Scribbler’s Ghost Story Contest

V0040287 A young woman is sitting in a chair reading a story which ha Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images A young woman is sitting in a chair reading a story which has made her nervous. Engraving by R. Graves after R.W. Buss. Published: - Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0

It’s autumn, and along with the onset of football, the chafe of new backpacks, and the sweet-sickly aroma of pumpkin spice lattes, you may sense a slight — a very slight — chill in the air. That chill signals the approach of Scribbler’s 2015 Ghost Story Contest. Those who wish to enter have 40 days to plumb the slanting hallways and dank basements of the psyche and return with a submission following the guidelines below. This contest is open to anyone in the St. Louis area: members of the Scribblers group current and former, readers of this blog, and/or misanthropic recluses on the ghostly margins of existence. The full details are below.

  1. The ghosts can be actual or metaphorical. Your story should have some kind of spooky presence in it, whether in the space of the story itself or the mind of one of its characters. Points will be given for original handling of the concept.
  2. Stories should be no longer than 1000 words (approximately 4 pages double-spaced) and should be submitted to no later than 11:59 pm on Saturday, October 31, 2015.
  3. Please include a title for your story, but do not put your name on it. This will allow us to have a blind and anonymous judging process.
  4. Stories will be democratically judged by the attending members of the writing group at our meeting on Monday, November 2.
  5. The winning story will be published on this blog and the winning writer will receive a $25 gift card to Subterranean Books in the Delmar Loop. Winning writer will retain all rights to the work; Scribbler claims first publication rights only.

(Disclaimer: Scribbler, the blog or the associated writing group, and Central Library — which has its own ghost to deal with–will bear no responsibility for any damage caused by this Ghost Story Contest, whether the damage is physical or psychic. Participants enter at their own risk. Please direct any questions to Eric at

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Racial Justice in a Post-Ferguson World: Selected Works



Next week, on September 9, Central Library will be hosting the conversation “Racial Justice in a Post-Ferguson World.” To support this important conversation, Scribbler offers an extremely partial, highly subjective selections of books we have read recently that approach the topic from a literary angle. For a much more extensive list, please visit the Black Lives Matter reading list at Left Bank Books (PDF format), or the St. Paul Public Library’s Resources on Race.


Citizen, Claudia Rankine (Graywolf, 2014)

Among the most-acclaimed literary works of 2014, Rankine’s timely exploration into race in America works on both the macro and micro levels, exploring broad historical topics such as Hurricane Katrina and the death of Trayvon Martin as well as a series of unsettling, hurtful encounters or “microaggressions” in the life of an unnamed narrator. Rankine’s work is an experiment in both form and perception, compelling the reader to re-examine her perceptions and language. Rankine will lecture at Graham Chapel as part of Washington University’s Assembly Series on Monday, September 21.


Annotations, John Keene (New Directions, 1995)

One of the most underappreciated short novels about St. Louis, Keene’s reconstruction of a black childhood on the north side of the city and in west county is a poetic, beautifully complex work. Keene ranges from abstract speculation to wondrously specific recall: he remembers “Brick houses uniform as Monopoly props lined the lacework of street for miles.” A book both about the past and the writing of the past, this is not so much a childhood memoir as a series of notes toward that memoir, and much of the book’s richest material is in its footnotes, as Keene elaborates on his allusions to Scott Joplin, Chatillon-Demenil, Carondelet, and others, filling out his portrait of the city he calls “a minefield of myth and memory.”


In the Midst of Loving, Cheeraz Gormon (Alchemy 7, 2014)

Emerging from the St. Louis spoken word scene, Gormon’s collection of love poems, fourteen years in the making, is inspired by “her deep passion for humanity and issues affecting various communities.” She explores topics such as urban violence, gentrification, self-image, and grief, while showing the many different forms that love can take. The final pages of the book, left blank for the reader to include her thoughts, highlights the engaging and collaborative nature of her project. You can watch a video of Gormon reciting her excellent poem “Who Moved My Memories” — based on the disappearance of her grandfather’s house in North St. Louis — at the 2012 TEDx Conference in St. Louis.


How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America, Kiese Laymon (Bolden, 2013)

“I thought of the essays as tracks,” Laymon writes in the preface to his essay collection, six years in the making. “I thought of some of the pieces in the book as songs with multiple voices and layered musicality. I thought of ways to bring the ad lib, riff, collaboration, and necessary digression to the page. I wanted a book that could be read front to back in one sitting. I wanted to explore the benefits and burdens of being born a black boy in America without the predictable literary rigidity.” Laymon achieves all of these goals in a propulsive, raw, and hugely pleasurable collection, including poignant portraits of relatives, accounts of campus racial politics in Mississippi and Oberlin, Ohio, and hot takes on Kanye West, Michael Jackson, Bernie Mac, among others. The essay “You Are the Second Person,” exploring the author’s struggle to publish a “non-commercial novel” in the absurd world of corporate publishing, and the magnificent title essay, are alone worth the price of admission.


Sula, Toni Morrison (Knopf, 1972)

While Morrison’s work will be familiar to most readers, it’s sometimes easy to forget how strange, hallucinatory, and darkly funny her work can be. Set in a Ohio community called “The Bottom” that is actually at the top of a river valley, above the white community in the town of Medallion below, Morrison’s wonderful novel is a both a reminder of the resilience of black communities throughout American history and an act of protest. Featuring a character who celebrates “National Suicide Day,” a trio of feral children called the Deweys, and a mysterious white man called Tar Baby, Sula is part family chronicle, part horror movie, and a magical account of a community’s tribulations and underlying strength.

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A Bookstore, A Lost Customer, An Open Letter

By now, if you live in the 314 area code at least, you’ve probably already seen this blog post by Left Bank Books co-owner Jarek Steele. With hundreds of shares on Twitter and thousands more on Facebook, it easily surpasses Scribbler’s modest conception of “viral.”

In case you missed it, Jarek’s post is an eloquent response to a customer’s anonymous note informing the store that it has lost his/her business. The customer was offended by a window display at Left Bank commemorating the one-year anniversary of Michael Brown’s shooting in Ferguson. The display is pictured below.

(N.B.: I was in the store last week when a woman came in off the street and asked in a disgusted tone “what those signs are.” I like to think that I was present at the moment that the now-famous anonymous letter was conceived, but I guess we will never really know.)


The nature of white privilege — and the related question of how to be an ally to the growing civil rights movement in America in 2015 — are notoriously thorny and contentious issues to approach. For my money, Jarek Steele (with an assist from his partner in business and life, Kris Kleindienst) does this with insight, thoughtfulness, and humility. It’s hard to select a favorite quote from this excellent post, but here’s a crucial passage:

We are privileged to be able to apply for a job, go to college, drive, shop, run through the park, own a firearm, barbecue, apply for a driver’s license, throw a party, swim and be angry in public without representing all white people when we do it.  We don’t have to be the BEST athlete, the RICHEST musician, the MOST POWERFUL leader in the free world, the SMARTEST student in the class to justify our place in sports, music, politics and school.

We live ordinary lives and occasionally some of us do extraordinary things, and our lives matter and our right to our dignity is hard coded into our social pact. The pedigree of all of those things is present and unspoken.

As my partner, Kris said – White privilege is really permission to be ordinary.

These are privileges might’ve refused if we had been asked, privileges we don’t feel like we have, resent having, or resent having to defend ourselves because of.  But those privileges are still ours.  We’re stuck with them.

What I wish I could convey – white person to white person – is that Black Lives Matter does not mean White People are Bad.  It never did.  Saying someone matters does not mean that nobody else matters.  It just says to someone who feels invisible, “I see you and I value you.”

If you haven’t yet, please take a few minutes to read the whole thing and reflect–wherever that reflection might leave you. I already had many reasons to feel proud of being a Left Bank Books customer, but their courage and integrity in this difficult period for the city (and the nation) is truly inspiring. I may even have to buy a few more books than I usually would this month to show my support. We all have to make sacrifices.

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I Spent Approximately Two Hours at a Romance Writers’ Convention (and Obsessed About It)


2:30 PM — Invocation

It is a scorching and bright July afternoon in St. Louis, and I’ve been released for the afternoon to attend a convention called Penned Con, which is being held nearby at the St. Louis City Center Hotel (which I’m going to call the Sheraton for economy’s sake). I am very familiar with this ten-minute walk because the hotel is right by the Metrolink station. To our right is the Scottrade Center which hosts St. Louis Blues hockey games; in the winter it features a large curbside grate that expels warm air, and there are usually two or three people sleeping or warming themselves on it.

There is no one on the grate today. It would be much nicer to lie down on the frozen hockey rink. There are no trees anywhere and there is something harsh and inquisitorial about the sunlight.

I am out here because the library received four complimentary tickets to Penned Con. Central Library’s director forwarded them to me with the typically witty quip that it sounded like “a convention for prison writers.” No one’s quite sure what Penned Con is at the library. This may be why I’m the only one going. Romance is what I’m thinking, because Penned Con culminates with a masquerade ball, and because of this program description:

Friday 12:15-1

Panel: Husbands of Authors 101 Find out what REALLY happens behind the scenes with the men who know your favorite authors best.

Husbands TBA

By the way, I am a writer of literary fiction. My latest and only novel is ranked #769,114 in Amazon’s Kindle Store.

2:40 PM — Lobby

The Sheraton is a pretty cool place. It was originally built as a J.C. Penney warehouse circa 1929. There’s a trompe l’oeil facade on the building with pointed obelisks and a depiction of Justice and some decorative arches that makes it look like there’s a hotel painted on the hotel.

There are no exterior signs of the convention but I see a group of women in badges getting on the elevator and figure I’m probably on the right track. There’s a concierge in the lobby whose face lights up when I tell him what I’m looking for. “The book convention?” he asks, and he’s either very happy that I’m attending Penned Con, or finds it secretly hilarious, I can’t tell. “Thirteenth floor,” he says. Tridecaphobes beware: not only does the Sheraton have a thirteenth floor, but they host conventions on it.

2:42 PM — On the Red … Coat

I approach the registration desk with trepidation. Having only recently submitted my request for a free librarian ticket, I am not very confident that they will have my name on file. Also, I did not get the chance to shower this morning, which is beginning to seem like a bad decision given the heat. In my scraggly, sweaty state, I’m probably looking indistinguishable from a rando off the street who attacked a librarian and stole his badge.


Somehow I also forgot to bring my new Adult Services Provider business cards. There’s a kind of small guild joke among A.S.P.s about how sleazy our job title sounds. These beauties have been literally months in the making and somehow I left my desk without grabbing some to take to the romance writers’ convention.

They do not have my name on file, but not only does the Penned Con staff quickly furnish me with a conference badge and a tote bag containing the official program, free swag, and a flash drive of free sample e-book downloads; I am quickly taken to meet Rick of Red Coat PR who brings me to meet his wife Amy, a mythological and fantasy romance novelist (Kindle rank #32,429). They are the organizers of this event. We talk briefly but enthusiastically about putting together a librarian panel for next year’s Con.

Red Coat PR is called such because Rick is British — not because Rick is my enemy or that he’s going to betray me, as I think for a paranoid split second. He is in fact very nice and his accent … well it’s mellifluous, everyone agrees. He gives me at least three of his excellent, rounded, pleasingly textured Red Coat PR business cards, and I scribble down my email on a piece of torn notebook paper.

Thus concludes the only conversation I will have in my two hours at Penned Con.


2:55 PM — Against the Grain

I step into a panel called “Against the Grain Open Q & A.” The program describes it as being about “what readers feel about killing favorite characters, happy endings, cliffhangers, bucking trends, smexy* scenes, writing for shock value and more.”

At the moment I walk in the panelists are agreeing that cliffhangers should make readers want to buy the next book in the series. Not an idea that will seriously trouble the Grain, but still a solid insight, and one that illuminates a key fact about Penned Con: pretty much every author here seems to have at least one series going. (One author with both a mystery series and a paranormal romance series is not unusual: it’s actually quite unfair to call Penned Con a romance convention, but romance does seem to be the most common element across the many sub-genres.)

As a marketing/PR novice, this strikes me to be as the closest thing to rock-solid beginner advice in the genre: get started on your series. Even in the literary realm, the multi-volume opuses of Elena Ferrante and Karl Ove Knausgaard have been moving units in translation, a symptom of what has been dubbed the “box set effect.”

There’s a slim Asian woman on the end of the panel (paid Kindle rank unknown, but probably pretty high, I missed the introductions and her name isn’t listed in the program). She has done both romantic series and steamier erotic series. She says that “there’s a market for the more romantic stuff, but not like the steamier ones.” She also has this endearing quality of being unable to swear out loud, even though there seems to be plenty of swearing and much, much else in her books, which I hope are on the flash drive.

(N.B.: this woman is one of two people of color I see at the Con. On the whole there is a really pleasing democratic feel to the proceedings here, but Red Coat PR could work on bringing more diversity to the table and expanding their reach into urban fiction and romance. We move a ton of this stuff at the library: e.g. Joy Deja King’s Female Hustler: All I See is The Money … (#105,353)).


The final question of the “Against the Grain” panel asks about the hardest authorial choices the panelists have made. They all give pretty interesting answers. These authors have a very vital, intimate, complicated bond with their readerships, I realize, so that these choices are not just artistic risks but personal ones — with each new plot twist and character development they’re gambling, in a sense, with their readers’ love. That is a lot to put on the line.

Meanwhile, and I’m not quite sure how this happens, but one of the panelists (name, Kindle rank unknown) launches into a long and tearful monologue about her late grandmother and a lost high school friend. The pain is undoubtedly real but there’s also something treacly and fabricated about the monologue. It’s like trompe l’oeil emotion, laid on too thick. The moderator even looks a bit nonplussed as she leads us in one of those weak rounds of forced applause, because everyone feels awkward and needs to do something with their hands. The lone male panelist, Eric Asher (#5,762), passes his colleague a big stuffed frog that may be raffled off later, and this confirms the overall impression that Asher is a cool guy, a sport. It is undoubtedly a classy move by Asher, who has a trilogy going.

I leave still feeling testy and manipulated. Maybe I am just a dick.

“I didn’t expect it to get so emotional in there,” the woman behind me says. I feel a surge of gratitude toward her. I wonder if she has an escort to tomorrow night’s masquerade ball.


Confessional Interlude — Outside Author Signing Room

There is no way to finesse the fact that I am a book snob. In my younger, even snobbier days, I once said to my brother: “This might sound pretentious, but I don’t like to read bestsellers. I will read a bestseller, but only years after everyone has stopped reading it. When it comes to books, I just don’t want to have the same experience everyone else is having.”

“Um, that definitely sounds pretentious,” my brother replied.

Many, I am tempted to say most, of the featured authors at Penned Con are USA Today and New York Times bestsellers. I expected to see some but not so many. It’s an open secret that the robust sales of romance and other genre fiction titles subsidize other genres, such as literary fiction, that sell far fewer copies. In some sense, I owe my career, such as it is, to writers I’ve never heard of or read, such as A.M. Hargrove (#68,573) and Denise Grover Swank (#170 and Penned Con’s keynote speaker). Actually I should probably read them if they are included on the free flash drive, because they’re clearly onto something.

People love these books. Okay, mostly women love these books, but something like 70-80% of all fiction readers are women, across all genres. Penned Con authors often have like 400-500 customer reviews on Amazon, and very high average star ratings. (I don’t even have the energy to check Goodreads.) This level of reader engagement and support is almost inconceivable to me — I think I would find it almost paralyzing. There is a tangible sense of the closeness of readers and writers at Penned Con, but also the sense that being in this room together is only the physical culmination of an ongoing closeness through books and online. This is, in other words, a real community.

3:30 PM – Author Signing Room

This does not really explain or justify my failure to negotiate the Author Signing Room. This is pretty much just garden-variety social anxiety taking over. The Signing Room is dense and intense. Picking up the trompe l’oeil theme from outside, the wallpaper in this room is covered in very three-dimensional looking arched white ribbons. The overall effect is like being packed inside a towering wedding cake with fifty romance novelists.

I take a quick look around but, aside from admiring the booth designs — I mean there are jewels and little rock quarries and synthetic strewn rose petals among other things, a real step up from your typical booth at AWP — I realize I’m just not going to make it very long in here. I am a little dizzy, and the books all look like they’re underwater somehow, so although I intend to linger and speak to an actual romance novelist about the convention hustle, and get some speculation going about tomorrow night’s masquerade ball, I’m more or less viscerally compelled to get out of there. This is what I do.

I feel like I have failed all four readers of Scribbler, especially my mom.


3:45 PM — The Lesson of Wallbanger

The day’s last session and things are getting a little loopy and impromptu by this point. However, this panel features three of Penned Con’s marquee authors, Alice Clayton (#2,984), Denise Grover Swank (probably #100 by now), and Aleatha Romig (#2,628), so they have it set up in a big ballroom on the thirteenth floor of the Sheraton.

The ballroom is about 1/4 full with the audience clustered close to the raised platform where the three panelists sit at a draped table. Looking to keep a low profile myself, I find a chair about fifteen rows back in the deserted middle-back of the room, only to find that I have inexplicably seated myself in the same row as one of the few other dudes at this conference. He wears a Cardinals cap and a light beard and pokes irritably at his phone. I like to think he is perhaps a stray husband from the earlier panel “Husbands of Authors 101.” What kind of guy attends Penned Con? Including legit authors like Eric Asher, there seem to be about ten men total. There was another older man in a gray blazer lurking around the Author Signing Room — maybe a publisher or an editor. I haven’t seen many publishers at the Con, which seems to be mostly free of middle-men.

The answer to this question would seem to be: “You. You are the kind of guy who attends Penned Con.” And possibly my friend here. We’ve set up at a wary distance from the panelists, but my friend and I have made a miscalculation. Up close to the stage, it is dim and anonymous, but the row where we are sitting, while further back, seems to be directly illuminated. It occurs to me that, from the panelists’ vantage, there are about one hundred obscured female heads and then two male ones, caught like perverts in searchlight. Oh, never mind: when I turn to look for my companion, he has retreated into the shadows.

Alone under the spotlight, I have a stray egotistical fantasy. Someone gets out of their chair and says: “He’s not just a librarian, he is the author of a critically acclaimed literary novel.

Just then, Red Coat PR Rick takes the stage. He is filling in for the scheduled moderator, he explains. The authors all seem to know Rick quite well (possibly from the UK Author Tour Red Coat PR has also organized) and they make mildly flirtatious jokes about his British accent. Rick proceeds to read a list of questions, the source is unclear, but I assume they come from the public, from readers.


Rick’s one substantial aside as moderator is about how busy authors are: they must be “their own CEO, their own CFO,” he says. He basically seems to view writing as a small business venture and this doesn’t seem to raise any hackles among the panelists or the audience. When I think about the fact that this is all taking place in an old J.C. Penney warehouse, it seems kind of appropriate, actually.

Two of the panelists, Alice Clayton and Aleatha Romig, trace the origins of their writing back to the recession. Clayton speaks about how her income was cut in half every year for several years until she had to sell her house. Romig began writing during a period when her husband lost his job; she wrote in the late hours after working full-time as a dental hygienist. “It was the one aspect of my life I could control,” she says. Denise Grover Swank’s ad in the Penned Con program strikes a similar theme: “I keep my sanity by creating characters to talk to and worlds to live in,” it reads.

The day’s best writing advice definitely comes from Alice Clayton, who talks about showing her first book — originating as a Twilight fan fiction called Edward Wallbanger — to a prominent, unnamed romance novelist. The writer told Clayton that she had to introduce the hero in the first chapter; in Clayton’s book, the hero did not even appear until Chapter 4. “But that’s the whole thing that makes my book unique!” she says. “My heroine spends the first three chapters of the book hearing him bang some other chick through the wall!”


Trust your instincts, in other words, and don’t let yourself be penned in by convention. The point has never been so vividly illustrated. There’s a nice payoff too: Wallbanger‘s success has allowed Clayton to buy a new house. When she says this, the whole crowd applauds, no prompting necessary this time.

Denise Grover Swank (surely approaching #50) casually offers a virtuoso dissection of Amazon and Kindle and Kindle Unlimited, the ways she uses them, and the limitations of the site (“Amazon is not your friend, they are doing what’s good for them”) while also being kind and nonjudgmental toward the many Kindle users in the crowd. She is an almost industrial-level producer of series, and casually refers to her free Kindle titles as “loss leaders,” but somehow she doesn’t sound smarmy while saying this, just like a smart woman who makes sound business decisions.

Aleatha Romig adds, at one point: “I’m a writer now. I used to write orthodontic prescriptions. That’s what I wrote.” There is a defiance about her: she tenses up when recounting the slighting remarks of relatives and friends, and you can tell that she’s still fighting these battles in her head, despite all of her success. There is an air of total determination about her. “I just want to become a better writer,” she says. “I want to get better with every book.”

I truly believe that she will.

4:55 PM

There are some raffle prizes being given away, including a Kindle Fire, but a Kindle Fire holds no interest for me. The words have always reminded me too much of Fahrenheit 451. I’m half-tempted to enter the raffle for the big stuffed frog that Eric Asher deployed for comforting purposes at Against the Grain, but my wife says our stuffed-animal menagerie has reached its limits.

I don’t even get a picture, unfortunately. Sorry, mom.

On the way down the elevator with four or five other Con-goers, the doors open to admit a new passenger, and get stuck, continuing to open and re-open. Someone says: “Getting to know you guys way too well.” Everyone is relieved when the doors finally close, and we are once again enclosed.

As we descend, I pretend, for a moment, that I am Denise Grover Swank, watching my Amazon ranking rise toward #1. Then I take heart in the lesson of Wallbanger: just do what you do. Be yourself. There is an inevitable discomfort when your dream is turned into a product: it’s okay. I still don’t know what “smexy”* means, but I’m not sure that I need to know. I head back out into the heat, the sultry heat.


* – These Kindle rankings are highly unscientific and shoddily researched, based on highest easily available ranking of a recent title. They are here to illustrate a larger point. My Kindle rank was #769,114 at the time of this writing, and has begun a steady descent toward #800,000. Literally every single person mentioned in this article is outselling me, often exponentially.

* – Not a typo. “Smexy,” according to the Urban Dictionary, can mean “smart and sexy,” or just “super sexy,” and can be used in a sentence in the following way: Chris is a smexy guy — he’s got straight As and he’s ripped! I am still not 100% clear on what would constitute a “smexy scene,” though. We may have to wait for the editors of the OED to sort this out, or at least until next year’s Penned Con.

For actual, legit, quality reporting from St. Louis Penned Con 2015, and pictures of the real masquerade ball, please visit Eva Pohler and For the Love of Books & Alcohol.

The very kind Rick and Amy Miles of Red Coat PR generously donate part of their earnings from Penned Con to Action for Autism, a St. Louis-based nonprofit which is dedicated to helping children on the autism spectrum find resources to improve their lives.

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Novel Feelings: Rachel Greenwald Smith on Emotion and US Fiction

Here at Central Library we’ve recently received our copy of Affect and American Literature in the Age of Neoliberalism, the first book by Rachel Greenwald Smith, an assistant professor at St. Louis University. It was published by the prestigious Cambridge University Press this past spring. The title is a mouthful, printed in caps on the funereal all-black jacket, but don’t let that fool you: from what I’ve read so far, this looks to be a compelling and accessible work that explores a fascinating topic: the nature of the feelings that literature evokes, and how those feelings relate to the political and natural climates around us.


(Woman Reading, c. 1930. Seattle Municipal Archives)

The book has a provocative thesis: Greenwald Smith builds an argument against what she calls the “affective hypothesis,” namely the idea that we read fiction because it allows us to identify with the personal experience of other individual human beings — the basic trope of “sympathizing with characters” — a process that makes us more empathetic, and teaches us how to become better individuals ourselves.

(It has been interesting to read parts of Affect and American Lit alongside Robert Silverberg’s 1972 novel Dying Inside, which chronicles the erosion of a telepath’s powers. Protagonist David Selig’s telepathy is an obvious metaphor for fictional creation, but the book finds those powers failing: a midlife crisis novel with a supernatural glow, and one that acknowledges the limits of fiction.)

My first contact with Greenwald Smith’s work was her brilliant essay “Six Propositions on Compromise Aesthetics.”  In it she presented a portrait of the contemporary fiction scene that feels intuitively right to me: one in which the disruptive postmodern aesthetics of the 1960s and 70s have been fused with the more traditional, linear, character-based forms favored by commercial publishers and many MFA programs.  Avant-garde techniques (once associated with the radical left’s critique of mainstream society) are still deployed by many prominent writers for stylistic or thematic purposes, but fused with more traditional elements, such as intimate characterization and linear narration, to make the work more palatable and marketable.

“Compromise Aesthetics” uses Rachel Kushner as its main example, although one could include any number of current writers under this label, for example Ben Marcus’s recent novel The Flame Alphabet, which adopted the experimental language play of his early work (as a corrosive language virus) in the service of a thriller-like plot. I certainly think of my own fiction writing as these terms, hoping to appeal to adventurous, intellectual readers without alienating others who are strongly drawn to character and narrative. The idea of “compromise aesthetics” could also be helpfully applied to the collapse of the distinction between literary and genre fiction among 21st century writers: I hope that Greenwald Smith will explore this in her new book, an expansion on the ideas laid out in this essay.


These kinds of compromises seem inevitable in what Greenwald Smith calls the neoliberal era, when market values have seeped into every aspect of our lives, and the individual is encouraged to think of herself as a corporation of one (and a novelist files as a small business on his taxes). Affect and American Lit shows how a novel like Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections adopts these economic metaphors for emotional life, so that one of the characters, Gary Lambert, tracks his own feelings as if they were stock indicators.

This brings to mind how the language of economics permeates the writing workshop, as we talk about scenes being “earned,” becoming “invested” in characters, the “payoff” of a climactic scene. Even the notions of “growth” and “development” in characters start to have a Morgan Stanley ring after you’ve spent a while with Greenwald Smith’s book. Literary character, conventionally defined, reflects and reinforces the economic structures around us. In this model the reader also approaches the text as a consumer, seeking pleasure, satisfaction, value, takeaway.

Greenwald Smith persuasively argues that there are other, stranger feelings that literature can evoke in us, feelings that we haven’t yet named, which might help us to re-conceive our relations to each other and the nonhuman parts of the environment around us. She gives a striking example: the grieving protagonist of Paul Auster’s Book of Illusions playing with his dead children’s Legos. The image is emotional, but in an unclear way, and with a undercurrent of queasiness. We don’t quite know how to label this feeling or where to store it. Greenwald Smith seeks out these “impersonal feelings” or “ugly feelings” in a number of contemporary works such as Ben Marcus’s bizarre and disorienting, but also rigorous and logical, story collection The Age of Wire and String.

It strikes me as a hopeful project: this study of mixed modes and genres, and the ways that literature performs emotion in unexpected ways that unsettles us. In this sense Greenwald Smith descends from radical literary thinkers such as Victor Shklovsky and Berthold Brecht. Her ideas are similar to Shklovsky’s concept of “defamiliarization” which has been tossed around in fiction writing circles for a while, but Greenwald Smith looks to restore its political edge: the underlying sense that the world has not been fully documented and understood, that our familial and cultural systems are still mutable, and that written language can still expand to depict emotional states for which we haven’t yet found the names. For truly novel feelings, which “index the possibility of change itself.” To evoke such feelings and perceptions is, I think, the ambition of the fiction writers I most respect. My college days are over, but I kind of wish I could take Greenwald Smith’s class at SLU, because she offers here a rich and invigorating framework to talk about what literature does to us, and where it might go next.

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“A Minefield of Myth and Memory”: John Keene’s Annotations

“The form of a city changes more quickly, alas, than the human heart,” Baudelaire wrote in his poem “The Swan” (published in Les Fleurs du Mal in 1857). Here in St. Louis, where I’ve lived now for over a decade, the pace of change is somewhat slower. On my lunchtime walks downtown, it often seems that the same buildings are undergoing an endless process of renovation, lurching toward vaguely defined, gentrified future when “creatives” will dwell there. At the same time, it has changed. Walking through the Delmar Loop the other night with a young friend, my wife and I spoke of bygone places like Riddles Penultimate and Streetside Records in the melancholy tones of tour guides. We’ve been here long enough that our mental maps of the city no longer quite line up with what’s out there: or our memories hang over the city, a tracery of the foreclosed and demolished and vacated, not really there in any actual sense but present as a ghostly shadowing.

We didn’t grow up here, and many of our friends’ memories run deeper than ours. They can tell us stories of the Checkerdome, the Library Limited, Mississippi Nights. Place as a series of palimpsests, containing not only the physical form of the city, the shaped terrain, but everything that has been thought and said and imagined about it.


For a long time I’ve been wanting to write something about John Keene‘s Annotations, which I think is one of the most remarkable books about St. Louis, though I’ve never met anyone else who has read it. (I might have called this post “The Best St. Louis Novel You’ve Never Heard Of.”) Published quietly in 1995 by New Directions, its understated title and gray-scale cover guaranteed its obscurity, arriving already a cult object that would be discovered only by a few. I am not sure if this is what Keene intended, but the humility of the title, as well as the slinky, elliptical methods of the writing, suggest that he might not have minded. It’s a work that falls halfway between poetry and prose, and does not go out of the way to explain itself. It has the feel of something private, something written out of necessity, a book one eavesdrops on as much as reads.

As the title suggests, the book sometimes has the feel of marginalia or endnotes to a main narrative that is missing. That could be frustrating to some readers, but it also is one of the special pleasures for a St. Louisan, recognizing the local references that are dropped into the narrative like incantations: Homer G. Phillips, Chatillon-DeMenil, Natural Bridge. These names, dropped seemingly at random into unrelated paragraphs, begin to build an associative logic, and show how cities and memory are inextricably linked (as Calvino also realized).


Though hardly a straightforward one, Annotations is also a vivid coming-of-age story that speaks of a sensitive, artistic, black boyhood in North St. Louis and later the western suburbs (Keene attended the St. Louis Priory School in Creve Coeur). It deploys a narrative voice that can dwell in luminous specificities:

Many backyards wore a chain-link garter that stretched out to the alleyway, and so whenever the rudipoots shattered their wine or soda bottles into smithereens of glass, it always fell to us to sweep them up. Now-or-Laters. Snoopy, the second in a cavalcade of pets, would parade regally about the screened-in porch. Daddy soaked then bathed him in a pan of gasoline to strip his coat of mange, so that when we spoke of him at all, it was as “under quarantine.” Children often see with a clarity that adults ignore.

This may give some sense of the way Annotations can move in and out of abstraction. It is childhood observed with crystal precision, but also great distance. The signifiers of childhood — Penrose Park, Chain of Rocks — become a kind of code that is still vivid and evocative but not fully legible, either to the narrator or the reader. It’s tempting to quote Keene at great length, but one more passage should suffice to give you a basic idea of how he operates:

One could still go tobogganing down the steeper part of Art Hill, but there were lesser hills much closer in the more historic parts of Webster, where the dauntless ones could sled or ski-board on a stolen trashcan top. On your back, in the snow, making angels the sun would summon. White swath. Summer they awaited for its bounty of trips and excursions, such as a return to Meramec Caverns or Silver Dollar City, now, from what he read, not far from where the Klan was presently headquartered. A cathode bath usually proves easier than self-immersion in a written text, thus did the ends of those evenings eddy through that small, transfixing screen. On the other hand, you noted at the Monet exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago, which you attended with your classmates and chaperone, that although painting had once served as the transcriptor of the soul, it now mainly served to break the hold of mechanical reproduction.

What brilliant associative leaps make up this half-page: from the sledders to the snow angels, from the snow angels to the white robes of the Klan, to the “snow” of a TV set at the end of the evening, to the blizzard of color in a Monet. This book may be Keene’s own version of impressionism. It does not connect all the dots but is all the more powerful and distinctive for its ellipses, and the way it acknowledges that growing up is not some linear and legible process, but a jagged and halting course, sometimes progressing, sometimes regressing. Likewise the voice of Annotations can be there or here: channeling the voice of a child with magical intimacy, then speaking from afar in the abstract jargon of an academic. As a retrospective portrait it feels uniquely truthful.


Annotations runs a slim 85 pages, including notes — these notes contain some of the most fascinating material in the book. “Rudipoots,” in case you were wondering, is defined here as “a colloquialism akin to ‘ghettoheads,’ meaning an ignorant or foolish person.” We also learn, for example, the meaning of Treemonisha: “A 1905 opera by Scott Joplin, written while he was resident in Sedalia, MO, and not premiered until 1972, in Atlanta, GA. The theme of the opera is the salvation of the black race through education, and Treemonisha, a young woman, is the protagonist.”

I don’t want to give away too many more of Keene’s Easter eggs, but this appendix beautifully unravels the culturally mongrel roots of St. Louis, which Keene describes as “a Creole core.” (Elsewhere, Keene wonderfully describes his own family as the result of “vibrant miscegenation.”) There’s a deep historical mind at work here, running from French-speaking slaves to the protests at Jefferson Bank, and the city’s ugly racial tension is not glossed over. Cops that could be relatives of today’s say “stop and don’t move”; a white cashier mouths a racial slur, thinking the narrator is out of earshot. He’s not. Still, Keene is attuned to what is best about the city, its rich, pungent multicultural soil.

It has been twenty years since Annotations came out. I’ve already read it twice and am probably just beginning to unlock its mysteries. Still, I was greatly excited to learn that New Directions is publishing another full-length work of fiction from Keene. It hits the shelves this week. The man has hardly been idle, teaching at Northwestern, Brown, NYU, and Rutgers, writing poetry, collaborating on art installations, and translating work by the controversial Brazilian writer Hilda Hilst. His new book, Counternarratives, a collection of stories and novellas, has been called “an extraordinary work of literature” by Harper’s and “suspenseful, thought provoking, mystical, and haunting” by Publishers Weekly. Hopefully this new publication will bring more readers to a great writer who beautifully excavated his North St. Louis roots and can be added to a list that includes Chopin, Williams, Eliot, Burroughs, Shange, and Gass. In any case, I know what I’ll be picking up at Left Bank Books later tonight.

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Poetic Voices: The Conversation Continues

At the halfway point of the Poetic Voices of the Muslim World series, I’m amazed by the conversations and encounters it has made possible. A South African mother and son speaking with a Bosnian couple at a lecture on Bosnian poet Mak Dizdar; a large group of diverse St. Louisans talking philosophy and spirituality outside the opening event with Rumi translator Jawid Mojaddedi and musician Amir Vahab (while eating delicious snacks); a lively lexical debate between library patrons and noted Qur’an scholar Bruce Lawrence in the auditorium at Carpenter Branch.

As for the patron who was seen licking one of the exhibit panels at Central Library, I don’t know what to say about that … except visit the exhibit (seriously! we cleaned it!) which will be up through June in the Locust Atrium.


I certainly won’t forget the wonderful recitations by Sumaya and Sabiri Ibrahim from Masjid Qooba in south St. Louis. Pictured here with Dr. Bruce Lawrence, they wowed the audience with their first-ever recitations of suwar (chapters from the Qur’an) in public. Patrons have told me repeatedly how grateful they are to be part of a different kind of conversation — to encounter a side of Islamic cultures that is usually left out of the shrill media debates. These events have been a reminder that the library is a place where cultures meet and where singular conversations can take place.

Farzaneh Milani

This week brings our third renowned speaker to St. Louis Public Library. Dr. Farzaneh Milani, Professor of Persian Literature and Women’s Studies at the University of Virginia, will present her talk “Veils and Words: Iranian Women Poets of the 20th Century” at Schlafly Branch on Thursday night, May 14, 7:00 pm. The program demonstrates how Iranian women poets have been a moderating and modernizing force in their homeland.

Among the poets she will discuss is my personal favorite, Forugh Farrokhzad. After marrying young and losing custody of her child in divorce, Farrokhzad went on to write remarkably frank, confessional poetry that confronted the hypocrisies of mid-twentieth century Iran. Early poems such as “Sin” defiantly express erotic desire:

I have sinned a rapturous sin

in a warm enflamed embrace,

sinned in a pair of vindictive arms,

arms violent and ablaze.

While in her later poem “Another Birth” she reflects beautifully on the poetic process:

I plant my hands in the garden soil–

I will sprout,

I know, I know, I know.

And in the hollow of my ink-stained palms

swallows will make their nest.   (tr. Sholeh Wolpe)

Farrokhzad was also an accomplished filmmaker whose short film The House is Black, set in an Iranian leper colony, won several awards. After dying tragically in a car accident in Tehran at the age of 32, she attained rock-star status in Iran, and her works were banned after the Cultural Revolution in 1979. Her publisher was ordered to stop printing her books, and he refused; he was jailed and his warehouse was burned to the ground. (Sholeh Wolpe, “Forugh Farrokhzad: A Brief Biography”)

Dr. Milani will also discuss another fascinating poet, Simin Behbahani, aka “the Lioness of Iran.” Behbahani can be seen in this Youtube clip reading from her elegiac and spirited poem “For the Dream to Ride.” It may be the translation, but I detect some great MC-style braggadocio in this,  e.g.:

I speak as long as I’m alive; fury, roar, and revolt

Your stones and rocks I fear not; I’m flood, my flow you can’t halt

Anyway, it’s well worth the three minutes to check out Behbahani reading her poem in the original Persian. And we hope it will inspire you to join us for Dr. Milani’s event at Schlafly Branch, to be part of the great conversation that the Poetic Voices series has brought about.

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