Inhuman Swill : April 2013

Tell it

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Late yesterday I received an email rejection in response to my recent audition for a popular Chicago-area reading/performance series.

This is the second year in a row I've applied. Last year my submission showed "a lot of hard work and potential" but wasn't right for the series. I would not have bothered applying again this year except that one of the directors of the series saw me read one of my personal essays at Tuesday Funk and urged me to submit it.

Well, I did get the audition this time, but while my piece was "engaging" with "funny moments" and "strong" writing, there were doubts about my ability to "command the entire room." ("Think of how you might tell this story to a group of friends in a bar.") Which is potentially fixable, of course. All I need to do is pay for one of their workshops.

You know, I think I'd rather spend the money on beer, telling the story to a group of friends in a bar.

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SXSW Film recap

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Joss Whedon's Much Ado About Nothing
This is long overdue, but some folks over on Facebook asked me for a recap of the movies I saw last month at the SXSW Film Conference & Festival. But first, you might be asking, what was Bill doing at SXSW Film anyway?

Nothing mysterious. I attended the SXSW Interactive Festival for the first time in 2012. Though I had a great time there, I kept seeing posters for movies I wanted to see but couldn't because I didn't have a Film badge. So for 2013 I bought the Gold badge, which gives access to both Interactive and Film.

If I go again in 2014, I might just get the Film membership. I enjoyed it that much.

I didn't get to attend everything I wanted, but here's a rundown of the four feature films I did manage to see.

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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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The Accidental Terrorist 30th Anniversary Sale

Signed editions
that even a
missionary
could afford.

Order yours now!

William Shunn

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