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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’?”

An Introduction, and then some things that are funny. . .

So, it’s a little strange to introduce yourself–you know, the awkwardness and limitations of the first person POV. I’ll make it short and sweet:

My name is Shannon O’Neill and I’m the brand spanking new social media director here at Failbetter. I’m a Taurus, I remember a world before the Internet and I’m currently pursuing an MFA here in Richmond, VA. Before my stint here in RVA, I was a Metro Detroit native,and remain a Midwesterner at heart.

Here is what I look like when I’m smiling:


I like to think of my role here as social media director as your cruise director on the SS Failbetter. Via this blog, Facebook and Twitter, I will help manage your activities and expectations (Example: “Have you seen the great new [story] [interview][poem] by [insert fantastic author name]?”), share the news of the day (Example: “Literature is dead, again?”), and will generally be the first to know things and disseminate said information in a fashion that might save your life.

Now, on to the promised funniness. Leave it to The Paris Review to keep the modern classic:


Off Donner!


Anyway that’s where we’re headed this Christmas – off. We’re hunkering down with a carton of smokes, and whatever we score from Loaded Santa. Back in the New Year, with… you know.

It’s Turkey time

We’ll be back November 29 December 6th, with more stuff.

Jacob Ouillette’s Brushstroke paintings…

…which we featured this past summer, are on view through next Saturday, November 26, at the Nancy Margolis Gallery, at 523 W. 25th Street, in Chelsea. Do stop by to see the “real things,” as it were.

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