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Even the Underground Needs Editors [Dec. 3rd, 2012|07:49 am]
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I mentioned Imperial Youth Review before. I have a story with Don Webb in the first issue, which is out now. "And Other Horrors" is a Lovecraftian story with a Christmas and 2012 end-of-the-world theme, written first for the abortive Cthulhu 2012 anthology. So buy the rag, and read the story this month!

I was interested in IYR because it reminded me of my early interest in writing, which was originally an extension of my interest in avant-garde film. (Aside: enjoy this interview with Jonas Mekas.) I read Omni as a kid, and liked the films based on Ira Levin novels, and I was a voracious reader of kiddie books and whatever I found in my uncle's closet (Raw, National Lampoon, Village Voice, High Times), but I was never one of the factory-stamped science fiction/horror writers who grew up dreaming of Hugo Awards, or of meeting Stephen King. I read too widely, and was too particularly interested in what wasn't popular, what smelled of the cult and the underground, to go nuts for the SF digests or the Hugo winners or anything like that. If I had to pinpoint any one book that made me think, "I can publish fiction too, somewhere, somehow" it would be The Starry Wisdom, which combined the genre and cult fictions I liked. (Incidentally, if anyone has a copy of the original edition they'd like to sell me, contact me. The new version, which I brought recently to replace my missing old edition, doesn't have a couple of the pieces from the original.)

When I got my contributor copy of IYR the other day, I was thrilled. It's a slim magazine—sort of a classy fanzine, really—with tons of great stuff. I don't think I've given a shit about zombie stories since 2006, but "I Will Refuse" by Edward Morris works well. There's a stunning, brief, essay on childhood dance recitals by Lydia Fascia that would have been reblogged 345963410561346 times had it been presented on tumblr. Nikkie Guerlain's "The Wetlands Are Burning" is another little hand grenade of a piece. Steve Aylett has one of his hilarious detourned comics and there's other surprisingly nice art as well. Basically, it's the underground well-edited thanks to Garrett Cook and Chris Kelso. IYR isn't slick at all, and there are little errors here and there, but it works. The underground was supposed to be superior to the mainstream, not a training ground for entrée into the mainstream, and IYR captures that ethos.

I was reminded of the importance of editing, even when the material is avant-garde or underground, when reading a self-published book I picked up in the "local author" section of one of Berkeley's many independent bookstores. Super Sapien was almost good. (The cashier said, "Oooh, that's a good one" when I brought it to the register. She was half-right.) It's a sexy revenge thriller, with a left-wing punk theme. Valeria is an omnisexual polyamorous squatter vigilante killer who wipes out two cops and fingerfucks a friendly stranger on the BART train in the first chapter. Soon she's patrolling the streets with her lover, looking for more criminals to kill, while a pair of cops named Kirk and Pike (yeah!) are after her. There's an odd split between first person (V) and third (the cops) that becomes odder when we start getting first-person POV from Pike, the smarter of the cops. V also has a dark past and gets hypnotized into remembering some of it. It gets a little V for Vendetta, then. An homage. There's lots of sex, and violence, and cooking scenes—these last because V grew up on a farm and learned the ways of hunting, deballing animals, and making a very good meal as a child. All of these skills come in handy given her new role.

But, at the same time, the book is a mess. The production is awkward and layout is hard to read—paragraphs aren't indented, and there are lots of other little errors and infelicities. There are great streaks of excellent writing, heavily sprinkled with clunky sentences. "My captor is now my prey" is an especially bad one. The author works in a deli I patronize occasionally—part of me wants to dragoon her into one of my writing classes, or hand her a copy of her book with marginal notes so that she can reprint. I doubt author Micaela Petersen has any interest in going commercial, but there's almost nobody who can go it alone.

She does some cool and funny shit:



(Another aside, I met the author of the text of the video at push-hands club a couple times. Berkeley is a very small 100,000-person town.)

...and there's a lot of cool and funny shit in Super Sapien, but it just doesn't quite have that level of quality I'm looking for these days. Have I gone too commercial? Have I just gotten old? Or am I spoiled by having easy access to the best of the underground with zines like Imperial Youth Review?
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Comments:
[User Picture]From: tmcm
2012-12-03 12:01 pm (UTC)

Berkeley

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I'll be in Berkeley over XMas. If you're around we should get a beer if you're game.
[User Picture]From: nihilistic_kid
2012-12-03 04:27 pm (UTC)

Re: Berkeley

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Sure, I'll be around for Christmas and a couple of days after.
[User Picture]From: tmcm
2012-12-03 08:03 pm (UTC)

Re: Berkeley

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cool. I'm @muchcoffee on twitter.
[User Picture]From: vschanoes
2012-12-03 12:44 pm (UTC)

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"My captor is now my prey"

Ok, but to be fair, who hasn't said this at one time or another?

Have I gone too commercial?

No, or not in my opinion. It's just a fact, I think, that access to money, either private, of the sort that allows you to hire an editor yourself, or commercial, like a publishing house, allows a person greater opportunity to take advantage of important resources like editorial and production departments. That's why not having money is a disadvantage: money provides access to worthwhile things/experiences/expertise. It's true in publishing as in life, right? Not having money isn't an insurmountable disadvantage in publishing, so it's still possible to find good quality stuff, but it's significant.

And yeah, we're old now.
[User Picture]From: nihilistic_kid
2012-12-03 04:27 pm (UTC)

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Sure, but it's not like IYR has any money either.
[User Picture]From: abostick59
2012-12-03 05:57 pm (UTC)

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"My captor is now my prey"

Ok, but to be fair, who hasn't said this at one time or another?


Outside of the bedroom, you mean?
[User Picture]From: mallorys_camera
2012-12-03 03:39 pm (UTC)

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I think you should contact that author. You're really a smart critic. She might not want to do anything else with this book, but if she's thinking of writing a second and she's got anything going at all, she'll realize where you're coming from.

Crawling out on a limb here, I also think you would make a brilliant agent should you ever be seized by the desire to shake up yr revenue streams. You're absolutely fearless, and you have this rare blend of commercial and literary sensibilities when you look at writing.

I think the shift in the publishing zeitgeist is creating some representational opportunities.
[User Picture]From: garnetlocks
2012-12-03 04:22 pm (UTC)

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It's too bad they don't have an e-version (nook or epub)--I'm curious to read it now.
[User Picture]From: themachinestops
2012-12-04 02:37 am (UTC)

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It's on Kindle, though. I was curious enough to drop a buck.
[User Picture]From: garnetlocks
2012-12-04 03:42 pm (UTC)

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I've got a nook, and don't really want to read it on my computer. If there was even an epub version, I could just drop it on my device.
[User Picture]From: jorhett
2012-12-04 07:07 am (UTC)

define clunky.

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I feel odd in that this sentence doesn't really stand out to me. It would depend on the sentences it is between I guess. It definitely depends too much on context to stand alone.

You're very strong about pointing at things and saying "clunky" but I never really figured out what makes it clunky for you. I tend to use spoken word: if I can say it smoothly without breaking flow in the paragraph, it's not clunky, right? I think you and some others might disagree but I've never been able to figure out your determination.

Also, I've never had the same sentence be pointed to as clunky by any two reviewers. That makes it hard to build a library to learn from.
[User Picture]From: nihilistic_kid
2012-12-04 07:11 am (UTC)

Re: define clunky.

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That particular sentence is clunky because it's isn't something someone would likely say, certainly not in the present tense right after turning the tables on someone. It's also an attempt to avoid the cliche of "The predator has become the prey" by switching out the word "predator" and putting in the word "captor", but it does this at the expense of sense-making. Captor and prey aren't actually opposites, so the supposed reversal the sentence is describing is incomplete.
[User Picture]From: jorhett
2012-12-04 07:26 am (UTC)

Re: define clunky.

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Thanks for the details. Yeah, if this was spoken dialogue then yeah I totally agree.

Although I should admit that your main criteria is something I find confusing. I see this criticism applied to various odd sentences and I've never been able to puzzle it out. Most written sentences that aren't supposed to be literal quotes are not written in the manner that someone would say them. Written text has a different tone. And worse, most of the time I only have to go two or three sentences to the left or right to find something that nobody would ever say in any context. It has left me feeling that "It isn't something a person would say" isn't a direct meaning, but a macro for something else.

To pick a quick easy cheat example, "Something occurs to me then, something beyond death." You might know something about this sentence ;-) Absolutely isn't something anyone would say. Yet it seems to work pretty well in that paragraph, in that particular flow.

I find this topic very interesting. In my $dayjob I am prized for my skills at finding patterns where others see only noise. But I have applied myself intently to this subject, and it just seems random and subjective to me. I can't build enough of a consistent library to come up with a clear definition for this criticism, to know whether or not it would be tossed at a given sentence/paragraph.

P.S. sorry if I sound cranky. It's been a long day and I'm very exhausted. This is actually a topic I'm deeply curious about, as you can probably tell by how much time I"ve spent thinking about it. I find it deeply amusing that hundreds of people might be going around tossing out a criticism of which nobody agrees on the meaning.

Edited at 2012-12-04 07:29 am (UTC)
[User Picture]From: nihilistic_kid
2012-12-04 07:33 am (UTC)

Re: define clunky.

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It's no surprise that people disagree—some people are better readers than others. This is even leaving aside issues of taste. A six-year-old who just learned to read isn't going to have the same reaction to sentences as an English professor, who won't have the same reaction to sentences as a punk-rock zinester.
[User Picture]From: jorhett
2012-12-04 07:41 am (UTC)

Re: define clunky.

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Makes sense.

Although if you have any thoughts on why some sentences are held up against "what people would say" while others are not, I'm deeply curious. The only pattern match I can find is that it always seems to get pointed at sentences with an emotional cost. Perhaps once you get beyond the description and make a solid statement about whatever, people want it to be a statement they might have said?

I've been puzzling over the balance of a reader's need to see themselves in the text, and wonder if this relates.
[User Picture]From: nihilistic_kid
2012-12-04 07:44 am (UTC)

Re: define clunky.

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Hmm, emotional costs can be interesting. After all, if the story is about to do something very important, the stakes are higher for the success of the sentence. So it is more likely to read as a failure if it's insufficient. People are bit less likely to care about an awkward sentence describing the hefting of a fork, but since their attention is focused on the turning point of the story a similarly awkward sentence in a climactic scene about the hefting of a knife is more likely to read as clunky.

Edited at 2012-12-04 07:48 am (UTC)
[User Picture]From: T.A. Wardrope
2012-12-05 06:04 am (UTC)

Editors

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As a former zine editor and also avid consumer of underground media (via the local indie comic shops) I found this post dead-on. Here's what I've been thinking. The problem boils down to communication. Music, film, art, and some kinds of language art can be served by disruption of form -- this disruption is often where the potency of the work comes from. The visceral nature of these art forms allows for fragmentation to have a more direct effect.

Language is an abstraction and is merely a vehicle for communication. Losing grammar or style is more akin to a scratched cd, a corrupted audio file or an incomplete download. The basic structure is being obscured at the expense of any feeling it might recreate. If someone is seeking to create writing that lets the reader become absorbed, then it must be as seamless and transparent as possible. This takes great skill, style, and structure.