Monday, June 18, 2018

Jacob M. Appel's Misguided Advice

In the first in a series of posts from authors of 2018 books entered for The Story Prize, Jacob M. Appel, author of The Amazing Mr. Morality (Vandalia Press), offers his worst possible guidance for writers.


One of the perks of publishing literary short story collections—alongside the secure income and ticker tape parade up Broadway—is the prerogative to offer aspiring authors unsolicited writing advice. Having been the beneficiary of such guidance in my youth, it seems only fitting that I now avail myself of the opportunity to share my own wisdom with others, whether or not they are interested in hearing it. In that spirit, here are eight highly misguided ideas guaranteed to derail your career in the book business.

1. Write about what you don’t know. The less you know the better, especially if your readers are highly familiar with the subject. Depict places you have never visited, cultures regarding which you have minimal understanding. For instance, a writer named Franz Kafka once wrote a novel (or part of a novel) called Amerika, about a continent he had never stepped foot upon, in which the Statue of Liberty carries a sword, rather than a torch, and a bridge connects New York to Boston. Who has ever heard of Franz Kafka?

2. Ignore basic rules of grammar and punctuation. These are tools of the oppressor, designed to impede communication and render the already challenging task of putting pen to paper all the more difficult. Admittedly, Molly Bloom’s dream sequence in the final fifty pages of Joyce’s best-selling Ulysses lacks a comma and a period here and there, but few readers make it that far anyway.

3. Never glorify untoward behavior. Or, at a minimum, exert discretion. Nobody minds the sixteen-year-olds marrying in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice or Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet, just don’t go all Nabokov on the reader and overdo it. Similarly, a subtle stalking novel in the spirit of Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is likely to appeal to our best selves.

4. Avoid talking animals, inanimate narrators, and above all, extended discussions of nineteenth-century whaling. The western canon has precisely room for three of the first (Orwell’s Animal Farm, Adams’s Watership Down, What’s-his-name’s The Metamorphosis), two of the second (Pamuk’s My Name Is RedShearman’s Tiny Deaths) and one of the third (Naslund’s Ahab's Wife). Don’t see your novel on the list? Well, it won’t be, because life is unfair—and publishing is like life, except owned by Germans.

5. Include a gun that does not go off. 
This is roughly Chekhov’s idea, although much easier for him because Tsarist Russia didn’t require handgun licenses. Dostoevsky does this brilliantly in The Idiot where, as readers may recall from the Wikipedia summary, Ippolit Terentyev, forgets to put the cap in his pistol before shooting himself.

6. Write in your second or third language. Doing so impresses agents and editors; if you don’t already speak a second or third language, it’s never too late to learn—the more obscure the better. Rosetta Stone Frisian only costs $199.99. For instance, as a native English speaker, Joseph Conrad would be hardly memorable—but knowing that he only spoke Polish into his twenties makes Lord Jim a rather entertaining party trick. (If that approach fails, take a page out of Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon: Have your girlfriend translate the manuscript and then misplace the original.)

7. Torment your darlings, but don’t kill them. J. M. Barrie tormented an entire family of Darling children in Peter Pan to great acclaim. The initial draft, in which Wendy, John and Michael Darling were massacred by pirates, fared poorly with focus groups.

8. Favor quirky antics and implausible coincidences. There lies a crucial difference between verisimilitude and reality. For instance, take the moment in Sterne’s Tristram Shandy when the title character urinates out a window is accidentally circumcised by the falling sash. I suspect most readers—or at least half of them—find themselves crossing their legs and reflecting, “Ah yes, that’s the human condition!”

Since this is all deeply misguided advice, I have ignored it—and look at the great fame and fortune that have been my reward. I was a household name in my grandparents’ house, before they died, which is more than Philip Roth or Toni Morrison could ever claim.

Saturday, March 3, 2018

Video of The Story Prize Event: Daniel Alarcón, Ottessa Moshfegh, and Elizabeth Strout (the Winner)

What the Judges Had to Say About Elizabeth Strout's Anything Is Possible

photo © Beowulf Sheehan
When the three judges for The Story Prize make their choices, they provide citations for the books. This year's judges were Susan Minot, Walton Muyumba, and Stephanie Sendaula. We include the citations in congratulatory letters we present to each finalist, along with their checks ($20,000 to the winner, $5,000 to the other two finalists). To protect the confidentiality of the judges' votes and the integrity of the process, we don't attribute citations to any particular judge.
“Elizabeth Strout is a bewitching writer. What does she do that is so stunning? Her stories are quiet and straightforward and then they thwack you on the back of your head. The intelligent prose is seemingly humble but elegant in its subtlety and enchanting in its overall effect. Her wit has such a sharp blade you barely feel it until after the slice. She is a specialist in the reticence of people, and her characters are compelling because of the complexity of their internal lives, and the clarity with which that complexity is depicted. It is a sublime pleasure to read her, whether she draws you into a relatively undramatic scenario or a situation in which the stakes are high. Elizabeth Strout weaves her tales gracefully and you don’t know how deep she is going until you are suddenly overcome. She makes you feel. And then she makes you think, about nothing less than who we are and how we live our lives.”

“Anything is Possible is one of those books that stays with you long after you've finished reading. Strout has a gift with words, allowing readers to immerse themselves in the lives of her rural Illinois characters. Each of them leaves a haunting and lasting impression, from the Barton siblings to the Nicely sisters. A worthwhile collection on love, loss, family, and the concept of home.”

Friday, March 2, 2018

What the Judges Had to Say About Ottessa Moshfegh's Homesick for Another World

photo © Beowulf Sheehan
When the three judges for The Story Prize make their choices, they provide citations for the books. This year's judges were Susan Minot, Walton Muyumba, and Stephanie Sendaula. We include the citations in congratulatory letters we present to each finalist, along with their checks ($20,000 to the winner, $5,000 to the other two finalists). To protect the confidentiality of the judges' votes and the integrity of the process, we don't attribute citations to any particular judge.
“Ottessa Moshfegh’s Homesick for Another World is hilarious and humane. In punchy, terse, sparkling sentences, Moshfegh creates fictional zones that span the globe—from Japan, China, Ukraine, New York, to California. She’s interested in human foibles that ‘translate’ across zones rather than identifying the local particulars of any place.

“Peopled by odd, beautiful, delusional characters, Moshfegh’s stories examine how humans attempt to dull their various anxieties, emotional and existential, with drugs, bad amorous arrangements, and wondrously debauched, disgusting (as one character puts it) sex. But none of this is cheap or tawdry. In Moshfegh’s hands, sex, sexuality, and sexual desire open the characters up, especially the men imagined here, for closer examination.

“Many of the women in these stories own their bodies forcefully, experiencing sexual pleasure as deeply private and personally empowering. But several men here, with embarrassing lack of self-awareness, tout their ‘beautiful’ bodies loudly or probe for sex inelegantly. Moshfegh burns open this masculine bluster with laser incisiveness, revealing its soft core: self-defeating self-aggrandizement. For the reader, these revelations will trigger out-loud laughter. But the author never mocks the characters in Homesick for Another World. Instead, Moshfegh delivers these truths with brilliant, stinging, ironic humor and sensitive care for her characters.”


What the Judges Had to Say About Daniel Alarcón's The King Is Always Above the People

photo © Beowulf Sheehan
When the three judges for The Story Prize make their choices, they provide citations for the books. This year's judges were Susan Minot, Walton Muyumba, and Stephanie Sendaula. We include the citations in congratulatory letters we present to each finalist, along with their checks ($20,000 to the winner, $5,000 to the other two finalists). To protect the confidentiality of the judges' votes and the integrity of the process, we don't attribute citations to any particular judge.
“Alarcón demonstrates mastery of a variety of narrative strategies, voices, and tones in these stories, which tackle issues of individual and national identity, displacement, and migration. His restless male protagonists seem self-aware but also remain somewhat mysterious at their core, often acting intuitively or passively accepting whatever befalls them, seemingly paralyzed by the choices they face while, paradoxically, actively seeking to reinvent themselves. Rich, subtle, and layered, The King Is Always Above the People is a beautifully written collection of great depth, cultural resonance, and lasting value.”

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Elizabeth Strout's Anything Is Possible is the 14th Winner of The Story Prize

photo © Beowulf Sheehan
We're pleased to announce that Elizabeth Strout's Anything Is Possible (Random House) is the winner of The Story Prize for books published in 2017. The other finalists this year were authors Daniel Alarcón for The King Is Always Above the People (Riverhead Books) and Ottessa Moshfegh for Homesick for Another World (Penguin Press). At the event at The New School, all three finalists read from and discussed their work on-stage. Strout received $20,000 and an engraved silver bowl. As runners-up, Alarcón and Moshfegh each received $5,000.

Congratulations to Elizabeth Strout and Random House!

In the days and weeks to come, we'll post the judges' citations for the three books, photos from the event and after party, and a link to the video.

Monday, February 5, 2018

Chalk Talk: The Story Prize Event on Feb. 28


Here's an advanced look at the program cover for The Story Prize event on Feb. 28, co-sponsored by the Creative Writing program at The New School. As always, everyone who attends will get an eight-page, full color booklet (designed by Steven J. Charny). You'll also get to see the finalists—listed on the faux bookstore chalkboard above—read from and discuss their work onstage before Julie Lindsey announces the winner.

Tickets are $14, available online (with a small added fee) or the night of the event at The New School box office (66 W. 12th St.). Also, bookseller McNally Jackson will be selling signed copies of the finalists' books.

We're excited about hosting Daniel Alarcón, Ottessa Moshfegh, and Elizabeth Strout and hope to see you there.