Wednesday, December 05, 2018

Writing Short Stories, Then and Now

I used to write short stories. Then, for many reasons, I stopped writing fiction. Today I had my first story published in more than twenty years. (It will be posted on the web in two weeks, and I will link to it then. If you can't wait, the issue's for sale here.) More stories may be along; we'll see. If it takes another twenty-one years, I'll have something to look forward to in 2039.

It's a little strange returning to an art form after two decades away. One of the things it means is that in my old stories, no one has e-mail. Most people didn't. Or cell phones. Any temptation to dredge up old pieces is held at bay by the fact that they've become historical fiction.

So what else has changed?

Electronic submissions have made the business of sending out stories easier, and vastly sped up response times for science fiction markets. I loved the ritual of going to the post office, and I enjoy an occasional return to that, but in the old days after stories went in the mail you had to put them out of your mind for at least a couple of months. Now you sometimes get a response in less than a week. Sometimes it's still months, of course, but things are more efficient.

(Literary magazines are still as slow to respond as always, or slower. Budget six months for a reply and be happily surprised if you hear back within three.)

The small cool science fiction magazines I used to love, with their tiny press runs, have largely been replaced by cool online science fiction magazines. That's a useful change, especially in terms of how many people potentially read a story. I didn't have many links to share in the old days. I'm back to being a fiction rookie again, trying to break in just as I did when I was younger, except that rookies today get to play for bigger crowds.

I am now older than my characters. In my twenties, my typical science-fiction narrator was about 45 years old. I had real storytelling reasons for that: one way to write about the future is to use a character who's old enough to have lived through the key social or technological change, and who remembers how things were before. On the other hand, I used a middle-aged protagonist at least once in a straight-realist story, so I don't know what I was thinking. My go-to protagonists are still middle-aged, but now I don't have to imagine what that's like. A 45-year-old narrator might just be me with marginally better knees. And maybe some of the emotional tone I was reaching for as a younger writer, the rueful complexity I associated with my elders, is nearer to my midlife grasp. At least I'd like to think so.

Fiction writing is no longer my vocation. I've learned there's something else I'm better at. I will never know how well I write either scholarship or fiction, because that's something you can never know about yourself. But I know which one I write better. The best thing I have ever written is a scholarly article about Shakespeare, and so is the second-best thing. Ten years from now, that will still be true. If I had been asked twenty-five years ago whether I'd prefer to be a better fiction writer or a better Shakespeare scholar, I wouldn't necessarily have chosen the way it's turned out. But no one gets asked. It's great luck to feel any vocation as a writer, and I'm grateful. It feels like ludicrous good fortune to discover I can still publish in a second field, years after leaving it behind.

Knowing that fiction won't get me anywhere means I don't have to worry about getting anywhere with my fiction. I can write short stories because I don't have to make a living from them. It's no longer possible to make a living writing short stories. Even commercial markets (and I should say Apex Magazine has been both fair and generous) won't pay a month's rent or mortgage in America, and no one can sell a story every month. But my stories don't have to pay my rent. Neither do I need to use stories to get attention for my novel, or worse yet my unfinished novel, or get myself an agent. If I write a novel, I'll try to get it attention, and probably an agent too. But right now the point of my stories is to be the best stories I can make them. If I end up writing a novel, the point will be to create the best novel I can. There don't need to be other reasons.

I suppose this is all to say that my ambition is to write fiction with "a professional's skills but an amateur's goals." But I lifted that phrase from the scholarly article I have coming out next month. I'm better at some things than others.

cross-posted from, and all comments welcome at, Dagblog

Monday, November 12, 2018

Where Is Donald? Veterans Day Edition

Today, Veterans Day 2018, the President of the United States stayed in the White House. He did not go to Arlington National Cemetery to lay a wreath. He did nothing to commemorate Veterans Day. The excuse was a forecast of rain. This makes no sense.

Two days ago, in France, Trump cancelled a trip to the Aisne Marne American military cemetery near Bellau Wood, about 50 miles outside Paris, with the excuse that Marine One has trouble flying in the rain. That's not a great excuse, but it's just barely plausible enough to get away with. And Trump took immediate blowback for skipping that ceremony. But Arlington is two miles from the White House, and it wasn't even raining. Rain was forecast for later. This is political malpractice, at best. Every President commemorates Veterans Day. It's easy. It costs you nothing. It looks awful if you skip it, let alone with combat troops in the field. And it's the right thing to do. (This is especially weird when Trump makes such a point of glorifying, or even fetishizing, the military.)

I don't believe this was about the rain.

The White House press corps was notified at 10 am that the President would have no more public events or movements for the day. So Trump's day ended early. Why?

Theory #1: Trump has taken ill. Trump is 72 years old. He eats poorly. His general health is probably not great. And he just flew back from Europe.

There's a long American tradition of not telling the public the full truth about the sitting President's health. Routine health problems get concealed, and sometimes major health problems that the public really might want to know about do, too. American presidents are always navigating middle or advanced age in the midst of an incredibly stressful job which takes a real physical toll on them. It's considered better for the country if we don't hear about every health setback.

So one explanation is that the septuagenarian President is feeling too physically exhausted after returning from Paris to have any public events and needs the day off the recuperate. That's not great, because it suggests the President has even less energy or stamina than I feared, but it's less consequential than the other possible theories.

Trump did tweet four times after 10 am (from 11:30 to a little before 2:30), but that's not strenuous. Maybe he could do that while taking a sick day.

Theory #2: Dealing with a Crisis. When a president of the United States suddenly and unexpectedly clears out the daily schedule, it sometimes means a crisis has arisen and the president can't spare time for anything else. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, JFK's press secretary, Pierre Salinger, was sent out to tell the press that all events had been canceled because President Kennedy had a cold. Most recent presidents would still have found an hour to get to Arlington, lay a Veteran's Day wreath, and motorcade back, but it all depends on how serious Trump perceives the (hypothetical) emergency to be.

He could be holed up with his advisers trying to cope with a crisis of some description: maybe a military or other national-security crisis, maybe a political crisis, and maybe a legal crisis. All are possibilities for this Administration right now.

If there were suddenly some national-security emergency, the public wouldn't necessarily know about it right away. The Cuban Missile Crisis, which was kept secret for days, is an obvious example. So was the terrorist threat against LAX back in the Clinton Administration, which had Bill Clinton demanding status updates every hour but which the public didn't hear about until the plot was disrupted. So it could be that Trump has been in the Situation Room all day, getting briefed by generals.

But Trump is also facing a number of political and legal challenges, some of which overlap. His party has just lost the House, meaning subpoenas and investigations by Democrats. His appointment of Matthew Whitaker as Acting Attorney General may not take, with even some conservatives calling it unconstitutional, so the Whitaker Gambit to shut down Special Counsel Muller's investigation is looking less plausible.

And there is the Mueller investigation itself, and related investigations, which may be progressing in ways that aren't yet public. There are a number of rumors about imminent indictments, so Trump may feel the investigation getting uncomfortably close.

What was bothering another president of the United States would be a mystery, but Trump kept tweeting throughout the day, so we have a sense of what was foremost on his mind. It wasn't national security.

He begins his online day at 8 am with three tweets basically threatening to pull the US out of its military alliances, which is a hell of a way to start Veterans Day but not something you do when you're trying to deal with a pressing security problem. At 8:44 he demands an end to vote-counting in the Florida elections, basically calling vote-counting fraudulent. At 10 am the press is told his schedule for the day is over.

At 11:34 he tweets that the stock market will somehow tank if the House Democrats investigate him:

At 12:31 he tweets good wishes to the firefighters and first responders fighting the California fires, an attempt to make up for some unhelpful things he said about those fires over the last week. At 2:13 he tweets an attack on Comcast, the parent company of NBC. At 2:21 he tweets that Saudi Arabia and OPEC should not cut oil production (after Saudi Arabia announced that it would cut oil production) and that oil prices should be lower. That tweet seems especially useless, but they all read like reactions to whatever news Trump found unwelcome.

Overall, Trump seems upset and a little besieged: still upset enough by his party's election losses to try intervening in the Florida vote-count, anxious that about a stock-market downturn (as evidenced by both the stock-market tweet and the OPEC tweet), and angry at the media. The Comcast tweet may suggest that he's particularly upset at NBC or MSNBC at the moment. I read a president who's fearful about a number of developments. But my money is on the "Presidential Harassment" tweet revealing the core anxiety: the President is about to be under a lot more investigative scrutiny and he experiences that as a real threat.

Theory #3: The President Is Freaking Out

But the President may not be holding strategy meetings on his political and legal woes. He may just be melting down. Maybe he's too upset and overwrought to go out to Arlington, even briefly, and canceled his daily schedule in a giant tantrum. Or maybe his handlers are scared of what he'd say today if he were in front of the press for even a minute. He's been noticeably unraveling since the day after the election. There's a real possibility that he hasn't gotten better, but worse. He may be cracking under the political and legal strain.

I don't know what's going on. But I feel like we may eventually find out. Mark your calendars: Monday, November 12, when things got so bad that Trump couldn't celebrate Veterans Day.

cross-posted from Dagblog. All comments welcome there, not here.

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

The Death of Whitey Bulger

I never thought I would be upset to see Whitey Bulger die. But somehow that happened. Because Bulger's death, like Bulger's life, promoted organized crime.

I'm seeing a lot of the usual nonsense about the man, filled with praise he never deserved, from people who should know better. I blogged about the Whitey myth, and the way he the press builds him up into a folk hero, back when he was first arrested:
Bulger is the last Irish-American mob leader who's likely to control even a slice of the underworld in a major American city. He is ethnically similar to many of the journalists and editors covering him, and they obviously love writing about him. He's the last gangster who looks like Jimmy Cagney, so even very good coverage of him gets tinged with sympathy and sentimentality that Bulger has never come close to deserving. It's a nostalgia trip. Reporters call Bulger "colorful," but it's only because he's so very pale.
But I'm also seeing various tough-guy iterations of "he had it coming." But Whitey Bulger died because the Mafia (the Italian-American Mafia, which still persists in the Northeast) orchestrated a revenge killing inside a high-security federal prison.

The Mafia being able to murder snitches in a federal prison is a very, very bad thing. Don't celebrate that because you didn't like that particular snitch. I loathed and despised Bulger, but I'm not happy about La Cosa Nostra having an 89-year-old man beaten to death in his cell.

Bulger was killed because he crossed the Patriarca crime family, the New England mob, and therefore by extension their godless Genovese-Family patrons in New York. And to hell with Whitey, but to hell with those guys even more.

Those of who've still bought into the whole colorful-gangster bullshit about Whitey are invited to check out my post here. Those of you whooping it up over his brutal death (some of whom are the same people), just remember: Whitey Bulger died to make other criminals safer from punishment. Safer to rob you and safer to kill you. Pardon me if I don't applaud.

cross-posted from, and all comments welcome at Dagblog

Friday, October 26, 2018

Talk Like Crazy People Are Listening

Dear politicians: talk like crazy people are listening to you. Because they are. We're a big country, with hundreds of millions of people and no guaranteed health care. That means there are a lot of Americans who are mentally ill, and a lot of those people can't get proper treatment. Every time you speak in public, remember that there are some disturbed people who will take what you say, whatever you say, seriously, and that they might act on it.

We've been having a lot of public debates about "responsibility," 'unity," "civility," and other complicated, nuanced words that are easy to twist around to mean different things. So I'm going to keep it simple. Every public figure speaking in public has got to remember that some crazy people are listening. Don't say anything that those people will understand as a call to violence.

But won't mentally ill people misunderstand things, and hear calls to violence that weren't intended that way? Yes. Exactly. They may well hear you calling for blood when you thought you were carefully staying on the right side of the line. That's why you should get nowhere near the line, at all, ever.

This rule is not hard. Don't act like it's not simple.

There are troubled people watching TV and listening to the radio and reading the internet all day, and they have trouble sorting out what's real. Don't scare those people into using bombs or guns.

But what if the talk-like-crazy-people-are-listening rule cramps my style? What if it takes away my big rally lines that excite the crowd, or the new spike in my ratings? What then?

Then you're risking people's lives for personal gain. What good do you think is going to come of that?

cross-posted from Dagblog; all comments welcome there, rather than here

Thursday, September 13, 2018

What Just Happened in Northeast Massachusetts [UPDATED]

Dozens of fires and explosions broke out in three small Massachusetts cities tonight. Lawrence, Andover, and North Andover have been evacuated, and power has been cut off to prevent more houses from blowing up. People are injured. Many have lost their homes. And at least one man is dead, because his chimney fell onto his car.

The news isn't talking about causes except to say it was an overpressurized gas line. How did the gas line get overpressurized? How did it get so overpressurized that dozens of separate buildings, across three separate municipalities, actually exploded? No one is willing to say yet, because the obvious culprit is an energy company and speaking too soon might get a paper or TV station sued. The Governor of Massachusetts has gone on TV to say that we can talk about causes after people are back in their homes, which is fair enough as far as it goes. But there's still no timeline for getting people back in their homes.

But it's hard to see a whole lot of other explanations here. Columbia Gas of Massachusetts was planning to do some upgrades in the area today, and now all three cities are a disaster area. And the company's enjoying a whole lot of public deference, considering those facts.

I still have friends in that area, because I went to high school in Lawrence. I was actually planning a visit for next week.

For those of you who aren't from the area, Lawrence is one of the poorest cities in Massachusetts, with a heavy minority and immigrant population. It's squeezed right up against the very affluent Andover and the more economically mixed North Andover. Lawrence has three times the population of the other two cities, squeezed into a smaller area. It was basically carved out as a separate city for factory workers back when the Merrimack River was a booming industrial belt. The point was that those workers would not share a town with their more affluent neighbors.

Lawrence is more than three-quarters Latinx. It has the lowest per-capita income in Massachusetts. Andover is more than ninety percent white, with a median household income over a hundred and ten thousand a year. And it's the home to an extremely wealthy prep school, Phillips Andover Academy. Phillips Andover is the boarding school where the Bushes went. So somehow this disaster managed to set both a poor city and a rich one on fire.

I'm not going to exaggerate Lawrence's poverty. It's not some fearmongering cable-news fantasy of The Ghetto. It has some perfectly nice middle-class neighborhoods. The school I went to, a regional Catholic school, has a good share of affluent students. But Lawrence definitely did not need this, and it won't be easy for a lot of the people affected to recover. This is a major disaster, and Columbia Gas needs to explain.

[UPDATE: Columbia Gas of Massachusetts is now officially the villain here, just because their disaster response has been so un-responsive. The Governor, Republican Charlie Baker, has declared the region a disaster area so he can take cleanup away from Columbia Gas and hand it over to another, more functional, gas company. This happened after Baker and Elizabeth Warren got a tour of Lawrence 1. filled with catastrophic damage and 2. empty of Columbia Gas repair crews. The Mayor of Lawrence denounced Columbia at length, in damning detail, on live TV. So the most likely suspects behind the disaster have been conspicuously unhelpful in fixing their damned mess.]

cross-posted from Dagblog. All comments welcome there, not here.