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8Sep/11

Guess Who (Part 3)

Guess Who?This next writer is one whose name is not generally known to the reading public at large, but is fairly well-known within literary circles. This person founded a prominent literary magazine thirty years ago and continues to provide editorial oversight at that magazine today.

This person's work is dreadfully overworked and is crammed full of MFA-workshop writer tricks. You'll see indefinite articles dropped, you'll see forced metaphors, you'll see faux-drama, but you won't see anything that is actually interesting or impactful as a story in this person's writing.

This guy has published, co-authored and co-edited a whole bunch of books, and has won a heap of awards, including a Guggenheim Fellowship (200+ fellowships are granted annually, with and average award of approximately $40,000 for winners to spend as they see fit. Fellowships are meant to give winners the ability to spend time doing their creative thing, free from the pressures of their normal obligations. From Wikipedia: they are awarded to individuals “who have demonstrated exceptional capacity for productive scholarship or exceptional creative ability in the arts.”) and the O. Henry Prize, an award that’s given to a number of short stories each year.

Given this author's immersion in the literary world, and given the fact that others have seen fit to lavish praise upon his work, you’d want to believe that his stuff is pretty good, right? But it’s not. It’s terrible. (If you've spent some time at this site, you might have picked up on the fact that the stuff that wins awards and garners praise from the Lit Biz crowd is generally terrible.) He writes in the show-off self-conscious way of the MFA graduates that he teaches in classrooms and workshops. His stuff is overly showy and somehow at the same time, boring as hell.

From his website, the start of a story called “Gardener of Heart”: (1)

[Right from the title, this story is awkward. One wants this to read “Gardener of the Heart” not “Gardener of Heart.” When I think of a gardener, I think of someone who cultivates and harvests things, items, vegetables, crops, or flowers. The author is already showing off and trying to look like he’s more clever than I am, by making his gardener a person who gardens a character trait, not an object.]

I know that I have to die like everyone else, and that displeases me, and I know every human born so far has died except for those now living, and that distresses me and makes most distinctions... look false or absurd.
— Harold Brodkey

[The beginning quote is fine I guess, but it’s confusing.]

Despite the grief I felt as my train chased up the coast toward home,

[A chase is something that is impromptu, requiring adaptation of the chaser, based upon the actions of the chasee. Trains do not chase. In fact, trains run regular routes that run at regular intervals, the opposite of something that chases. The author is showing off by using the word “chase” to try to give more action to the train ridden by the narrator. But it's jarring, because this “chase” doesn't work as a metaphor for the train.]

I had to confess that after many years of self-imposed exile it might be strangely comforting to see the old town again, walk the streets where she and I grew up. Imagining the neighborhood absent its finest flower,

[Who talks this way, “absent its finest flower?” Is the narrator composing some kind of ode? No. In reading this story, it seems more like we’re listening in on the narrator's thoughts. Nobody—and I mean nobody—thinks to themselves thoughts that include “absent its finest flower.” And I can tell that I'm about to be very, very bored.]

its single best soul,

[Christ, that’s a bit dramatic, don't you think?]

was unthinkable. Yet it seemed that my visiting our various childhood haunts and willing Julie's spirit—whatever that is—a prolonged residence in each of these places would be salutary for her. And cathartic for me.

[See above note re: nobody thinks in terms of these kinds of words or phrases. Have you ever, in your life, used the word “salutary” in a sentence or a thought? I’m not saying that there isn’t a proper time and place for this word, but the language here is so self-conscious that it draws attention to itself, and in doing that, it draws attention to the writer, and away from the story being told.]

We had made a pact when we were young that whoever died first would try to stay alive in essence, palpably alive, in order to wait for the other. Death was somehow to be held in abeyance until both halves of our twins’ soul had succumbed.

[Kind of an over-used bit of symbolism, the twins thing. It can work, but in this story, the twins symbolism is meant to inject drama. You're supposed to think: “Not just siblings, but twins! Oh how heartbreaking!” when actually there's no emotional content to the sibling connection in the first place, so the fact that these two were twins adds absolutely nothing.]

Sure, we were kids, given to crazy fantasies. But the covenant still held, no matter how unspiritual, how skeptical I had become in the interim. Indeed, I had only the vaguest idea of what to do. Just go. Walk, look, breathe, since she could not.

For some reason, I could envision the mortuary home in radiant detail. A breathtaking late eighteenth-century neoclassical edifice of hewn stone, two imposing storeys surmounted by a slate roof and boasting a porch with fluted marble Doric columns. Huge oaks and horse chestnuts surrounded it where it perched on one of the highest hills in town which, aside from the steeples of local Presbyterian and Catholic churches that rose to almost similar heights, dwarfed everything if not everyone in their vicinity.

[Loads of description of the mortuary and surrounding town, description that does absolutely nothing to advance the story.]

To think that Julie and I, who grew up several doors down the block from this mysterious temple of death, used to love to climb those trees, play kickball on its velvet lawns, or hide in the carefully groomed hedges, peeping in the windows to giggle at the whimpering adults inside. What did we know. Crying was for babies and the unbrave,

[More showing off, the author has his adult character making up words. Kids make up words, sure, and maybe as a kid, this narrator made up words. But a kid wouldn’t need to make up a word here, in this context. There are plenty of natural words that a kid would use to describe someone who is not brave. Pussies, for one. Scaredy-cats, maybe, if you came from a particularly strict household. Note: this author also has a new book coming out called The Uninnocent. Awful title, right? He seems to like making up these clunky and unnatural words.]

Julie and I agreed. We laughed ourselves sick and pissing in the greenery, and now, as I imagined, she was lying embalmed, a formal lace dress her winding sheet, in the very wainscotted [sic] chapel whose many mourners gave us so much perverse pleasure to observe over the years of our youth.

[Three sets of alliteration in the same sentence! What master of the language is this? That was a little joke. There’s nothing wrong with using alliteration, but it stands out here and calls attention to itself, and away from the story.]

- - - - - - - - - -

The boring-ass story continues. The narrator is the deceased’s brother. We get more details about where the kids grew up, the nature of their family life (parents divorced, themselves never married), and a whole lot of description of their childhood surroundings. The narrator is, shockingly, a professor of Archaeology who attended, shockingly, an Ivy League college for undergraduate studies and Oxford for his graduate work.

Does it ever cross the mind of these writers to give their narrators a normal kind of background? Something that the majority of readers in the world might have in common? Maybe have a character be a high school or college athlete. Or maybe have them go to state school, or a community college, or maybe no college at all. Maybe they had to work an extra job sweeping up the hair salon or they took a part-time job as a bar-back at the local nightclub for extra cash. These people can’t think creatively, and when they do try to generate characters, they all have the same characteristics as each other, and usually share many characteristics with the author themselves. This author thought he was being creative by making his main character an Archaeology professor, not an English professor. That was his idea of “creative.” I would be shocked if this author didn’t have a few archaeology classes under his belt from his undergrad years—or from his graduate studies at Yale. (Why is it always Yale?)

- - - - - - - - - -

The story continues some more, but it’s still just all really boring. I challenge you to go to the author's site (the link is at the bottom of this post) and try to read “Gardener of Heart” all the way through, without taking any breaks. I couldn’t do it. I had to read the thing in sections, doing other things in-between sections to break up the monotony. Musings and memories of childhood and other scenes from the narrator’s past, and all in the self-conscious language of someone who has something to prove.

At the very end of the story, we get the inspiration for the story’s title:

Over the years from time to time, she'd referred to me as a gardener of stones, but that day she told me she thought I was a gardener of heart.

And now the title is even more confusing than I would have guessed before reading the story. I could maybe understand the parallel structure of transposing “gardener of stones” to “gardener of hearts.” But that’s not what the author chose to do here. He took us to this clunky “gardener of heart.” And it’s a confusing metaphor anyway, since a gardener typically uses the earth to grow his fruits and vegetables, and harvests the results of his labor from above ground. (Okay, you’ve got me on potatoes and carrots and onions, but in all gardening cases, the soil nurtures the growing plants, and its presence is required to perform that nurturing.) Quite apart from any gardener, the story’s narrator is an archaeologist who digs up soil and dirt to reveal long-buried artifacts under the surface.

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Bradford Morrow

Bradford Morrow

Bradford Morrow is today’s featured “Guess Who?” author. He is the guy who founded a literary journal called Conjunctions. (In fact, Morrow publishing “Gardener of Heart” in his own magazine. It's always nice to see an editor making room for their own work in their own magazines.) Conjunctions is one of the better-known literary journals and is generally known for its “experimental” content. He got that Guggenheim. He got that O. Henry. He got them both with the same kind of boring crap you just read above. Let me make this point very clear: Writers like Morrow draw attention to themselves and away from their stories when they resort to showing off in their writing, either by using unnatural vocabulary, lengthy passages of description that doesn’t serve any purpose in the story, overt displays of writing lessons learned (and taught, in Morrow’s case; he's a professor of literature at Bard College) in workshop, or any other writing device that signals: “Hey reader! I’m smart and I’m clever and I’m a writer and you should be impressed with what you’re reading here! Love me! Recognize my cleverness!!!!!”

It’s exhausting, reading this overwritten showy stuff, and it's boring at the same time. There are tons of writers out there who do this show-off overwritten stuff, and sadly, a whole lot of it gets published and it sometimes wins awards, which means that regular readers out there in the world are given to think that the award-winning stuff is the best stuff that’s available. Of course, that same regular reader is going to read any boring “Gardener of Heart” type story, hate it, and wonder why they didn’t “get it.” They might think to themselves: “I wasn't an English major, so maybe I can’t tell what’s good and what’s bad. But I sure didn't enjoy that story/book/novel.” While readers can’t be blamed for such thinking, it’s tragic that they doubt their own abilities to tell what’s good writing.

Regular readers can tell quality work from bad, and we need the voices of the regular readers to rise up and demand quality work from the publishing industry. Why isn’t the closing of Borders a huge skyscraper-sized sign that reads: PEOPLE DON’T WANT TO READ CRAPPY BOOKS ANYMORE. It wasn't the downfall of reading or of the book that got Borders into so much trouble. There is no downfall of reading or of the book. It was the reading public's lack of interest in the books that are published today. It’s not the format, it’s the content. But nobody in the publishing business sees it that way—they see reader tastes as fickle, and the shift of the entertainment industry to the internet and other “small screens” as a sign that readers don’t want to read anymore. But readers are not fickle. They do want to read—but they want to read good stuff, not this crap.

  1. “Gardener of Heart”, Conjunctions, Spring 2005; also appears on author's website.