Fiction on the Edge, AWP Panel

with Don DeGrazia, Aimee Bender and C.W. Cannon
by Stacy Bierlein and Gina Frangello

Appears in Other Voices #35

In April 2001, Other Voices presented a panel at the Associated Writing Programs Annual Conference and Bookfair in Palm Springs, California. The topic: Fiction on the Edge.

Our goal was to inspire lively discussion on things like risk taking and experimentation, use of unsympathetic characters, and the pursuit of taboo subject matters. We invited Don DeGrazia, Aimee Bender and C.W. Cannon—young authors who have defied the so-called limits of contemporary literature—to discuss their work, and the challenge of getting risky fiction to the reading public. These authors publish in different venues, representing an array of options for those seeking or writing fiction deemed experimental or off-center.

We share excerpts from our presentation here:

OV: Don DeGrazia is the author of American Skin, a novel we describe as “a gritty urban story narrated by a would-be intellectual turned factory worker turned street kid turned military misfit turned jailbird.” The narrator, Alex Verdi, becomes our guide through the streets of Chicago, and when he joins a group of anti-Nazi, multi-racial skinheads, he becomes our guide through skinhead cultures.

After editors in New York and Los Angeles found this novel and its exploration of subcultures too politically incorrect, Don found a home for his ambitious work with the London-based publisher Jonathan Cape. In 1998, American Skin found an enthusiastic readership in England and was translated into French and German.

As a result of its success overseas, Scribner decided to take a chance on American Skin in the United States, and released it in 2000, complete with a reading group guide. In spite of it’s overseas debut, or maybe because of it, reviewers were quick to claim American Skin as a quintessentially American novel, comparing its narrator to various American heroes, comparing its author to Twain, Fitzgerald and Faulkner.

Don DeGrazia lives in Chicago where he’s teaching, working on a second novel, and editing F Magazine, a literary magazine celebrating novels-in-progress.

DD: American Skin is first and foremost a coming of age story. Much of the novel was generated during my studies in the Fiction Writing Department at Columbia College Chicago. In fact, my thesis in the MFA program was American Skin. I think I became a little spoiled there, because the thing stressed most in the program is the importance of taking chances. You shouldn’t censor yourself in anyway—you should write in your own voice, utilize your own experience, and never worry what anyone else thinks. So this environment was a nurturing one.

When I finished the novel manuscript, the hard part began. I looked for someone to publish the book, and it was hard to get people even to read it. I thought I’d get it read by pointing out certain topical hooks in the story. I thought, well, there are skinheads in the book, and that’s topical, so I’ll work with that. That was a big mistake. At the time, no one wanted to have anything to do with a story with skinheads.

People would try to disguise their distaste for the fact that there were skinheads in the story by trying to push me in a different direction. While working on the book, I sat down with a prominent New York editor who was clearly put off by certain elements of the novel.

The protagonist is Alex Verdi, a seventeen-year-old kid. He’s a runaway and falls in with a group of skinheads. In this particular case, anti-racist skinheads, which is a concept that seems bizarre to most people, when in fact, I’m still under the impression that there are more multi-cultural, anti-racist skinheads in America than the type the public sees on TV cop shows—the stereotypical racists. In any event, Alex Verdi is the type of character who tends to fall in with groups like these. As a runaway, he has been exposed to some of the worst aspects of city living. He joins a group as a means of protection.

So this editor looks at me and says, Why does Alex join the skinheads? Why can’t he go to night school and learn computers? Geez, I said. I guess he never thought of that.

I started to worry that no one would read my book, that I’d be peddling it around for the rest of my life. At a low point in my searching, a teacher of mine, Andy Allegretti, showed me a cover story from The New York Times Magazine, called “The Beats of Edinburgh,” about Scottish working class authors like Irving Welsh who were taking the old school British publishing world by storm. The article mentioned the British publishing house Jonathan Cape was eagerly publishing a lot of these authors.

So I took a chance. I figured if my book wasn’t a lot like the books they were publishing, it was certainly more in the same universe than the works I saw getting published here. I sent the manuscript off to London, and a couple of months later, my phone rang at six in the morning. I thought it was a friend of mine putting me on…. The woman on the phone had what sounded like a fake accent, so I started laughing, and she was giggling too. Later I found out that she was laughing at my accent.

It wasn’t a joke. It was an editor from Cape and she bought the book. It was published in London, received good reviews, eventually sold to Scribner, and I’m happy with the job they did. It received some good reviews here as well and is going into its fourth printing. So it’s really getting out there. Things are working out for the book I first tried to sell in 1995.

I’m now part of the faculty at Columbia College, and in my teaching I feel a real responsibility to create an environment where everybody feels that they can write whatever they want to write without offending anybody. That’s a challenge. But I think political correctness is a problem in American creative writing. I think we need to work to avoid internal censorship—things that people won’t write for fear of getting in trouble, not legally, but socially.

Richard Price spoke at Columbia College and told us about his first creative writing workshop. He wrote a scene about a fight between a white kid and a black kid. When the white kid won the fight, the class was up in arms. The teacher defended Price’s work because it had a strong voice, seemed true to the character’s experience, and the writer hadn’t stacked the deck in any particular way. That moment of support from his teacher was the thing that encouraged him to keep going. That scene became part of his first book, The Wanderers. From there he had a successful and brilliant career.

OV: It is an honor to introduce the always-inspiring Aimee Bender. Her publishing experiences speak to the essential role literary magazines play in taking bold fiction to its audience. Her collection of magical and off-kilter stories, The Girl in the Flammable Skirt, was released in 1998 after a Doubleday editor discovered her work in a Santa Monica Review anthology.

The Girl in the Flammable Skirt is full of wild and incisive truth, lines like “I want to be violated by insight” that provide the thrill of recognition, the feeling of Yes, this, I know this feeling but I’ve never had words for it before. And just when we were wondering where a writer goes after such a vibrant debut, the novel An Invisible Sign of My Own, published by Doubleday in 2000, introduced us to the edgy girl power of a second grade math teacher named Mona Gray, who combats lust by eating soap and decides to hang an axe in her classroom.

Aimee Bender is a member of the faculty at the University of Southern California, and an active member of the Los Angeles literary community. Her stories appear in dozens of literary magazines, as well as anthologies like Absolute Disaster and Best American Erotica.

AB: I was listening to NPR the other day. Joey Ramone of The Ramones had died. NPR’s Fresh Air was playing excerpts of an interview with him, and he was saying, Rock music is so spontaneous, subversive. The interviewer was saying something like Yes, but don’t you think it’s more, well, pop-ish now? And Joey Ramone kept saying, No, it’s about spontaneity so it’s always going to be cutting edge, and more so than ever before.

I loved the ways he described rock music. Why in my mind does fiction sit as chamber music and not a rock song? And I love chamber music, but why doesn’t fiction seem like the whole spectrum of music? It left me wondering why we don’t use words like spontaneous more when we talk about fiction.

I’ve been asked to talk about an experience with my own work, so I thought I’d talk a little on responses I had to the story “Call My Name.” I’ll just sort of summarize the plot so that it will make sense: A woman wears a maroon satin gown on the subway to audition men. She chooses a man she likes and follows him off the subway to his apartment. She goes into his apartment, and he’s not very interested in her being there, but she’s excited and wants to have sex with him. He doesn’t want to have sex with her, but he does want to cut off her dress. So he cuts her dress, and she says, Here I am, ready, and he says, No, I think I’m going to watch TV. So she tries it another way. She asks him to tie her up. So at the end of the story, she’s naked, tied to a chair, he’s not having sex with her, and they’re watching TV.

It was a challenge to find a placement for this story, which ultimately found a home at North American Review. The most common comment I’d received from editors said, Good writing, but it doesn’t add up. That felt so frustrating. And looking back, I’m not sure what that editorial comment really means, because it’s not math.

I wrote this story in graduate school. I took it to my workshop and received some good and some confused responses to it. What was interesting to me was that people who read “Call My Name” in progress had a real problem with the man not wanting to have sex with a woman who was naked in his apartment. That became the most controversial part of the story for people, made them uncomfortable. They wanted to know, Is he gay? Is there something we need to find out about him? I didn’t think he was gay. It was just that—for whatever reason—this was a mismatch for him.

I have a friend, a great writer, who read the story and liked it, but thought the woman should be a transvestite. That one bothered me, because in the moment he said that, I felt that her own particular brand of womanhood was being stripped away. She’s a woman and definitely the aggressor in the story.

What has been satisfying since The Girl in the Flammable Skirt has been published is that this is one of the stories I get comments on the most. It seems that in any collection there are a few stories that stand out as stories people really want to talk about, and I’m pleased that this is one of them.

The experience leaves me thinking on the way we look at a story in a workshop verses they way we look at the printed page. There is a certain proprietary feeling people have over a work before it’s published because it’s more malleable. And a reader’s opinion can count in the way that the writer can take it in and alter the outcome of the scene or story.

I like the example Don DeGrazia described, the scene written by Richard Price, the black kid and the white kid fighting each other, the outcome of the white kid winning creating an uproar in the workshop. Once that scene is published, the reader has to contend with that result. And that’s where you’ll find the real and active tension of the work.

In “Call My Name” the guy does not have sex with the subway woman, and that’s the story, and it’s deliberate. Because it is now in a book, it’s cemented down. It becomes the reader’s experience of the story.

There’s an open-ended-ness in a workshop and in the editing process, and there is a danger that the risk of a story can be lost to that open-ended-ness. There’s a fine line. The writer has to be open to workshop and editorial comments, open to the idea that maybe there is a real misturn somewhere. But there might be something that discomforts, and that something may be important. Discomfort can make a story ultimately interesting.

OV: C.W. Cannon is one of the newest champions of the independent press. At this time next year, I suspect we’ll all be talking about his novel, Soul Resin, in which shifting narrators take us through the dark and thrilling world of Mills Loomis Mills, a self-appointed freak whose gifts include hearing the sound of blood.

Soul Resin will be published by FC2, a press that consistently presents some of the most original and controversial voices in American fiction. In fact, it would be impossible to discuss edgy fiction without mentioning FC2, whose authors have been called “the bad boys and bad girls of contemporary fiction”

C.W. Cannon has recently joined FC2’s Board of Directors, and continues to serve Other Voices as a contributing editor. He holds a PhD. from the University of Illinois at Chicago and makes his home in New Orleans. He is an assistant professor in the English Department at Xavier University.

CWC: I’d like to start by talking about terminology. What defines this idea of “fiction on the edge?” What has this type of work been called in the past? Mostly, it has been categorized as “experimental.” But the term experimental fails to capture the range, scope and diversity of work we want to put under the heading of Fiction on the Edge.

There are lots of other terms, like avant garde, postmodern these days, and fifty years ago modernism was a term used a lot. The writers being described in these terms were known as the radical writers. Radical novels, radical fiction. And while the term radical may bother some, I find it more useful than “experimental.”

Experimental seems to speak to language and form more than content and social meaning. Don DeGrazia’s American Skin may not strike me as experimental, but it’s on the edge. It is radical. A reviewer compared him to Faulkner, but a more obvious literary ancestor may be James T. Farrell. Studs Lonigan. But readers and literary reviewers may not have access to these literary traditions, partly because of the failure of university English departments to emphasize America’s rich tradition of radical fiction. James T. Farrell worked in something we call Radical Social Realism. It’s not necessarily experimental in terms of structure or language, but it is truly experimental in terms of social meaning.

I’m fond also of the term innovative fiction, though it may seem a little general, vague, or unclear. This is used by Dalkey Archive Press in a 1998 anthology edited by Robert L. McLaughlin. And I think the subversive element of this kind of fiction needs to be emphasized. So perhaps “subversive” is better than “innovative.”

What struck me most in Robert L. McLaughlin’s introduction to Innovations: An Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Fiction is his recalling a suggestion that the purpose of great literature is to sow confusion. I think sowing confusion is something a writer might strive for, an interesting goal to set for ourselves. We’re all taking different risks, working in different textures. If my comments have demonstrated anything thus far, it’s that often our work doesn’t fall easily under headings.

I’d like to recognize a collective non-tradition and cite the term “miscegenation.” It has some political dynamite to it, miscegenation as the mixing of the races, an idea that led to much blood and smoke in Southern history. As a Southerner, my own regional radical vocabulary-that of the Scalawag-likes to celebrate miscegenation.

I like the concept of miscegenation as a model for American culture, the best of American culture. We should look to Jelly Roll Morton or any of the great musical developers of the twentieth century in the United States along with the best writing. They should be miscegenated.

My favorite American novel in this tradition is Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo, the great black revolutionary postmodern pagan classic from 1972. This novel is all of these things, and its own thing. Radical, innovative, etc. And it was beautiful when people didn’t know what to do with it, couldn’t nail it down with a classification.

This may be the most difficult thing facing radical writers today as they try to get their work published—publishers want to be able to know what section of the bookstore to put your book in. Musicians often face this problem. Publishers look at a book like mine and say, Is it a historical novel? Is it noir? What the hell is it? It can be all of these things together if we miscegenate form.

I encourage writers of radical and innovative fiction to look hard at all kinds of presses, to get to know presses like FC2 and other great independent publishers. It’s time to see a bold and strong independent fiction movement. Musicians do it. Independent film succeeds in soaking up some widespread attention. It’s time for Indy Fiction to get a powerful movement going.