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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 2015 books are Twelve Women in a Country Called America: Stories, A Kelly Cherry Reader, and Physics for Poetry (a poetry chapbook). In 2014 she published A Kind of Dream, linked stories.
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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 2015 books are Twelve Women in a Country Called America: Stories, A Kelly Cherry Reader, and Physics for Poetry (a poetry chapbook). In 2014 she published A Kind of Dream, linked stories.
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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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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 2015 books are Twelve Women in a Country Called America: Stories, A Kelly Cherry Reader, and Physics for Poetry (a poetry chapbook). In 2014 she published A Kind of Dream, linked stories.
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British midshipman literature set in the late-17th and early-18th centuries makes you feel like you’ve entered into an exclusive club, one which is nonetheless open to anyone who comes along and cracks the spine of the latest high seas adventure of a young man in flux.

A midshipman at the time was apt to be a 16- or 17-year-old boy who joined the King’s Navy with the expectation — or hope — that he’d eventually progress to lieutenant, and from there, if all broke well, to senior lieutenant, and on to captain.

This boy immediately took up a role as what we might now think of as management on these ships. The bulk of the crew were career-long sailors who could neither read nor write. Many of whom were victims, at one point, of England’s notorious press gangs, seized into service when they were drunk and stumbling home from the pub.

At which point, the King now owned you, and you would do his royal bidding at sea where you were likely to be impaled by a sliver of wood, flung from the rigging, ran through with a sword, or roasted in a fire. To compensate for the attendant risks of the job, you’d be plied with rum, and inebriated throughout most of your days.

More… “Novel Helmsman”

Colin Fleming writes on art, literature, film, rock, jazz, classical music, and sports for Rolling Stone, JazzTimes, The Atlantic, Sports Illustrated, The Washington Post, and a number of other publications. His fiction has recently appeared in AGNI, Boulevard, Cincinnati Review, Commentary, and Post Road, and he’s the author of The Anglerfish Comedy Troupe: Stories from the Abyss (Dzanc), and is writing a memoir, Many Moments More: A Story About the Art of Endurance, and a novel about a reluctant piano genius, age seven or eight, called The Freeze Tag Sessions. He’s a regular contributor to NPR’s Weekend Edition. His tattered, on-the-mend website is colinfleminglit.com, and he highly recommends reading The Smart Set daily, along with ten mile coastal walks and lots of Keats and hockey for the soul.
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The internet is saying farewell to Bookslut after 14 years. We dug back into our archives to find you lovely readers some gems from Jessa Crispin’s time here at the Smart Set.

Leave James Joyce Alone!

[W]hen scholars and biographers complain about the gatekeepers to the estate, especially when those are family members, what do they expect? Biographers may claim noble and spotless intentions, but for the most part they deal in gossip. Stephen saw the people who raised him reduced to cartoon figures. He watched as the biographer of his very troubled aunt, who had recurring periods of madness and spent most of her life in an institution, hailed as not schizophrenic but merely artistic and damaged by her father’s sexual love for her. His grandfather was called a liar and a cheat. His parents, private figures both, faced a scrutiny they did not deserve. Stephen’s father, Joyce’s son, was called a worthless layabout for never really having a career, and his mother was called mad. If I were Stephen, I would have started to burn documents, too.

I’ll admit it: when it comes to murder, I’m a sexist.

“Think,” I told them. “What would cause a 12-year-old girl to wipe out her entire family? What would cause her sister, when pushed, to say they all got what they deserved?”

As we retread the book carefully, with this question as a lens, I started to feel that maybe I was betraying the book, taking it off in a direction it did not necessarily want to go. I was imposing my own agenda on the novel, using it to prove that, while it’s almost accepted wisdom that adolescent boys are rage-filled thunder gods, ready to wreak death and destruction upon any around them, a girl must have a pretty good reason to lash out. Maybe instead I should have felt it was natural for a 12-year-old girl to poison the sugar.

Walk Like a Man

We stopped freaking out about the “Oh my god, women want to wear pants!” thing a really long time ago. Women wandered into the traditionally masculine realms of self-expression and ambition and now it’s just normal.

Not so with masculinity. It is still as rigid and well defended as ever, despite a few David Bowies or Johnny Depps in the mix. Just look at last year’s total freaking meltdown about a J. Crew catalog that carried a photo of a woman painting her young son’s toenails. . . . When a girl is boyish, or even claims she’d rather be a boy, it’s cute. She’s a tomboy. When a boy is girlish, wanting to wear dresses or try on some makeup, it’s a mental disorder and needs an immediate medical intervention.

Book Report

This is where the action is, after all, the public libraries. And by action I mean bloodletting. It’s perhaps the most vulnerable segment of the American Library Association, dependent on city and state budgets rather than the universities and corporations that find their funding elsewhere. And each year, thousands of the PLA’s 11,000 members descend on a city to set the agenda for the year to come, to commiserate and strategize. And to network for employment, for the more recent victims of the cutbacks.

Secure in the knowledge that libraries are now permanently fucked, I expected to walk in to find a mournful scene. Maybe candlelight vigils for state funding, a designated mourner wailing over grants for arts programs? I was donned in black. I was ready to blend in.

We love you, Bookslut. You will be dearly missed. •

Get in touch with The Smart Set at editor@thesmartset.com.
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