12 Winters Blog

More Turgenev and a proposed release date for Men of Winter

Posted in August 2010 by Ted Morrissey on August 15, 2010

I’ve been reading from the collection of Ivan Turgenev’s stories (though some have been described as short novels). After reading the collection’s titular story, “First Love,” I read an earlier-written tale, “Bezhin Meadow” (1851), then skipped to the final tale in the collection “Clara Milich” (1882), and now I’m reading “Assya” (1857). There’s been little rhyme or reason as to which stories I’ve read and in what order. I suppose I’ve been guided somewhat by David Magarshack’s (that is, the translator’s) introduction, and his assessment of the evolution of Turgenev’s style as reflected in these stories that span more than thirty years. According to Magarshack, in his earliest stories Turgenev was especially interested in describing scenery:

The interesting stylistic feature of A Sportsman’s Sketches, as well as of Turgenev’s other stories belonging to the same period [early 1850s], is the presence of the long descriptive passages which have very little relation to the subject matter of the story. Indeed, Turgenev was for a time so obsessed with his ability to paint landscapes in words that even his letters of the period abound in descriptive passages of the same kind. (pp. x-xi, First Love and Other Tales, Norton 1968)

On the one hand, I see in the stories I’ve read so far what Magarshack is getting at. His assessment, though, that the “passages … have very little relation to the subject matter of the story” is not one that I would whole-heartedly embrace. There may be little direct relation to the plot of the story, but it seems to me that Turgenev is operating in a way that would soon become known as impressionism in painting, and a bit later as impressionism in literature. That is, the descriptive passages are often meant to reflect some meaningful aspect of the characters who are operating within or observing the scenery — that aspect may be the characters’ psychologies, or it may be foreshadowing their narrative advancement. In the story “Assya,” for example, the connection between scenery and characterization is overtly made by Turgenev when the narrator says of Gagin, a young Russian fellow he’s met in Germany and who’s awakened him early on a beautiful morning, “With his wavy, shiny hair, open neck, and rosy cheeks, he was as fresh as the morning himself” (94).

Needless to say, I’ve been enjoying the Turgenev stories. I read a bit of Turgenev as an undergraduate, but he’s one of the many authors who’ve been just on the edges of my academic radar all these years.

A couple of developments on the creative writing front: My story “The Composure of Death,” which I just began sending round last month, has been taken by Pisgah Review, a beautiful little journal associated with Brevard College, in Brevard, North Carolina. The journal is edited by Jubal Tiner, whom I met several years ago at the Louisville Conference on Literature and Culture Since 1900 (though I’m not sure Jubal is making the connection just yet). According to Jubal’s email, the editorial staff is not in love with the title of the story so they’ve asked me to consider a different title, which I’m willing to do — I have no emotional investment in that specific title. I did reply with a brief explanation of the title’s origin, which is Hawthorne’s “The Minister’s Black Veil,” a story I allude to in my story, and why I’d chosen that phrase. I don’t know if that will change their feelings about the title, but, if not, I’ll put my thinking cap on and come up with another. With the acceptance of the story, each of the stories in my collection Weeping with an Ancient God, a novella with collected stories, has been published. I’ve also been shopping around the first chapter (under the title “Melvill in the Marquesas”) of the unpublished novella, but so far no one has offered to take it to the dance. It’s still very early in the process, and I’ve only gotten a couple of rejections so far.

The other development: According to Amy Ferrell, CEO of Punkin House Press, Men of Winter should be out in October. Still quite a ways to go in terms of laying out the pages and designing the cover, but that will apparently get intense in a hurry. PHP also wants to do some sort of online workshop/contest that I’ll lead and judge for publication, in part to promote my novel but also to help other writers find publication. Right now it’s just a concept, so that too will have to be fleshed out in the coming weeks.

Meanwhile, I continue to work on the Authoress, my novel-in-progress. I’m about 265-manuscript pages in, and a couple of days ago I roughly mapped out the final sections of the story. I have a long way to go, but I must resist the urge to rush toward the finish line. In a sense I’ve been working on the novel for four-plus years, but that’s misleading because for three years I (almost literally) didn’t touch the manuscript as I finished my Ph.D., specifically preparing for and passing comprehensive exams, then getting the dissertation topic approved, and researching, writing, and defending it. So, really, this is only my second summer of working on the novel. I must keep in mind facts like it took Joyce seventeen years to write Finnegans Wake, and William H. Gass worked on The Tunnel for nearly thirty years — not to imply that my book will be another Finnegans Wake or The Tunnel, but rather to remind myself that a novel worth its salt takes time to write, and rushing the process is counterproductive.


Turgenev’s ‘First Love’ plus nostalgia for the days of paper

Posted in August 2010 by Ted Morrissey on August 8, 2010

I have just finished reading — and I mean just — Ivan Turgenev’s long story “First Love” (1860; translated by David Magarshack), and I found it hauntingly beautiful, especially in terms of what is sometimes called atmospherics. Turgenev almost emphasizes development of setting more so than characterization — though of course they are so closely entwined it’s difficult to say where one ends and the other begins. For example, Turgenev writes, “Meanwhile it was getting near dinnertime. I went down into the valley; a narrow, sandy path wound its say through it towards the town. I walked along the path.” The “I” is the story’s sixteen-year-old first-person narrator, and through his infatuation with the beautiful, young (though older than him) princess Zinaida, Vladimir does journey into the valley of his soul, his pysche — and the path is indeed sandy (unsure underfoot) and winding (making it unclear what is around the next turn); and [SPOILER ALERT], as it turns out, he is headed toward town. That is, he literally returns to town (Petersburg) at the end of the story, which is set mainly in the country, near Neskoochny Park; figuratively, though, Vladimir goes from the wild and organic experiences of one’s first love to the more orderly and staid position of maturity at having survived the tempestuous emotions.

I’ve gotten hold of a collection of Turgenev’s stories (Norton, 1968) and am looking forward to diving into another, probably “Bezhin Meadow” (1851).

On the writing front, I’m still at work on my novel-in-progress, the Authoress. I haven’t made as much progress this summer as I was planning, but I did bring together a new book-length manuscript consisting of my (as yet) unpublished novella Weeping with an Ancient God and a collection of (nearly all) published stories. As I mentioned in an earlier entry, it took more time and creative energy to bring the manuscript together than I’d anticipated; however, I’m glad that it exists, and I’m in the very early stages of finding a publisher for it. Meanwhile, I’ve been shopping around the novella’s first chapter as a stand-alone piece, and I’ve been sending around the one story from the collection that hasn’t been published, a short short story (2,000 words) titled “The Composure of Death,” a phrase borrowed from Hawthorne’s “The Minister’s Black Veil.”

With the arrival of August, the proverbial floodgates have begun to open in terms of the number of journals and presses that are back to accepting submissions — the gates will open fully come September. I’ve commented before that the number of electronic journals is growing exponentially, but I wonder that there may be the beginnings of some backlash. That is, there seems to be some dissatisfaction on the part of editors and writers (most editors are also writers) with purely electronic literature; there seems to be some ache to have something made of paper to hold. There are a number of journals that are offering the best of both worlds by publishing material online (including as downloadable pdf formats) and via print-on-demand books (Oak Bend Review and Leaf Garden, to name two such journals who have used some of my work). Then there are web journals that do, say, an annual “best of” print collection (Spilling Ink Review, for instance). Book publishers, too, are straddling the fence, so to speak, releasing new titles in both electronic and traditional formats (Punkin House Press and Black Coffee Press).

There are journals and presses that are totally committed to epublishing. Here’s a link to the Directory of ePublishers — and this is understandable given the low cost of epublishing compared to traditional print publishing. Also, there’s no question that epublishing is gaining in popularity among readers. Recent announcements by book-selling giants like Amazon and Barnes & Noble regarding their ebook sales compared to hardbacks were bouncing all over the Twitter- and blogospheres; see, for example, the Wall Street Journal‘s report on Amazon. Nevertheless, there seems to be something that isn’t totally satisfying about ebooks for bibliophiles (at least, bibliophiles of a certain age range). In fact, a new journal is launching in spring 2011 that is deliberately looking backward to an all-paper period. The Snail Mail Review, whose web presence seems to be mainly through Facebook, is accepting submissions exclusively the old-fashioned way (while more and more journals are going to email or online submission managers). According to Every Writers Resource, the Snail Mail Review editors want to recreate the feeling of submitting and being accepted via postal mail. They say, [sic]

We are a contemporary literary journal with “old-school” style. The editors at Snail Mail Review are committed to bringing only the best in poetry and short fiction by maintaining mail-only interaction with our writers. Given their past experience as being editors, they find much to be valued in sticking to traditional mail submissions. The editors believe that nothing can beat the joy of receiving submissions in the mail box and being able to hold those submissions physically in their hands as they consider the work. Consequently, we also know the joy of a writer when he receives an acceptance letter in the mail. This is the interaction that we wish to maintain with our writers, thus Snail Mail review was born.

I must admit that I find the approach engaging — and I know of which they speak — but I’m dubious of their success (though I’m not even sure what I mean by “success”). For the last issue that I was involved with as an editor for Quiddity, we had one poet that we published who was totally nontechnological. Her poems came to us via snail mail; we had to accept the ones we wanted via snail mail; her photo arrived via snail mail and had to be scanned; her poems had to be typed and the galleys sent to her by mail; her corrections came by mail; the corrected galleys were sent by mail. . . . In short, it really slowed the process down from a publishing and production standpoint — and that was for two or three short poems. I recall when I published/edited A Summer’s Reading (1997-2004), and for the first few issues everything regarding interaction with the writers was done the old-fashioned way, including my laboriously typing accepted prose pieces that were several thousand words long. On the one hand, I think something can be gained from the experience of typing another’s manuscript (I remember being told that Hemingway thought his experience as a typist for the literary journal the Transatlantic Review was invaluable to his development as a writer himself), but it’s difficult to imagine going back to that process. Though I believe one of the downsides to electronic exchanges between editors and writers, and thus copying and pasting being the main mode of production, is that there isn’t enough attention paid to the details (or even the correctness!) of language. I seem to be running across a lot of twentysomething editors who either don’t care much about correcting texts, or they frankly don’t know what’s correct and what isn’t when it comes to grammar, spelling, etc. — they no doubt reflect a readership that increasingly neither cares about nor likely knows such “rules.”