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Tag: prose quality

On prose quality

“Sometimes [what draws me into a story is] a matter of style, but not always, since a compelling world can survive clumsy or awkward writing, as in Poe or David Foster Wallace (in Wallace’s case the awkwardness is deliberate, of course). “

—Iain Higgins, member of The Malahat Review‘s fiction board

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Short story: “Eva Is Inside Her Cat”

“Eva Is Inside Her Cat,” by Gabriel García Márquez, as translated by J. S. Bernstein

Appeared in the collection Eyes of a Blue Dog in 1972; found in Collected Stories (1984), which was reprinted by Harper Perennial Modern Classics (2008); online here and supposedly here, though I couldn’t get the latter link to open

8 pages (?), 4,280 words (though it feels shorter—my estimate was embarrassingly far off)

I officially don’t understand magic realism. Márquez’s work is beautifully written (at least in translation) and seems psychologically believable, but what’s going on? Perhaps this is not so much a magic realism story as a story that’s deliberately ambiguous about its reality: the protagonist may be dying and becoming a ghost, or she may be experiencing an extreme mental state and hallucinating.

As this commentary on The Reading Life remarks, it’s worth wondering whether a beautiful woman ever really thinks of her beauty this way—whether any beautiful woman has ever written of a similar experience. I feel like fiction by men contains an improbable number of beautiful women who are universally attractive to hetero-attracted men, as though men’s tastes never vary.

At the end it seems (spoilers) that she’s been dead for a long while, death having distorted her sense of time.

I don’t understand the title, since she never seems to get inside the cat. She may already be inside the cat without knowing it, but her experiences don’t seem tinged with catness or with the physicality of the cat.

Short story: “What a Wolf Wants”

“What a Wolf Wants,” by Nikki J. North

Appeared in Three-lobed Burning Eye #28, October 2016

3,404 words

I’m not sure I understand the plot of this story. The main character seems to be on a quest in a simulated world that connects her brain to a “patient,” but I don’t get how that relates to the loss of her sister or who’s using her sister to distract her. I think I do understand the bittersweetness of the ending.

The prose and atmosphere are excellent.

Flash fiction story: “The Canary”

“The Canary,” by Mario Aliberto III

Appeared in Every Day Fiction, February 21st, 2018

932 words

I liked this. Nice prose too.

On fictions as machines

“What the would-be writer of ‘serious’ fiction (who would relegate plot and story to a place at the end of a long line headed by diction and that smooth flow of language which most college writing instructors mistakenly equate with style) seems to forget is that novels are engines, just as cars are engines; a Rolls Royce without an engine might as well be the world’s most luxurious begonia pot, and a novel in which there is no story becomes nothing but a curiosity, a little mental game.”

—Stephen King in Danse Macabre

“I like William Carlos Williams[‘] description of a poem: ‘a small (or large) machine made of words.’ Often I’m not sure what kind of machine I’m building until I start putting the thing together and fire it up. Sometimes I find I’m trying to cram toaster parts into a particle accelerator. Sometimes it works and I end up with a kick-ass toaster. Sometimes it’s a disaster and I make a super-slow accelerator.”

—Jason Marak (x)

 I’m pretty sure Roald Dahl said something about writing a long sentence axel followed by the cogwheel of a short sentence—and making it twirl. Can’t find the quote though.

On interestingness as a driving force in fiction

“Proust succeeds, in my opinion, by being interesting on every single page. [In Search of Lost Time/Remembrance of Things Past] is one of the few philosophical novels, for instance, that actually has something to say. Proust’s ideas on art, on society, on love, on politics, are fascinating. It’s like going to dinner with the most interesting person you’ve ever met.

“And there’s also a certain moment to moment ingenuity. Unexpected things happen. People change in odd and striking ways. And, of course, the sentences are amazing. I hesitate to call them good or beautiful (because no one except Proust should ever attempt to write like this), but they are an experience. The nearest thing I can compare him to, in English, is Samuel Johnson: a writer who says, in page-long sentences, the kind of thoughts that can only really be expressed in page-long sentences.

“But none of this is any good to the aspiring writer of fiction, of course. And by giving writers the notion that they don’t need story—they just need to be interesting!—I’m pretty sure Proust has harmed many more writers than he’s helped.”

—Rahul Kanakia (x)

Short story: “Think”

“Think,” by David Foster Wallace

Appeared in Conjunctions issue 28, spring 1997, alongside another Wallace story; collected in Brief Interviews with Hideous Men

About 2 pages in the book; 738 words (my guess was gonna be 1,000)

When I first read this it felt slight and excerpt-ish, but on a reread I find it excellent. A single scene implies a plot in which the main character’s soul or honor hangs in the balance, and Wallacianly, he has to make himself a bit hokey and ridiculous—in this case, he literally humbles himself—to earn his right to that soul/honor.

I really like “snaps clear” as a description of what your forehead does when you suddenly realize something.

Short story: “The Dupe”

“The Dupe,” by Jim Fusilli

Appeared in D.C. Noir (2006, part of the Akashic Books Noir Series), edited by George Pelecanos

About 15.25 pages in the anthology, unknown number of words

A good little yarn.

I thought opening the story on the day of the crime was a bad idea, especially because the author (or editor?) avoids past pluperfect, resulting in awkwardness (“Five days earlier, Port was summoned”). I understand the need to put the drama up front, but I would have opened with “My father is disappointed, Jordie.”

Short story: “The Tower”

“The Tower,” by Steven Millhauser

Appeared in Timothy McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern 25, 2007

16 1/3 pages in McSweeney’s

Millhauser is always good but rarely as good as I want him to be. This story is a very long parable, maybe too long. When I reread it after some years, I realized I had forgotten the ending—not because the ending is arbitrary, but because it’s sort of parabolically inevitable, like the endings of “Paradise Park” and “The Dream of the Consortium.”

I really like this line, for no special reason: “a row of sparrows rose into the air with beating wings, like the sound of a shaken rug.”

On complacency and terror in prose style

“Wallace is hard to parody: the parodist reads with an eye for the moment when an author gets too magisterially comfortable with his own style, and slips momentarily onto autopilot, and Wallace frantically avoided such moments. The Howling Fantods ran a David Foster Wallace Parody competition in 2004, and what makes the authors of the winning entries in this competition not sound like Wallace is precisely a certain stylistic comfortableness/smugness/polish. E.g. several of the parodists chose to recreate the celebrated poet who is skewered in the story ‘Death is Not the End’—‘a poet two separate American generations have now hailed as the voice of their generation,’ or in other words the phony of phonies, a velveteen genius. Comparing the original with the parodies clarifies where the original gets its force, namely from Wallace’s sheer terror that the person he’s lampooning might be himself. What keeps that story ‘authentic’ is Wallace’s own fear of being inauthentic.”

—James Warner, in that essay I like to quote a lot