Wednesday, October 31, 2007


Every once and awhile I get kinda bored with crime fiction. It usually happens after I finish a mediocre, or worse, absolutely horrible, crime fiction novel. It seems that all the good books are unique, but the mediocre ones are all the same. While I'm sure it won't take me long to get out of this funk, this latest crisis of faith (OK, that's a bit exaggerated, but you get the idea) has taken me to the point where I'm tired of defending the lowest common denominator in our genre so that the best writers get a little bit of respect.

I come from an MFA background. Rather than starting from scratch by myself, I went to school to learn how to write - if anyone can really learn how to write, but I digress. Being a genre writer in an MFA program is fucking hard because you need to constantly defend genre writing. You can't let on that you think there is plenty of horrible shit sitting on the mystery and speculative fiction (or alternative fiction) shelves because that will only give these nimrod idiots grounds to prove their prejudices. Well, if you think it's crap, why should I even care? I think this is where I should mention that most of the literary fiction MFA students out there are complete dolts who are so lacking in their reading knowledge that it isn't funny. They can be quite ignorant.

Now you're saying to yourself, but Steve didn't you come from the only MFA program in the country with a popular fiction track? Why yes I did, in fact The Atlantic even pointed out the uniqueness of this particular program; but just because one of the leading magazines in the country managed to focus on this characteristic doesn't necessarily mean that the majority of students from the other genres, some of the faculty or the administration understands and appreciates this.

So why am I in this funk? Two reasons that happened to intersect over the past couple of days. The first was reading, well not a bad book, but a plainly average one. It had all the elements of good mystery/crime/thriller books from the past, but it just didn't do it for me. I finally sped read through the last third of the book to finish it. After I put it back on the shelf, I went to find another book, but I didn't want to discover another average book. (I finally read through the first 30 pages of Don Delillo's Underworld, which had been sitting on the shelf since it was published 10 years ago.)

This reading misadventure came on top of the perennial pop fiction student push to hire useful faculty for the MFA program I attended. Now you're thinking, why must the pop fic student body continually suggest and push for appropriate faculty while the other genres are taken care of? Good question. They shouldn't. That should be up to the people who actually run the damn thing, because that's their fucking job. The task of finding faculty and recruiting them has constantly been deferred to the pop fic students and the pop fic faculty. Truthfully, if any influence outside of the administration whose responsibilty it is to suggest and push for pop fic faculty it is the alumni, of which I am apart of, however almost all the popfic alumni have been so burned by the administration while we were students doing exactly the same thing current students are doing, that there is a part of us that doesn't really give a fuck. Well, that's not entirely true - we care about the current students getting a good education, we care that the faculty may be rundown by the struggle and we care about the reputation of the program, if only as a selfish consideration of the worth of our degrees.

It's no secret that I'm not a fan of the current director of the program (however, I am a fan of most of the faculty who do an incredible job), but it's not because I'm an asshole, despite what other alums have called me because of my vocal criticism (this is usually from the ones dangling out of the director's ass anyway). This reason for my displeasure is that I can see what this program can become. It is the only pop fiction MFA out there. Can you imagine what it would be under the right guidence? This could be the place where genre fiction scholars and teachers could congregate and push popular fiction into an incredible new direction. Imagine a truly academic pursuit of genre writing. But that's being squandered, actually it's being completely ignored. After The Atlantic pointed out that this was the only pop fic program in the country, and was what made our MFA program standout from the rest, do you know how many references the administrations made to the article? How many ads were created to promote this? How many e-mails went out to students and alumni and donators? ZERO. None. Nil.

So, instead of continually fighting the unwinable fight of proving that genre writing is worthy of study by defending all genre writing, I'm going to revert to a much higher ground. Instead of saying that all genre writing is deserving (it's not), I'm going to call a spade a spade. I'm going to promote my idea of good genre writing and stop letting others push me into deferring to the lowest sludge when I talk about it. There are some in genre writing who will disagree with me, and that's OK, but I can't stop myself from saying what is good, what is bad and what isn't deserving of academic or artistic respect.

I have no idea if what I wrote makes any sense, and I'm too busy taking care of a semi-sick kid to go back and review it; but I hope you get my meaning.

Here endith the rant.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Censor Me, Censor You

Will there ever be a time when the arts won't be under fire from "concerned" citizens who think they are the arbitrators of what people should and should not see, review and read? A school in Guilford, Connecticut has forced an English teacher to resign after he gave one of his students a copy of Daniel Clowes's excellent Eightball. The book was consider obscene for its depiction of graphic sex and violence - none of which actually appears on the page. The teacher also faced possible criminal charges as the Guilford Police Department investigated the matter, but the Connecticut state's attorney's office refused to prosecute. What the fuck?

Why is it that the only conversation in this country regarding literature concerns people trying to get certain books banned? With fewer people actually reading (that includes these "guardians of good taste" actually reading the books they are trying to ban) and society in general becoming more and more ignorant of arts and culture, shouldn't the national conversation turn toward the glories of books and reading rather than the "evils" with which the written word is trying to corrupt the world? Shouldn't these righteous idiots who trash Harry Potter for its "satanic" messages be happy that their children are showing an interest in reading? Besides, doesn't Harry celebrate Christmas in the books? The parents in the middle of this Guildford controversy should have encouraged their child when she showed some interest in a book. The reason the teacher gave her Clowes's book in the first place was he thought a graphic novel would help get her excited about (or at least mildly aware of) the joy of reading after she failed to read any of the books assigned to her over the summer. Again, what the fuck? I guess ignorance is preferable to the possibility of corrupting our children's souls. Give me a break.

By the way, If you don't know Clowes's work, he is arguably one of the best graphic novelists of our time, having written the classic Ghost World, required reading for any serious graphic novel reader. Hell, any serious reader should check out Clowes's work.

A similar controversy erupted here in Maine last year when "concerned" citizens wanted Susanna Kaysen's Girl, Interrupted removed from a local high school's curriculum. Thankfully there were enough sensible parents and school committee members who defended the educational merits of the book and made sure it remained in the school.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007


I just wanted everyone to know that I will be wearing my Varitek jersey tonight (and every night through the series) and - very importantly - I haven't washed it. I'm sorry that I forgot to wear the jersey during games 2, 3 and 4 of the ALCS - my bad.

CBS Sportsline has Boston as the heavy favorite tonight.

Oh, and one more message for the Yankees:

Thursday, October 18, 2007

What Goes Through Every Writer's Head


A total of 360 lousy words today, or rather yesterday; but for the past three days that averages out to about 700. Nothing spectacular, but at least I keep going.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Bangor Book Festival

The weekend before last I attended a few events of the Bangor Book Festival. This was a small festival that included about twenty different talks and readings, and was a sort of companion event to the Maine Festival of the Book held in Portland during the summer. The authors that participated were all local and offered a mostly Maine-centered percpective on writing. The most interesting event was called "The Mean Streets of Bangor, Past and Present", which included insight from mystery writer Gerry Boyle, author of the Jack McMurrow series; Ardeana Hamlin, who wrote an interesting book titled "Pink Chimneys" about prostitution in Bangor during the 19th century; and moderated by Dick Shaw, a former reporter for the Bangor Daily News. The discussion was timely because the city was reenacting the famous 1937 shoot out with the Brady gang the next day.

This was the first year of the book festival, but I hope they continue with it.

But there is one thing I have to say, and this pertains to all writing events, I am not a fan of readings. Discuss the books. Why did you choose the subject? Why this character? What are your influences? What is going on in the world of fiction? My mind tends to wander during readings, no matter who is doing it. During my MFA, students were required to attend faculty readings, which I found asinine - I hadn't had a teacher read to me since elementary school, why do I need this in grad school? I guess some people enjoy it, both writers and readers/listeners, and it has become a major part of the book culture, but I'm just not one of them. I can read a book, I've had that ability for quite a few years; what I want is to meet the writer and learn what makes him/her tick. What are your thoughts on readings?

Monday, October 15, 2007

Bob Woodward

A couple of fridays ago I saw Bob Woodward and former Secretary of Defense Bill Cohen give two talks on Watergate and the current Iraq War at the University of Maine. I'm a total geek when it comes to the Watergate story. Loved the book, loved the movie; in fact the night before I started my short career as a real-life reporter, I watched All the President's Men. For those of you who aren't as familiar with the story as I am, Bill Cohen was a freshman Congressman from Maine in 1974 when he became the first Republican to turn away from Nixon - gutsy move. I'm assuming that most people know what Woodward's role was in Watergate.

(Bangor Daily News/Bridget Brown)

Growing up in Maine, I've come to really respect Cohen for his individuality and bi-partisonship (not only did he serve as the only Republican in Clinton's cabinet, he also co-wrote a spy novel with Gary Hart). And I think that's another reason I like Cohen, he's a writer - publishing both poetry and books, spy novels in fact.

The talk on Watergate, given in the afternoon (the Iraq War lecture was that evening), was an intriguing insight into that historical event given by two of the main participants. But what was really interesting was that the talk on Watergate only instigated discussion on the current administration, which John Dean, another important figure in Watergate, has referred to as worse than Nixon's own.

A smaller but still telling detail that I picked up during the afternoon discussion was that Woodward kept saying Deep Throat rather than referring to Mark Felt by name. Perhaps all those years of keeping Felt's name a secret has somehow effected Woodward enough that he is unable to reveal the name even though Deep Throat's identity has been known publically for over two years now.

The second talk given by Woodward was, like I said before, on the Iraq War, specifically focused on Woodward's own impression of the President after interviewing him over two days about the increasing unpopular war. Without a wall of objectivity or the watchfulness of tv cameras, Woodward expressed his own opinions about the situation and his thoughts on Bush - which were not favorable, but still far from the outrage that a personality from Air America may express. Instead, Woodward stated his uneasiness of Bush's aims, saying that the language that Bush used during the interviews demonstrated a man with unwavering resolve, which is not necessarily a good thing.

The one statement from Bush that Woodward focused on was the now well-known answer to the question of whether or not he consulted his father about going to war with Iraq. Bush said that he asked a "higher father" instead. As Woodward pointed out, Bush failed to seek advice from one of the most knowledgeable people on foreign affairs (say what you will about 41, he was excellent when it came to foreign policy) as well as the only President to have gone to war with Saddam Hussein. Woodward really showed his disbelief when recounting this exchange.

Both talks were fantastic, but I really wished they had done some sort of book signing with the both of them. Cohen's latest spy novel came out a few months ago, and the third book in Woodward's Iraq War series was just released in paperback. Maybe if I had snuck into the VIP dinner I could have cornered them both, but I wasn't sneaky enough to grabbed any tickets for that event. Oh well.