A Reading List for Men Who Talk to Me About Hemingway


By Angela Palm

At AWP this year, I was caught off guard when a young, white male writer said to me, “I’m surprised you’re not more well-read.” I was surprised, too — because I’m an author and editor and thus well-read through the nature of my chosen profession. Surprised, because over the course of my reading life, which is longer than his by at least a decade, I’ve read hundreds and hundreds of books. Surprised, because all day while I work in my home office, I’m surrounded by mounds of books that I’ve read or will soon read.

The young man and I had been talking about the ending of “Escape from Spiderhead” in George Saunders’ collection Tenth of December, and he brought up a short story by Ernest Hemingway to make a point about what short stories ought to invoke and how. I admitted to having read just three books from Hemingway’s oeuvre—none of them story collections, and none of them recently. That’s when he made his claim.

I walked away from the conversation stunned, without formulating a defense, and later it occurred to me that this wasn’t the first time I’d been told that I’m not well-read. Last spring, I was chatting with a white male musician about literature, and he, too, expressed similar surprise that I had not read the books that he held dear. This time, the authors were Marcel Proust and, again, Hemingway. I confess: I haven’t read Proust at all. And I’m fine with that.

When I thought about why I hadn’t read the works these men read and loved, and why they had no qualms about assessing my readership as subpar based on whether I had read these works, I realized that I hadn’t often sought out many works by white, cis, male writers since I’d been made to read them as an undergrad. It’s not that I find them problematic (though they sometimes are) or uninteresting or unworthy of reading—I’m sure I’m missing out on some great books—but I do feel I often already understand the human and worldly concerns frequently expressed in those works because I’ve been taught to consider them since I could read English. I’m hungry for other concerns, other voices, other characters. When selecting books to read for pleasure, I gravitate instead toward works by women, queer writers, and writers of color. This, to me, is being truly well-read.

I find that I most want to read contemporary stories about women, written by women who are writing right now, alive right now. Stories that are not only well-written, engaging, and full of heart, but also that inspire or influence my own writing in some way.

So, here are five short story collections by women that impressed me or motivated me in some way. Five books I couldn’t put down, a few of which I’ve read more than once.

* * * * *

Every Kiss a War by Leesa Cross-Smith (Mojave River Press, 2014)

I discovered Leesa Cross-Smith’s work about five years ago via Twitter. I had come to Twitter in search of an online writing community and access to what indie lit journals were publishing. I began reading Leesa’s flash fiction online and was blown away by how she finesses a sentence, impresses a mood, a universe of joy and pain and longing, upon the reader. The way even her half-page flash stories gutted me. Her characters’ heartbreak became my heartbreak. Leesa’s work reminds me that every sentence can slay, ought to slay, and that life’s too sopping wet with intensity and love and disappointment and miscommunication and things said and not said to waste words on lightweight sentences. When Every Kiss a War came out from Mojave River Press, I bought two copies.

Almost Famous Women by Meghan Mayhew Bergman (Scribner, 2014) 

I heard Meghan Mayhew Bergman read a short story from her second book, Almost Famous Women, at a reading in our home state of Vermont. Meghan had studied the lives of women who were, well, almost famous or lived lives adjacent to fame in some way but were in their own right worthy of fame, giving them new life through her stories. My favorite story in this collection is “Norma Millay’s Film Noir Period.” (Norma Millay was Edna St. Vincent Millay’s younger sister.) Meghan’s stories bring fascinating women out of obscurity and put them in the spotlight, and she inspires me to seek out and tell the unexpected tales, the stories no one has heard.

The Other One by Hasanthika Sirisena (University of Massachusetts Press, 2016)

I met Hasanthika when we were Bread Loaf fellows last year and I fell in love with her work instantly. Her debut collection moves between Sri Lanka and the states, contending with the aftermath of civil war at home and abroad, bringing to life a cultural history and trauma I previously knew very little about. Here we have characters old and young, connected and scattered, presented with humor, hope, and certain beauty as the world changes and exhales. Hasanthika writes the way I hope to write fiction: coming right up to the matter at hand, unflinching. And her stories’ endings, to my mind, are masterful examples of how to close. They seem, somehow, to contain the entire world.

Half Wild by Robin MacArthur (Ecco, 2016)

Robin and I were paired for a string of readings last fall because our first books were released the same month, were both Indie Next picks, and we both live in Vermont. Robin’s stories have a lyric, musical quality to them. When I heard her read the line, “The one who wanted something other than what she was born with, who nursed me until I was three (little titty-monkey), the one who lays her hand on my shoulder when I come home from class and says, ‘Angel, you be good. You be real good, baby-o,’” from the story “Creek Dippers,” I knew two things: we were going to get along well, and I had to buy that book immediately. Now, when my sentences start sounding too mechanical, I open to a random page of Half Wild, and I remember the way words can sing—in a manner both half wild and wholly unexpected.

Doll Palace by Sara Lippmann (Dock Street Press, 2014)

Sara Lippmann is another writer I discovered on Twitter. The short stories in her collection, Doll Palace, often span only a handful of pages but somehow manage to precisely capture the modern lives of girls and women. Sara’s writing shows me, again and again, how narrative voice can propel everything from character to plot. Take these two short sentences from a story called “Tomorrowland,” for example: “Enthusiasm is contagious. I worry my daughter will meet a nice man.” Many of the stories in this collection are written in the first person. Whenever I try my hand at that point of view, I return to the dog-eared pages of Doll Palace to remember how to say things without saying things. How to lead a story through first-person point of view without directing.

* * * * *

If I could rewrite my responses to those men, I’d say, “Have you read Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Mia Alvar, and Roxane Gay? Sandra Cisneros or Louise Erdrich? No? Leesa Cross-Smith or Robin MacArthur?” I’d give them this list. I have no doubt I’ll find myself in this position again—cornered by a man heralding Hemingway. Next time, I’ll be ready to reframe the accusation, quick with my response.


Angela Palm is the author of Riverine: A Memoir from Anywhere but Here (Graywolf Press), an Indie Next selection, winner of the 2014 Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize, and a Kirkus Best Book of 2016. She lives in Vermont, where she works as an editor. angipalm.com/


Liz Prato: What’s So Damn Funny About Death?

Liz Prato  Baby's_On_Fire_

My mom died when I was 26 and she was 58. I loved her more than anyone in the universe, and I was devastated. She didn’t want a funeral, but did want a wake, so we had an afternoon party at my dad’s house. I remember standing in the kitchen, eating a tortilla chip that broke and fell into my blouse. I looked inside my blouse, found the chip lodged in my bra, and pulled it out and ate it. I then realized a friend standing on the other side of the counter saw me do it, and we laughed. Until that moment I had no idea I was capable of anything other than confusion and fear and unrelenting waves of I-will-never-see-my-mom-again grief.

When I was 44, I was sitting on the floor in my dad’s house—just steps away from where the tortilla chip incident occurred—with my dad’s ashes and my brother’s ashes in front of me. My friend Rebekah sat on the bottom step of the stairs. Together, we swathed my dad’s urn and my brother’s green cardboard box in bubble-wrap so they could be mailed to my home a thousand miles away.

My whole family was dead. I had to clean out our family home in four days, before it went into foreclosure and was auctioned off by the city. I thought of a time when we were 16 and my dad and brother were out of town on a business trip. Rebekah and I were upstairs, in my dad’s bedroom, watching our pupils in the mirror to see if we could notice them dilate (oh, did I mention we were stoned?). The doorbell rang, so we started downstairs. We both stopped on the stairs. We could see my dad and brother standing outside. They had come back from their trip early, but because we had the chain lock on the door, they couldn’t get in.

“Hold on!” I called, while Rebekah ran back to my dad’s bedroom to hide the bong.

I let them in. “We got finished with our business early,” my dad said.

Don’t act high, don’t act high. “It’s great to see you!” I said, probably with too much enthusiasm. “You’re going to have to give us a little time to clean up your bedroom, though. We have our stuff all over it.”

“Sure, no problem,” my dad said cheerfully, and sat at the kitchen table reading his mail.

I raced upstairs to my dad’s bedroom. Rebekah had opened the windows and was walking around waving her hands through the air like a spastic magician. This is what we spent the next twenty minutes doing, walking around waving our hands, until we were convinced my dad’s bedroom was pot-free.

Twenty-eight years later, we’re sitting at the bottom of those stairs, wrapping my dad and brother’s ashes in bubble wrap. I started laughing. “Of all the times we’ve been in this house together, I don’t think we could have ever predicted doing this.”

“I know, right?” Rebekah said and cracked up, too.  I know she remembers every single goofy incident (parties and boys and school truancy and tons of laughter) that ever occurred in the house since we were kids.

Right that minute, her husband walked in the front door. “What’s so funny?”

“These are my dad’s ashes!” I hooted, pointing to the blob of bubble wrap.

As I’m telling this story, I have no sense if you are laughing, too. Or if you’re mortified (so to speak). That uncertainty is one reason I think death writing is so consistently bleak. We are afraid of how it will be taken, of how we will be perceived if we ever insist there is anything funny hiding inside the devastation. We worry it will seem disrespectful.

Of course death, itself, is rarely funny. One of the stories in my new collection, Baby’s On Fire, features a recovering addict whose father was killed when a coconut fell off a tree and hit him on the head. The narrator knew it was the stuff of cartoons and he watched as people tried to muffle their guffaws when he told them the story. But his grief, his loss, was quite serious.

On the other hand, when my mother-in-law told me and my husband how her 94-year-old father died, we laughed our asses off. He had been given dire medical news predicting he would never walk again, so he stopped eating and drinking. My mother-in-law, Gaynl, was asleep in her parents’ guestroom when her mother woke her up and told her he was gone. Gaynl fully expected to see her father lying in bed, under the covers, lifeless. A body, but no longer a soul. But when she walked into his bedroom, she found him standing upright. He had somehow gotten out of bed, was walking towards something, and then just stopped. Permanently. Well, if that isn’t weird enough, Gaynl’s mother said it just wouldn’t be proper for him to be standing there like that when the folks from the funeral home arrived. So Gaynl had to wrestle the body of her dead dad back into bed and arrange him so he looked like he’d gone peacefully in his sleep.

Of course, a lot of what makes this story funny (to me and to Gaynl and to my husband, at least) is the context. This probably wouldn’t be remotely hilarious if it had happened to a child, or someone else who hadn’t engineered their own dignified death. And the fact that Gaynl’s mother was so concerned about propriety at such a time added to the ridiculousness. But it points to how irrational people get when someone dies (grief being a form of insanity, and all), and that can create some downright silly circumstances.

Also, people—when they are alive—are wonderfully, freakishly weird, and whether that weirdness is discovered for the first time, or it just gets made bigger and brighter when they die, it can be pretty comical. I mean, you tell me: How should I have reacted when, while cleaning out my dad’s closet after my whole family was dead, a friend ran across my dad’s penis pump? Yep, those two phrases—“my whole family was dead” and “penis pump”—were just in the same sentence.

We suck at death in our culture; that’s not exactly breaking news. We don’t talk about it often, and when we do it’s in whispered euphemisms. Despite its constant inevitability, we are nonetheless surprised when it happens.

We are always surprised by how it feels.

That’s the writer’s job – to illuminate the aspects of the human condition that surprise us. That grab at our hearts. That make our breath rush away from us. It’s a writer’s job to unveil the human experience as fully and unflinchingly as possible. To see and hear and feel the details that surprise us about life and about death.

Let me be clear: I am not saying that writers should add humor to their grief writing simply to make it easier on the reader or to sell more books. I’m not claiming that “Laugh Your Ass Off” should be added to Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s famous Five Stages of Grief. After my family died, friends would make well-meaning suggestions like “You should watch Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog! It’ll cheer you up.”

The thing was, it wouldn’t. There were times when the aftermath felt so bleak that I knew I wouldn’t be able to crack a smile at something others found utterly hilarious, and that would leave me feeling even more desolate. The kind of humor I’m talking about happens organically. That’s the beauty of it—we don’t make it happen. And after something sad that we had no control over happens, there’s something magical about something enjoyable happening that we had no control over, too.

I’ve been writing about those small magics ever since my mom died—in my stories, in my essays, in my memoir. I do worry that parts of my memoir are “unrelentingly bleak.” I assume no one will want to read about how painful it was to watch my dad and brother descend so quickly into mental illness and addiction that I could not help them and they could not survive.

I am aware that the “funny parts” don’t happen until after they die. It wasn’t until then that I was able to experience a release. Notice I say “release” – not relief. It’s different. It’s not Whew—things are finally better! It is the clutch of the inevitable momentarily liberating you from fear and uncertainty and “Ohmygod, I can’t handle this anymore.” It’s your muscles releasing their death-grip on your weary spine—even if for only a moment. It’s an unbridled laugh bursting from your lungs.

Whether you are a writer or a reader, rejoice in those small breaks from the pain, because that is what keeps us alive. And come on, is there any other way to respond to finding your father’s penis pump?

Liz Prato’s short story collection, Baby’s On Fire, is forthcoming from Press 53 in May. Her work has appeared in over two dozen literary journals and magazines, and she edited the anthology The Night, and the Rain, and the River (Forest Avenue Press, 2014). Excerpts of her recently completed memoir have been published by The Rumpus, Subtropics, Summerset Review, and Nailed. She lives in Portland with her husband, a bookseller, musician and writer, and their furry feline friends. http://www.lizprato.com

Robin Antalek on Flipping the Gender Voice: When Women Write Male Characters

Robin Antalek

I had never done it before. My protagonists were always female. As a young writer, my female characters thought about things the way I did, and it was pretty basic stuff in the beginning. As I matured, the writing shifted, my concerns and, by default, my characters became less myopic. It was easy to write these women because in every single one of them I saw shades of myself, or someone I knew, or someone I wanted to be. Through draft after draft of short stories and early attempts at novels, the voice was consistently female.

It wasn’t until I was writing The Summer We Fell Apart that I even thought about a male voice. Here I had four siblings, two and two, and while I hadn’t planned to shift the point of view between the characters after I wrote the first section in Amy’s voice, her brother George was pretty much begging to be heard. Here’s the thing: maybe it was naiveté on my part – but I wasn’t stressed as much as I was excited by the possibilities. I wrote those first few paragraphs in his section and it was like slipping into someone else’s skin, putting on different clothes. It was among the most freeing things I have ever done. I wasn’t conscious of putting aside a feminine voice. Instead it was all about inhabiting the character, not over-thinking, that allowed the character to unfold naturally. If we are honest about the breakdown of male and female characters, at the very core there would have to be the belief that the memorable protagonists inhabit characteristics of each gender. When the voice is forced, or unnatural, it stops the entire narrative. If a writer restricts the character based upon the ideal feminine or masculine characteristics, then that character will fall flat.

From the Bible, to Shakespeare, to Dickens, on to Updike, Mailer, and Roth, men have long been speaking for women in fiction, with uneven results. What could be so wrong about women speaking for men?

In The Outsiders, S.E. Hinton writes achingly in the voices of a group of young men who are not much older than Hinton herself when she penned the book. Did it make the child-men any less realistic? Did it make Ponyboy any less a tragic figure? No, it had the opposite effect, and it remains one of the outstanding books about young adults in transition. Published in 1967, The Outsiders was banned from schools because of the gang violence, smoking, and drinking, but never was it criticized for not representing an authentic male voice.

Several recent examples point to women nailing the male voice. In Gone Girl, author Gillian Flynn holds nothing back in her portrayal of Nick and Amy Dunne. Nick’s POV was essential to Flynn’s successful narrative and necessary as a counterpoint to Amy’s. That Flynn created each character as a fully fleshed-out entity, regardless of gender voice, is a testament to her skills as a writer. There is never a moment where you could confuse one voice with the other. That speaks more to Flynn’s understanding of her characters than the need to write so she sounds like a man or a woman.

Then there is the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. Whatever criticisms have been logged against the book, the one take-away is that Tartt knows her male characters, especially, achingly so in the portrayals of Theo Decker and his benefactor Hobie. For me those characters worked because there was empathy, a sympathetic core intrinsic to their nature that made them believable and compelled me to want to know their stories. I never heard Tartt speaking as Theo or Hobie. Again, as a writer, you know your character and it doesn’t seem to matter that you’re working out of gender.

During the course of writing The Summer We Fell Apart, I wrote in the voice of two male characters, George and his brother, Finn. They were as opposite as siblings could be – yet, there was darkness and light to each of them that as a writer I enjoyed exploring. The characters crystallized in those moments and flip-flopped any expectations that I had in not being able to write a believable male voice. In the end, to be successful I found that I nearly had to strip the character of gender. I am a woman writer, yes, who wrote a human voice that just happens to be male. Does a narrative voice have specific gender qualities? Are we to believe men and women really love differently? Hurt differently? Will the writer have to reach so far out of her [I don’t like the use of “their” in place of his or her] own experience to be given the benefit of the doubt when it comes to gender crossover?

In my new book, The Grown Ups, I have a male narrator, Sam, who starts as a fifteen-year-old and is nearly thirty when the book ends. There is a tremendous period of growth during that arc that universally applies to both sexes – but again I found it helpful to not think strictly in terms of gender as the story evolved. It is just as complicated to create a male character, as it is a female character. I had moments where I knew there were gender choices to be made in terms of behavior and emotions specific to being a teenage boy, but they were more societal and cultural than anything else. I refused to allow them into the story, so that the voice of the novel evolved on its own. That’s something you can’t – or maybe I should say shouldn’t — attempt to control.

Fiction writing and reading is a leap of faith; we are asking the reader to hear our story, and it is the job of our narrator to make sure the reader stays. A voice, that precious voice that we writers long to hear, comes into our heads and we have to allow it to speak. Whether male or female, it is our job to tell the best, most compelling story that we can.

Robin Antalek is the author of The Summer We Fell Apart (HarperCollins 2010), which was chosen as a Target Breakout Book, and the forthcoming The Grown Ups (William Morrow 2015). Her non-fiction work has been published at The Weeklings and The Nervous Breakdown and collected in The Beautiful Anthology; Writing off Script: Writers on the Influence of Cinema; and The Weeklings: Revolution #1 Selected Essays 2012-1013. Her short fiction has appeared in Salon, 52 Stories, Five Chapters, Sun Dog, The Southeast Review, and Literary Mama, among others. She has twice been a finalist in Glimmer Train magazine, as well as a finalist for The Tobias Wolff Award for Fiction. She lives in Saratoga Springs, New York. You can visit her website, http://www.robinantalek.com, and find her at facebook.com/AuthorRobinAntalek.


THE OTHER LANGUAGE examines the effects of culture, place and language

The Other Language_Marciano  The Other Language paperback

The Other Language: Stories

Francesca Marciano

Vintage Contemporaries: Feb. 3, 2015

304 pages, $15.95

The Other Language was one of the best short story collections published in 2014. It will be published in softcover on Feb. 3, giving readers a second chance to discover its manifold pleasures. Francesca Marciano is not yet well known to the American reading public (despite three previous novels), but Language has created something of a buzz. (Perhaps Italian writers are catching on after the success of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan trilogy.)

In this collection, Marciano tells the stories of characters who find themselves on unfamiliar turf, literally and figuratively. Most involve people who have traveled to exotic locales (a Greek island in the title story, Tanzania in “Big Island, Small Island,” “An Indian Soiree”), moved from a city to a village (“The Presence of Men,” set in far southern Italy and “The Club,” which is set in Mombasa and coastal Kenya), or who live amidst a different dominant culture (“The Italian System” and “Quantum Theory”). All are disoriented by language or culture, leading them to stray from their normal behavior.

The standouts are the longest stories here: “The Other Language,” “The Presence of Men,” and “An Indian Soiree,” which are 49, 54, and 33 pages, respectively. In the title story, twelve-year-old Rome resident Emma travels to a Greek island for a vacation with her father and two younger siblings following the death of her mother. There she encounters two slightly older English brothers, with whom she is fascinated because they speak that “other language.” That “language” is both English and their seeming worldliness. Obsessed, she finds ways to hang around with them at their Greek vacation home, on the beach, and anywhere else she can. “She didn’t know what she was getting away from,” observes the narrator, “but the other language was the boat she fled on.”

Marciano, who learned English as a teenager and lived in New York City in her 20s and Kenya for 10 years after that, told William Grimes of the New York Times last spring, “You discover not just words but new things about yourself when you learn a language. I am a different person because I fell in love with English. I cannot revert. I cannot undo this. I am stuck.”

“The Presence of Men” follows a divorcee from Rome as she renovates an old house in a tiny southern Italy village. Of course, she takes several missteps, alienating the locals, but the interest is in watching her develop a relationship with the village matriarch Mina, a seamstress. The plot thickens when her brother Leo, a film agent, comes to visit with his movie start client, Ben Jackson, and they befriend Mina.

In “An Indian Soiree,” a married couple who have grown tired of each other take a trip to India. They love each other, but the life has gone out of their relationship and they seem not to know how to rekindle it.

We learn the husband admires some of his wife’s traits, yet it is no longer enough. “He loved her–that went without saying–but they’d been together for almost sixteen years and it was normal to find her tiresome at times. He had to admit it was lovely, the way she found so many things interesting and worth being investigated; it was a sign of her vitality, and he cherished that.”

A handful of pages later we get the wife’s point of view. “They had been three weeks on the road by now and she’d begun to feel how tiresome it was to travel with someone who never seemed to enjoy himself. As usual, she had to do all the work, like a puppeteer moving all the characters across the stage, or a ventriloquist doing all the voices, in order to keep the audience entertained. Sometimes it became too demanding.

Their stay in India has a powerful impact on them and their marriage. The couple, who remain unnamed, are intoxicated by the change of scenery. The wife has gone native in an awkwardly touristy way; when she has an intense dream about a former lover, she believes it’s a message and decides to contact him via Skype. The husband becomes infatuated with a famous Indian dancer who appears to return his interest.

Ironically, the best description of this scenario is found in “The Presence of Men,” when Lara considers love and lust. “Love was a drug, a rave. People got high on it and within half an hour were capable of doing anything in its name. No place was too far to reach, no phone number too expensive to call, no decision faster to make.”

Not surprisingly, they soon commit themselves to courses of action that can’t easily be undone.

The simplest pleasure in this collection is “The Italian System,” the shortest story on offer. The unnamed protagonist is a young woman from Rome who has been living in New York City for seven years. “Ever since she’d arrived in the city she’d tried very hard to become an American, but it had proved hard to blend in. It wasn’t just the accent or mispronunciation of difficult words that singled her out, it was a question of attitude. Of posture, even.” She feels hopelessly foreign. “She, even after all these years, still felt self-conscious, afraid of making a faux pas. She came to feel this was the inherent condition of anybody unmoored from the familiar, and living in a place that is home to others.”

She decides she needs a new project to energize her life. She hits upon the idea of writing a book about being Italian, specifically what makes Italians so…well, Italian, and so popular with non-Italians. She will call her book The Italian System.

Marciano is unsparing in her depictions of these characters’ foibles, but she also shows us their essential humanity. She also writes with a strong sense of place, one that is often palpable, especially when, as in my case, you are reading her stories in January. But what stands out most in these stories is Marciano’s clean, elegant prose. Even the less impressive stories in this collection are a pleasure to read, as you sail along on her controlled and well-crafted sentences.

As much as I enjoyed these stories, I have a few quibbles with The Other Language. Although all the characters are Italian, they didn’t come across as distinctly Italian. I often found myself thinking they were British or just generically “European.” Marciano lives in Rome, but she spent many years living in the U.S. and the U.K., which may explain why her characters feel more like citizens of the world than idiosyncratically Italian. Also, a few of the stories in The Other Language may leave readers perplexed with their inconclusive endings. Marciano’s stories can be deceptively subtle, and she doesn’t rely on pat endings that tie up all the strands.

Still, I am glad to have “discovered” Francesca Marciano, and I intend to make time to read her previous work and whatever she publishes next. You should, too.


Author Jessica Levine on Writing About Sex: Is It Necessary?

Jessica Levine

Remember how Thomas Hardy handled the rape of Tess of the d’Urbervilles? Tess is sleeping in the woods when Alec approaches her in the darkness and fog, then the narrator reflects, indirectly, about what is to befall her. There’s a chapter break and, the next thing we know, Tess is a fallen woman.

White spaces worked in the Victorian novel, and they still do. And we know what happens in the sexual act. So why should novelists bother to write about sex? As E.B. White put it in the title of his book, is sex necessary? At this moment in history, when we are bombarded with gratuitous sexual content in movies and video, writers may hesitate to join the fray. And if one doesn’t enjoy exhibitionism, writing about sex can feel embarrassing.

Working on early drafts of my novel The Geometry of Love, I avoided the task. I even had a version in which my characters’ love for each other was unrequited. When I finally wrote the love scenes that needed to be written, I was pleased: I had enjoyed the writing and felt I had created something fresh and interesting. However, when the time came to go to press, the feeling of exposure came up again and I wanted to excise the sex scenes. Thankfully, my agent held me firm with her praise, and I left them in the book.

Consider the power of sex in literature. An erotic scene can arouse a reader sexually, a lyrical one might trigger tears. A funny one can leave you doubled over with laughter. A violent one can induce nightmares. Although writing about sex may feel uncomfortable or redundant in our over-sexed age, it’s worth doing because sex scenes provide the writer with an opportunity like no other to catch and focus the reader’s attention. How can one best use that opportunity? The answer is that sex scenes need above all to serve the novel’s mood and content. In fact, writing about sex is most successful when it deemphasizes the sex itself and focuses instead on tone, emotion, character. This is all the more necessary given that sexual acts — whether passionate or violent, “safe” or the cause of pregnancy or disease — often provide major turning points in plot.

Sexual language is in itself jolting. When Henry Miller wrote Tropic of Cancer he expanded the vocabulary available to literary writers, adding four-letter words and more. And with those words he described scenes, relationships, attitudes that hadn’t been described before. I first read Tropic of Cancer in my twenties and, although I was repelled by its misogyny, I felt that it granted writers an intoxicating liberty to apply language to sexuality. Miller captured the rebellious spirit of American writers of the 1930s who, in decamping to Paris, removed themselves from the puritan atmosphere of the literary culture back home.

Another writer whose treatment of sex made an impression on me in my twenties was Richard Wright. The sequence in which Bigger rapes and murders Bessie in Native Son remains burned in my brain although I read it decades ago. I remember not the choreography of the scene but the sense of an abandoned tenement engulfed by moral and emotional despair, of a man dehumanized by racism and poverty, of a woman stripped of power. The crime committed becomes symbolic of the hell of Chicago’s South Side with its abandoned tenements and lawless subculture of violence.

The depiction of sexual violence in literary fiction often serves the author’s indictment of the attitudes and systems at its source, whether they be racism and sexism, as in Native Son, or the vicissitudes of ethnic conflict, as in Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner. In that novel, set in the tumultuous context of 1970s Afghanistan, an older boy rapes a younger one, whose best friend stands by as a passive witness when he could have prevented the assault. The two friends, whose relationship had transcended ethnic differences, are forever alienated from each other by this betrayal. Often interpreted as a story about guilt and redemption, The Kite Runner also explores structures of social and political power: the victimized boy is a servant and the friend who could have saved him belongs to the well-to-do family employing him. What is the responsibility of those in power to defend the subjugated? Can amends be made once a life has been destroyed by sexual assault? The questions raised go far beyond the violation that has taken place.

Formally, there is always something new that can be done in writing about sex. Martin Amis’s The Pregnant Widow focuses on the sexual obsessions and activities of twenty-year-old protagonist, Keith Nearing. The narrator, who repeatedly calls the sexual act “the indescribable deed,” ends up describing his encounters by relating the conversations held during them. The result is something I haven’t run across elsewhere in fiction–sex scenes rendered through dialogue and only dialogue. What could be more literary than this¾sexual activity reduced to the linguistic utterances it elicits? It’s as though the room were pitch-black, and all we can do as readers is eavesdrop as we imagine what is happening in the fiction of the lovers’ physical union.

With a few exceptions, like Anaïs Nin, the literary treatment of sex was in the twentieth century seen as a male province until the publication in 1973 of Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying. As sexually explicit as the works of male authors like Miller, this novel was considered a trail-blazing, feminist literary manifesto. Isabella’s quest for the “zipless fuck” came to represent the Sexual Revolution because of her desire to have the kind of sex men supposedly want and get ¾ casual, quick, fulfilling.

However, many episodes in this novel stage the humorous anticlimax that happens when sexual fantasy bumps up against reality. For example, when the married Isabella and her would-be lover, Adrian, drive to a hotel hoping to have adulterous sex for the first time, they get lost on the way so many times that, once they’re finally in bed, Adrian is too exhausted to perform. The drive to the hotel, full of dirty talk, recalls the passage in Madame Bovary in which Emma is seduced in a carriage galloping madly around the city of Rouen. Like Emma, Isabella has been raised on romantic myths and misguided by them.

And, much like Madame Bovary, Fear of Flying dives into the huge chasm that exists between sexual fantasizing and what happens when you act on those fantasies. Sex, when Isabella does get it, never assuages the enormous needs that propel her through life. And when an opportunity for an actual zipless fuck with a stranger on a train presents itself, she is repelled. As Isabella explores her freedom, she is repeatedly disappointed. The book is still highly readable today because Jong turns her protagonist’s disillusion into a creative romp satirizing received ideas about women’s sexuality, with Freud as a special target.

Whether a sex scene is violent or erotic and pleasurable, it can make an outsized impression. Writing about sex consequently has a special ability to distort time both for the reader and for the characters in a story. In Susan Minot’s novel, Evening, the narrative alternates between the deathbed of Ann Grant Lord, age sixty-five, and a retrospective of her life. Going backward in time, Ann remembers obsessively a weekend forty years earlier when she fell in love with a man she met at a friend’s wedding. The scene in which that passion is consummated goes on for pages and pages, with every gesture described in minute detail. The description, lyrical and exquisite, creates an almost surreal slow-motion effect, giving the reader the sense of events spilling out from the temporal container in which they occurred. And this is indeed what has happened in the consciousness of the protagonist, who is obsessed with her memories of that encounter.

When I sat down to write the sex scenes for my novel The Geometry of Love, all these readings and more gave me a sense of how much range writers have in addressing sexuality. My main aim was to have the love scenes serve the development of character and plot. The protagonist, Julia, is stuck in an unsatisfying relationship and yearns to be with another man. Unable to act because of her loyalty to her partner, she ends up, early in the novel, sleeping with a third man, an old friend whose sense of humor undoes her defenses and opens her up to the possibility of exploring other relationships.

The scene needed to be playful as Julia can only shed her paralyzing gravity by laughing her way out of it. The encounter, which takes place in an old Volkswagen bus parked on a farm, is comically interrupted first by a goat butting up against the van door as it tries to climb in, then by a drive to a drugstore to pick up condoms. In contrast, when I staged a later sexual encounter with Julia’s soul mate, I used poetic language to emphasize the intimacy and eroticism of the moment. In the thick of the adventure she has embarked upon, Julia ultimately embraces her deepest feelings and allows them to inform her life.

In the end, because of the way it grabs our attention, writing about sex will have a disproportionate impact on readers. Language will be noted, scenes will be taken as symbolic of a character, time, or place, and emotional impact will be high. Writers can take advantage of these opportunities in order to create powerful and memorable works. Writing about sex in fiction consequently becomes the opposite of gratuitous: it becomes a valuable tool for charting human experience and experimenting with the ways in which language can record it.

Jessica Levine’s stories, nonfiction, poetry, and translations have appeared in Green Hills Literary Lantern, The Huffington Post, Poetry Northwest, representations, North American Review, The Southern Review, Spoon River Poetry Review, and many other places.  She earned her Ph.D. in English at the University of California, Berkeley. She is the author of Delicate Pursuit: Literary Discretion in Henry James and Edith Wharton (Routledge, 2002) and has also translated three books from French and Italian into English. Her first novel, The Geometry of Love, was published by She Writes Press in April 2014 and has received glowing reviews from Foreword, Booklist, and other publications. You can find links to some of her online work at http://www.jessicalevine.com.


“What My High School Reading List Taught Me About Women”

I missed this piece when it was published in August. Author Mary Kay Zuravleff posted a link to it on her Facebook page this morning, and I think it needs to be read as widely as possible, so I’m sharing it here to keep it moving along.

Natalie Howlett’s essay, published on the Feminspire website, is must-reading for those who care about literature and women, especially young women. As a high school English teacher, I realize that we need to choose books for our curriculum with more thought about the messages our choices send and the effects they can have.

We have the opportunity to show young women that writing by women matters, that their lives matter. And we have the chance to send a message to young men that books by women are not just about women and for women, but that women have as much to say as men about important subjects, including men’s lives. Perhaps we will eventually be able to effect a change in men’s reading habits. Considering the huge role women play in the lives of men, we ought to be paying more attention to what women artists of all kinds have to say.



Karin Lin-Greenberg, 2014 winner of Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction, on Patience and Publishing

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Karin Lin-Greenberg in classroom  Faulty Predictions

Karin Lin-Greenberg has made a splash on the literary scene with her debut story collection, Faulty Predictions. As one of two winners of the 2014 Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction (along with Monica McFawn), Lin-Greenberg received a publishing deal with University of Georgia Press, which sponsors the award, for the collection of stories she submitted for the contest. Reading Faulty Predictions, one sees very quickly why Lin-Greenberg was selected for the award: she has command of the story form, great empathy for her quirky and very human characters, and a droll sense of humor that adds an inspired light touch to her tales of family conflict, identity, and coping with a rapidly changing world. I expect to hear much more from Karin Lin-Greenberg after this stellar debut. (My review, posted on September 26, is here.)

In this essay, written for Read Her Like an Open Book, Lin-Greenberg considers the need for patience and persistence in publishing in light of our increasingly impatient culture.

I: Patience, a History

Much of my childhood seemed to be about waiting. I owned a book called Free Stuff for Kids, and on each page there was information about something—a bumper sticker, a button, a poster—that kids could send away for and get for free in the mail. Corporations usually sponsored these free things, and the free items advertised their products. I didn’t mind the advertisements. I just thought it was fun to write a letter requesting a free button and then, six to eight weeks later, find a button declaring I loved a certain brand of cereal in a padded envelope in my mailbox.

There was a book that was extremely popular in my elementary school’s library, D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths, and everyone in my third grade class would wait for weeks for their turn to check it out. The library had two copies, the spines on each book reinforced with tape, the edges of the pages rounded from so many readings.

Speaking of the library, there was a section labeled “For Sixth Graders Only,” which contained books with “mature” topics. We would have to wait until our elementary school educations were nearly over before we could even touch those books. Each time I entered or exited the library, I stared at those shelves, thinking of how much longer it would be before I was allowed to read the books. Some of the books I remember residing there were Forever by Judy Blume and The Long Secret (the sequel to Harriet the Spy), and my friends and I spent a lot of time whispering about what might be in those books. (Incidentally, I must say that those gods and goddesses from the Greek myths I was reading in third grade were up to more trouble than most of the characters in the “For Sixth Graders Only” books.)

During junior high, one of my parents would drive me to the Hollywood Video store up the street from our house on some weekend evenings. I’d always go right to the shelf of new release VHS tapes, and more often than not, the movie I wanted was checked out. So I would walk through the comedy section, pick an older movie to watch, and come back the next week and hope the video I wanted was on the shelf. Sometimes it would take a month before the video I wanted was actually available.

I could go on and on about what I waited for during my childhood, but I’ll just give one more example. For my birthday one year, I got a rock tumbler. I plugged it into an outlet in the bathroom and let it run continuously for six weeks. Sometimes I would go into the bathroom and watch the barrel rotate, listen to the rocks clank as they fell to the bottom of the tumbler. Every week or two I’d stop the machine, wash the rocks off, and pour in a finer grade of abrasive grit. The rocks got smoother and smoother, until, during the last week, I poured polishing grit into the tumbler with the rocks, and finally, what emerged six weeks after I started were rocks that were shiny and beautiful.

II: Patience, Revisited

And now? Well, if you want a video, you can likely stream it. If you want a book that’s checked out of the library, you can download it to a device. If you want to know what’s so scandalous about a book you’re not supposed to read, you can Google a synopsis. I am willfully refusing to look up rock tumblers. I don’t want to know that there’s some special chemical that can now polish rocks overnight. I hope there’s not. I hope there are still things that people have to wait for.

III: Waiting

When I began to submit work to literary journals when I was in my mid-twenties, I was unfazed about the long wait times between my submissions and the responses I’d get from editors. After all, I’d been the kid who was delighted when, after waiting for two months, I got a bumper sticker in the mail with the logo of an orange juice company printed on it. I don’t like getting my stories rejected, but I do like getting responses to work I’ve sent out in the world. I have now been submitting work to journals for twelve years, and I’ve gotten used to the slow influx of rejections, some of them coming six, seven, eight months after I’ve submitted. I don’t feel impatient waiting for them; it’s just part of how things work. And once in a while there’s an acceptance, which is certainly something worth waiting for.

Last semester, I talked to the students in my Writing Short Fiction class about submitting work to literary journals. I showed them a packet I’d put together of rejections I’d gotten over the years. Then I pulled up my Submittable account on the screen at the front of the classroom to show them how electronic submissions to journals work. I pointed at the dates when I’d submitted my stories and said that for some of them I’d been waiting almost a year to hear back.

“If you wait for a long time, are they more likely to say yes?” asked one student.

“Not necessarily,” I said. “Sometimes it just takes that long for them to get through the work that’s been submitted.”

“But now you have a book coming out,” said another student, “so that means that these submissions listed up on the screen, they’ll all get accepted, right?”

“Oh,” I said, “no. Not at all. I still get rejected all the time.”

My students looked surprised. Or sort of surprised, but mostly sad. I imagined they were thinking how strange and unfair publishing was. Not only do people get rejected regularly, but you have to wait a long time to get this news. How terrible.

IV: The Kids Are Not Alright

Several weeks ago I accompanied two student editors of my college’s literary journal to a conference for editors of undergraduate literary journals. For two days, I was in a room full of ambitious young people who cared deeply about reading and writing and wanted to edit the best literary journals they could. One student editor, a freshman at an Ivy League university, gave a presentation about the pressure of publishing. She talked about attending a prestigious summer writing workshop for high school students when she was sixteen. One evening a few of the students were sitting on the lawn outside a building on campus where a famous literary journal was edited. The other students—all of them still in high school—were competitively comparing where they’d been published. They were boasting about their contest wins. The young woman felt miserable and dejected because she hadn’t been published yet. She felt so far behind her peers. When she returned home from the workshop, she started entering contests and didn’t win. She felt like a failure.

Oh my god, I thought. I wanted to leap up on top of a table and scream that someone who’s sixteen has all the time in the world. They don’t need to worry about getting published. They don’t need to stress out about contests. Sure, enter contests if you want, but don’t kick yourself if you don’t win. It’s a cliché, but you win some, you lose some. That’s how life works.

But I also understand that it’s not how life works for some kids. Some kids have only known success. And, hey, that’s great, but if you want to be a writer, you’ve got to get pretty familiar with rejection. Even if your work is good, you will inevitably get turned down at some point. While I listened to this young woman speak, I realized that the current epidemic of impatience wasn’t just confined to people not wanting to wait for individual rejections. It also involved people thinking that if they didn’t publish—and maybe if they didn’t get a book contract—before they were out of their teens, they had failed at being a writer.

The Internet has made us impatient by bringing instant gratification to our daily lives, and I think it’s also caused problems with making people too informed about some things. When I was in high school, I didn’t know what literary journals were. I didn’t even know what they were in college. The first time I encountered one was in graduate school, where there were a couple Glimmer Trains on a table in the graduate English office. I picked up one of the journals while I was waiting to register for a class, and then it clicked that stories are published in journals before they are republished in story collections and the yearly best-of anthologies that I was familiar with. So, okay, I was exceptionally naïve about publishing for a long time, but I think knowing too much can cause trouble. Because of the Internet, young people today know all about journals and contests and submitting work. They know who else their age is getting published. Publishing can become competitive, a race. And it’s not a race. Sometimes it takes a long time before work is ready. I’d be pretty embarrassed if the stories I wrote when I was sixteen were available for anyone to read on the Internet. When I was sixteen, I loved writing, but I still had an incredible amount to learn, and I’m so glad I didn’t feel pressure to publish. I’m grateful I had many years in which to write and learn and explore and grow, and I didn’t have to worry about proving myself with publication. I’m glad I didn’t even think about publication throughout high school and college. This is not to say that someone who is sixteen shouldn’t be published. I’m just saying it’s not a race, and there’s no banner at the finish line that says, “If you are old enough to vote and don’t have a book out yet, you’re a loser.”

V: But How Can I Get Published?

Many of my students have asked me how my life has changed since my book was published. “Not much,” I tell them, and they always look disappointed. “I mean,” I say, “it’s a good thing to have work out in the world. But it’s not like winning an Oscar. It’s not like overnight my life has completely changed.”

But here’s one thing that has changed: people have been asking me how they can get published. No one asked me this before my book came out. And, well, I don’t have a secret formula. I submitted, I waited, I revised. I kept working. I took old stories out of the collection and replaced them with new ones each year. I submitted individual stories to journals and the collection to contests. I entered dozens of contests for seven years.

People have come up to me after I’ve done readings and asked for my advice about publishing. I’ve had adults do this, and I’ve had college students do it. I ask if they are taking classes and what they’ve been writing. Most of the time, people aren’t writing much but they have fantasies of being a writer. One man had a penname picked out already. One student—a biology major—said he’d never actually written a story before, but he thought it would be really cool to get some fiction published.

I try to be encouraging and direct people to resources like The Novel & Short Story Writer’s Market and Poets & Writers magazine. If they are students, I encourage them to take writing classes. (I’ve also been told, however, “I don’t have time to take writing classes, but that’s okay because I already know how to write.”) As I’ve talked to more people who want to be published, this is what I’ve learned: a lot of people want to be published, but they don’t want to put in the work to get published. They don’t want to be patient, to work on their craft for years, and then to wait months for responses to their work. They just want to be published and they want it to happen quickly. And here’s the problem (and I apologize in advance for sounding like a curmudgeon): now anyone can be published. I’m talking Facebook, personal blogs, Twitter. These forums are great in many ways, but they also give people instant gratification. Post a photo of your cat on Facebook and within minutes you can get dozens of “likes.” Publish a piece in a print journal and you’re lucky if you even hear from one reader who enjoyed your story.

When I’m dealing with strangers who ask for publishing advice, I just stay positive, encouraging, but when I’m talking to my own students, I can be a little tougher. This is what I tell them: I think the first questions, the questions that should come before “How can I get published?” are “How can I get as good as I can possibly get as a writer?” and “How can I learn more?” I tell them not to worry too much about publishing yet; publishing is the very last step, and in some ways it’s the least important. Getting better is the most important. It’s certainly what I care about with my own writing. I think if I only cared about publishing I’d have given up by now because of all the rejections over the years. But getting better, well, that’s something I can do on my own, something I can keep working on. I can keep studying published stories and novels I admire, I can keep revising and editing my own work, keep pushing myself to do better.

VI: Tumble On

So some final words of advice about publishing: Be patient and be persistent. Keep working on your stories until they’re as strong as you can make them before you send them out. Don’t worry if you’re turning seventeen or twenty-seven or eighty-seven and you haven’t published yet. Let’s go back to the rock tumbler. Let’s turn it into a metaphor. Think of your stories as those rocks that go into the tumbler. They’re dull and dirty when they start, but give them time and steady attention and what happens? They go from rocks to gems. Don’t send your writing out until you’ve worked on it over and over again, scraping away what’s not working, polishing every sentence. Be patient, give yourself all the time you need, and don’t send your work out until it shines.

Photo at top left courtesy of Siena College.