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Like the namesake of his most recent novels, J. M. Coetzee speaks to us in parables. The Childhood of Jesus and The Schooldays of Jesus, like Disgrace and Summertime before them, give us politically charged stories seemingly without side. This encourages the Nobel laureate’s reviewers to become Coetzeeologists, attempting to parse out whether the book before them sets opposing tensions in play for art’s sake alone, or whether we can discern a clear moral leaning beneath the tensions. We assume Coetzee came to the story with an open mind but did he leave with one too? What’s he trying to say?

Since about The Master of Petersburg, most of Coetzee’s novels have used oppositional ideas to power their dynamos. The reader’s changing sympathies fall into a sort of dance with the story itself: Each revelation shifts our allegiances, tilting the axis of the book. It’s like watching a courtroom drama where the very ideas by which we live our lives are put on trial, and we’re not yet certain whodunit. In Disgrace, a college professor in Coetzee’s native South Africa takes sexual advantage of a student and then is himself savagely victimized — in what measure has justice been served? In the underrated Elizabeth Costello, the eponymous fictional novelist accuses a fictionalized version of the real novelist Paul West of depicting the horrors of the Holocaust in a way that effectively exploits them; as we watch her argument unfold, we find ourselves first cheering her on, then recoiling. This is fiction at its best. More… “The Dancer Upstairs”

John Cotter’s first novel Under the Small Lights appeared in 2010 from Miami University Press. A founding editor at the review site Open Letters Monthly, John’s published critical work in Sculpture, Bookforum, and The The Poetry Foundation. Say hi at John [at] JohnCotter [dot] net.
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All is completed, I said. You can rest and take delight in your accomplishment, I said. Except.

Except now you have to do it all over again.

Maybe not all of you. Maybe only most of you. There are, after all, those painstaking writers who meticulously go over each sentence as it appears and polish it until it has just the right glossiness and hint of darkness. When it is as smooth as a milkshake. When it dances or sings or claps.

But make no mistake: Almost all of us have to do all of it all over again.

You may start by running a spelling and grammar search on the file in your computer. The search will clean up a few typos. Which helps, but, sadly, not all that much. After all, this is simply housecleaning, and like housecleaning, you need to do it repeatedly, i.e., every time you add to or alter your piece. You must also read, reread, reread again, and then reread some more. Some readers suggest reading backwards from the last page, especially when what you have written is poetry. What are you looking for? The tiniest things imaginable: reversed quotation marks, for example, and words that lack needed power, or a comma that should be a semicolon, a question mark that should be a period. Check spellings for capitals and hyphens. Check military abbreviations. Check all other abbreviations. This, unfortunately, is not fun. This is tedious. And you may find yourself nearly hysterical with anxiety.
More… “Revise Until You Drop”

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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For his 2007 translation of Alain-Fournier’s Le Grand Meaulnes, Robin Buss chooses to render the title as The Lost Estate, followed by Le Grand Meaulnes in parentheses. However, since reading it, I refer to it solely as Le Grand Meaulnes, because Buss’s note on the translation describes the French title as nearly untranslatable: “There are, in fact, more titles of this book in English than there are translations of it”! (Even the author’s name is not consistently “translated.” A pseudonym — he was born Henri-Alban Fournier — it appears on some editions as “Henri Alain-Fournier” and on others simply as “Alain-Fournier.”)

The novel, considered a coming-of-age classic in France on par with our The Catcher in the Rye, tells the story of Augustin Meaulnes, known as grand at school for both his height and his charisma, a dashing boy who escapes one day on an adventure. It’s a few days before Christmas, and one of his classmates has been chosen for the important task of picking up the schoolmaster’s parents at a nearby train station. In a fit of competitive jealousy, Meaulnes steals a horse and carriage and races off to beat him to the station, but he takes a wrong turn and gets lost. He stops to sleep and the horse runs away. Eventually, cold and exhausted, he stumbles upon a secluded estate where some kind of celebration — “a strange fête” — is taking place: There are children in costume, dancing, a great feast. (You can picture it, can’t you? Stone walls? Fairy lights in the trees?) It’s a wedding, and Meaulnes crashes it. He is assumed to be a guest, and when everyone leaves at the end of the weekend, he catches a ride back in the direction of his town. By the time he returns he has been missing several days and, when the horse turned up with an empty trap, feared dead. More… “Impossible Time”

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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Some stories have fantastical endings. Matthew Vollmer’s forthcoming Gateway to Paradise, a smart collection of short stories, begins with “Downtime,” wherein a dentist named Ted Barber is haunted by the loss of his wife, Tavey, who drowned on their honeymoon. He flew back to Valleytown, North Carolina, knowing that his wife’s body was stowed in the cargo bay of the plane he is on. He is now having a hot affair with his assistant, who is formidably competent and would be a great wife, but images and reminiscences of Tavey keep pulling him away from Allison. He has weird imaginings, weird dreams, or perhaps they are hallucinations. They are certainly hallucinatory. He swims with Tavey off the coast of Mexico and, after trying to shake her off — her dimly lit, sketchy, almost transparent body — he gives up. She hangs in and he finds himself giving into her. He allows her to find places in his body where she can hold onto him. He knows this is slightly insane, but he finally decides both women will be with him: one in the real world, one in another world. As odd or weird as this sounds, it is simply a metaphor for how a man whose wife has died must accommodate both the memory and the reality, the woman lost and the woman he needs now. At the same time, the image of the husband taking his dead wife’s corpse into his own body makes a striking impression. It is not unrelated to Franz Kafka’s insect in the Metamorphosis. And if you have not read the Metamorphosis, you must put down this essay right now and go straight there. Then read “Downtime.” More… “Imagined Endings”

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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We asked our staff to pick their favorite contributions to popular culture that we encountered in 2016. From books, to movies, to a YouTube concert video, we enjoyed a lot of beauty and truth in a year unlikely to be remembered for either. “There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in,” Leonard Cohen famously sang in “Anthem.” Embodying this year, Cohen triumphantly released the gorgeous album You Want it Darker shortly before his voice was suddenly silenced by his passing in November. A less-quoted lyric of Anthem is Cohen’s instruction “Ring the bells that still can ring.” Here is what chimed for us this year. More… “Best of 2016”

Get in touch with The Smart Set at editor@thesmartset.com.
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But first you have to write the ending.

Correction: First off, you must avoid any ending in which some godlike savior comes into the story to take care of everything and everyone. This is a deus ex machina, a last-minute, last-ditch, make-everything-right, sort-out-the-kinks-and-crinkles ending that satisfies no one.

Now: write an ending that is not deus ex machina.

We have already described one kind of ending. Beginning in medias res allows us to end with the beginning, which, done well, will then be surprising or informative, or both. More… “Cut the Cord”

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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Once we were mighty. Once we were legion. Once we reigned over colleges and universities like demigods. Well, OK, we English majors were never that important, except maybe in our own eyes. According to a report in the New York Times, degrees awarded in English at American universities fell from seven point six percent of the total in 1971 to three point one percent of the total in 2011 — which goes to show, I suppose, that the golden age was never quite so golden. Still, better the periphery than where we are now — the periphery of the periphery.

One of the less-happy consequences of my decision to major in English 40 years ago is that I haven’t met many (or any) people who share my enthusiasm for the writings of John Dryden. Another is that I make about as much money as a janitor and live in one of the most expensive cities in the world. I knew what I signed up for. My life sentence as an English major has taught me not to care overly much about what are laughingly called “the good things in life.” For better or worse, I can’t look at the glossy advertisements in The New Yorker without a feeling of cognitive dissonance. How could anyone who reads the poems and short stories and criticism in that magazine really want all that crap? If that’s a prejudice, the fault lies in me, not in my discipline, which includes plenty of practitioners with a somewhat more realistic financial outlook than my own. Anyway, for me, it’s less a discipline than a passion. I expect that that beleaguered three point one percent on campuses today feel much the same way. Against the advice of their parents, the social pressure of their peers, and the severely utilitarian direction of American society, they obdurately go on piling up their useless, unremunerative literary courses. See the trouble you get into when you listen to your soul? More… “English Majors’ Twilight”

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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How many artists out there can say they completely transformed an entire genre so much that there is a clear demarcation point between what came before and what came after?

Manga artist Moto Hagio can. She had help, though. As one of the members of Magnificent 49ers, also known as the Year 24 Group, Hagio is a member of a loose affiliation of female cartoonists all allegedly born in or around the 24th year of the Showa era (1949, hence the name), that transformed girls’ comics in Japan, a.k.a. Shoujo manga. More… “The Magnificent Moto”

By day, Chris Mautner is the mild-mannered social media producer for PennLive.com. By night, he writes about really nerdy things for The Comics Journal … and this site. He is ¼ of the podcast Comic Books Are Burning in Hell.
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Mina Harker, with her brain addled and her blood poisoned by the vampire Count Dracula, tells Dr. Van Helsing while in the midst of a semi-trance that: “The Count is a criminal and of criminal type. Nordau and Lombroso would classify him, and qua criminal he is of imperfectly formed mind.” As such, Mina tells the men assembled around her — Dr. Van Helsing, Dr. John Seward, Lord Godalming, Quincey Morris, and her husband Jonathan Harker — that Dracula is “selfish; and as his intellect is small and his action is based on selfishness, he confines himself to one purpose.” That one purpose is to return to his native soil in Transylvania. There, contrary to most subsequent film adaptations, Count Dracula is felled not by a wooden stake or the sun’s rays, but by a combination of Jonathan Harker’s kukri and Morris’s Bowie knife. Bram Stoker decided to end his 1897 novel Dracula, which is the Count’s first appearance in pop culture, with an ending fitting only for a criminal dumb enough to return to the scene of the crime. More… “Undead and Born Criminal”

Benjamin Welton is a freelance writer based in Boston. He is the author of Hands Dabbled in Blood.
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In his book Varieties of Religious Experience, William James wrote about the power the irrational holds over the rational:

If you have intuitions at all, they come from a deeper level of your nature than the loquacious level which rationalism inhabits. Your whole subconscious life, your impulses, your faiths, your needs, your divinations, have prepared the premises, of which your consciousness now feels the weight of the result; and something in you absolutely knows that that result must be truer than any logic-chopping rationalistic talk, however clever, that may contradict it.

So what do you do as a rational, intellectual person who is fighting a group that is in the grips of their intuition? How do you combat the power that holds? It doesn’t make sense to right the irrational with the rational. You can explain to, say, a Trump supporter very coolly that his economic policy would have disastrous ramifications, or that his foreign policy approach could very well lead us into decades of conflict, but if he’s caught up in a nationalistic fever, especially one that is being used to shore up a fractured sense of self, you will only antagonize and never sway. More… “The Shlomo Sand (Inter)view”

Jessa Crispin is editor and founder of Bookslut.com. She currently resides in Chicago.
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