A Debate on Stephen King
Published on July 8, 2012 by Sara Foss

As a fan of Stephen King, I found a recent exchange on Salon over the bestselling author's merit (or lack thereof) interesting.

On one hand, there's Dwight Allen, who doesn't believe King is a major literary figure, as some have proclaimed. Allen doesn't think much of King's writing, and concludes his piece with the following paragraph:

"My son, George, who is now twenty-four, read a little King in high school, but he hasn’t gone back to him since then. After you’ve read Roberto Bolaño and Denis Johnson and David Foster Wallace and Thomas Pynchon, as my son has, why would you return to Stephen King? King may be an adequate enough escape from life, if that’s all you require from a book of fiction, but his work (or what I’ve read of it) is a far cry from literature, which, at its best, is, sentence by sentence, a revelation about life."

I can see Allen's point, a little. I read a lot of King when I was in middle school and high school, and now I read very little. However, I think he's someone I'll return to every once in a while. His books are fun to read, for one thing, and you can read them quickly. That doesn't make them literature, but I will say this: King's horror classic "It" has lingered in my memory ever since I first read it, in the sixth grade, while I've forgotten most of the details of Pynchon's "V," even though I read it just a few years ago. "Infinite Jest" is a near-great book, but if allowed one book on a desert island, I'd choose "It," which touched me as few books have.

Anyway, Erik Nelson has penned a fine defense of King, questioning why Allen bases his assessment on three of King's lesser works: "Christine," "The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon" and "Pet Sematary." He writes:

"These three books are far from 'A'-level King, and, if I were a cynic, I’d think that was why Allen chose those particular three to write about.

Throughout his screed, Allen seems resentful that King continually attempts to reach above his station, and stretch beyond the cage of his genre. But King has consistently fought against the boundaries of 'horror' fiction and his publisher’s expectations. The reason he still writes 'Stephen King Books' is, well, he is Stephen King. It’s what he wants to write. And if 'Stephen King' can’t write the books he wants, well, let me introduce you to a guy named 'Richard Bachman.'"

Obviously, I'm on Nelson's side here. My guess is that people will be reading King for a long time, and that perhaps one day he'll be discussed as one of the great writers of our time.




Writing Tips
Published on June 24, 2012 by Sara Foss

From Kurt Vonnegut!


"Moby Dick" is the Best
Published on June 17, 2012 by Sara Foss

Over at Salon, Christopher Buckley makes the case that "Moby Dick" is the greatest American novel.

Well, of course it is!

I like "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" as much as the next person, but it's relaly no contest.

Ray Bradbury, R.I.P.
Published on June 6, 2012 by Sara Foss

I don't have a huge amount to say about Ray Bradbury. He was one of my favorite authors in middle school, which isn't a backhanded compliment in the least - that's just when I happened to read the classic novels "Dandelion Wine," "The Martian Chronicles" and "Fahrenheit 451," as well as a couple different collections of Bradbury short stories.

The book Bradbury will be remembered for is "Fahrenheit 451," a chilling and vivid look at a futuristic America where books are outlawed. Few books have made a better case for the value of the press and written word, or done a better job of examining the perils of censorship and authoritarianism. And for an aspiring young writer and journalist such as myself, "Fahrenheit 451" was an inspiration - even more of an inspiration than "All the President's Men" or other books or movies about crusading journalists. 

Anyway, some links:

Slate: The most beautiful covers of "Fahrenheit 451"

Salon: How Ray Bradbury made science-fiction respectable  

The New York Times obituary

Also, a good Bradbury quote:

"You don't have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them."

Which pairs well with this Molly Ivins quote about journalism, at least in my mind:

"I don't so much mind that newspapers are dying. It's watching them commit suicide that pisses me off."

Let the Wild Rumpus Start
Published on May 8, 2012 by Sara Foss

In 2011, NPR's Terry Gross had a nice chat with Maurice Sendak.

You can check out her interview here.

Ranking Stephen King's Work
Published on April 25, 2012 by Sara Foss

The Vulture ranks Stephen King's work in honor of the publication of his 62nd novel, "The Wind Through the Keyhole."

Given King's voracious output, I've barely made a dent in his work. But I once read him somewhat voraciously, and my favorite King book is "It." "It" is over 1,000 pages long, and I've read it twice. The characters remain as vivid to me as those in "Anna Karenina" and "Moby Dick," and the story still mesmerizes. 

Anyway, click here to see the list.

Reading, Watching, Listening To, and Just Plain Thinking About "The Hunger Games
Published on April 16, 2012 by guest author: Tony Are

The mammoth, Titanic-like opening of the movie version of the first installment of The Hunger Games series (in what has now become movieland tradition, the other two books will be coming to you as three more films) has catapulted the already best-selling books into the Harry Potter sales stratosphere and has got everybody in a Hunger Games frenzy. Being a guy who pretty much always follows the crowd, I also read the books, saw the movie, perused the articles and listened to the soundtrack album (well, it's not exactly a soundtrack album but we'll get to that). Will it be a passing fad? Well, maybe. If so, will it be a passing fad with an awful lot of fascinating content? No question.

Just like with Harry Potter, it's the books that remain the center of this cultural phenomenon. But this trilogy could not be more different than J.K. Rowling's seven books. Rowling created an expansive and wholly lived-in altered universe only slightly different from our own, complete with entire casts of characters in different locations, both micro- and meta-politics, plenty of humor mixed in with the gruel, and a heroic battalion grouped around “The Boy Who Lived” (who grew from an 11-year-old kid to high school senior over the course of the books). In literature terms, it was something on the order of “War and Peace," except, you know, sort of for kids, with wizards and stuff. Suzanne Collins' Panem is something completely different - an unremittingly dark, claustrophobic world (actually just a single country - there is no mention of the world outside of Panem, which is the former U.S. destroyed and reconstituted after a catastrophic war) where much of the detail is only cryptically (or allegorically) rendered, and there is just a small, closed circle of characters who stand in for various philosophical worldviews. And everything is filtered through the first-person narrative of the main character. A classical literature comparison might be more like “Moby Dick," without the whales (I find myself making these literature comparisons as an argument against people like Joel Stein, who wrote that adults should only read adult books in the New York Times).


Reading "Olive Kitteridge"
Published on March 26, 2012 by Sara Foss

Over at the DG, I offer my thoughts on the 2008 Pulitzer Prize winning novel "Olive Kitteridge."

Click here to read more.

Notes On Poetry, Online And Otherwise
Closed Mic - A Dive Into the Local Poetry Scene
Published on March 19, 2012 by guest author: Dan Schneider

A couple weeks ago I decided to check out a local open mike. I wanted to see what other people were writing, get a chance to meet some fellow writers, maybe even read some things I’d written recently. The open mic night was hosted by a local writing center, so I hoped it might attract a more literary crowd than a reading at any old café or bar.

I was running a little late as usual, and was worried when I climbed the stairs to the second floor that I’d be interrupting the first or second reader by barging though the double doors. But when I got to the small room with a podium and rows of chairs climbing to the back, a man stood waiting patiently for all stragglers to file in and take a seat. There were probably a dozen or so people, a few younger, most middle aged, seated in groups of two or three, black winter coats draped behind their chairs. Maybe another dozen came in by the time the night was over.

The host read some poems from his magazine and then opened up the floor by saying, “We haven’t had a sign in sheet for this reading yet, and though we might start one someday, I don’t see the need to do it now.” And he invited anyone who cared to read to come forward and do so.

I did not have terribly high expectations for the night, but considering what came next, I might have been asking to be ferried to the moon and back in the arms of a stuffed walrus.

I am surely revealing myself to be complete snob, but the reading fulfilled almost any open mic cliché you can think of. Ho hum Haiku? Check. Guitar players? Check. Long-winded, self-important old guys? Check. Random/angry bearded poet playing atonal ditties on the concertina between poems? Oh yes.


Notes On Poetry, Online And Otherwise
A Twitter Poetry Project
Published on March 4, 2012 by guest author: Dan Schneider

After writing a piece about poets using Twitter I became fascinated enough to want to join in myself (though still no  Facebook!).

I’ve also always been fascinated with writer’s notebooks, what interests and obsessions writer’s had, and I have kept a writer’s notebook in one form or another since college when my Creative Writing 101 professor said we all had to keep one. After going to Twitter a few times, I wondered what a writer’s notebook might look like if it were online, and decided Twitter might be a good place to start such a project.

So I am announcing the first ever, (as far as I know) open source, collaborative poetry notebook at @poetrynotes. If you write, or if you don’t, you can read my notes, post a thought, observation, weird  bit of language, or anything that catches your eye or ear and could be fodder for a poem or other form of writing. I’m hoping to create a space where anyone can share the raw material of poems, and then transform it into whatever work they find fitting.

And here are some recent poetry blogs from the web as well:

The Onion: National Endowment For The Arts Funds Construction Of $1.3 Billion Poem

McSweeney’s: Poetry FAQ

Dan Schneider is a former high school English teacher who lives and writes outside of the Rochester, N.Y., area.

Previous Posts By This Author: The Trouble With Poets

Where are the Poetry Blogs?: Twitter Poets

Notes On Poetry, Online And Otherwise
The Trouble With Poets
Published on February 23, 2012 by guest author: Dan Schneider

It’s not too often that disagreements in the poetry world get reported in the greater press, but recently the Guardian wrote about how Geoffrey Hill, Oxford Professor of Poetry, tore down British Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy’s idea that texting is a new form of poetry.

In a lecture entitled “Poetry, Policing, and Public Order,” Hill said, “When the laureate speaks of the tremendous potential for a vital new poetry to be drawn from the practice of texting she is policing her patch, and when I beg her with all due respect to her high office to consider that she might be wrong, I am policing mine.” Hill contends that texting is not a form of poetic compression, just abbreviation.

He then dismisses her poem, “Death of a Teacher,” which reads: “You sat on your desk / swinging your legs, reading a poem by Yeats // to the bored girls, except my heart stumbled and blushed / as it fell in love with the words and I saw the tree / in the scratched old desk under my hands, heard the bird in the oak outside scribble itself on the air."  Hill responds, “What Professor Duffy desires to do I believe – and if so it is a most laudable ambition – is to humanise the linguistic semantic detritus of our particular phase of oligarchical consumerism. And for the common good she is willing to
have quoted by the Guardian interviewer several lines from a poem by herself that could easily be mistaken for a first effort by one of the young people she wishes to encourage.”

Hill has previously written about his belief that “difficult” poetry is actually the most democratic since it assumes the reader intelligent enough to grasp its meaning, but this seems a little stinging. He does go on in his lecture to praise another poem by Duffy, but the whole poetry dust-up made me start looking into the idea of “difficult” poetry and what people mean when they say a poem is “difficult.”

My former high school students, of course, would say almost any poem is difficult, and they have a point. Poetry, even the most outwardly simple of poems, poses difficulties, since there are elements — line breaks, sound effects, visual effects — that cannot be captured by its paraphrase. This makes high school students and probably a good deal of the population nervous, perhaps because the poem is demanding that its reader give up control over what is making meaning. Many readers unfamiliar with poetry may not trust that the writer will take care to give enough sign posts directing how the poem should be read.

As I delved into online resources on difficulty in poetry, I found many writers who can do it greater justice than I can, so I now defer to some experts on the topic.


David Foster Wallace's 50th Birthday
Published on February 21, 2012 by Sara Foss

For what would have been David Foster Wallace's 50th birthday, The Awl has helpfully compiled links to 46 DFW-related pieces of writing.

Click here to check it out.

The Writer Vs. The Fact Checker
Published on February 20, 2012 by Sara Foss

The new book "The Lifespan of the Fact," which is based on seven years of email exchanges between a writer (John D'Agata) and a fact checker (Jim Fingal), has generated a lot of interesting commentary. My biggest question, based on the Harper's excerpt I read, essentially boiled down to: Is this writer really as huge a jerk as he appears?

Well, The Awl has answered my question, posting a new transcript of exchanges between D'Agata and a different fact checker. And D'Agata comes across as, yes, a big, fat jerk. Here's an excerpt:

"Darren: Hi, John. My name is Darren, and I'm the intern at Room Service that will be fact-checking your piece. It was a thrilling read. My concern is that the Chicago Cubs didn't win the World Series in 1987.

John: “Piece?” I’m afraid I’m not sure I know to what you’re referring. Little help?

Darren: Hmmm. The essay you wrote for us. It’s great. :) There are just a few questions.

John: Oh. Essay is... better? I prefer to think of what I do as an experience. At a minimum, I expect five-sense engagement with any competent reader. I’m talking taste buds. Smell. Otherwise I should hang it up. Or you should do some better reading. Either way, you won’t need to fact-check this, uh, “piece.” How adorable. Print it or kill it.

Darren: Maybe we can compromise? Everyone here wants to print it.

John: Is English really your first language?"

And so on.

Here are some other good links on "The Lifespan of a Fact":

Dan Kois in Slate

Laura Miller in Salon


The Maps We Loved As Kids
Published on February 8, 2012 by Sara Foss

The Awl has produced a great piece on the maps we wandered into as kids, i.e. the maps featured in children's fantasy books such as "The Princess Bride" and "The Hobbit."

Click here to check it out, and see how well you remember these magical lands.

In Honor of Dickens
Published on February 7, 2012 by Sara Foss

In honor of Charles Dickens' 200th birthday, I am posting this New York Times Magazine story about Dickens World, a Charles Dickens-themed attraction located in the English county of Kent.

Here's an excerpt from the piece by Sam Anderson:

"Five years ago, I flew to England to see the grand opening of something improbable: an attraction called Dickens World. It promised to be an 'authentic' re-creation of the London of Charles Dickens’s novels, complete with soot, pickpockets, cobblestones, gas lamps, animatronic Dickens characters and strategically placed chemical 'smell pots' that would, when heated, emit odors of offal and rotting cabbage. Its centerpiece was the Great Expectations boat ride, which started in a rat-infested creek, flew over the Thames, snaked through a graveyard and splashed into a sewer. Its staff had all been trained in Victorian accents and body language. Visitors could sit at a wooden desk and get berated by an angry Victorian schoolteacher, watch Dickensian holograms antagonize one another in a haunted house or set their kids loose in a rainbow-colored play area called, ominously, Fagin’s Den, after the filthy kidnapper from 'Oliver Twist.' The park’s operating budget was $124 million.

Dickens World, in other words, sounded less like a viable business than it did a mockumentary, or a George Saunders short story, or the thought experiment of a radical Marxist seeking to expose the terminal bankruptcy at the heart of consumerism. And yet it was real. Its existence raised a number of questions. Who was the park’s target audience? ('Dickens-loving flume-ride enthusiasts' seems like a small, sad demographic.) Was it a homage to, or a desecration of, the legacy of Charles Dickens? Was it the reinvention of, or the cheapening of, our culture’s relationship to literature? And even if it were possible to create a lavish simulacrum of 1850s London — with its typhus and cholera and clouds of toxic corpse gas, its sewage pouring into the Thames, its average life span of 27 years — why would anyone want to visit? ('If a late-20th-century person were suddenly to find himself in a tavern or house of the period,' Peter Ackroyd, a Dickens biographer, has written, 'he would be literally sick — sick with the smells, sick with the food, sick with the atmosphere around him.')

Click here to read the whole thing.

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