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Once upon a time, there was time. There was time for a contented reader to sit beside a fire in the fireplace, sip a cognac, and turn the pages of Michel de Montaigne’s marvelous essays. There was time to soak in some wisdom. There was time to absorb the author through his writing. Those days and evenings have gone. Technology stole them.

This is not to say that technology does not have its uses. It does, of course. But though there are uses, much is useless. For starters, information is frequently wrong or scrambled. Or it arrives, as television news often does, in advance of verified facts. Wisdom is the better and safer commodity; it doesn’t crash. Maybe we should have a moment of silence to remember what it felt like to read in leisure, not haste. To remember the pleasure of smelling, touching, palpating a real book. To linger at the end of a paragraph and read it over again, assessing its importance and place in the world. More… “Put the Pedal to the Metal”

Kelly Cherry‘s new poetry book is Quartet for J. Robert Oppenheimer. Her book of flash fiction titled Temporium is forthcoming later this year.
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Speaking of hell, let’s turn to a brief but encompassing metaphor. It comes from the wonderful Russian writer Varlam Shalamov, who spent 17 years in the Gulag, in the northeast, where permafrost and tundra were prevalent and temperatures could reach minus 60 degrees Fahrenheit — in which the prisoners had to work all day. Solzhenitsyn called this place the Gulag’s “pole of cold and cruelty.” This is the metaphor:

Hope is slavery.

That’s it. Three words. It occurs in his collection Kolyma Tales, which the Soviet government forced him to renounce. “Hope is slavery” because it keeps the one who is hoping in expectation of a change for the better. There will be no change for the better, Shalamov says, and for him there was mostly not. This is the metaphor of a man who has learned that hope is his enemy. That hope will steal from him his energy and his ability to trust. It is one of the strongest metaphors I have ever encountered.

More… “The Head and the Heart”

Kelly Cherry‘s new poetry book is Quartet for J. Robert Oppenheimer. Her book of flash fiction titled Temporium is forthcoming later this year.
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When writing a poem, I often have the impression that I’m working with a finite amount of material, like a block of stone from which I need to carve out a sculpture. It’s exacting, perfectionist work, and if I chip away too much stone, there’s no getting it back.

Prose, in contrast, feels generative unto itself, like those ornamental aquarium plants that readily clone themselves and which, after some escaped from Monaco’s Oceanographic Museum into the Mediterranean, were discovered to be highly toxic to sea life (at least according to a scare-mongering NOVA special I saw many years ago; now their toxicity is under debate). In prose there is no shortage of material. If you get stuck, digress. Just fill up the page. More… “The Point of Tangency”

Elisa Gabbert is the author of L’Heure Bleue, or the Judy Poems (Black Ocean), The Self Unstable (Black Ocean) and The French Exit (Birds LLC). Follow her on Twitter at @egabbert.
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We commonly think of metaphor as a poetic device but it is used in fiction, too, and saves miles of unnecessary words. Metaphor can leap from the desk at which you are writing to darkest Africa or Dante’s hell or your grandmother who died 50 years ago. It leaps tall buildings in a single bound. It can tie the end of the universe to the beginning of the universe. And all you have to do is compare something with something else.

But in fiction, metaphor should be to the point and relatively brief. A novel in which everything becomes something else stretches credulity and grows tiresome. Yawningly tiresome. The reader has come to your story, novel, or poem to find something out. She has not come to it to play word games.

More… “The Shortest Distance Between Two Points is a Metaphor”

Kelly Cherry‘s new poetry book is Quartet for J. Robert Oppenheimer. Her book of flash fiction titled Temporium is forthcoming later this year.
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In 2001, Harper’s published an essay on lexicography by David Foster Wallace (“Tense Present”) that I have come to think of as classic, though I have no idea if fans of the author or lexicographers agree. I happened to be in college, studying linguistics, at the time, and I remember reading it excitedly, footnotes and all, the afternoon it arrived, on our college-y furniture, the requisite IKEA POÄNG. Rarely was the cover story so “relevant to my interests.”

Though my favorite subdiscipline was semantics, I had been largely unaware of what Wallace called “the seamy underbelly” of U.S. dictionary making, its “ideological strife and controversy and intrigue.” Said controversy, I learned, is essentially bipartisan — there’s a “liberal” school of pure descriptivism, wherein “words” like “heighth” get included without comment or censure, which sits in opposition and reaction to the “conservative” school of prescriptivism, or normative lexicography, which avows that “heighth” is not a word, sentences must not end with a preposition, etc. More… “Fair Usage”

Elisa Gabbert is the author of L’Heure Bleue, or the Judy Poems (Black Ocean), The Self Unstable (Black Ocean) and The French Exit (Birds LLC). Follow her on Twitter at @egabbert.
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When I mentioned on Twitter that I was reading H Is for Hawk, Helen Macdonald’s recent falconry/grief memoir, a poet I know commented, “That book is so overwritten.” In a way this remark ruined the book for me; it got in my head like an earworm, and I couldn’t help evaluating the rest of the book against it, thinking, Oh, but I like how baroque this description is, or, alternatively, Okay, this bit is rather overwritten. More… “Writing that Sounds like Writing”

Elisa Gabbert is the author of L’Heure Bleue, or the Judy Poems (Black Ocean), The Self Unstable (Black Ocean) and The French Exit (Birds LLC). Follow her on Twitter at @egabbert.
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Every place has a rhythm. You must echo that rhythm in your writing. A character in New York City will not be as mellow as a character on the beach. A character in Wyoming will have a more expansive view than the character in Los Angeles. Captain Ahab in Moby-Dick might have had the grandest and most inclusive vision of all had he not permitted that vision to curdle into one single, obsessive focus. But that is Melville’s character; Melville himself is determined to make his novel as commodious and comprehensive as the ocean. Or consider E. M. Forster’s beautiful and foresighted A Passage to India, in which the English author dissects the tensions between native Indians and their British rulers. More… “A Gun in the First Act”

Kelly Cherry‘s new poetry book is Quartet for J. Robert Oppenheimer. Her book of flash fiction titled Temporium is forthcoming later this year.
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On the first page of Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays, Northrop Frye irritably dismissed the “conception of the critic as a parasite or artist manqué … sometimes reinforced by a dubious analogy between the creative and procreative functions, so that we hear about the ‘impotence’ and ‘dryness’ of the critic, of his hatred for genuinely creative people, and so on.” As a critic himself, Frye might have been a bit touchy on the subject, but he had nothing to worry about on that score. It’s a rare novel that has anything like the “creativity” of Anatomy of Criticism. While few people care overmuch about the debates that roiled English departments in the years when Frye reigned at the University of Toronto (1939 to 1991), readers coming to Anatomy of Criticism for the first time might be surprised at what they find: a work of formidable scholarship, yes, but with a huge cast of characters (seemingly every writer who ever lived, from the tribal scribes of Mesopotamia to P. G. Wodehouse) moving in a dense network of interconnectedness in which every end is a new beginning, and genres as various as melodrama, farce, epic, satire, and romance live happily together on the same page. It’s rather like George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire saga, but with good prose. More… “Anatomy of Wonder”

Stephen Akey is the author of two memoirs, College and Library, and of essays in The New Republic, Open Letters Monthly, and The Millions.
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In her essay “Place in Fiction,” Eudora Welty wrote that “place is one of the lesser angels.” She said other considerations were more important than place — “character, plot, symbolic meaning … and feeling, who in my eyes carries the crown, soars highest of them all and rightly relegates place into the shade.” She did not mean by this that place is a minor or accidental consideration in fiction. She meant that place is what anchors the fiction, gives it a reality to stand on even when everything standing on it is unreal. If you can make that place palpable to the senses, it doesn’t matter whether it is an imaginary place or a place in outer space or a momentary vision. As long as it can be perceived via our five senses, the reader will accept it as true even knowing it is not true.

Fiction is about people making something happen or responding to what is happening. Whatever happens, happens somewhere. It takes place. Therefore, fiction takes place too.
More… “Whatever Happens, Happens Somewhere”

Kelly Cherry‘s new poetry book is Quartet for J. Robert Oppenheimer. Her book of flash fiction titled Temporium is forthcoming later this year.
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Because I know the author, when I read Find Me by Laura van den Berg I pictured Laura as the protagonist. It’s not an autobiographical novel, and the character, Joy, is not especially like Laura in her physical description. Joy says: “My hair falls past my shoulders in dark waves, lush and healthy-looking. No bangs, center part.” Laura’s hair is light brown, usually shoulder-length, often with bangs. But my mind made the shortcut on its own, and it would have taken effort to correct it.

I read Howards End some 15 years after seeing the Merchant Ivory adaptation, and inevitably pictured Emma Thompson and Helena Bonham Carter in the roles of the sisters. However, for the first third of the book, I mixed up the roles, and had Emma Thompson as Helen and Helena Bonham Carter as Margaret in my mental casting. When I realized I was picturing them wrong, I had to forcibly correct it. I now avoid reading a book when I’ve already seen the movie. More… “Seeing Things”

Elisa Gabbert is the author of L’Heure Bleue, or the Judy Poems (Black Ocean), The Self Unstable (Black Ocean) and The French Exit (Birds LLC). Follow her on Twitter at @egabbert.
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