Detonation #20: Sour Grapes

Everyone loves the idea of an egalitarian prize bestowed on a truly meritorious work of literature as determined by The People. Something like the Goodreads Choice Awards should be the ultimate in democracy, yet isn’t, for… reasons. So many reasons. Like Stephen King winning the horror award every year, even for his crime novels, ‘cause he’s the only fucking name anyone recognizes.

Next rung down this wretched ladder are the awards created by readers and writers, for readers and writers. Unfortunately, what follows in practice is an award by writers for writers. Which sounds close enough, but in fact couldn’t be further afield.

The bullshit mechanism of reader’s choice awards is not often discussed openly. It’s considered bad form to acknowledge honourees as anything other than purely deserving. Fortunately, Lola and Noggy don’t take anything that seriously and will always find a way cut off their nose to spite their face.

Noggy: So… writers submit to these snobby awards AND vote for them?

Lola: Yeah, by paying to become members of the association organizing the award. Publishers can and should submit, but in practice it’s writers, especially for anthologies and self-pub’d work.

N: The writers nominate and vote through long lists and short lists and then?

L: As voting members they typically get a package containing digital copies of all the shortlisted works.

N: Wait, isn’t that like…dozens of books? You have to read them all?

L: Jesus Christ, no. Who has time to read?

N: No one writing horror poetry and tweeting 89 times a day, that’s for sure. How does voting work then?

L: Easy. In categories where you’re a finalist you vote for yourself. In categories you aren’t, you vote for your friends. Chances are the only book in the pile you’ve actually read is your own. Isn’t that wild? The short story categories are the best though; for that one I’d recommend roulette, a lottery, or pin the tail on the jack ass.

N: So much for democratized literary utopia…

***

We’ve ranted about this before. The dirty secret of how little most writers actually read. And those of us who do read a lot are not going to waste our time consuming a reader’s choice award voting package because most of the material is honestly not that good. But we’re all too busy blowing each other to say it.

Yes, juried awards have their flaws but at least you can be reasonably certain the adjudicators have read the fucking book they’re voting for.

Reader’s Choice Awards are equivalent to The Emperor’s New Clothes. We ooh and ah at the grace and dignity with which he carries himself in his exquisite robes. When in fact he’s naked and eating a chili dog while fucking a pelican. But hey, we weren’t actually at the procession that day, and he’s our friend, so he’s got our vote.

***

N: You done ranting? It’s time for Arby’s.

L: Not even close. The other thing I’m going to get mad at. Awards for best anthology. An honor that belongs to all and to none. As an editor you can say you’re a winner for a book you didn’t write. As editors we consider this a dickwad move, considering the actual authors can only say they contributed to the project, which is hardly worth wedging into their bio. So, this award sits like a square egg in a kind of purgatory for unclaimed miscellany that no one quite knows how to handle. Is there even a word for adjacent congratulations?

N: I’m sure there’s a German word for it. A long, angry German word. Hmm, probably something like Beglückwünschung – that’s sort of terrifying.

L: Germans have more efficient things to do than acknowledge reader’s choice awards.

***

You could accuse us of being fucking jealous. Sour as hell. Green little goblins, ejaculating envy in thick bitter ropes. And you’d be right. But it doesn’t mean we’re wrong. And if you think we’re sore losers? God forbid we ever actually win anything.

Crosshairs by Catherine Hernandez

Queer fiction has long led the charge of stories with big ideas that challenge, terrify, and thrill, and this novel exemplifies those qualities. In near-future Toronto, devastating floods stoke the fear and hatred of the privileged, giving rise to a powerful civilian militia with a mission to eradicate immigrants, queer folks, poor folks, and anyone deemed to be other. This dark wave spreads unchecked across the country, until a black drag queen, transgender refugee, and a former social worker are recruited into a resistance movement that might be their last hope.

This is story driven by indelible characters, complex and non-conforming, without a single archetype to be found among them. With no molds from which to cast, Hernandez has accomplished something remarkable in creating wholly realized unique individuals. There is no saviour, no plucky sidekick, no sage. Evil is an utterly banal presence in the narrative, taking the form of politicians, angry suburbanites, and “concerned citizens”. It’s scary as hell because Crosshairs is our world exaggerated, but only a little, and some days not at all. Prepare to confront your biases in this unflinching novel where humanity shines in all its beautiful, messy, resilient diversity.

4/5

Luster by Raven Leilani

Edie is the only black woman working at a children’s book publisher where she hopes to get promoted from reception to illustrator. But when they hire another, younger, hungrier, lighter-skinned black lady, Edie is fired. It’s racism, tokenism, an outrage. It’s also because Edie fucked most of the men in the office and isn’t good at her job. So, lacking any other option, she moves in with her married white boyfriend, his white wife, and their recently adopted 11yo black daughter. It’s every bit as strange as it sounds but this book blew my mind. A story of alienation, desperation, and bewildering tenderness, Luster is a darkly curious dive into unconventional relationships, the surprising ways in which people bond, and what they can teach each other.

I don’t know if I’d call this horror in the genre sense, but since I prefer to think of horror as an experience, an emotion, I gotta say I was peeking over the edge of a blanket, tense, cringing, and biting my knuckles in avoidance of my own unvarnished reactions to this story and the people living inside it. Raven Leilani’s prose is voracious, with a full set of teeth in each sentence.

Detonation #19: This is Not Censorship

Navigating Life in a Literary Minefield

On March 2, 2021 six Dr. Seuss titles, published between 1937-1975, were pulled from publication by Dr. Seuss Enterprises due to portrayals of people deemed to be “hurtful and wrong” aka racist as hell. The most recent title being a Cat in the Hat companion piece called The Cat’s Quizzer. I’ll save you the math, that’s 46 years ago, and my point is:

A) These are old-ass books

B) You’ve probably never heard of them

But holy shit! Folks get wind that a few obscure books are going away and suddenly it’s Fahrenheit 45-fucking-1. Even more wild is that there’s virtually no disagreement over whether these depictions are racist or not. They totally are, and some of us just really want to show them to our babies. White nostalgia vs. institutionalized racism isn’t a problem I’m going to solve with a few paragraphs and a bunch of swear words, but fuuuuck me side-saddle…

Instead, let’s take a minute to talk about censorship.

Books go out of print. All. The. Time. That’s right ducklings, most books will eventually be lost to the shifting dunes of the cultural desert, with the lucky ones growing spores in a used bookstore somewhere. Why does this happen? The details may differ but it all funnels down to the same reason: no demand. Modern readers have little appetite for the vast majority of what was written decades ago, even if it’s not explicitly racist. With zillions of books flooding the market every goddamn day, their lifecycle is shorter than ever. A midlist book published just five years ago has even odds of being out of print today.

So, if you were hoping to pick up a copy of the 2015 zipper-ripper Donkey Dick Dan’s Billionaire Bride – brand new, without half the pages stuck together – you’re likely out of luck. It’s not banned. It’s just that no one wanted the thing.

Here’s the straight dope. Declining to publish is not censorship. Declining to be published is not censorship. Those with rights to the work get to decide where it does or does not appear. Libraries get to curate what they do and don’t want in their collections. Bookstores get to decide what they will and won’t sell. This is not political correctness on ‘roids. Equating loss of platform with muzzling, cancelling, and attempting to sanitize history is fallacious. We’re smarter than that. Pulling a few Dr. Seuss titles most people didn’t know existed until a few days ago is NOT censorship.

Censorship is government suppression of free expression, and this is not that.

And I get it, y’all love Dr. Seuss and want his wonderful books available to your children and their children and on and on. I do too. And great news! As long as there’s demand, they will be! What the frothing mob screaming about book burning and other nonsense doesn’t seem to get is that Dr. Seuss Enterprises made this decision to protect Seuss and his legacy of delighting children for generations. Instead of, y’know, risking the cancellation of his life’s work because they continued to publish racist imagery and just, like, hoped that people would tell their kids that shit’s not cool anymore.

Why not read your kids some books that portray different colors, and cultures, and identities, and abilities with nuance and compassion rather than lazy ignorant stereotypes? There’s great stuff out there and this is just a short list. Check it out, then if you’re still hungry, you can have your Green Eggs and Ham.

Detonation #18: Living at Ludicrous Speed

Navigating Life in a Literary Minefield

Typically we use this space to yell at idiots, and rarely exclude ourselves from that classification. Today is no exception, except we’re excluding all of you. Feel free to self-include in this public castigation, but today we’ll largely direct our vitriol inward.

Forward thinking is good, mostly. You don’t want to see your best days trailing behind you, winking out like ancient stars. That’s never been my style. I’ve got my eye on the road ahead, on what dreams may come, and mostly it’s served me well. I guess because the alternative makes me sad to the point of illness. People who are like, “Ugh, 2020 is the shittiest year ever!” bother me, because you know they said the same thing about 2019, 2018, 2017, and so on. For that person, no matter what year it is, it’s shit. Every day is the worst day of their fucking life, and I don’t even wanna speculate what that must feel like.

I can be cynical when it comes to human nature, but when it comes to the arc of my own existence I am an incorrigible optimist. Believe me, no one is more surprised than I am. Single days may vary in degree of suckage, but over time I believe each year will be better than the last and you know what? I haven’t been wrong yet. I went through a dark period in my thirties when I had young children and no personal identity outside of Chief Juice Pouring Technician, but even at my lowest point, I never wished to go back to some better time in the past. The future is unwritten, you know? You can fill it with all the good exciting stuff you want and so long as it remains in the future you can’t rule it out. It’s how I’ve learned to thrive in high stress environments, to keep cool in the cut, to be happy when there is objectively little to be happy about — because there is always something to look forward to.

And in this way, by rolling at a breakneck pace towards that brilliant light on the horizon, I cheat myself out of taking pleasure in where I’ve been and where I am.

A case study: Lola and Noggy are not ambitious in the traditional sense. They aren’t type A. They aren’t climbers out to prove how much better they are than anyone else. They’re more like those annoying kids that won’t sit still at carpet time. Most of the time they’re barely aware there IS anyone else. They’re just…busy.

Lola: I see you’ve made a spreadsheet of all our projects and tasks for the next few months.

Noggy: Launch two books, finish our novel drafts, edit forthcoming publishing projects, and make more spreadsheets. Think we can handle it?

Lola: What’s the worst that could happen?

Noggy: We’ve spent the length of a pregnancy working on these two new releases for The Seventh Terrace, it’s so cool to see them birthed out into the world.

Lola: That was yesterday, Nog. We got drunk on zoom, ensured both authors will never work with us again, what’s next?

Noggy: NaNoWriMo!

Lola: Wow, did we really just launch two books and do NaNo?

Noggy: That was yesterday Silkysocks, shouldn’t you be editing our next book for TST?

Lola: And then we have to work on that new Purgatorio book

Noggy: And then we’re going to run every single day in December

Lola: And then I’m going to get back to my novel

Noggy: And we have the winter running scavenger hunt

Lola: And then we should co-write another story, and it’ll be race season again!

Noggy: And then I’ll make more spreadsheets!

And then

And then

And then…

If you ever wanted to see goblins on Adderall, this is it. These two are fucking exhausting, and the problem becomes evident.

There’s nothing wrong with having goals and a plan for the future, but at a certain point I find I’m moving too fast to take any real satisfaction in what I’ve accomplished. Maybe I’m even more afraid of getting stuck in the present than I am in the past.

I don’t do resolutions, but this is more about evolution. I still believe my best days are ahead of me, but I’d like to develop the skill of being still, to lose the fear of losing momentum, to hang out unhurried, look back and be like “Wow, we really did some cool shit, didn’t we?”

Detonation #16: What to do when you feel like shit and nothing is fun anymore.

Navigating Life in a Literary Minefield

Like many a nitwit in quarantine, I was at first optimistic about my productivity. I suddenly had no plans. Obligations evaporated. My social calendar emptied out.  I’d get so much done. Life would finally slow down and I’d have time for everything I’d wanted to focus on but was too busy.

Then I had to homeschool three gremlins.

Then I was working in a bookstore pivoting to a phones-ringing-off-the-hook fulfilment center so fast it gave me whiplash.

Then, far from being isolated, I never had a single conscious moment to myself.

What a little idiot I was. What hubris. But it wasn’t as simple as being busy or mentally paralyzed because teaching me a hard life lesson is never that straightforward. I keep thinking I didn’t write at all over the last six months. I keep thinking I was totally unproductive and uncreative. I keep thinking I had a great summer, camping, swimming, and shaking the absolute shit out of fancy craft cocktails. I keep thinking that overall it hasn’t been so bad, that I’ve been okay.

Yet I did write two short stories, a novella, and query a publisher

Yet I did edit two books

Yet my buoyant moods are fragile, I’m latching hard onto anything I can hold up as proof of my uselessness, and I drink soooo much.

I’m a runner, right?  It’s my medicine, meditation, religion, and all my goddamned races got cancelled. Adventures in the mountains bursting with mud, suffering, exhaustion, and camaraderie by the light of my dim junky headlamp. I’ve been running, of course. What the fuck else is there to do besides attend some shitty virtual hangout where everyone is awkward and looks like garbage and I’m so self-conscious I spend most of the time staring at myself on camera wondering if I’ve always been this ugly. So I run. I signed up for virtual challenges and did a self-directed urban ultra-marathon. I’ve been running more than ever.

But I don’t feel fit.

But I feel worn out.

But I feel sick sometimes and hate my face.

Anger? Is anger the right response? It feels better than despair. How many nuanced emotions are realistically available under these circumstances? Anger is the spearhead. It drives forward with purpose and a message. Aren’t these detonations nothing more than angry little letters to a disappointing world full of assholes? I guess this one is for me. I did not lose my job. My family is safe and healthy. What do I have to complain about? Suck it up, there are people with REAL problems out there.

I guess what I am is sad and bored.

I guess it’s harder to find happiness in the dark.

I guess the heading to this post should’ve had a question mark because I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing or what the fuck to do.

I guess…I need a better damn headlamp.