Pop Quiz: Fran-Claire Kenney

A NEW POP LIT Q & A WITH A MULTI-TALENTED YOUNG WRITER

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TODAY’S POP QUIZ IS WITH UP-AND-COMING WRITER FRAN-CLAIRE KENNEY.

1.)  What characterizes the perfect short story?

FK:  I’m tempted to just say that the perfect short story is as short as possible, but that leaves little room for character development; it really depends on why you’re reading in general at that point–do you want an exhilarating experience or a meditative one, or maybe both? The thing that works in any scenario, though, and that keeps a reader engaged, is strong imagery and lines of symbolism that jump out at the reader, because those are the things that stick as quotes which will recur into the reader’s consciousness for a long time. It’s also great (but by no means a necessity–nothing is really a necessity in literature except words) when a short story has a fable-like mood or structure, because those stories stick like the pieces of imagery and function almost like bedtime or cocktail stories to the reader who stumbles back into reality.

2.)  What style of short fiction would attract masses of young readers to the art?

FK:  I think that for GenZ folks, who have come of age during a time of sociopolitical conflict, dystopia and sci-fi are very promising. Everything around the world has been happening so fast in the last decade–political power shifts, technological innovations, social movements–that many young people don’t know what to expect, yet have grown accustomed to abrupt change. It’s intriguing to contemplate the relationship between humans and rebelling AI or life in an everlasting cyclone because these things are becoming more and more plausible, and reading about them in short stories allows so much room for speculation and, dare I say it, preparation. (Plus, there’s plenty of room for gore and horror, which everybody loves at least a little too much.)

3.)  How do you see your future as a writer?

FK:  The short answer: varied. I will always write poetry as a means of self-expression and catharsis–and with an abundance of clever and diverse literary magazines out there, I will always edit those catharsis parties into something thoughtful and even publishable. I’d like to be an editor as well, to work directly with fellow writers to improve the delivery of their messages. I’m also entering the world of film in college–not just screenwriting, but also directing, cinematography, production design–there are endless opportunities. Having goals as a literary writer-editor and as a film writer-director may seem like a conflict of interest, but I truly believe that some stories are meant to be told on paper, while others are meant to be told onscreen, and I want to convey both as a writer. Literature and film are a) beautiful, and b) do not have to be at a cultural war with each other–I seek to live that truth in my future.

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NOW listen to two NPL recordings of Ms. Kenney reading her work, here and here.

The Gimmick by Vern Smith

Reviewed by New Pop Lit

The Gimmick Vern Smith

“I like this gimmick. The gimmick’s good.”

“Cops are smarter than you think. Get in, get out. That’s what dad always says, and he never got pinched once.”

-from “The Gimmick”

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THE GIMMICK— novelettes, stories, and sketches by Canadian-born writer Vern Smith— starts slowly. The first story is about two men in a diner, the second about two men in a park. Why open with them? It might be the author’s way of easing the reader into his style of writing. Or he might be misdirecting– sandbagging– setting up the stories to follow.

Third in the collection is the title piece: “The Gimmick.” Top-level detective fiction with a noir feel. Think Walter Mosely. Two police detectives pursue a scam-artist couple who’ve robbed bank customers at ATM machines– including a detective. The robbed detective is eager to get them back.

The characters are fully drawn and completely absorbing. The plot, unpredictable right to the end.

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Meanwhile, you’re still walking.

The tie is strangling you.

You feel the extra starch they put in your shirt, always too much starch.

Sweat is dripping off your brow.

You are the oldest young man on earth.

-from “You Need Something to Slow You Down”

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Most of the stories which follow are Kafkaesque. Their protagonists seem to be hanging in the air, upside down, at some shitty job or in some absurd life from which there’s no escape. They stumble through this universe drugged, puzzled, or numb, waiting for their next misstep.

But the best story in the collection, “The Great Salmon Hunt,” is a simple adventure story set aboard a fishing boat chartered by two brothers who hope to win a big salmon fishing contest. The tale contains its own version of absurdities via the personalities of the two brothers– resulting in comedy combined with high excitement. Hemingway would love it. 

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More discord than harmony, it was music without a message, music without words, music that related to the concept of nothingness.

-from “Natalia Cauzillo’s Last Ride Out”

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The last short tale, “Natalia Cauzillo’s Last Ride Out,” is an apt coda to the collection– a culmination of themes as a sharply drawn young woman deals with her own discontent within another of the insane systems of now. 

Kafka meets Sherwood Anderson: the nonstop parade of quirky characters, like Natalia, are the strong point of Smith’s writing. Linkages in his created world– which appears uncomfortably similar to our own.
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The Gimmick is available from Run Amok Books, at Barnes and Noble, at Kobo, and other outlets.
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Vern author photo

(Photo of Vern Smith.)

Pop Quiz: John Higgins

A NEW POP LIT Q & A WITH A TALENTED NEW WRITER

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Today’s pop quiz is with young Irish short story writer John Higgins.

1.)  Best short story ever written?

JH:  For me, it’s a toss-up between either “Yam Gruel” by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, or Mike McCormack’s “Forensic Songs.”

2.)  Best music to write by?

JH:  Tom Waits sets a great tone for when I need to get work done. Plus, he can fit into a three-minute song what some people take hundreds of pages to say.

3.)  Can writers be pop stars?

JH:  If writing doesn’t work out for me, I’ll let you know…
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NOW read John’s story about the fast food business, “Hamburger Hill.”

 

Miserable Love Stories by Alex Bernstein

A ST. VALENTINE’S DAY BOOK REVIEW

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There was something about Barb– the way she chewed her pens and threw them out before the ink exploded. And then I’d retrieve the pens and chew where she chewed, even if they did explode. And then I’d have blue teeth for weeks. And people would go, Eugh. He’s been chewing Barb’s pens again. Loser!

-from the story “Barb.”

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THERE’S a story– “Confession”– in Alex Bernstein’s humorous new book in which a character confesses to her mother that she’s attracted to members of the opposite sex. (!)

We have our own confession to make: Alex Bernstein is a pop writer.

Like an Erich Segal (whose classic 1970 best-selling novel Love Story we also examine as part of our 2020 St. Valentine’s Day celebration), Alex Bernstein has a natural clarity of style. This enables him to add subtle emotion to his stories– emotion with greater impact because of the writing style.

Bernstein has several pieces– “Manic Pixie Dream Girl Police” one of them– which read like screenplays. As with Erich Segal, this appears to be an excellent foundation for writing in a pop fashion– a starting point from which all things become possible. 

WHY DO YOU READ?

If you read for entertainment, enjoyment, humanity, you need to read Miserable Love Stories.

Available here from Skyhorse Publishing.

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The White Man’s Guide to White Male Writers of the Western Canon by Dana Schwartz

A Review by Karl Wenclas

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Ernest Hemingway was a man’s man, and anyone who tells you otherwise is lying. He was born with a full beard and a cable-knit sweater.

THE WHITE MAN’S GUIDE TO WHITE MALE WRITERS OF THE WESTERN CANON by twitterverse star Dana Schwartz operates on a level of mild satire. The reader isn’t entirely sure what or who is being satirized. Woke Culture? White male writers? Unearned privilege? Guys in MFA programs?

I almost signed up for a gender studies seminar my freshman year, so you could say I’m pretty “woke,” and so I can recognize when guys like Bellow say screwed-up stuff. This is the sort of thing I’ll tweet about so people who follow me recognize how sensitive and worldly I am. My voice needs to be heard on the important issues! Of course I’m actually drafting an op-ed in my head for when that PC stuff goes too far.

This from a chapter on Saul Bellow done in the voice of J.D. Salinger, who has his own chapter.

A schizophrenic project, no question about it. Does Dana Schwartz want to trash this series of white male writers– or celebrate them? They’re significant enough in her eyes to spend an entire book on them. As most readers out there don’t know the Western Canon– few people these days have heard of it– the book serves, believe it or not, as a good introduction to it. (The person off the street won’t recognize the “satire.”)

So even if your freshman-year literature professor at Harvard gives you a D because he doesn’t think you “comprehended, or even actually read” Pride and Prejudice, it doesn’t matter. In fact, it means you’re something like beloved American author Kurt Vonnegut.

Is Schwartz mocking a person who attended Harvard, or a person who didn’t do well there? Or Kurt Vonnegut? Is she satirizing someone who cares what grade a literature professor gave a person? Is the target the narrator, or the writer?

(Dana Schwartz herself was a high school honors student and Presidential Scholar who attended prestigious Brown University. Not quite Harvard, but close.)

Which illustrates the dilemma. Effective satire is written by nasty people. By those who’ve been hurt badly at some point in life and carry a reserve of unflinching vitriol. Of bottled-up rage– which they channel onto the page. There’s little sign from these polite deconstructions that Dana Schwartz qualifies. The book– despite much advance twitter vitriol launched its way– doesn’t live up to its critics’ anger.

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It frankly doesn’t matter if Yellow Wallpaper is taught in high schools instead of The Great Gatsby (which is too deep and well-structured a book for high schoolers anyway). Raising the question is asking which texts students will be bored by. While outside the classroom they buy graphic novels about Spiderman.

Art preserved in canons or institutions becomes a force-fed museum piece. It breathes and thrives outside such places, amid the bustle and clash of society and life.

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But, the book. The mask of Schwartz’s narrator is flimsy. As in this passage about Charles Dickens:

Some may point out that most of Dickens’s female characters are two-dimensional (if not outright evil), or that leaving his wife for a teenager is a bit unseemly, and to that I say: sure, but Dickens had a reason for being sexist.

Coincidentally, I just finished rereading the Dickens masterpiece Bleak House. Narrator Esther Summerson is not a bit evil. Plot focus Lady Dedlock is very three-dimensional, once Dickens pulls the veil off her character. A powerful and tragic personality. So the question becomes: Is the mistake that of Dana Schwartz? Or an intentional one made by her implied narrator?

The confusion is exemplified by the Bukowski chapter, which admires the grittiness of the writer’s life (the narrator’s mindset) yet puts the man down for his apparent misogyny (Schwartz’s mindset). One could say, “Make up your mind!”

Or it could just be that these men were themselves three-dimensional. That they led fucked-up lives– by today’s standards were bad people– doesn’t alter the undeniable fact of their greatness (some of them anyway) as writers. Which Dana Schwartz acknowledges and doesn’t acknowledge at the same time.
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The book is illustrated with drawings by The New Yorker magazine artist Jason Adam Katzenstein. Katzenstein seems to be making a point of his own: that all white male writers look alike! I say this because most of his sketches of canonical writers look alike.

For instance, here’s Raymond Carver and Cormac McCarthy:

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Or Norman Mailer and Jack Kerouac:

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The caricatures don’t look much like Carver, McCarthy, Mailer, and Kerouac. Which may be the point.
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All kidding aside, a blistering no-holds-barred book was there to be written on the Western Canon– on the entire edifice of today’s version of American literature; writers, publishers, and media acolytes alike. Dana Schwartz chose not to write it. This leaves a book which doesn’t live up to the scorched-earth promise of its title. It gives the reader instead an amusing entry to the lives of many of America’s most lauded writers. Which is enough, I guess, for most of today’s literary readers.

ORDER White Man’s Guide etc. here.
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(Photo of Dana Schwartz.)

Pop Quiz: Brian Eckert

A NEW POP LIT Q & A WITH A TALENTED WRITER

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TODAY’S QUIZ IS WITH ONE OF THE BEST WRITERS NO ONE KNOWS ABOUT, BRIAN ECKERT.

1.)  Favorite writer?

BE:  I’m far too mercurial to have a favorite anything that lasts for very long. I’m currently stanning mountaineering nonfiction and philosophical pessimism, which, I suspect, are deeply related.

2.)  Why did you become a writer?

BE:  About ten years ago, while working on my first novel (which never saw the light of day), I wrote the following, which is as good of an explanation as any: “To not write is to submit without a fight to that external authority which some attribute to the divine, others to the intractable laws of nature. To not write is to live without a voice. It is to live as a ghost.”

3.)  Year the world ends?

BE:  The world ended in 2012. We dropped out of history and nobody noticed.
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NOW read Brian’s new Featured Fiction with us,  an excerpt from Into the Vortex.

Pop Quiz: Angelo Lorenzo

A NEW POP LIT Q & A WITH AN EXCITING WRITER

Angelo Lorenzo

TODAY’S QUIZ IS WITH ONE OF THE BEST YOUNG SHORT STORY WRITERS ON THE PLANET– ANGELO LORENZO

1.)  Who’s your favorite short story writer living or dead?

AL:  I have to admit that before I got engaged with short stories, I’ve spent my early years as an avid reader by getting immersed in novels. When it comes to fiction, C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Stephen King, and George R.R. Martin would definitely come to mind. While Lewis and Tolkien made it to my reading lists when I was in elementary and high school, King and Martin helped me with style and voice when I got serious with writing in college.

But for short stories, I must say Edgar Allan Poe would be one in the list. Horror and dark tales have their ways of engaging the reader. Poe, regardless of his personal life, innovated literature by shortening the narrative form and hooking the reader with terrifying imagery. “The Masque of the Red Death” is one of my favorites.

In the local literary scene, I have been following the works of Nick Joaquin, Dean Francis Alfar, and Elena Paulma. Joaquin has been one of the most recognized Filipino writers because of the socio-political issues he depicted in his short stories. While he may have passed on, universities still study his works. Alfar, on the other hand, has written short stories which can be categorized under the genres that I love – magical realism and fantasy. Paulma underscores women empowerment with her characters. She keeps classical themes of family and love in contemporary setting.

2.)  Why did you become a writer?

AL:  When I was 11, my mother took me and my sister to watch the film adaptation of C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. I was amazed by the story, as well as its allegory. I remember obsessing over the series since then. I read the books, got introduced to fantasy, and then started reading other books. I think it was at that time when I started dreaming of becoming a writer someday. I wanted to explore further the kind of worlds that Lewis, Tolkien, Ursula K. Le Guin, Christopher Paolini, and J.K. Rowling created.

It wasn’t until I was 18 that I started getting serious about writing. I wrote a couple of drafts, self-published them online, and also practiced translating my idea into words. I took advantage of the knowledge I gained while in college to hone this skill, especially when it comes to writing with structure. I majored in Development Journalism, and the program made me familiar with the discipline.

Currently, I am taking my Master’s Degree in Literature. Reading and writing will always be a part of me, and I think that’s a good thing. Nothing compares to the feeling of fulfillment once a writer completes a manuscript or makes worlds out of words. After all, I believe everyone is creative. The medium which we prefer to showcase our creativity makes the difference. I think it was Elizabeth Gilbert who introduced me to this idea after reading her book, Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear.

Also, I write because I feel good doing it, and I feel accomplished every time I finish what I’m writing.

3.)  Can writers be pop stars?

AL:  Taylor Swift, I believe, is a great writer. Her songs made her a sensational pop star in this generation. The same goes with Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, Karen Carpenter, Patti Smith, and the many names in the constellation of music.

But when it comes to art in the written format (or literature in general), I think writers can definitely be pop stars. However, the work matters before the name. Genuine artists focus on the craft before anything else. Fame, reputation, recognition and wealth may be side effects, but these should not be the end-result or the main objective. Art is not about hoarding attention or money. These may come or these may not. But what every writer should keep in mind is that their craft is their outlet to deliver their message. These messages may inspire, disturb, reflect, frighten, encourage, motivate, etc. And whether these would spark attention or generate income, that’s for the odds to decide. The value of the craft – and in the case of writers, writing – should always come first. 
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NOW READ ANGELO’S STORY, “SPOILER ALERT.”

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