intellectual learning I owe to my mother and father. He has bequeathed me a gift of beautiful memories. I will miss him."

Amen.

Maintained by Blip Magazine Archive at www.blipmagazine.net

Copyright © 1995-2011
Opinions are those of the authors.