About Writers, book reviews, Uncategorized, writing technique

Surviving the Destructive Critique

Now here’s a topic you almost never see raised in writers’ groups. For good reason—by-and-large, it’s much more helpful to approach this topic from the opposite, positive perspective: that is to say, how to give and receive a constructive review. (Note: throughout this blog post I shall use the terms “critique” and “review” interchangeably.)

So first, let’s enumerate the attributes and practices of a constructive reviewer (of which Sue, Tom and Atthys—among others—are masters).  

A constructive reviewer will:

1.) Flag problematic areas of text without resorting to snark or sniping. 

2.) Find something genuinely positive (supported by the writing) to highlight. 

3.) Frame suggestions as “I thought at this point” or “have you considered?” or “this puts me in mind of _____; did you intend . . . ?” Shun emphatic: “You really f#cked up here, pal!” declarative statements.

4.) Avoid commenting on how the writing impacted their emotional state (unless positive). 

5.) Read the writer’s text carefully. 

6.) Understand that a self-deprecating sense of wry humor and/or “in-the-trenches-with-you” camaraderie engenders trust and openness. (Animals expose their bellies to show trust. Proffering your manuscript to another person and asking for a critique is, existentially speaking, a similar act.) 

7.) Always remember: Respect earns respect.

8.) Be more coach than oracle. (Quick: Who were your favorite teachers in school? The coldly imperious, doctrinaire and/or sarcastic set? Those who talked at you instead of with you? No, I didn’t think so . . .) 

9. Respect the reviewed writer for taking chances, even if—in the reviewer’s opinion—the writer failed to accomplish what they set out to do. 

10. Critique the writing for what it is, not for what it is not. This doesn’t mean that the reviewer should refrain from addressing errors in the text (of grammar, historicity, inauthentic dialogue, etc.) It means that the reviewer doesn’t react to a writer’s tragic text by telling them it would work better if it were a little less tragic—a comedy, perhaps. Or a one-panel New Yorker cartoon. (“Does it have to be a story?”) That kind of thing. 

One note before proceeding: a neutral review is not a destructive review. A neutral review (usually given when the reviewer is pressed for time) simply highlights what is not working in the text for the reviewer in as direct and succinct a manner as possible without cushioning “rah-rah” statements to soften the blows of critique. I prefer neutral reviews of my work. As I’ve stated: It saves time. The reviewer isn’t racking their brains for positive things to say immediately before and after highlighting a problematic area of the text. This technique is called “the critique sandwich”. (Example: “Your story moves at a brisk pace until that extended info dump re: malfunctioning doggie squeak toys on pp. 23-25did you intend the reader to be amused as well as somewhat overwhelmed by insider industry knowledge?though overall the book’s pacing and deft, incisive strokes of characterization . . .”) The critique sandwich certainly helps “the medicine go down”but can be mentally exhausting for the reviewer, as well as somewhat patronizing to the reviewed.

Now let’s talk about the destructive review. Dear literary gods in their manifold heavens, where to begin?

Perhaps by listening to a quote of Joyce Carol Oates: “I believe that any form of art is a species of exploration and transgression. … Art by its nature is a transgressive act, and artists must accept being punished for it. The more original and unsettling their art, the more devastating the punishment.” 

If you write an effective piece of fiction—albeit one that demolishes unexamined verities and/or probes the circumstances and motivations of the darker, more perverse aspects of human nature—brace for snarling contempt, histrionic outrage and bitter vituperation from some quarters as your reward. Or baffled confessions that are actually thinly veiled protestations: “Why did you choose subject x? Employ technique y? Adopt tone z? It made me crazy! I don’t know what you’re trying to do here…”

That’s if you write an effective piece of fiction. Now if you should stumble and write an ineffective piece of fiction . . . 

We all might wish that the professional literary world be full of warm, compassionate human beings who communicate their empathy, intelligence and professional wisdom by expressing themselves with tact, courtesy and rueful good humor to all and sundry. Yes, we all might so wish! Alas, this is not the case. And there is no one better skilled at flaying with words than a practiced writer. You think your uncle Joe’s or cousin Suzie’s offhand, inarticulate comments misreading your text were upsetting? Wait till an accomplished fictioneer starts in on you! For economy of motion and maximum impact in the deliverance of “death-by-a-thousand-cuts-criticisms” the work of a pro cannot be matched. It is a thing of beauty: oftentimes as ID-tickling amusing as it is abrupt, nasty, idiosyncratic and censorious. (See: Poe vs. Longfellow, Hemingway vs. F. Scott Fitzgerald, David Foster Wallace vs. John Updike, Mark Twain vs. Bret Harte, H. G. Wells vs. Henry James, etc.)

Exhibit A: I am now going to share with you a critique experience I recently had with a professional writer who considers themselves a friend. (Name withheld to protect their privacy.) Not solely to vent (though of course there is that aspect to the matter) but because I think others can learn from it.

Disguising certain particulars of what exactly was said, here is how my professional reviewer delivered a critique of a couple pieces of writing I asked him to review. He: 

1.) Made repeated references to how the writing had negatively impacted his emotional state. (No warning of “don’t send me triggering stories concerning subject X” beforehand.) 

2.) Urged that I directly quote a writer mentioned in one of my texts. (But I did quote that writer: twice. In that very same text. What were we saying about close reading, please?) 

3.) Smarmily and testily informed me that I should be billed for causing him to “read 32,000 words of Carl E. Reed text” over the course of five stories. (I sent six. And specifically noted beforehand: “Please choose one . . . or two . . . to comment on. I’ve submitted six to give you review options, not homework; good grief!” I could not have been clearer in my intentions/expectations. Mind you, this whilst simultaneously working my way through one of his 500-page novels. “I should bill you for reading 175,000 words . . .”) 

4.) Suggested I have my protagonist (in a horror story) fight someone or something to be “more like Indiana Jones”. Then—comically, almost in the very next sentence—objected that the three black-robed antagonists my protagonist did fight toward the latter end of the tale put him in mind of “Luke Skywalker fighting in the tree”. So . . . no fighting, then? Or fighting that doesn’t—in any way, shape or form—put one in mind of fighting done by someone else, sometime earlier or later, elsewhere? I’m confused. 

5.) Made absurd, off-the-wall suggestions re: multiple stories that would have completely demolished or transformed beyond all recognition authorial narrative flow, plot, tone and theme. (Example: complained that a bookish, sociopathic, high I.Q. juvenile monster in one of my tales wrote glowingly in his journal of the writings of Ayn Rand and others instead of being influenced by TikToc videos.)

6.) Ignored themes and metaphors (literalized or otherwise). My reviewer was completely blind/impervious/indifferent to same. I mean, nary a word mentioned regarding what is to me the central justification for the existence of literature: what the machinations of plot and the collision of divers characters within a story mean; what it all adds up to re: commentary on the human condition.

7.)  Made cutting comments throughout the text whenever he encountered wordage deemed problematic. (Full disclosure: He apologized in a prefatory email for the many “dyspeptic comments” my writing prompted him to articulate.)  

8.) Flagged as textual “errors” subtleties that were lost on him. (Example: In one instance, I described a person smoking a cigarette exhaling “blue-gray smoke”. Later, a passing truck backfires and emits a pungent whiff of “blue-gray smoke”. This is an intentional highlighting and callback to the fact that the truck is emitting a whiff of smoke every bit as toxic as the smoker’s cigarette: the identical phrasing of similar events in differing instances serving to create a leitmotif, which itself underlines and dramatizes the hot-house, claustrophobic toxicity addressed in the tale.) 

9.) Seemed more interested in crafting cutting comments than in reading closely, deeply and well. One story (whose tone, plot and thematic material was influenced by my currently reading Tragedy, the Greeks, and Us; Simon Critchley) I submitted to him for review opened with the following epigraph:

…………………………..

Tragedy is built of one part fate, one part willing surrender to nihilistic impulses and perverse compulsions. It is both existential horror and chaotic mystery, striking the person of Apollonian and Dionysian temperament alike. Above all else, tragedy crushes the spirit and breaks the mind, leaving psychic ruin—and manifold death—in its wake.

—Anonymous

…………………………..

A richer, more lapidary and polysyllabic than normal use of the mother tongue, perhaps; but hardly impenetrable or so confoundingly recondite that it defeats comprehension. It draws upon philosophy, psychology, mysticism and ancient Greek theatrical art (tragedy) for its meaning. His response?

“Wow, this quote! I had a tough time following the bangs of this nailgun procession of ideas. I’ve torn it apart a couple of times and it still doesn’t make sense.”

I could go on, but to what end? Why include an entirely superfluous point #10? I think you get the picture. My industry professional (20+ novels and counting to date) “friendly” reviewer was angry, distraught (remember: triggered by the material), contemptuous, sarcastic, belittling and resolutely downbeat throughout his back-handed, teeth-gritted, unforgivably sloppy critique of my work. It amounted to an act of intellectual violence.

Yes, there were occasional helpful suggestions made and errors flagged during the course of the critique. (Example: He flagged the use of the word “astronaut” in a 1930s pulp sci-fi tale as an anachronism. Nice catch! And quite right. I changed the word to “spaceman”.) The problem is, the ratio of these constructive-to-destructive comments was running at something like 20-to-1. Nevertheless . . .

The trick when receiving a destructive critique is to salvage what you can from the morass of misreading, misattribution (of authorial intent and accomplishment + references back to things in the text that simply aren’t there; or that are there and were slighted/overlooked/denigrated), sarcastic comments and wildly wrong-footed, bizarre suggestions. (Sarcasm kills communication, which is exactly what it is intended to do. It is the lowest form of wit, as the joke is always assumed to have been made.)

So . . . How did I react?  

With as much decency, kindness and appreciation as I could muster.  

His bad day did not mean that I needed to become completely unglued. Though it hurt. Maaannn, it hurt . . . ! (Don’t deny the reality of your feelings; acknowledge and manage them. Stay grounded and real. And remember: to the world-at-large this is a meaningless—even somewhat comical—overwrought piffle. Writer drama; heh! :::person pulls up chair; dives hand into bag of popcorn:::)

I thanked him for putting in so much time (you always—always!—owe your reviewer thanks; no exceptions), demurred re: a couple of his factually wrong/misreading comments (citing brief, pertinent reasons proving why he was wrong drawn directly from the texts he disparaged), and stated (not apologized) that I would never have submitted material to him that was intentionally triggering. Then I assured him that the overall message he’d communicated was well and truly received. Crystal clear. Five-by-five. As a postscript, I closed by offering truthful, sincere and measured praise of his penultimate novel. (Be a class act!)

And now we come to the over-arching, brutal, dispiriting truth of the matter, friends and neighbors—fellow knights of the quill—earnest midnight (or is that crack of dawn, or mid-day?) tireless scritch-scribblers: As you begin to get noticed in the particular genre in which you write, the venomous bitchy darts directed your way from certain quarters (“friendly” and otherwise) only increase in number, toxicity and force. Those who have made it are oftentimes annoyed that a new “proud bird, beautified with our feathers” dares to preen and strut his or her colors before editors who have turned a considering, speculative eye your way. Many writers have a zero-sum view of the publishing game: If you are on the rise, they must be on the decline. (“Whenever a friend succeeds, I die a little.”—Gore Vidal) Or you’re “doing it all wrong”: Your choice of subject matter, perspective, and/or technique offends and irritates. It’s not what they do or the way they do it, you see. Or they’ve simply taken it upon themselves to properly initiate you into the blood guild with the requisite amount of sneering contempt and/or self-transfixing snide witticisms. (“My, aren’t I clever/funny/tough!”) 

At some point in their writing life (amateur, semi-pro or pro) a writer will have their work subjected to destructive critique. Count on it. The trick is to weather this distressing experience with as much dignity as you can muster. Do as little self-defensive squawking as possible, earnestly endeavor to recognize and implement the constructive criticisms proffered by your savage reviewer, and most of all—most especially of all—continue to write afterward.

If you are truly a writer, you have no other choice. You must continue to write—with courage and skill, heart and intelligence—as best you know how. 

Believe that your ideal reader is out there. 

Have faith that practice in the craft will improve your literary skills. (And read, read, read—everything that interests you, regardless of whether or not it falls within your chosen genre.)

Have I mentioned that your ideal reader—the one who “gets you”—is out there? 

You deserve to find each other.

And you will—if you continue to write . . . and learn . . . and grow.

:::::Dispatch from the forward edge of the battle area 10/28/22: Yours Truly, Carl E. Reed:::::

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About Writers, humor, inspiration, Literary critique, Uncategorized, Writers Co-op, writing technique

Ten Things Writers Do That Cause Me To Sigh Heavily

Originally posted on Penguin’s Book Country by Carl E. Reed, March 21, 2012

In no particular order here are ten things writers do that cause me to sigh heavily:

1.) Use words that sound like the opposite of what they mean: Puissant doesn’t sound mighty, powerful or potent to this speaker of 21st-century Anglo-Saxon dialect and noisome immediately invokes the aural, not olfactory, sense (for me).

2.) Misuse words: Penultimate is not a synonym for “ultimate” (it means “next to last”, as in the number nine in a series counting up from zero to ten), and a semi-automatic weapon (fires one bullet every time the trigger is pulled) is not identical with a fully automatic weapon; i.e., a machine gun. For that matter marines are never soldiers, troops or dog-faces (I’m looking at you Stephen King!), they’re marines, Leathernecks, Devil-dogs, jarheads or grunts. (That last word applies if your marine is also an infantryman.)

3.) Write mediocre, albeit serviceable prose: Has this ever happened to you? You pick up a book and begin to flip through it only to realize almost immediately that there’s no there there; the writer’s voice is as homogenized and ennui-inducing as vanilla frosting on cardboard masticated by a muppet. For god’s sake stop writing in a defensive crouch! Get out there and say something on the page with all those words you’re time-sharing with the rest of the human race. You may fall flat on your face but I’ll respect you for trying; I truly will. Bullet-proof prose is boring prose.

4.) Litter your text with untranslated foreign words and phrases: A word or two here and there is fine but entire sentences? Paragraphs? As Isaac Asimov once remarked: “I’m flattered that you think I’m fluent in every language ever spoken by humans, including the dead ones, but please—don’t flatter me that much.”

5.) Characters who are forever staring off into the “middle-distance”: I swear to Harlan Ellison, if I ever read again of a character who “stares off into the middle distance” in order to communicate thoughtful reverie to the reader I’m going to fling the book off into the middle distance.

6.) Characters who are described as looking like famous people: “She had a raspy, Kathleen Turner-like voice; he was beautiful and energized as Ernest Borgnine on a bender”. Lazy!

7.) Insult your reader’s intelligence: Everyone else is smarter than you are. I thought you knew that? Never write down to your audience—despite the bad advice you may have been given by demographic-obsessed marketers, burnt-out grumpy editors and well-meaning friends and relatives urging you to “dumb it down.”

8.) Stop your narrative dead in its tracks by injecting too much back-story too soon: If I want to read a history book I’ll read a history book. I bought Demon Balls & Lost Sabbaths because I thought something was going to happen here . . .

9.) Over-use adverbs while under-using evocative adjectives and vivid descriptive nouns: Kill as many adverbs as you can while polishing those adjectives and vivid descriptive nouns. In the first instance, trust your reader—kill as many adverbs as you can bear to live without. If a character has just shouted or ended a sentence with an exclamation mark I probably don’t need an “angrily” speech tag to underline that fact. In the second instance give us more vivid, picturesque speech: Writing “she walked inside the house, threw her purse on the table and bent down to kiss the dog” is not a better sentence than, “she walked into the mildewed cottage, threw her satchel purse on the table and bent down to kiss her beloved beagle Bacon-barker.” Stop worshipping at the altar of minimalism—it’s a false religion with a blank-faced idiot god.

10.) Then suddenly out of nowhere!: The use of the word “suddenly” always reads as the injection of cheap drama and comical, amped-up surprise to me: “She was walking along the winding cobblestone path when SUDDENLY a black-masked bear jumped out of the bushes and demanded her Odor-eater shoe inserts”; “He sat there smoking when SUDDENLY an angel of the Lord appeared and smote him about the head and shoulders with a kielbasa.”

What are the things other writers do that drive you crazy?

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Paean to the Assault Rifle

Ave, Armaments Industry!

or, Paean to the Assault Rifle

By Carl E. Reed

Written after the July 4th, 2022 Highland Park parade mass murder (one of five mass shootings that occurred that day in the US) that killed seven people and wounded dozens. Among the dead: an elderly man in a wheelchair and a married couple who left behind a bloodied 2-year-old who was found wandering the deserted, debris-strewn street in dazed incomprehension after the massacre.  

___________________________________

Darts, spears, arrows, quarrels, bullets— 

long centuries a beast of killing heart 

penetrated prey via projectile. 

Behold—the refinement of his art! 

___________________________________

A rapid-fire instrument of war: 

wicked-looking polymers & steel. 

How comfortably it nestles in the shoulder! 

How rightly pistol grip & barrel feel! 

___________________________________

Blam! Blam! Ka-pow! Ker-blam!

Blam!-blam!-blam!-blam!-blam!

___________________________________

An itchy finger twitches: thirty bullets 

explode from orange-stutter muzzle-flash; 

stunned victims scream & scramble, duck for cover

spurt-wheel, totter-tumble—join the past.

___________________________________

Kalashnikov, Armalite, Smith & Wesson 

Sig Sauer, Colt, Remington, et. al.  

market wares to glazed-eyed, grim psychotics— 

ensure our homicidal have a ball! 

___________________________________

Blam! Blam! Ka-pow! Ker-blam!

Blam!-blam!-blam!-blam!-blam!

___________________________________

Author’s note: Remember, it’s not the gun that kills people, but . . . hold on! It is the gun. It is definitely the gun that kills people at ever-increasing numbers of American assault rifle massacre sites. (Perhaps this should be an acronym now: ARMS.) It certainly isn’t hard stares, morbid ruminations or nihilist wishes that are killing countless scores, is it? Or butcher knives, brass knuckles or shuriken. In these ever-more-unhinged, violent times we routinely sacrifice our people to Gunsmoke Moloch whose sacred text is the 1791-ratified 2nd Amendment. Amendment! Perhaps this one could be un-amended or otherwise amended again by people of conscience sickened at the ongoing incarnadine carnage? Such massacres occurring with numbing drumbeat regularity “from sea to shining sea” in 2022. I suggest repeal or revision of the 2nd Amendment since nowadays well-regulated militias bearing muskets seem to be in vanishingly short evidence amongst the increasingly desperate and alienated masculine electorate itching to get their hands on their “man card” . . .  

PS. Though I am grateful to any who read this post (yes, even those who disagree with my sentiments) I will not respond to any comments made here about this poem. Res ipsa loquitur. The debate around this issue has grown tiresome, tedious, nauseatingly feckless and exhaustingly over-tread/familiar. The pro-assault-rifles-for-everyone argument has degenerated into nothing but an exercise in cynical sophistry, “Look! Squirrel!” misdirection and sophomoric trolling by sociopathic gun zealots. (Details of the latest bone-chilling assault rifle mass murder? Yawn. Shoulder shrug. I mean, whatta ya gonna do? ‘Cause white-wigged, infallible, far-seeing forefathers; the-people-are-the militia; fetishistic impulses; legions of gun lobbyists; record profits for a problematic industry and freeeeeeedom!—or sumthin’. ‘Murica!) Meanwhile, the body count grows. (How long until the next mass murder? Or has it already occurred?)

FYI: This blog post was written by a former US marine well-acquainted with the M16 assault rifle. If you want to play with one I suggest you raise your right hand, swear allegiance to the Constitution, and vow to defend this country against all enemies foreign and domestic. Then shave your head and get your feet on the yellow footprints . . .              

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Fixed Point: The Doorway

I unlocked worlds of mystery & magic 

age ten 

when I learned the technique 

of focusing my gaze upon a fixed spot 

until fidgeting monkey mind 

denied ever-shifting visual stimuli 

began to hallucinate  

transfixing images of its own 

at the limit of peripheral sight. 

Sometimes 

the fixed-point image itself 

if stared at long enough 

in offset binocular vision 

wavered, shimmered 

& transmogrified 

into something else. 

___________________

I never forgot the lesson. 

___________________

Weird worlds 

startling, protean 

trickster-like 

chameleon 

everywhere intermingled  

& coexistent with our own  

manifest themselves 

if you remain still enough  

to notice. 

___________________

Author’s note: Boredom is the goad to creativity. A vision, a poem, a life. 

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About Writers, blogging, inspiration, Literary critique, Uncategorized, Welcome, Writers Co-op, writing technique

Musing Upon Three Quotes

“To write something you have to risk making a fool of yourself.” 
― Anne Rice 

“My belief is that art should not be comforting; for comfort, we have mass entertainment and one another. Art should provoke, disturb, arouse our emotions, expand our sympathies in directions we may not anticipate and may not even wish.” 
― Joyce Carol Oates 

The unread story is not a story; it is little black marks on wood pulp. The reader, reading it, makes it live: a live thing, a story.  

— Ursula K. Le Guin 

_________________________________

Is there a through-line connecting these quotes from three great writers? (I refuse to use the condescending first-part phrasal adjective “female” or “woman” in this instance. If we don’t routinely wall off male writers into a genitalia-defined ghetto when referring to their words and/or works, why would I perpetrate such a wince-inducing, overt-labelling job here re: “women writers”? Anne Rice, Joyce Carol Oates and Ursula K. Le Guin: great writers all. Period, the end. So why remark on their gender in this extended parenthetical thought? To address head-on the cynical, tiresome suspicion from some quarters that I chose three women writers to comment on in order to demonstrate how feminist/woke I am. :::sigh::: What a time to be alive and posting on “teh internets”. Well, that’s the kind of post this is going to be: one part stream-of-consciousness, one part thoughtful musing, one part—hopefully—synthesis of disparate elements into a unified whole. Tell me if I’ve failed, won’t you?) 

Let’s take Anne Rice’s quote first: ““To write something you have to risk making a fool of yourself.” Notice that she doesn’t insist the writer must make a fool of themselves; merely that one risks making a fool of themselves when they write. What could Rice possibly mean by this? 

Your interpretation may vary, but mine is as follows: There are a million, myriad ways a writer may face-plant in public. Errors of fact; mistranslations/misuse of foreign words and phrases; a question of style: writing that strikes one reader as “too flowery”, another as “too minimalist”; a theme that resonates with the writer and not the reader; vocabulary that is deemed either too high- or low-brow; metaphors that misfire and/or characters that seem eminently plausible, relatable and realistic to one set of readers, whilst striking another set of readers as wildly implausible, unrelatable and unrealistic. One simply cannot satisfy all readers all the time; not all art appeals to all people—for all time. (It might, but oftentimes—let us face hard facts here without flinching—doesn’t.) As an artist we must accept this discomfiting fact and therefore write with our “ideal reader” in mind—whoever we imagine they might be. But if we push boundaries with our art—if we dare to question certain perceived “eternal verities” of politics (political thought that falls outside the Overton window), sex (outside the heteronormative) and/or religion (especially as regards atheistic or agnostic thought—though this is rapidly changing: “unaffiliated” or “unbelieving/unchurched” constitutes a growing body of the American electorate) then we embark upon a steep uphill climb re: widespread acclaim and/or acceptance of our work. Or as Joyce Carol Oates has put it: “Art by its nature is a transgressive act, and artists must accept being punished for it. The more original and unsettling their art, the more devastating the punishment.” 

Which brings us to another quote of Joyce Carol Oates’: the second one referenced at the beginning of this piece: “My belief is that art should not be comforting; for comfort, we have mass entertainment and one another. Art should provoke, disturb, arouse our emotions, expand our sympathies in directions we may not anticipate and may not even wish.” This echoes Kafka: “A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.”

Now, the quibble with such assertions is this: We’re not always in the mood for a paradigm-shattering, psychologically transformative piece of art, are we? Sometimes (most of the time?) we want our reading to be the equivalent of comfort food: nourishing, tasty, familiar, filling. (We’re being honest with one another, yes?) However— I think we can agree that the best interpretive literature (to use Prof. Laurence Perrine’s term) expands our storehouse of life-lived experience and thus has the knock-on secondary effect—if the writing is psychologically astute, richly drawn and compelling—of working to increase both our understanding of the internal and external worlds. Fiction is not a lie that tells the truth: It is the concretized (black letters) fossil record (captured on paper or electronic storage device) of transfixing hypnogogic visions (author’s imagination/subconscious) that allows others, upon reading (a remarkable, semi-mystical experience in which both hemispheres of the brain fire in tandem) to embody alternate lives (viewpoint characters) and thus witness at one remove (sensory impressions received, albeit not from phenomena in the real world) the result of various played-out stratagems and the consequences of certain thoughts, impulses and actions (plot). What we make of all the aforementioned constitutes theme + meaning.

Fiction is not a game. Not for man, the story-telling animal: It is a critical practice by which one person communicates to another something of compelling import and/or momentary divertissement/amusement. (“Once upon a time . . .” “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times . . .” “Call me Ishmael.” “You’re not gonna believe what happened! I’m just sitting there, minding my own business when . . .”)

Lies? Truth? Irrelevant, as regards evaluating the efficacy and impact of well-wrought fiction (unless you’re a Victorian moralist). Nabokov had it right: What makes a writer great is the spell-binding quality of their prose: that ability to enrapture, enchant, seduce. A critic once remarked of Anne Rice: “You surrender to her, as if in a voluptuous dream.” Exactly right. Interview with the Vampire, Servant of the Bones, Pandora, Vittorio the Vampire, the Sleeping Beauty trilogy. Story after story from Joyce Carol Oates has found me perched on the edge of my chair: terrified to discover what might happen next to her characters if I continue reading; too breathless and engrossed to stop. Her writing raises my pulse rate—while I marvel at the assured confidence and deftness of her prose, and the probing intelligence behind it. Ursula K. Le Guin: a national treasure (now deceased; alas!): the kind of writer whose seemingly effortless prose and command of narrative compels reading of her fiction; whose formidable intellectual gifts of analysis, insight and plain speaking glossed by a lifetime of lightly worn learning (her essays) elicit wolf-whistles of awe and appreciation. God, I wish I’d written that! Thought that. Felt that. (But you didn’t—till you’d first read Le Guin.)

And now we arrive at Ursula K. Le Guin’s quote: “The unread story is not a story; it is little black marks on wood pulp. The reader, reading it, makes it live: a live thing, a story.” 

In a single pithy observation this quote of Le Guin’s (with its attendant subtext) encapsulates the terror and the glory of fictioneering—to say nothing of the alternating cycles of hyperbolic mania and melancholic despair a psychologically unmoored writer might fall prey to.  

I was going to write another thousand words unpacking what I meant to convey in the paragraph above, but for brevity and concision Le Guin’s quote really cannot be improved upon. The challenge facing the writer is to provide the telling details of their story in expertly paced and vividly concretized fashion so that the reader may—insofar as is psychically possible—inhabit a close facsimile of the world the author envisaged; moreover, the writer should have a tale worth telling (almost all do), to have something to say about it beyond the mere fashioning of plot (many don’t), and the hard-won mastery of craft acquired through a lifetime of practice in order to tell their story well (the difference—oftentimes but not always—between the professional and the amateur). The challenge of the reader is to have read as widely and deeply as possible in order to engage with story on its own terms: neither willfully misreading, nor misconstruing, a text into what it is not. If this process fails what are we left with? Miscommunication or hopeless muddle, mere “black marks on wood pulp” signifying nothing.

In sum: The writer indeed risks making a fool of themselves when he or she sits down to write—especially if the chosen subject matter, characters described and/or over-all theme is decidedly iconoclastic or otherwise at variance with received wisdom and popular attitudes. And what a pity that oftentimes proves to be!—that great work, from great artists, oftentimes goes misremarked [sic], undervalued and genre-ghettoized until such time as an artist’s ideal reader rises up with the passion and critical acumen necessary to articulate the areté (ancient Greek: excellence in kind) of a given writer and their works. 

………………………………………………

Author’s note of 09-12-22: Since originally posting this article–to my sorrow and regret–Anne Rice has also passed away. Thank you for the books, Ms. Rice! And the warmth, generosity and incisive wit of your iconoclastic soul. You were here—you counted—we took note.

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Horridum Bellum: Father of Nations

With a thunderous clatter of hooves & blare

of battered brassy horn

light cavalry swept down upon

doomed men in a crimson morn.

________________

A ragged band was backed to a wall

of towering metamorphic rock  

in a foreign land long leagues from home, 

taut faces white with shock. 

________________

How terribly fast the tide had turned! 

How cunning the savage foe! 

A turncoat scout led them roundabout

into ambush. Treacherous woe!

________________

For weeks the marauders pillaged, burned

raped & drunken-reveled

till their captain, sated by gold & blood

cried, “Wheel, ye desert devils!”

________________

Laden with spoils the warband turned

back toward hearth & home

basking in martial glory built

’pon ashes & bleaching bones.

________________

A fortnight later, raiders braced for the charge

of juggernaut-horsed cruel men 

slung low in the saddle, scything swords 

reaping again & again 

________________

leather-clad warriors who smote & roared 

in a frenzy of berserker fear; 

the desperate band made a fierce last stand— 

spears splintered, horses reared. 

________________

Butchers’ work was done ’neath a rutilant sun 

to a man the invaders died; 

their corpses left to ripen & rot: 

sweetmeats for the vulture sky 

________________

that dispatched carrion birds to feast 

on the bloating, rictused dead. 

Black buzzing hordes of feted flies 

swarmed ’round severed heads 

________________

& limbs that littered the killing field 

soon buried by drifting sand.

What matter the names of the men who fell 

in that vanished, desolate land?

________________

The victors that day soon found their homes 

destroyed by a stronger foe  

who invaded the land, bronze legions agleam 

in scarlet, azure & gold. 

________________

Thus ever it was; thus ever shall be: 

man butchers man for wealth 

lost in turn to cyclic hordes 

worshipping power, brute force, pelf. 

________________

If today you stroll under cloudless skies 

face turned to the warming sun, 

spare a moment to think of countless dead 

who died that you may hum 

________________

some insipid tune of patriarchy—

family, church & state 

sing the tribal song of triumph: 

Noble! Manifest! Great!  

________________

–Carl E. Reed

This poem employs galloping rhythm, a judicious use of near-rhyme, abandon-rhyme (note the long “O” of “foe” and “gold” in stanza 9: an example of what I mean when I argue for the primacy of semantics–at certain critical points of an otherwise sonorously harmonized formalist narrative poem–over the mere aural, or sound, consistency of end-line rhyme), internal rhyme (rhymes on the same line), alliteration, assonance, consonance, the lack of end-line punctuation except where necessary to aid comprehension and regulate rhythm (a minimalist choice which also enhances reading speed and a sense of exhilarating forward momentum) and other poetic tricks to enhance euphony and over-all impact upon the reader. I hope the work imparts the same shock of lexical energy I felt in composing it; moreover, I hope these particular words arrayed in this particular fashion speak to the reader in a meaningful and authoritative way re: our collective guilt and responsibility for continuing to engage in the transfixing, tragic and (uneasily acknowledged) ecstatic social practice of war.

The formatting of this poem (if ever published) will follow the traditional formalist practice of indenting the 2nd and 4th lines of every quatrain. (Try accomplishing that in WordPress. ARRRGH!)

PS. Mellow: start sharpening that critical knife, heh!

PPS. I am pleased to announce that three new poems of mine will appear in issue #15 (July, 2021) of Spectral Realms Journal: “The Call of Lizzie”, “Shuffling Horror”, and “Bat-winged Battle Cry”. https://www.hippocampuspress.com/journals/spectral-realms/spectral-realms-no.-15?zenid=qqgjdp8a4gt5fgkuuinkcr7vm0



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Uncategorized

The Ballad of Annie Croft

Narrative poetry (in English) has long fallen out of fashion. English narrative poetry arranged in rhyming quatrains = outdated + are you fuggin’ kiddin’ me?! (Exclaim post-modernist poetic arbiters of taste — such traditionalist poetry openly mocked as hopelessly outmoded, tired, played out. FYI: Writers of such formalist “drivel” are regarded by the apparatchiks of the avant-garde as vulgarians of the worst sort: unimaginative hacks who perpetrate tired moon-june-spoon rhyme schemes upon a jaded, seen-and-heard-it-all-before reading public. This is arrogant dismissive nonsense, of course: early 20th century faddish criticism that still holds unaccountable sway in many quarters (especially the academic) of the Realm Poetic. Such prejudice against formalist verse is as risible and wrong-headed as it is laughable. Summoned to give testimony for the defense: Robert Service, George Sterling, Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, Yeats, Frank Coffman, Robert Frost, et. al. Hmm . . . lotta “Roberts” in that list. Change first name?)

To be sure there is still power, potency and picturesqueness a-plenty to be found in the rhyming (and occasional near-rhyming —”missed” rhymes inject semantic tension and suspense into a work) narrative poem. Especially the ballad. The form has not yet—even now, in the early part of the 21st century—been exhausted. In fact, I would argue that formalist narrative poetry is having a bit of a moment here in 2021. Furthermore, I assert that the poetic form of rhyming narrative verse will never be entirely exhausted. How could it be, given the fecundity of literary imagination and the richness of our language?

Exhibit A (or should that be Y?) rejected by divers editors “with regrets” as being “too long for publication”. (In truth, it’s asking a lot for an editor to devote 10-12 pages of a poetry magazine to one writer—especially an obscure unknown.)

……………………..

The Ballad of Annie Croft

A Tale of New England: circa 1660

Part I.

_____________

Annie Croft had brown eyes soft

as sable fur, her hair

red as sun-kissed roses—carriage

& deportment exceeding fair.

_____________

Her charms caught the attention

of the village magistrate;

William Moore was married

but desired to fornicate

_____________

with the woman who had acted 

as mid-wife to troubled births —

Tom & John: William’s sons

bawled, & kicked, & nursed

_________________

at the breasts of rigid Constance Moore:

helpmete of hawk-eyed mien;

ten years frigid, the magistrate’s wife

praised God, & hearth, & kin

_____________

“for the bounteous beauty of new life

predestined for Hell or Heaven;

scourging rod & dour prayer

shalt ensure their souls will leaven

_____________

the afterlife with willing thralls

obedient to God—

though here they’ll hunt, & fish, & farm,

& praise our loving Lord.”

_____________

Alas, but this was not to be;

sickness swept the village.

Tom & John died three-month’s-old;

warpath Indians pillaged

_____________

& burned surrounding settlements;

brackish, shallow wells ran dry.

Barley, corn, & oat crops failed

fully half the pilgrims died.

_____________

’Twas in this monstrous starving time 

Anne’s ministering hands

eased divers aches & ailments;

she served both God & man.

_____________

Her potions, salves, & ointments

brought relief to those in need;

ancient practice/hallowed tradition:

medicine of roots, & barks, & leaves.

_____________

’Midst Indian war & famine, 

sickness & internal strife,

the magistrate’s bold lustful eyes

turned from his somber wife

_____________

to smiling, sun-kissed Annie

who shrank from his loathsome touch.

William schemed to catch Anne alone;

his hands itched to feel her up.

_____________

A man of means & property

respected by the Church

Wil manifested Falstaffian vices:

greed, lust, & drunken mirth.

_____________

Anne spurned the magistrate’s advances;

William sulked & called her bitch.

He grabbed her bosom; she slapped his face—

Wil lodged the charge of “witch”.

_____________

Constance Moore took up the cry;

unhinged by woe & grief

she echoed William’s charge of witch

declared, “A vile, sneaking thief

_____________

crawls odious as an ambidexter

amongst God’s very own.

This wretched girl culled souls for Satan;

let Satan call her home!”

_____________

The magistrate issued a warrant 

for the arrest of Annie Croft.

She was jailed: stripped naked, poked & prodded

devil’s marks were sought

_____________

& duly found by venal men

who understood in times of strife

a scapegoat—preferably peasant class—

must sacrifice their life

_____________

that godly folk be reassured.

Noose, burning brand, & bludgeon

were educative instruments

in the inculcation of religion

_____________

& unquestioning blind obedience

to clench-jawed grim authority.

Majoritarian Calvinist polis:

control, consensus, conformity.

_____________

Anne Croft was given the water test;

William Moore was seen to gloat

as “witch-woman” Annie forbear to drown

but perversely deigned to float.

_____________

A trial was held: rank mockery

of fairness, truth, & justice;

hysterical children testified

that evil Annie corrupted

_____________

their innocent minds with devilry.

They capered, gibbered, danced

naked beneath an argent moon:

“Ann hexed us with a glance.”

_____________

Devil’s marks, failed water test,

unexpected deaths & sickness;

the testimony of dancing children—

“I trust we’ve proved the wicked

_____________

intent & malicious mindset 

of a peasant girl so bold

as to forge a pact with the Prince of Lies.

The devil take her soul!”

_____________

So saying, the magistrate hammered hard

’pon the table with his fist;

closing argument thus concluded, 

he added, “Think on this—

_____________

Divine Providence hath gifted us

a New Canaan: virgin lands;

though witches, warlocks, heretics

pervert our blessings—all are damned

_____________

who ally with liar Lucifer.

In New England let us begin

to lead lives of shining righteousness

& root out the enemy within.

_____________

Will ye stand with Christ our Lord?

Will ye stand with God?

Or will ye suffer a witch to live

in defiance of the Law?”

_____________

Jittery men & tittering women:

a jury of Anne Croft’s peers

threw reason & good sense to the wind,

took counsel of their fears

_____________

& returned a shameful verdict: 

“Guilty as charged,” they said.

“Thou shalt be hanged from good stout rope

’till thou art surely dead.”

_____________

A fortnight later Annie Croft

mounted the gallows afore a crowd

 of stern-eyed men, women, & children—

shaved head upright, unbowed.

_____________

Anne’s countenance was ashen

as the noose slipped about her neck;

& though she trembled, no tears flowed

when she drew a final breath

_____________

& dropped hands-bound & shoeless

through the banging scaffold door;

she fell, jerked to a violent stop—

kicked—and knew no more.

_____________

The crowd: a dark-clothed murder of crows

turned as wrenching wail

scythed knife-like through that awful scene:

I—sister Abigail

_____________

to poor dead, convulsing Annie

vented oaths & shrill, hot screams

of horror, fury, shock, & rage

at act so vile, cruel, obscene.

_____________

I aimed a shaking finger

dead-straight at the magistrate:

“Ye days are numbered, swill-belly Wil!

Ye stand before the Gate

_____________

of Judgement with thy viper wife.

Repent! Afore it’s too late.”

& shouldering through that gape-mouthed crowd

returned home to seethe with hate.

_____________

Part II.

_____________

One month later, in the misted dark

of a cold November morn’

a band of grim-faced men & I

stood ready to greet the dawn

_____________

around the cut-log, thatched-roofed home

of the murderous magistrate

& hawk-eyed, forked-tongued Constance Moore.

We’d come to congregate

_____________

& exact a fiery vengeance

for the death of Annie Croft;

our blood had boiled to see fair Annie

dance at the end of a rope.

_____________

At a silent signal the torch was passed:

fire moved hand-to-hand;

we ignited the resin’d clapboard sides

of Wil’s home with burning brands.

_____________

The pitch-smeared tinderbox house inferno’d—

hellfire flames leapt high;

crimson tongues of fire crackled;

smoke boiled into the sky.

_____________

Minutes later piercing screams

sounded from within:

the magistrate & his false-witness Mrs.

burning for their sins.

_____________

The roaring fire flared & spit;

Constance cried & called

out to Heaven for mercy denied.

Wil burst out the door

_____________

wreathed head-to-toe in guttering flame—

he hit the ground & rolled.

I knocked him flat, raised keen-edged blade

to end his life & send his soul

_____________

down to the sulfurous, burning Pit.

The magistrate’s vulgar life

voided there in blood & fire

at the glinting end of my knife.

_____________

Wil’s face was charred & smoking —

flesh cracked & purplish-black;

burnt hands fumbled at blistered throat.

I crowed: “Woe & alack!

_____________

ye lusting, lying, swill-belly dog!

A sweet soul sent aloft

was mine own precious loving sister:

mid-wife Annie Croft.

_____________

Ye works condemn thee! Murderer!

Foul Magistrate, farewell!”

& planting steel in smoldering skull

I sent his soul to Hell.

_____________

Part III.

_____________

No other “witches” were ever hung

in that old New England town;

the arsonists who’d burned the Moores

were hunted, though never found.

_____________

Decades passed & life went on

guilty consciences tread soft;

& the subject was ever swiftly changed

when arose the name of Annie Croft.

_____________

— Carl E. Reed

https://weirdtalesweb.wordpress.com/

Afterword: “Annie Croft” is a composite character who lives and dies three decades before the outbreak of witch hysteria in Salem, Massachusetts. Let us a take a moment to remember the actual people who perished in the madness of 1692 (WIKI):

Died in prison:

  • Ann Foster (née Alcock) – died in custody in December 1692
  • Sarah Osborne – died in prison May 29, 1692, at age 49

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One Night at the Poetry Circle

The leader of our poetry circle

insists that a poem

should say something true,

that a poem must speak

in the writer’s authentic voice.

_____________

One night not long ago

after many beers & queer

hawk-eyed combats concerning

the meaning of white space

group sex, the haunting

rhythmical hitch of the line break

our leader turned to me & said:

Why don’t you gift us

an extemporaneous poem?

_____________

Root it in the earth

but reach for infinity.

Craft your words to encompass

all of cosmos & the void.

_____________

He favored me then with hipster smile

steepled beringed fingers

fattened by rich food & drink

beneath his wobble chin.

Triple piercings of ear & nose

glittered

as did his knife-like eyes.

_____________

I thought for a moment.

A thousand fire-green voices

ghosted Yeats & Shakespeare

Heraclitus, Ginsberg

Clark Ashton Smith

Blake & Poe & Dickinson

in the maelstrom of my mind.

_____________

Breath in.

Breath out.

_____________

I spoke:

You will die one day.

An inevitable sorrow.

_____________

At your funeral service

a poem

maybe two, maybe three

will be voiced by the cleric

instructed to grieve in your name.

_____________

The dead are comforted by poetry

& prayer

or so we are told.

_____________

In the years following interment

your stardust, O Leader

will be carried off in the bellies of insects

& the black gulfs struck incandescent

by the fires of a million million suns

will whisper one harsh word:

Oblivion.

_____________

When I finished there was silence

a hard set of mouths, guarded eyes

& a soft monkish shuffle

of fashionable $200 shoes.

_____________

That

said our Leader

is a very interesting poem.

_____________

—Carl E. Reed

For more of Carl E. Reed’s poetry see Spectral Realms Journal issues #10, #11, #12, #13, #14, #15 (July 2021), #16, #17, & #18 (2022 & 2023). https://www.hippocampuspress.com/journals/spectral-realms

Also: Penumbra #3, 2022

Black Petals: https://blackpetalsks.tripod.com/blackpetalsissue72/ (“Vampiric Threnody” and “Ghost: A Working Definition”)

(Note: “Lost”, “Succubus Seductress” and “The Crime of Frankenstein” will appear in the October, 2021 issue.)

Santa Claws is Coming to Deathlehem: An Anthology of Holiday Horrors for Charity:

Inflections in Horror (spoken word album): https://carlereed.bandcamp.com/album/inflections-in-horror-the-weird-worlds-of-carl-e-reed

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humor, scams, Uncategorized, Writers Co-op

Get Big Money Now! Click or Call!

As writers we learn from everything we read, don’t we? The good, the bad, and the ugly. This includes certain laugh-out-loud-funny, grammatically challenged examples of criminal hucksterism that flood our desktop computer and cell phone inboxes daily. These suspect come-ons are designed to tempt us into sharing personal financial info that will lead to immediate disaster and the draining of hacked bank accounts.

I take delight (yes, I’m weird that way: amused rather than irritated) in poorly written spam-scam e-mails that routinely hit my inbox. Even when the suspect communication is grammatically and syntactically correct, there is oftentimes an over-the-top, maniacal energy quality to the socially engineered “call now!” or “click here!” pitch that both alarms and repels. (Leastwise the literate, discerning receiver of such junk e-mail spams.) Here is a baker’s dozen of the best that have entertained me this year, with my considered (though not communicated) replies. 

Would you like to secure your level and be all monies? 

Carl: “Umm . . .” 

Stimulus is available to you now! Mistake if delay. We can give you advance on government checks. 

Carl: “Thank god! East European scammers to the rescue. Uncle Sam is such a slacker!” 

Would you like more money? If such dreams contact ______ at _____ and get approved while only ten minutes pass. 

Carl: “I’ll give you five . . .” 

Respond to Check Adventure today! 

Carl: “Yes! No.” 

Many are the peoples whose accounts fall off due to errors that are not their faults yet bills keep coming. How to resolve? It starts by saying “I want gold.” 

Carl: “I want gold! I want gold! I want gold!” (A beat.) “F#@k! Nothing’s happening . . .” 

We have been trying to complete your application for $10,000 – $100,000. Many pay only $50 a month or less. Approval come quick as you e-sign, so why stop? 

Carl: “I Googled your company.” 

Three times now you no respond to so much money. 

Carl: “And I shall ignore you three times more . . .” 

In just two minutes your life can change. 

Carl: “I’ll bet!” 

Carl, your $10,000 is here! Please contact us so that we can complete the bank transfer. 

Carl: “I don’t wish to own a bank; please send money in the mail.” 

Are you short of cash? That is not your fault. Get what you need today. 

Carl: “I am gratified and reassured! I knew being poor wasn’t my fault. 20k in small bills, please.” 

So many people have happy bills now that they modify with extra dollars. Call our operators to learn how fast you can change the bills. 

Carl: “Joy tremors! I call so fast we go back in time to modify sad-face debts.”  

We tried to reach you by phone and failed. So now we reach out with money that starts by clicking this link to see what amount. Almost everybody get big money! Bad credit is no problem to us.  

Carl: “Well sure; that makes sense–who needs good credit to get ‘big money’ ?” 

And my personal favorite for enthusiastic succinctness, the pitch that began: 

Money everywhere! 

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Uncategorized, Writers Co-op

Poem Composed After Reading Gertrude Stein

As Monty Python used to say: “And now, for something completely different . . .”

Gristle Zippers

Hell is a horror is a belt is a house.   

Mommy white-faced, clench-jawed, smoking dollar bills   

green green angry   

our rabbit-eared television    

blares vacuum tube pophisses &   

fingersnap jingle-jangles upon the raptured children   

twixt game glows & sporting ejects   

better soaps & tires, softer sheets, sparkling dishes  

a fork is a fork is a fork   

chow down to father. Chow down. To father. Chow  

down to. father. Chow. Down. To. Father.  

How now cows aflutter  

vulcanized rubber sighs to do, to go, to be

gathered imbecility docility virility   

conditioned by Madison Avenue to consume, to obey   

gun-metal blue the guns, knives, grenades, berets   

foundling war: writhing rhythms   

’mongst blinkered-tinkered-sphincter’d toys    

beribboned chests & broken-backed books.    

O joy! O joke! O death! Deaths.   

Fall silent in the nave   

the grave of mind.    

–Carl E. Reed

——————–

Author’s note: Gertrude Stein would not approve of this poem. It is contemptibly bourgeois and thoroughly unconvincing in the trite, commonplace sentiments it proffers as subversive and borderline anarchist; also, it is cretinously conventional in grammar and structure. Moreover, it makes too much sense; hence violates the core principle of Dada: purest pointlessness. 

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