Inhuman Swill : Page 16
Why is my blog called Inhuman Swill? Because you can unscramble the pieces to make William Shunn.
            

Luminarium by Alex Shakar
Novelist J. Robert Lennon wrote recently on Salon.com that young writers should avoid reading much contemporary literary fiction because most of it is terrible. (The essay, in fact, is headlined: "Most Contemporary Literary Fiction Is Terrible.") It's a well-argued piece, worth reading, but what really caught my attention was this passage:

But a fiction writer ought to engage with other parts of the culture, too. This includes reading outside one's genre — I happen to favor sci-fi and mystery, but I think it's fine for literary writers to read YA, romance, fantasy or whatever they please. Literary writers are in the privileged position of being permitted to raid any genre for tools to subvert and repurpose.
The emphasis there is mine, on a sentence I find troubling. I certainly support Lennon's contention that writers—all writers—should read widely, and read what they enjoy. What's problematic to me is that word privileged, as if writers of "literary" fiction inhabit in some class superior to writers of other genres, and they're the only ones permitted to reach down and rummage through the toolboxes of their inferiors, and then only for purposes of upending genre conventions.

This is a limited, and limiting, view of genre. It implies that no genre but literary fiction can amount to more than the sum of its tropes, and that the tropes of genre fiction are only useful to the literary writer insofar as they can be employed to ironic or postmodernist ends.

Both those implications are false. Central to Lennon's essay is the proposition that most of contemporary literary fiction is stuck in an insular, navel-gazing loop—in other words, that it continues to reinforce and perpetuate its own tropes. A few works might break out of that cycle and transcend it, but if we accept that most works in the category are stuck inside a constraining boundary of accepted elements, then we are defining literary fiction as a genre. And if any works in that genre are capable of transcending its limitations, then why can't works in any other genre do the same?

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In his recent New York Times interview, Louis C.K. offers a good reminder of what it takes to build a career, for those who've been toiling away for decades:

NYT: You have the platform. You have the level of recognition.

LCK: So why do I have the platform and the recognition?

NYT: At this point you've put in the time.

LCK: There you go. There's no way around that. There's people that say: "It's not fair. You have all that stuff." I wasn't born with it. It was a horrible process to get to this. It took me my whole life. If you're new at this -- and by "new at it," I mean 15 years in, or even 20 -- you're just starting to get traction. Young musicians believe they should be able to throw a band together and be famous, and anything that's in their way is unfair and evil. What are you, in your 20s, you picked up a guitar? Give it a minute.
Read the full interview here: The Joke's on Louis C.K.
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The trade-off

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Maggie Thatcher's dead,
but so is Roger Ebert.
Always a trade-off.

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The First Time: First Crime, April 17, 2013, UP Comedy Club
I'll be appearing next week in not one but two of Chicago's most electric reading series—or "live lit," as we call it 'round these parts. They'll be on consecutive nights, no less, so please block out April 16 and 17 on your calendar and be there.

First comes WRITE CLUB on Tuesday, April 16th, at The Hideout. In this bare-knuckle series, three pairs of writers square off with essays on opposing topics. The audience decides who wins, with all proceeds going to charities of the winners' choice. I'll be defending GOD over DEVIL, for the One Tail at a Time dog rescue organization. Tickets are $10 cash at the door. Arrive early!

And the following night, Wednesday, April 17th, I'll be part of CHIRP Radio's THE FIRST TIME at Second City's new UP Comedy Club. This monthly series assembles seven or so writers to reminisce about an important "first" from their lives, backed with specially chosen songs by The First Time Three. For April the topic will be "First Crime." Tickets are $10, and buying in advance is strongly recommended. (And get preferred seating with a dinner reservation!)

To recap...

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Signs of spring

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Signs of spring by shunn, on Flickr
cigar aroma
wafting in from the golf course
signals that it's spring

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Iain Banks
Amid the staggering news of other losses this week, I want to remember to say a few words about Iain Banks, one my literary idols. (Two of my literary idols, really, if you care to think of his Iain M. Banks byline separately.)

I, like many of you, I'm sure, was stunned to tears on Wednesday morning by the news that Mr. Banks is suffering from late-stage cancer and probably doesn't have long to live. He broke the news in typically straightforward and mordant fashion, but that didn't make it any easier to take.

Iain Banks is an important writer. I can't think of another writer who so consciously, so prolifically, and so successfully divided his output between serious mainstream fiction and rigorous hard science fiction. He proved, at least in the U.K., that one need not confine oneself to a single genre or style of fiction in order to maintain a brilliant career. It would have been impossible to guess from his twisted 1984 debut, The Wasp Factory, that just three years later he would affix a giant M to his chest like some superhero of letters, fly into space, and bring Consider Phlebas back to Earth, introducing us to what may at the time have been the most mind-expanding and humane future society ever invented, The Culture.

And Iain Banks is an important writer to me. His books can be found all over our house—on the science fiction shelves, on the mainstream shelves, almost always in the to-be-read pile on my nightstand, and even, in the case of his whisky travelogue Raw Spirit, on the alcohol shelf. He's a model of professional productivity, putting out a book nearly every year, and he's as fearless in his contemporary novels as he is visionary in his science fiction. (In 2002's Dead Air, he was already riffing on the meaning of 9/11 before other writers dared even think about it.) And his work is a constant inspiration to those of us who find ourselves attracted writing in more than one world.

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Vernal equinox

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I saw the first
red-winged blackbirds
of the year
this morning.

Sixteen degrees,
west wind fourteen
miles per hour,
wind chill two.

I know it's the
first day of spring,
but I still think
they were confused.

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20x2: What Changed? Saturday, March 9, 2013
Tonight I'm participating in a long-running SXSW tradition called 20x2. Twenty people are given two minutes apiece to answer the same question any way they like. This year the question is "What Changed?", and if you come out tonight to Elysium (705 Red River St.) you'll be treated to twenty different answers in the form of essays, poems, slideshows, songs, videos, and more.

How will I answer? You'll have to be there to find out. Doors at Elysium open at 6 pm, show starts at 7. Admission is $10, or free with any SXSW badge. I hope to see you there.

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I've been playing around quite a bit with the new Vine app, which lets you post six-second looping videos to your Twitter stream or other social media service. You can create animations or employ other goofy effects, but everything must be shot in order. No after-the-fact editing is possible.

Something else that doesn't seem to be possible, as many disgruntled users are discovering, is reuploading a Vine that fails to upload in the first place. If your upload fails, it looks like you're shit out of luck. I found this out on Saturday morning when a Vine I'd been planning in my head for days failed to upload. If I could have taken the Vine app out of my iPhone and smashed the code on the sidewalk, that's just what I would have done.

Rather than trying to reshoot my video, though, I found a workaround. Vine does save your little square video to your phone, and from there it can of course be uploaded to other video-sharing services. YouTube doesn't seem to allow embedded videos to loop, but Vimeo does, so that's where my lost Vine now lives:

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An Evening of Speculative Fiction, Open Books Bookstory, Thursday, February 28, 2013
Just a reminder that I'll be hosting a special evening of speculative fiction readings tonight at Open Books in Chicago. It's the first in the Chicago Writers Conference's new quarterly readings series, and it's free. Arrive early if you want a cupcake. I hope to see you there!

Chicago Writers Conference Presents
An Evening of Speculative Fiction

Date: Thursday, February 28, 2013

Time: 6:30 - 9:00 pm

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The Accidental Terrorist 30th Anniversary Sale

Signed editions
cheaper than your
local Mormon
missionaries.

Order yours now!

William Shunn

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