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AWP 2014 Events Worth Checking Out

AWP 2014 kicks off tomorrow, and as a courtesy to our readers we’ve put together a selection of the conference’s can’t-miss events.

You’re welcome.

Why are you not famous yet?

Wednesday, 7:45pm Hall C

A group of authors younger than you flaunt their bank accounts and discuss their various awards.

The Memoir

Thursday 2pm Hall F

Published authors and experienced editors give advice on monetizing your terrible upbringing.

The art of the erotic novella

Friday 9am Conference Room 2

Obese shut-ins who make millions of dollars self-publishing pornography discuss artistic integrity and laugh like they’re hiding something. Towels will not be provided, so plan ahead.

An evening with Claudia Haines

Friday 7pm Hall 1

Claudia Haynes published a single poem in The Paris Review 28 years ago. Join her as she discusses her process and grouses bitterly about missed opportunities.

The value of an MFA

Saturday 1pm Hall C

Teams of MFA faculty and bloggers compete in a pie-eating contest to decide once and for all whether academic writing programs actually have merit.

20 years of Zenix!

Saturday 8pm Hall C

The publishers of Zenix! join a group of authors associated with the magazine in a frantic conversation that assumes you are familiar with the publication and exaggerates its importance in cultural history.

The world needs ditch diggers too: giving up the dream

Sunday, Noon Conference Room 3

Anyone ready to give up the dream is invited to meet with military recruiters and career counselors to discuss potential opportunities as either cannon fodder or substitute teachers.

Hemingway Drafts

Legend has it that when challenged to write a short story in just six words, Ernest Hemingway quickly came back with that well-known stunner that is widely acknowledged as one of the first examples of Flash Fiction. Recently unearthed documents, however, reveal that Hemingway actually slaved over multiple drafts of the short before unveiling it. Now, for the first time anywhere, Failbetter is proud to share these early drafts, which we believe give an unprecedented glimpse into Hemingway’s mind and creative process.

For sale, baby shoes I found.

Who buys their kid used shoes?

Damn kid was born sans feet.

I’m selling my dead kids shoes.

For sale: baby shoes, slightly burned.

Shit, these baby shoes are haunted!

Keep Warm with Books

Another winter storm means that once again schools and businesses are closed, your Facebook timeline is clogged with pictures of the Wal-Mart check-out line, and every single driver on the road is crying in one voice about the inadequacy of every single other driver. If you’re like me, there’s nothing you like more under such conditions than to snuggle up and keep warm with books. If that sounds good but you don’t know where to start, consider these suggestions…

The Poetry of Robert Frost

Think about how many poems have been written since Frost died in 1963. Millions, right? But we keep coming back to these. Isn’t it time we moved on? This book is pretty big—over six hundred pages—so it should burn for a while. And if you do end up having some sick urge to revisit a Frosty favorite later on, you can find anything he ever wrote for free online.

Anything by Charles Bukowski

Having some Bukowski around the house makes sense if you’re under the age of 23. If you’re older than 23, it’s time to admit that you only still have these out of sentimentality. We both know you’ll never read these things again, that if you tried you’d just blanche at how much meaning you used to find in the endless descriptions of sad old butts and hobo vomit. I say light ‘em up, whatever age you are. If you’re over 23 it’ll lighten the load next time you move, and if you’re under 23 it’ll maybe help you get your life together a little bit faster.

Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon

You will never get all the way through this. You’ll keep trying, sure. Every year or so you’ll say, this time I’m going straight through, and once again you’ll get to about page 150, right around where Slothrop is imagining getting sucked into a toilet or whatever, and you’ll put it aside. Torch it. Next year you can dedicate that reading time to something you might actually finish.

Alcoholics Anonymous: The Story of How Many Thousands of Men and Women Have Recovered from Alcoholism by Bill W.

This is another biggie, good for when the fire starts running a little low. You might have some hesitation about burning this one, I get that, but lets examine that hesitation. You really need some book telling you what to do? Having this dependency on a book, on these rigid rules and regulations, is that freedom? Because to me? That sounds like slavery. And anyway, what’s wrong with having a little fun from time to time? Sure, you maybe got a little out of control there for a while, but that was over a year ago. You know who needs rigid rules and regulations to keep their lives under control? Children. Are you a child? Or are you an adult, capable of deciding for yourself what’s right and what’s wrong?

So Far…by Kelsey Grammer

Kelsey Grammer’s memoir? Why do you have this? Did your doctor tell you that you would die if you didn’t get more exposure to smugness? Burn this and the books on either side of it on your bookshelf, just in case something leaked out and infected them.

Proposed Literary Remakes

The recent announcement that The Hogarth Shakespeare program has invited notable writers like Margaret Atwood to revise and update some of the Bard’s greatest hits signifies that the literary world is finally getting wise to what television and movies have known for years—you’ll never find an audience pushing anything new, you need to give people properties they’re familiar with, only dusted off just enough to feel fresh. We here at Failbetter pride ourselves on our willingness to hop on the bandwagon, and as such have prepared this list of proposed updates to some literary classics.


First of all, I feel like we can shave some pages off this sucker, right? I’m all for long books, I’ve read The Stand, but this thing is long as hell for a book about two guys walking around. And why are they walking around? What’s their motivation? I get the connection to the Odyssey, okay, but that’s so played out, isn’t it? What if instead Stephen and Leopold were sworn enemies, and they were in fact hunting one another through the streets of Belfast? I know the original takes place in Dublin, but moving it to Belfast lets us introduce an IRA angle, like maybe they were both involved in the struggle and one betrayed the other, and now it’s payback time. I’d keep the part where Bloom masturbates to that woman on the beach. If at that point we already know he’s a merciless killer, that’s going to make the reader really wonder what this guy is capable of.

The Great Gastby

Hm, let’s think…a super rich, super intense, super handsome guy obsessed with a beautiful woman who is easily dominated by strong personalities…what enormously successful recent bestselling trilogy does that remind me of…here’s an idea, let’s load in

a bunch of berserk S&M. As is, Gatsby is looking for Daisy to acquiesce with his take on reality and their shared history, so getting her gussied up with a bridle and all manner of clamps, we can call that a metaphor, right?


Swap the Mediterranean for Kabul, strip out all the humor. At the end, instead of escaping, Yossarian shoots himself in the head.  That should be about all it takes to net this one a National Book award, at least.

Portnoy’s Complaint

Cash in on the mania for dystopia by setting this in the far future, and changing Mary Jane ‘The Monkey’ Reed to some sort of sexual gratification robot. That’ll add some pathos to all the scenes where Portnoy is mean to her, because then it’ll be like, does she even have a soul? And also it’ll make some comment on consumerism, maybe, because he bought this sex robot but he kind of hates it. Add the words ‘A Parable’ under the title on the cover. People love that kind of thing.

The Catcher in the Rye

Young Holden Caufield never felt like he fit in…and on his eighteenth birthday, he finds out why when a letter from his mother reveals that Holden is in fact a werewolf. Not just any werewolf, though, for Holden is the fabled Lycan Prince, destined to guide his people to superiority over all life on Earth. Will Holden embrace his destiny, or will he discover that were-folk are just as phony as regular people?

War and Peace

Another big boy we can easily trim. Early on, there’s a scene where Pierre goes to a party and these rich guys are messing with a live bear chained to the wall…I say we run with that. Pierre rescues the bear, killing one of these rich guys in the process, and the two of them go on the run to escape punishment. Also, lets set this one in the future, too, so the bear can…maybe not speak conversationally, but it can talk just enough to make its opinions known. Have the bear occasionally comment on how great nature is to rope in the ‘Green’ crowd. I’m super tempted to say we should ditch the war angle and add in some kind of crazy plague, but the title is so iconic, it would be a real shame to lose it.

To Kill a Mockingbird

It’s tempting to set this in the future have the kids hunting one another for sport, but maybe this one we can leave alone. Some things are sacred.

Advice from the Editors

We decided to try something new here at Advice! If you have any questions about, well, anything tangentially related to literature in all its forms, books, or the search for meaning in life, love and letters, let us know!

For example, Have you ever wondered why all movies that feature writers tend to portray (us) them as neurotic, tortured, maniacal and/or curmudgeonly? And how is it possible that Ethan Hawke seems to embody all of these characteristics at once?  Then this is your forum!

Email Fiction Editor Tom Batten with your queries and we’ll try our best to get them answered:

Image courtesy of Felixco, Inc /

Image courtesy of Felixco, Inc /

Dear Failbetter—

I’m curious for your take on what’s probably the most pressing literary issue of the moment—what do you see as the future of the book?


Cynthia G.

Dear Cynthia—

Your question is a little vague so I’ll assume the book you’re asking about is George Eliot’s Middlemarch. For the next few decades Middlemarch will continue on much as it has in the past, read exclusively by English majors and shut-ins. Then, in 2035, Blue Ivy Carter will give the novel a new life when she names her firstborn son after the rogue John Raffles. Copies of Middlemarch will become a must-have fashion accessory (Dame Taylor Swift will appear at the Cyber-Grammys that year wearing a dress made entirely of pages torn from the first edition), and overprinting to meet demand will lead to widespread ecological collapse. We’re talking no more beavers, no more deer, no more owls…as for woodpeckers, don’t get too attached. By 2040… you know, I’m going to stop right there. In 2040 I’ll be 59 years old. Still young! But not that young.  If I have a child of my own this year they’ll be 27 in 2040. 27 was an all right age. Seems like I was 27 just yesterday, now I’m 32. And let’s be honest, I won’t be starting a family in the next year. You know why? Because I’m too busy fielding questions about the future of the book when I should be out there meeting people.  I tell you, I see these families walking around, parents my age, and I want to walk up to them and ask, How did this happen? What did you say or do to get what you have?

Cynthia, that’s a woman’s name.  Cynthia, I want you to feel free to write in with a question any time you have one, and maybe next time send a picture of yourself, too.


Dear Failbetter—

I’ve recently completed writing a trilogy of novels exploring a world where Ernest Hemingway faked his death in order to join an ancient society of vampire hunters. Do you think there is a market for something like that? Or should I do like my wife wants and ask for my old job at the foundry back?




I think your wife really nailed this one, buddy. If I were you I’d get back down to that foundry and beg beg beg until they put you back on the payroll. Tell you what, I’m feeling magnanimous today, so how about I go ahead and take the rights to the whole series off your hands. I’m going to go ahead and send you a check for…how about ten bucks? I’m taking a loss here but I want you to get something for your hard work and I think it’ll be easier for you to move on with your life if pushing ahead with this ridiculous idea is totally off the table. I’m going to have my lawyer go ahead and send over the contracts today. Make sure you sign them before I come to my senses. One question—is there a part where F. Scott Fitzgerald is the king of the vampires and he and Hemingway do battle across the 20th and 21st century?

For real, though. Sign those contracts ASAP


Dear Failbetter—

I’m trying to seduce a woman by appearing more intellectual and cultured and I need a little help…what’s a cool way to talk about poems?

Answer fast, she’s in the bathroom,



Really, talking about poetry almost never works. What you should do is find out more about her relationship with her father and work that…if he was withholding, be a little withholding. Maybe she never felt like he approved of her, suddenly you’re not so impressed either. That kind of thing. If you are dead set on the poetry angle, though, here are some quotes you might find handy…

Alexander Ducat wrote in 1963 that a poem is “a canister that when opened reveals infinite canisters.” In 1965 Shannon Cromwell wrote that poetry “Is the sea, the anchor, the sun; everything but the boat.” Jay Sturges, moments before being executed for treason in 1971, told an Army chaplain that he had no regrets, for “regrets are for lesser men, and I am a poet. A poet takes his regrets and folds them into airplanes that he launches ceaselessly into the sun.” In 1996, poet Amala Ford told an audience in Tom’s River New Jersey that “poetry is neither the penis nor the vagina, but the friction.”

Now look, I don’t know what any of that means (except for the last one, sort of) but it doesn’t matter because she won’t either and if you act like everything you’re saying makes perfect sense she’ll be too embarrassed to admit she’s not following you. Then it’s off to the races.


Esteemed Fiction Editor, Tom Batten

Authors, Pets, Inspiration!

So, not exactly news, but  the always interesting Brain Pickings has an interesting post about the important role pets play in the life of famous authors. As a struggling writer, I am personally enjoying my dog barking loudly and with fury at our neighbor coming in to the apartment across the hall for the fifth time this evening. Never mind that we have lived her for three years and my dog should know better. He’s cute and he’s he is always willing to watch whatever is on TV without argument.

So, some firsthand knowledge of this author-pet love: 1. When I visited Lord Byron’s home we saw a huge tomb, raised on a pedestal, near to the gigantic Byron mansion and I thought, “Oh, that must be his mother or father.” Closer inspection proved that no, it was for his dog.  And, 2. When I went to Key West, I saw a lot of roosters wandering around, but I am told that Hemingway’s cats (six-toed and eccentric as the Key itself) are also wandering around.


My personal theory is that authors and writers need pets not just for companionship when you spend your “writing time” staring out a window but also to allow for more procrastination (see: “I can’t start this chapter until I take the dog for a walk.”)

So, enjoy some light reading about authors and their pets. Who knew  Charles Dickens had a pet raven?

Paper Lives!

In the midst of big news that has to do with paper (like, oh, Amazon buying Goodreads) it’s always fun to inject some light into the argument.

While we are forever debating (and reading about) whether or not we are reading more less these days, leave it to the French to have a witty response to our constant digital vs. paper argument:

Paper Isn't Dead

Marlin Barton Talks Novellas

Who better to discuss the form than an author who has just published his last novella excerpt? Read Part 3 of “Playing War” here

What’s in a Name? A Few Thoughts on the Novella / By Marlin Barton

Though Katherine Anne Porter wrote three of them, “Old Mortality,” “Noon Wine,” and “Pale Horse, Pale Rider,” she hated the term. She preferred the phrase “long story” to “novella.” I’m not sure why. There’s a kind of beauty in the sound of the word itself, I think. Maybe that’s one reason I prefer it. Sometimes one hears the word “novelette,” which sounds downright silly to my ears, and as the writer Lou Mathews pointed out in remarks for Failbetter upon the publication of his novella “The Irish Sextet,” it sounds as if it could be the name of a girl-group from the early ’60s, The Novellettes.


So what do we call these things, and how do we define them? We can agree they’re longer than short stories and shorter than novels. But how much does that really tell us? If you look up novella contests on-line, you’ll find guidelines that vary from 40 to 150 pages and word lengths from 10,000 to 42,000 and more. There are simply no easy answers, and I’d suggest that is part of their appeal for writers. They have a kind of in-betweenness to them, an elasticity. They live in that gray area, and isn’t that where fiction writers live, too, and not in the black-and-white world of easy answers for life’s questions, moral, artistic, or otherwise?

Since their word length, and even what we want to call them, can be difficult to pin down, maybe there’s something about their content, or even intent, that can help us decide what they are. I’ll offer a few thoughts, my two cents, which may be about what these remarks are worth since all writers have to decide for themselves what they’re creating and how they want to define their creations. When I began to envision my novella (there, I’ve said the word), “Playing War,” which Failbetter has been kind enough to publish (and which is probably on the short side at 21,000 words and 68 manuscript pages), I knew it would be longer than my typical twenty-page story, and it seemed that it might have a more complex plot and maybe even a greater emotional, and moral, complexity than what I normally attempt in a short story—if I could achieve what I intended. Of course, I also hoped that I didn’t know already everything that would happen in the story I wanted to tell. I wanted to explore the characters and their situation and see what I might discover. I thought it might run 100 manuscript pages or so. Turned out a bit shorter, but I do think it has a more complex plot than any story I’ve written, perhaps more than most “typical” stories, and I hope maybe even a greater emotional and moral complexity than a typical story, or at least for one of my stories. Of course, many writers and readers will say now that even a short, short story (or sudden fiction, or flash fiction—what do we call these things?)  can have great moral and emotional complexity. Layers of complexity do not belong only to the novella. So here we are again, trying to define something that can’t be defined. I say we simply celebrate its in-betweenness, realize that when we can’t easily categorize a piece of fiction, we may just have a novella on, or in, our hands. And while novellas, due to their length, can be as difficult to place in print journals as they are to define, the good news is that with the now widespread availability of on-line literary journals likeFailbetter, print space is no longer an issue, which opens up all kinds of avenues for a literary form that encompasses writers from Conrad to Porter to contemporaries such as Michael Knight and Cary Holladay, and maybe to you too, if you might be so inclined to find your way into such a slippery form.

The Bell Jar or Chick Lit?

One of these images is just as hellacious as the other:

1. The Carnival Triumph “cruise from hell’ that left passengers drifting in the Gulf of Mexico with backed up plumbing and no AC, forced to erect tent villages on the deck:


2. The 50th anniversary cover of Sylvia Plath’s “The Bell Jar.”


You may wonder how these things are connected.  Allow me to elaborate: When I was seventeen, I went on a Carnival Cruise, it was a nightmare—like a floating Denny’s sans good fried breakfast options. While on the cruise, I read “The Bell Jar.”

Yes, that was me, the pale looking girl sitting on a lounge chair curled up with one of the most devastating memoir/fictions of the 20th century.  While I did think it a bit of a downer, it was not nearly as disturbing as the amount of vomit I encountered in public places on the Celebration on a daily basis. In the midst of my own teen angst and “cruise hell,”  I related to Esther’s character in a number of ways and remember thinking “If she were alive today, she would have been okay.” True? Who knows.  What I do know is that if she were alive today, she would be pretty P.O’d at the 50th anniversary cover chosen for her book.

Galley Cat has done a nice job of compiling the best of the parody covers here


They said what?

I attended one of my first literary award dinners this past weekend. I will not bore you with the details of which famous author’s hand I got to shake or details of the other guests at my table, aside from saying that the odd assemblage of said characters bluster was reminiscent of a zany Preston Sturges film. While a fine time was had by all, I walked away (albeit slowly in ill-chosen “black tie appropriate” stilettos) wishing that I had a better sense of what the nominated books were about. The one to two line critical praise and author bios did little to pique my interest beyond my silent vow to Google the authors later. Four days later and no Googling or book purchasing has taken place. Damn the middle(wo)man.

That said, I was very excited to see that our friends over at GalleyCat have done the heavy lifting for the lazy reader who lurks inside all of us by assembling links to free samples of the PEN 2012 Literary Award winners works.

Speaking of lazy readers and the kind souls that connect us to our books, feel like a superior reader after checking out the Christian Science Monitor’s chuckle-worthy list of strange bookstore customer comments. A personal favorite: “I’m looking for some books on my kid’s summer reading list. Do you have ‘Tequila Mockingbird’?”

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