Chimera Song Mosaic
Thursday, June 16, 2005
I've just read a recent edition of a literary journal (small.spiral.notebook I.II) from cover to cover, a luxury, really, that I cannot afford during the school year (I know I've said this before, but some things bear repeating, and although this isn't one of them, I guess I'm just a repetitive type). I enjoyed it quite a bit, especially the fiction, which was delightful and horrifying. Many of them centered on life's ugliness, but presented it in a commonplace, unremarkable way, which is itself remarkable; although the way I'm describing it here it hardly seems so. For example, one story "Immersion," by Judy Budnitz, surprised me so much, after disgusting me (it's about a town's white kids who refuse to swim in the public pool with the black kids; also there's some nameless and awful disease that may or may not have caused some kids to die) that I read the contributor's notes, found that she had another story published in an earlier edition of Fence, which I had, and paused to read the other story. I liked that one, too, totally different. I ended up reading some of Best American Non-Required Reading, 2003.

No; that's not how it happened. I was directed to BANRR 2003 first, then to Fence 2002, but for another author. Do you see how much fun this was? What a joy? What a treat?

In general, the stories in this issue of small.sprial.notebook started out in one voice and midway through surprised me with the narrator being younger, richer, more damaged, and different then I had expected. And this shocked me and seemed to be an editorial consistency. Also, they were very short, which I tend to like. Two other stories that stood out were "Gideon" by Laura Grodstein and "What Milton Heard" by Lisa Glatt.

Also, there were three interviews, each relatively short but somehow more revealing than usual. I found myself thinking the interviewers were somehow leading the interviewees a little too strongly, but the interviewees sidestepped this expertly. I was most pleased by "A Conversation with Tara Bray Smith," by Felicia C. Sullivan, and I found within it three books I want to read (The Group, by Mary McCarthy and Art of the Novel by Milan Kundera), including the one the author was discussing (her own, West of Then), which I suppose is part of the purpose of the interview, that and making people want to write, which it did.

The poetry I didn't love as much. I wonder why this is. I wonder if the fiction and interviews (there were also a couple of essays, but these seemed too abbreviated, though intriguing) were so much better than the poetry or if I just have such ridiculously high expectations of poetry or something else even. Maybe I don't read enough contemporary fiction, and when I do, it strikes me as lovely. But I don't think so; there was an intangible perfection about this group of stories.

The poems I did like were by Kira Henehan, Besty Bonner, and Ruth Levine.

I finished the books by Julianna Baggott. Let me explain why I was drawn to them. For one thing, I needed a break from the nutrient-dense facts and reality of Mother Nature. I had been reading it, I think, a little too avidly. I was impatient with the author's reluctance to draw hard conclusions (she is a scientist in the world of anthropology, and, I suspect, such rigidity is dangerous and often wrongheaded). I wanted her to spell some things out for me, particularly what I should do in my reproductive future, which is likely to be soon and not likely to last long. But of course, these things wouldn't be answered. I was/am thrilled by her use of the word mother to refer to other animals, even insects, in a way that shows some kind of universality even though her primary theories break through our expectations of a universal mother (primate or otherwise).

Also, I knew about female Spotted Hyenas and their high levels of testosterone and their peniform clitorises. What I didn't know what that they actually give birth through their clitorises--there is an actual canal through their clitorises, which I suppose is homologous to a male's urethra, but with a different function of course.

The female Spotted Hyena has uterus in the place of any dogs, and her birth canal reaches toward her anus, as usual, but then makes a sharp turn and heads the other direction to enter her peniform clitoris. (There is a drawing of this in the book.) During birth, an average of two kits pass through this narrow opening, and about 60% of primiparous (first time mothers) give birth to dead babies because this takes so long. The second pregnancy goes better I guess because the clitoral canal is stretched out.

I'm learning all kinds of new vocabulary as well as new ways to think about motherhood. But I turned away from this because I was curious about Julianna Baggott's books. One of them, Girl Talk, has been on my shelf for about four years, ever since I read about it in an older Poets & Writers. I was fascinated by Julianna's story of how it was published for a couple of reasons. One because I admired her ballsiness; a publisher called her up after seeing one of her stories in a prominent magazine and asked her if she had a novel, and she said, "Yes," although the actual answer would have been no. So these are words (and an attitude) to live by. The second intriguing thing is that she is or was primarily a poet, and I remembered some of her poems that she submitted to a journal I was reading for when I was in graduate school. I remember one poem in particular, a retelling of Peter Pumpkin Eater's wife. We didn't take it, but it made enough of an impression on me that I remembered her name and her poem.

So I saw another of her books, The Miss America Family, and picked it up, and read that one first, then Girl Talk. Now I find that she has a website, several children’s books, and a nonfiction book just out about her grandmother growing up in a brothel. She teaches creative writing at the University of Florida. This sounds like success to me. I like looking at and reading about models of success.

The Miss America Family has an inside cover blurb that makes it seem like it will be too tragic, too zany with characters, too ambitious, and too messy, but it actually plays out in a quiet and authentic way. One of the co-narrators, a young teenage boy, is compelling. I liked Girl Talk more--it too is filled with zaniness of an authentic variety, but it is centered in a present that is chaotic, yet attractive. The fact that the present problem never gets the attention you expect (instead it dives into the past over and over, coming up with intriguing back story) is strangely satisfying. You don't know what’s going to happen, but you have a sense that since so much already has, that no matter what, everything will be okay.

So I liked both books, but I'm puzzled as to why they are marketed as Chick Lit when they so obviously aren't. I guess that's a selling niche and publishers and promoters know what they are doing, but I don't think that everything written by a thirtysomething professional woman should be labeled as such. Aren't coming of age stories legitimate (though much traveled) literary constructs? Such coming of age novels from a male writer might still get attention as could-be literature (I know I've said this before--insert yawn). Or maybe it's the happy ending that disqualifies some of these women’s writing.

There's a formula for "real" ChickLit. It involves a woman who is creatively gifted but is laboring away at some job where she is not recognized for her true talents. The job is fringe-chic--just enough to keep the reader in a smallish city elsewhere interested and envious, so of course the book is set in LA or NYC or DC. All of the woman's friends (a loose collection of gay men, successful psuedofriends, and rampantly promiscuous women) are very clearly aware of how talented this woman is, although strangely, she is not (this doesn't really happen in real life; if you are talented, you tend to know it, and if you have a sprig of talent, you tend to exploit it).

She is after a man who is wrong for her, and she has a brief thing with this man, but then ends up with someone who was there all along and is totally right for her. Oh, and she lands the dream job where she both expresses herself and gains credibility in a man's world.

I just saw this very formula being evoked in the move Catwoman, with Halle Berry. Except then it gets into the whole supernatural thing. So this makes me think that ChickLit can truly come into its own by doing some major cross-genre, nonliterary fiction action. Like we could have this same setup as above, but then throw in some perfect new job being akin to selling your soul to the devil, as in John Grisham's The Firm. Then what about the threat of a psycho killer, like a Dean R. Koontz novel. What about mixing this up with some Michael Critchton (a Pleistocene moment or she gets some bad genes spliced into her mammaries during her boob job). See? It could be really good!

Powered by Blogger