The Return of Brad Vice

As regular storySouth readers may remember, last year the editors of this journal strongly defended Brad Vice against charges of plagiarism. While our defense had a bitter-sweet ring to it since the University of Georgia Press had already pulped all copies of Vice's book, we saw this as an opportunity to bring attention to the great wrong being done to a great writer. Yes, Vice had made mistakes. But despite the screams from partisans bent on destroying his reputation, his mistakes never reached the level of a deadly literary sin.

Several new developments suggest that our view of Vice as a talented writer who made a minor mistake is gaining traction. First, River City Publishing plans to issue a new edition of the book in the spring of 2007. As reported in the Oxford American, "The revised version will more closely mirror Vice’s 2001 dissertation from the University of Cincinnati, which contained many of the stories that ended up being published as The Bear Bryant Funeral Train. Unlike the UGA Press edition, it will be divided into two sections, the latter of which is set entirely in Tuscaloosa. In his dissertation, Vice described the Tuscaloosa stories as an 'attempt to reconcile the seemingly incompatible movements of Southern regionalism and international postmodernism.' In that vein, it contained epigraphs by Albert Camus, Basho, Guy Davenport, Bear Bryant, and, more importantly, Carmer, all of which will reappear in the River City edition." This edition will also include an introduction by Vice and critical essays by John Dufresne, Erin McGraw, Don Noble, and Jake Adam York (my fellow storySouth editor).

This info is contained in the new issue of the Oxford American. Two articles on Vice from the issue are also available online: "The Strange Case of Brad Vice: In defense of a destroyed treasure" by Michelle Richmond and "Absurdity and Madness: The Making of the Bear Bryant Funeral Train" by Brad Vice himself. These essays add much to the overall understanding of both what Vice did and the literary world's overreaction.

Personally, I'm glad that Brad Vice is getting a second chance. I look forward to the spring rerelease of his book.

storySouth Pushcart Nominations

storySouth just submitted its Pushcart Prize nominations. They are:

Congratulations to these fine writers and to all the authors who helped storySouth have a great 2006.

Review of Spit Baths by Greg Downs

We're particularly proud here at storySouth to review Greg Downs' book Spit Baths, the 2006 winner of the University of Georgia Press Flannery O' Connor Award for Short Fiction, since two of the stories included in the collection have been published by us ("Indoor Plumbing" in our last issue and "Black Pork" in this one). Spit Baths offers a multifaceted and exquisite rendering of the modern (and postmodern) south, the stories' realism and detail no less effective for their imaginative, poetic depictions.

Downs has one of those extraordinarily diverse backgrounds listed on his book jacket that those of us who have led more mundane lives envy. Basketball coach, investigative journalist, karaoke performer, history professor. His varied interests are fully displayed in Spit Baths. First story collections are all too often monochromatic in terms of voice, tone, themes, and characters. Often we readers don't really mind this so much (take, for example, Raymond Carver, on the one extreme, and George Singleton or Flannery O'Connor on the other), but it can get redundant after a while. Spit Baths manages to capture the richly changing tapestry that makes up the modern southern experience.

No writer since Faulkner—hell, since Twain, at least, and maybe since Frederick Douglass—has written convincingly about the south without tackling race. Too often the result in latter-day southern letters is a bad pastiche of the Atticus Finch stereotype—the one lone, noble voice of progressive views in the face of a relentless bigoted ideology—or we see a photo negative of this stereotype in an updated use of the "tragic mulatto" stock character. Some of the stories in Spit Baths, however, bring a subtle and nuanced view to the race questions in the south. We see the slow, cancerous growth of prejudice in the aptly and metaphorically named "Indoor Plumbing" (previously published by storySouth) which is counterbalanced with "Black Pork," published in this issue, which Publisher's Weekly refers to as a "simultaneously excruciating and deeply insightful commentary" about race.

Downs doesn't limit himself to one theme; some of the more successful stories in the collection deal with the frail and tenuous webs men and women spin between each other in both the waxing and waning days of romantic relationships. "A Comparative History of Nashville Love Affairs" describes how a husband and father weighs the progress of his own marriage through watching the dissolving relationship of his neighbors; "Hope Chests" tells the story of a tough young woman who marries her teacher in the hope that he'll challenge her, help her grow, and develop with her; instead, her indomitable will proves more than he can handle. One of the most entertaining stories in the book, "Freedom Ride" is about a young teacher who is chaperoning fifty-five seventh graders on a field trip to a civil rights amusement park (to quote Dave Berry: I promise I am not making this up); one of his fellow teachers and chaperones is his reluctant lover. The field trip devolves into chaos, with the students fighting each other over reenacted lunch counter boycotts and sit-ins, boats spinning out of control in some kind of Pirates of the Caribbean ride through civil rights history, and talking mannequins matched with the wrong voice tapes. Somehow, the narrator's attempts to help the hapless tour guide (on what must be the worst museum to the Civil Rights era ever created) and his reluctant bonding with one of his young charges helps him gain perspective on his own budding romance.

The other element that Downs brings to the table of short fiction, however, is that thing which is so unteachable in MFA programs and so hard to discuss in fiction workshops—a vital and inventive imagination. In a few stories he seems to owe more of a debt to writers like Ron Carlson and Frederick Barthelme than he does to such southern realists as Richard Ford (yeah, Richard, we know you don't like to be called a "southern writer," but hey, you're from Mississippi). For example, "Ain't I a King, Too?" is the story of a man whose marriage and life are falling apart who finds himself in Louisiana the day after Huey Long's assassination in 1935; more to the point, he finds himself meeting some people at a filling station who seemingly take him for Long.

"Field Trip" does what I thought was impossible to do, which is to write an entertaining and interesting story about a dream. "Snack Cakes" is about a young man, just out of the eleventh grade, who is run out of his house when his mother finds he's been having sex with his girlfriend. In need of help, he seeks out his grandfather, who has just been kicked out of the house himself by his sixth wife. Together, the two visit each of his grandfather's living former wives, depositing boxes of the old man's mementos, the collected talismans of a life not so well lived. "I know you're in trouble," his grandfather tells him. "Probably I'm supposed to tell you to say you're sorry or something. Probably that's why your mother let you come. But, Charlie, nobody ever told me anything that meant anything to me. Except get out. . . . Words don't mean very much, Charlie. Or they mean something that's different than what they say. Do you know that?"

In Spit Baths, Downs manages to be part of the vital current of southern literary tradition and absolutely free from its restrictive ties. At a time when short story collections seem to be an endangered species (more to come on this), you have to seek out the good ones and treasure them when you find them. Buy this book. Hold onto it, loan it out, force it on friends. You'll be glad you did.

Spit Baths, by Greg Downs. University of Georgia Press, 2006. ISBN: 0-8203-2846-4.

Why has the New York Times ignored the passing of author Jack Williamson?

If the New York Times is justifiably famous for one thing, it’s for their in-depth obituaries on famous and not-so-famous people. While the paper has been criticized by people on both the left and right—most recently for revealing classified secrets during a time of war—few people say anything disrespectful about the paper's wonderful obituaries. The reason for this reverence comes, in part, from the paper's attempt to profile not only the world’s great leaders but also the less-known people who influence society. For example, in today's paper is a profile of George B. Thomas Jr., who wrote an influential college calculus textbook. While few people have heard of Thomas, he is now immortalized with a NY Times obit.

Now, though, I wonder if the New York Time's remaining reputation is about to take an even bigger hit. I speak about their lack of an obituary for science-fiction great Jack Williamson.

For what it's worth, the entire mainstream media has missed the ball on this, with Williamson's death being mentioned by only a handful of media outlets (most notably the Cleveland Plain Dealer and the New York Newsday). While this lack of notice by the entire media is wrong, the New York Times' pride on being so comprehensive with their obits makes their lack of mention of Williamson even more appalling.

For those who don't know him, Jack Williamson's writing career spans the complete history of science fiction. Not only did he write some of the genres most famous novels, he also won all of the genres top awards, including being named a grandmaster by the SFWA. In addition, he was the first person to write about genetic engineering and antimatter and he coined the term “terraforming.” For those last items alone, his passing should have been mentioned by the Times.

To see what type of obituary Williamson should have been given, read the glowing words the English newspaper The Independent gave him. Their headline says it all: " Jack Williamson: Father of American science fiction."

It's a shame the media in this country, and especially our so-called paper of record (which with each passing day becomes less worthy of that claim), forces this country's readers to go overseas to learn about such an important American.

Update on Nov. 14, 2006

The New Yorks Times finally did a short obit on Williamson, as did the Los Angeles Times. I honestly wasn't impressed with the NY Times obit, finding it to be a bare bones summary of Williamson's extraordinary life. I wonder if the New York Times threw something together at the last minute because of criticism they received at not doing anything on Williamson (which is not how they usually do obits--for famous and influential people, they often write the copy years in advance).

The LA Times obit was much better but the best, by far, remains the The Independent's coverage of his passing. This is still a case where the American media dropped the ball.

Stranger than Fiction: When novels become attack ads

Now that the mid-term elections are over, editorials and opinions are being flung around like crap from a monkey's cage. While most of this writing will disappear into the ether, one essay worth reading is "Stranger Than Fiction" by Kathleen Parker. While the essay is nominally about the Virginia Senate race between Sen. George Allen and Jim Webb, Parker takes a unique look at how Webb's fiction writing was used to attack him during the contest.

Webb, a Vietnam veteran, has written a number of novels drawing on his personal experience as a US Marine in Vietnam, including 1978's Fields of Fire (ranked by some literary critics among the best novels of the Vietnam War). As might be imagined about any fiction focusing on this war, Webb's novels contain many disturbing elements, all of which Webb states he personally witnessed.

During Webb's campaign for the senate, his opponent selected a number of disturbing passages from Webb's novels to demonstrate that Webb was unfit for office or, at least, had a questionable character. Parker decries this attempt at using fiction to analyze a writer’s inner self. In addition, she forcefully denounces the literal mindset which sees fiction in the same vein as reality.

As she says, "The impulse that invites such a witless interpretation of fiction comes from the same dark ignorance that fuels the self-ratifying fanaticism of radical Islam. Literalism is the enemy of civilization, and that is no fiction."

Read the essay.

Print or electronic: the 2007 Novel and Short Story Writer's Market and online submission databases

Fall is the time for fiction writers to regroup. As the wind picks up a chill and costumed kids run amuck in search of candy, the distractions of spring and summer disappear. Soon winter will be here, offering the solitude of cold and sleet and snow. If writers can’t lock themselves into their converted den and hammer out their fictional masterpieces now, they’ll never get them done.

Fall is also the time when writers reassess their publication success. The reason for this is the annual reappearance of the Novel and Short Story Writer’s Market. For 26 years this wonderful collection of markets for short stories and novels, published by Writer’s Digest Books, has reminded writers in exquisite detail of all the places they’ve yet to be published in.

Seriously, I dare say there isn’t a fiction writer out there who hasn’t used this book at some point to plot their submission strategy. I’ve personally used N&SSWM for a number of years and always look forward to each new edition. And based on what I’ve read so far, the 2007 N&SSWM is an improvement over the already high standards of previous years.

That said, the submissions game is changing. As I’ve recently mentioned, there is a new online submission tool called Duotrope's Digest. Duotrope offers much of the same information as N&SSWM, along with a similar number of markets (with both offering around 1,300 markets, although Duotrope includes poetry markets in its total but excludes publishers of novel-length fiction, while N&SSWM offers short stories and novels but omits poetry since Writer’s Digest Books offers an entirely different book for poetry markets). Unlike N&SSWM, though, Duotrope is a searchable database and compiles submission response statistics for its listed markets, enabling writers to estimate how long each market might take to respond. Finally, Duotrope is free to use while N&SSWM costs $26.95.

For all of those reasons, a few writers have asked me why they should bother with N&SSWM.

My answer: fiction writers face long enough odds on getting their stories published. I find both N&SSWM and Duotrope useful—although for different reasons—and if using both tools gives my submissions an edge, then so be it.

Unlike Duotrope, each entry in N&SSWM is compiled by professional editors. This gives me a trust factor which Duotrope has yet to earn. N&SSWM is also more than a listing of markets. For example, the first quarter of the 2007 N&SSWM is stuffed full of useful articles on publishing your fiction and includes sections on craft and technique, getting published, and interviews with authors. There are also individual sections devoted to each genre of fiction writing, including mystery writing, romance writing, and so on. The articles focusing on the needs of genre writers are both useful and fun to read (I particularly loved the article “Laugh Until You Scream” by Carol Pinchefsky, which tells an author how to write funny horror stories).

Another reason I still use N&SSWM is that it contains more listings than Duotrope and is easier to quickly locate the market I want. When I find a market I’m interested in, I then go to Duotrope and see what their submission response time is. In short, I use both Duotrope and N&SSWM because at this point they complement each other perfectly.

That said, what about the future? Duotrope Digest is rather new, meaning it will probably grow and adapt significantly in the coming years. There are also other useful compilations of submission data on the internet. What does this foretell for N&SSWM? Will N&SSWM eventually go online and offer both a print and internet edition or will it remain a book edition only?

Currently Writer’s Digest Books offers an online, fee-based searchable database at Personally, I’m not a fan of this database, finding it to be poorly designed and, most importantly, including only paying fiction and nonfiction markets. The fact that omits the non-paying markets that are more receptive to beginning fiction writers is the main reason I won’t use the system. Even though the database is updated daily, what good is updated data if the data doesn’t include the markets I’m interested in?

I recently asked Lauren Mosko, the editor of the 2007 Novel and Short Story Writer’s Market, if Writer’s Digest Books is considering making all of N&SSWM’s listings available online in a fee-based system. Lauren said that:

“Free market resource sites like Duotrope's Digest are certainly on our radar, but we feel confident Writer's Market will remain the brand writers can trust. Our printed market information is updated annually (and in the case of, daily), and all our submission, payment, and needs information comes directly from each publishers' editors. The editors of each book in our Market Book series take personal responsibility for contacting publishers for updates, so we don't have to rely on publishers' Web sites for information or place the burden of research on our readers. Although we'd love to see all nine Market Books online in the near future, right now we're preparing for the upcoming redesign and relaunch of”

Lauren is correct about how the currently available online submission systems, like Duotrope, place the burden of research on their readers. As I said earlier, the accuracy of N&SSWM is why I have returned each year to this wonderful book. I’d strongly recommend any writer who is serious about publishing their fiction purchase the 2007 N&SSWM.

That said, I’m not sure if I will be able to make the same recommendation a few years down the line. In the market for useful submission data, Duotrope Digest has made a solid start into N&SSWM’s territory. In many ways this challenge reminds me of how blogs and online news sources have taken on the print newspaper industry. While newspaper editors initially ignored this competitive threat—stating that they had brand loyalty and the trust of their readers—today the headlines are full of newspapers cutting staffs and trying to save their sinking bottom line. Ironically, most people read such dire headlines online instead of on newsprint.

How Writer’s Digest Books responds to this changing playing field will determine if they remain the premiere source of market place information or if they are overtaken by the new kid on the online block.

Previous comments about submission databases:

Duotrope's Digest is an excellent submission tool for writers
The fast and slow on submission responses

Citizendium update

As I mentioned in my previous post on the subject, Citizendium is a new expert driven encyclopedia which aims to correct the main problems of Wikipedia. As Wikipedia co-founder Larry Sanger, who is leading the creation of Citizendium says, "Wikipedia has accomplished great things, but the world can do even better. By engaging expert editors, eliminating anonymous contribution, and launching a more mature community under a new charter, a much broader and more influential group of people and institutions will be able to improve upon Wikipedia’s extremely useful, but often uneven work. The result will be not only enormous and free, but reliable."

While I haven't talked much about this, I have spent a good bit of time editing Wikipedia and currently serve as one of the online encyclopedia's administrators. I have also been involved in the early discussions on Citizendium. Some of my concerns with Citizendium, which I expressed in my previous post, have turned out to be unfounded. (This includes my concern about the name--it grows on you, it really does!)

In the coming days Citizendium will be gaining a good deal of press coverage as the Citizendium launches its pilot project. For an overview of Citizendium, please see Modern Dragon's wonderful article on the subject.

I don't know where all of this will lead but, as I stated a few weeks ago, I am certain of one thing: All humanity will end up winning by this next phase in the creation of a free, reliable encyclopedia.

Story of the Week:"Spinning Out" by Jamie Barras

My main intention in selecting stories of the week is to give added exposure to worthwhile tales. That said, I also want to prove that great stories are not merely found within the dry, dusty pages of esteemed literary journals. Great stories appear every day in newspapers, online journals, blogs, and other places. These great stories are being written in ever possible genre of fiction and nonfiction.

This week's story, "Spinning Out" by Jamie Barras, is a classic science fiction and sea adventure story published in two parts on the online magazine Strange Horizons. The reason I call this a "classic" science fiction story is that it includes all the elements of the great science fiction stories--namely, a larger-than-life setting, the use of technology as a main plot device, and a strong sense of adventure. In addition, the story is also a classic tale of the sea, as the young man narrating the story finds himself on a sailing ship in the adventure of his lifetime.

I love how this story so effortlessly melds the genres of science fiction and sea adventures into one beautiful written story. The call of the sea and the call to explore other worlds are in many way different sides to the same human coin--our instinctual need to see what is over the next horizon. That this story so perfectly combines the old and new versions of humanity's attempts at exploration is an amazing thing to behold.

As a side note, this story also resonates because it doesn't attempt to be overly "literary," which is something that has plagued too much of science fiction since the New Wave movement of the 1970s. In short, Jamie Barras knows he has a good story here and he simply tells it, without overreaching literary devices or angst. The story itself draws the reader in and the story is, in the end, what remains after we leave this wonderfully crafted world.

Read the story.

In search of a lost poem: "Andy-Diana DNA Letter" by Andrew Weiman

I'd like to share a great poem with you, but I can't. You see, the poem is missing. Disappeared without a trace. And despite the poem's name, there is no way to sample its DNA, to track its where abouts, or even to let you read it.

The poem is "Andy-Diana DNA Letter" by Andrew Weiman. I first came across the poem in high school, where it formed the epilogue to the 1981 Harper Anthology of Poetry, edited by John Frederick Nims. As Nims wrote in the introduction to the poem, "Our anthology opened with an anonymous poem of nearly 800 years ago on the themes of love, separation, death. Now it comes to a close with a poem on similar themes and nearly as anonymous, presented here to stand for all those (poems) being written by the young in whose vision poetry proliferates. It is 'nearly as anonymous' because the poet is not yet a presence in our literary world. This is his first published poem."

What followed was a three-page love poem, from Andy to Diana, written as a string of DNA. The poem pulses just like an actual DNA strand, narrowing and widening as Andy declares his love of Diana in a colloquial tone which simply rolls off the tongue. That said, the poem is also incredibly complex. Not only does it physically resemble the double helix of DNA, the sounds of the poem wrap around each other, mimicking the matching protein identifiers of each line of DNA in what Nims calls a "phonemic double helix."

According to the brief bio in the book, Andrew Weiman was born in Orlando in 1956 and wrote the poem while studying clinical psychology at New York University in 1980. I wish I could share with you the poem but there are no copies online (and for copyright reasons I can't reprint it without permission). Anyone wishing to read this masterpiece will have to find a copy of the 1981 Harper Anthology of Poetry or the literary journal Poetry (Vol. 137 No. 2, November, 1980) which first published the poem.

This poem should be read by anyone with a true love of poetry. However, more than thirty-five years after the poem was first published, the author and poem are still unknown. I want to change this. Just as detectives use DNA to solve crimes, I hope someone out there will notice this little blog posting and track down the author. What became of him? Did he write other poems or was this his sole poetic creation? And finally, and most importantly, is there a way to reprint the poem online so it can be shared with a new generation of readers?

If anyone knows the answers to any of these questions, please e-mail me at storysouth at yahoo dot com.

Reviving Gustav Hasford

You may not remember Gustav Hasford's name but anyone who has seen Stanley Kubrick's film Full Metal Jacket knows him. Not only was the film based on Hasford's Vietnam novel The Short Timers, but Hasford helped write the Academy-Award nominated screenplay. In addition, the main character, the wise-cracking Marine journalist Private Joker, was based on Hasford himself.

Of course, the question of how much of the script Hasford wrote was a bone of contention between the author and Kubrick. As Hasford once said in response to Kubrick’s offer of an "additional dialogue” screenwriting credit, “Those fuckers retyped my novel and tried to put their names on it!"

No, Hasford wasn't an easy man to get along with. Even though Hasford was self educated on an endless number of subjects, he never graduated from high school because he stubbornly refused to take the graduation exams for his diploma. He fought with Kubrick for years over the movie and about receiving credit (with Kubrick once stating, "I can't deal with this man"). In addition, Hasford was arrested in 1988 for stealing hundreds of books from libraries in the United States and around the world. When Hasford finally died in 1993 on a Greek island from diabetes and aegina-related problems, he was nearly broke and living by himself in a run-down hotel.

If Hasford had a focus to his life (aside from his writing), it was his decision to enlist in the Marines during the Vietnam War. As Hasford later wrote, “The South is a big Indian reservation populated by ex-Confederates who are bred like cattle to die in Yankee wars. In Alabama there is no circus to run off to, so we join the Marines.” After working on a stateside military newspaper for a while, Hasford requested a transfer to Vietnam. From these experiences would emerge his most famous novel, The Short Timers.

When Hasford's first novel was published, it received rave reviews but sold only a few thousand copies. The story is told in the same type of short, staccato writing that Hasford wrote for military newspapers while in Vietnam. This style pulls the reader through as if every word and description hinged on adrenaline-fueled rage. As Harlan Ellison wrote about the book, "It is one of the most amazing stretches of writing I've ever encountered."

Unfortunately, Hasford's novel is now out of print and, without the movie version of the book, would probably be forgotten. This is a shame. Philip Beidler, a professor of English at the University of Alabama and recipient of the Eugene Current-Garcia Award for Alabama's Distinguished Scholar, has called the book a work of "indisputable genius.'' Others have ranked the novel along such Vietnam literary classes as Tim O'Brien's Going After Cacciato and The Things We Carried and John Del Vecchio's The 13th Valley.

Anyone interested in Hasford's life and writings should read "Mangling Frail Civilian Sensibilities: The story of Gustav Hasford, literary snuffie" by Jason Aaron. Originally published in Aura, UAB's literary journal, and in The Viet Nam War Generation Journal, this article is a fascinating introduction to this almost forgotten writer. Aaron is Hasford's cousin and reprinted the article on a website he has devoted to Hasford, which is Aaron's attempt to keep alive the literary reputation of this Alabama novelist. The website also features complete online editions of all of Hasford's out-of-print novels, including The Short Timers (and its highly praised sequel, The Phantom Blooper).

As one of the initial reviews of The Short Timers stated, "Read it if you dare."

Story of the Week: Colliding With Death at 37,000 Feet, and Living

A word of warning first: Anyone with even the slightest fear of flying should avoid the following story.

Today's story is "Colliding With Death at 37,000 Feet, and Living" by Joe Sharkey, published in the New York Times. Sharkey is a journeyman writer who has penned the “On the Road” column for the Times' business-travel section every week for seven years. Over the years I've enjoyed a number of his columns because Sharkey writes as one should write for his intended business audience: descriptively, accurately, and to the point. This style enables Sharkey to condense and distill the overload of sensations one has when travelling into a readable, and useful, column.

In "Colliding With Death at 37,000 Feet, and Living", Sharkey recounts a harrowing flight he took a few days ago on a corporate jet. Sharkey was working on a freelance article for Business Jet Traveler magazine when the Embraer 600 he rode on clipped a passing Boeing 737 at 37,000 feet. As Sharkey states, people rarely survive mid-air collisions. His descriptions of how he and his fellow passengers survived--through extreme luck and the hard work of their two pilots--will leave readers gripping their seats.

Sharkey's writing style is perfect for this article. Where a so-called more literary writer would have tried to plumb the depths of human emotions--and would likely have ended with an unintended parody of the whole affair--Sharkey's factual and descriptive account perfectly renders the humanity and fear he and his fellow passengers endured. When Sharkey and the other survivors learn that all 155 people aboard the 737 that hit them died, he perfectly expresses the pain and horror felt by himself and the others on his plane.

A writer once told me that the simplest rule of writing is when you don't have a good story to tell, use plenty of fancy language to express it. However, when you have a good story, simply tell it and let the story speak for itself. Sharkey truly understands this rule.

Read the story.

Where have all the comments gone? Spam and online communities

Readers of this blog may have noticed that we are no longer accepting comments to particular blog entries. While we love hearing from our readers, we have also been overwhelmed with spam trying to sneak in as reader comments. While our programming system prevented this spam from being published, removing the junk took valuable time that we are no longer willing to expend.

The sad truth is that automated spam is overwhelming many of the reader feedback mechanisms which make blogs so attractive to people. The first thing to go from many blogs was the trackback feature, which enabled people to see which blogs had linked to another blog's new entry. Now reader comments are under attack. In the coming months I'm sure fewer and fewer blogs will allow people to respond to posts.

In many ways all of this is a new aspect of the tragedy of the commons theory, in which individual interests conflict with the common good. As Wikipedia says, "The parable demonstrates how free access and unrestricted demand for a finite resource ultimately dooms the resource through over-exploitation."

In this instance, though, most people support the common good and merely wish to interact and comment about items of interest to the online community. They are being twarted by the individual interests of a few spammers. I wonder if this will be the new tragedy of the commons in the coming decades: the selfish desires of a few ruining life for the many.

Knowledge Smackdown: Wikipedia vs. Citizendium

I have long been a fan of Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia that anyone can edit. Founded by fellow Alabama native Jimmy Wales, the encyclopedia has harnessed a grassroots network of editors from around the world and created the fast-growing knowledge system in human history.

Of course, there are problems with Wikipedia, notably the errors and vandalism which sneak in from anonymous editors and the fact that debates over issues at Wikipedia often resemble old-west shootouts. In addition, there is also no way to verify the accuracy of any Wikipedia article (although this fault also rests with most online knowledge outlets). In short, while one shouldn't use Wikipedia as the totality of your research in any particular area, it remains a good place to start understanding any particular subject.

However, the fact that Wikipedia isn't an authoritative source of knowledge—with authoritative being read as having earned a stamp of approval from well-known experts—hasn't sat well with everyone. One of these people is Larry Sanger, who co-founded Wikipedia with Jimmy Wales. Sanger was originally the editor in chief of Nupedia, an expert-created online encyclopedia owned by Wales. When Nupedia was unable to attract a large number of articles, Sanger proposed creating a wiki to spur the development of articles and the result was Wikipedia. The exact credit each of these men should receive has long been a source of contention but one thing is certain: Sanger left Wikipedia in 2002 with a bad taste in his mouth about a number of the ways Wikipedia was being run, most notably that Wikipedia's setup discouraged academic experts from taking part.

Now Sanger has proposed creating an alternative to Wikipedia, which he calls Citizendium. This encyclopedia will supposedly take many of the things that have worked well with Wikipedia—such as using a neutral point of view in articles and the fact that articles on Wikipedia are created under the GNU Free Documentation License, which allows people to copy and adapt Wikipedia's work without charge. Citizendium's aim is to create an "expert culture and community that encourages subject specialists ('editors') to contribute and 'citizens' (to be called "authors") to respect the expert contributions."(from Wikipedia's article on Citizendium)

To start Citizendium, Sanger will create a fork of Wikipedia by importing the million plus Wikipedia articles into Citizendium. Sanger's organization will then let their experts and authors improve these articles (as said before, the articles are available under the GNU free license).

I'm of two mind in this affair. Part of me really likes the fact that these two organizations will fight it out, so to speak, toward creating the ultimate database of human knowledge. Because both organizations will be using the GNU free license, their work will be available to any human being on the planet without charge. In addition, the competition might cause Wikipedia's community of editors to finally address the long-standing problems of anonymous editors and reliability of articles. It is also probable that articles will be traded back and forth between the two projects, with the best articles rising to the top of both encyclopedias like fine cream.

That said, I am troubled by some aspects of Sanger's Citizendium. Aside from its pretentious title (which participants are already saying must be changed), this feels in some ways like an attempt by old-guard academics to retake control of humanity's knowledge. Clay Shirky states this in Larry Sanger, Citizendium, and the Problem of Expertise, where he notes that Sanger main beef all along with Wikipedia is that it doesn't give enough deference to academic experts.

I have no problem believing in the worth of experts. The problem, though, lies in deciding what makes one an expert. I wonder if Citizendium won't implode from the weight of trying to decide who is an expert. Is a person with a Ph.D. more of an expert than a person in the same field with more knowledge and life experience? Is a tenured professor in her twenties more of an expert than an adjunct professor who has been teaching for fifty years but never attained tenure for personal reasons? I know many people who lack the academic credentials in their respected fields but know far more than their academic peers with Ph.Ds and such.

There is also the fact that, as Clay Shirky says, experts don't exist outside of institutions. It is difficult to be an expert without a university or other official institution to stand behind you. By this reasoning, I imagine that Citizendium will gravitate toward deeming people associated with universities and other institutions of higher education as experts.

I hope they don’t take such a simplistic approach at defining the worth of a contributor’s knowledge. Wikipedia's strength is that it has been created outside of institutions in an online world where the weight of knowledge and reliability of sources decides what’s correct, not the pedigree behind one's name. In short, Wikipedia is in many ways a marketplace of ideas and knowledge, were market forces work to create the available information. The process is rarely pretty and doesn't get everything right. But as Wikipedia's explosive growth and accuracy attest (notice that almost all the links here are to Wikipedia articles), this marketplace of ideas can be a powerful force. If Citizendium is restricted to institutional experts, it will lose it connection to the most powerful force available for the compilation of knowledge.

Still, I am optimistic about all of this. Competition is a powerful force and perhaps Citizendium will improve on Wikipedia. Or, perhaps, Citizendium will force Wikipedia to improve its own processes. Or vice verse.

But no matter what happens, I am certain of one thing: The winner will be all of humanity.

Honoring 9-11 Victim Gopal Varadhan

In memory of the September 11th attacks, storySouth is taking part in a massive blogger initiative to honor all 2,996 victims. Several thousand bloggers have each agreed to honor one of these people. It is my honor to write about Gopalakrishnan Varadhan, who was killed in the north tower of the World Trade Center. He was 32 years old.

But this elegy isn't about how Gopal Varadhan died. Rather, it is about his life—and how the lives of all the people who died in the Sept. 11 attacks continue to ripple through the lives of those who remain.

Gopal Varadhan was the oldest son of Raghu and Vasu Varadhan, both professors at New York University. Gopal grew up in New York and attended the Bronx High School of School. Along with his younger brother, Ashok, he spent many summers visiting his grandparents in the Southern Indian city of Chennai. His younger brother described the city as having “Mosquitoes that seemed the size of hummingbirds, exhausting heat and ... unreliable electricity.” Despite that, he said the brothers always had fun as they spent their time “absorbed in themselves … and impersonating relatives' nuances.”

From an early age Gopal was a dedicated musician. According to his mother, as a teenager Gopal soundproofed his room with egg cartons so he could play his acoustic guitar without disturbing people. While still in high school, he started a “ska-inspired band” called City Beat, in which he played a Fender Telecaster. His band cut a record and played at a number of influential clubs in New York, including CBGB & OMFUG on Bowery Street.

Gopal eventually worked as an engineer on controversial punk rock star G.G. Allin’s “Hated In The Nation” album. This compilation CD became Allin's first widespread international release and is the most popular item in Allin's discography. Gopal continued to write songs throughout his life, eventually creating melodies “for which his girlfriend, Valerie Toscano, was to compose lyrics.”

However, music wasn’t Gopal Varadhan’s only passion. After graduating from high school, Gopal earned a bachelor's degree in mathematics from New York University. After college he worked at Merrill Lynch, trading fixed-income derivatives. In 1999 he left the company to start an online advertising business.

In August 2001, Gopal joined Cantor Fitzgerald as Managing Director of its interest rate derivatives business in the United States. In that position he oversaw all of Cantor's interest rate derivative products, including swaps, options and futures. His younger brother, Ashok Varadhan, said Gopal was excited about the challenges his new position would bring.

His younger brother also said that on Sept. 11, 2001, Gopal phoned him from his 105th-floor office in between the two terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. "Basically, he knew that he was going to die," Ashok Varadhan said. "He was affectionate, but at the same time, very worried."

Ashok Varadhan added that Gopal “was about as good of a role model as a younger brother could ask for. He was all the things that big brothers are supposed to be—protective, caring and affectionate."

This view of Gopal was echoed by Ramesh, who interviewed for a position with Gopal in the days before the attacks. According to Ramesh, they talked about music and Madras and other subjects. Gopal so impressed Ramesh that he said, "Man, I want to be like him when I'm his age". Ramesh was especially amazed at how Gopal balanced so many things in his life and added that, “the human race is poorer for (his) loss.”

That is so true. Gopal Varadhan contributed so much to the world that even I, a man who never had to the honor to meet him, can see the influence he had over the lives of those around him. The world is truly a poorer place without him.


(Note: I am indebted to a number of references which detailed the life of Gopal Varadhan. In order to not break up the narrative flow, I have not placed footnotes in this elegy. All information, though, comes from the sources below.)

1) Cantor Fitzgerald Hires Gopal Varadhan as Managing Director of U.S. Derivatives Business. Business Wire; 8/7/2001. Accessed Sept. 8, 2006.

2) New York Times "Portraits of Grief": Accessed Sept. 8, 2006.

3) Wikipedia, Hatred in the Nation article. Accessed Sept. 8, 2006. Gopal Varadhan is listed as an engineer in the album's credits.

4) Gopalakrishnan Varadhan: A Talented Son and Big Brother by Nick Iyer, Newsday, April 12, 2002. Accessed Sept. 8, 2006.

5) SEPTEMBER 11, 2001 victims page for Gopalakrishnan Varadhan, comment by Ramesh posted on Feb. 15, 2006. Accessed Sept. 8, 2006.

Print anthology seeks nominations of best online writing

I thought I'd pass this on to everyone.

As a result of a generous grant from Indiana State University, Snow*Vigate Press will be publishing a printed anthology of the best
online writing which has appeared over the past ten years. The anthology will be released in August 2007.

The book will include poetry broken into lines, prose poetry, flash fiction, creative non-fiction, 10 minute plays, and regular short stories. (NOTE: While the anthology's guidelines initially left out short stories, I checked with Doug Martin, the anthology's editor, and he confirmed regular short stories were being accepted. He also added there was no word limit on the stories.)

To nominate your own on-line work or work from others, please follow these guidelines:

Paste the URLs of 3-7 pieces of each writer in the body of an email. You may nominate up to 3 writers. In the subject line of your email, please type "Submission to Snow*Vigate Anthology." Send all submissions to

Work from any on-line site is acceptable, as long as it has not been published in printed form. Editors of online journals are strongly encouraged to submit work from their sites.

The submission period will end on October 15, 2006.

If anyone has any questions, please contact Doug Martin.

The Resident Redneck (or a Southern Writer in San Francisco)

Dustin Wells has written a fascinating article about being a Southern writer in San Francisco. The article, published in SoMa Literary Review: New Voices From San Francisco's Subculture, focuses on the publication of Dustin's short story "Mom Didn't Want Her Girls Playing With Guns" in the current issue of storySouth.

Without giving too much away, Dustin writes about the trials and tribulations of being stereotyped as a Redneck in that most liberal of West Coast cities and the ironies of MFA programs which preach inclusion but don't want anything to do with his short story. Read the article and pass it on.

The fast and slow on submission responses

Last week I mentioned a new site called Duotrope's Digest, which is a free online database of over 1200 current markets for short fiction and poetry. Duotrope allows authors to log in and track their submissions, enabling the site to compile rejection/acceptance rates for the listed magazines and journals. This leads to the most amusing part of Duotrope's Digest, their market response-time statistics.

Now, these response time stats must be taken with a large, clotted-together piece of salt since they are based on self-reporting by writers (with self reporting being a very inaccurate way of collecting statistics). Still, these stats are a decent way of knowing how long your submission might linger at different magazines. Their stats also match up nicely with my personal experience. For example, I have submitted fiction to Another Chicago Magazine and they took almost a year to respond (which corresponds with the reported response time of 357 days, which Duetrope indicates is the worst in their database). Another place I've submitted to, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, is listed as one of the fastest responders, averaging 14.5 days per submission. In my experience the assistant editor of the magazine, John Joseph Adams (aka, Slush God, who maintains a wonderful blog detailing his editorial adventures), does indeed respond within two weeks to most submissions. I can also vouch that a few of the other submission response times listed within these statistics appear to be accurate (for example, Black Warrior Review is indeed rather slow in responding, as are Zoetrope: All-Story and Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine).

As a writer these slow reponse times drive me up the wall. As an editor, I have a lot of sympathy for the circumstances which delay the review of submissions. Many writers flood the markets with their stories, overwhelming editors. This results in editors having less time to spend with any particular submission, which, ironically, causes writers to flood the markets with even more of their stories, creating a never-ending cycle of submission hell.

What's the answer to this? On the submission end, I'm not sure. All editors can do is strive to respond to submissions as quickly as possible. As for writers, we shouldn't overly obsess on response times. Give a magazine three months to respond (unless their guidelines say otherwise). If you haven't heard back by then, submit the story elsewhere. Most importantly, though, keep writing. After all, what matters most are the stories we create, not how long it takes a magazine to respond.

Review of Fountains of Youth by Stephen Ausherman

It's easy for a reader to take a wrong turn as he or she approaches Stephen Ausherman's new novel, Fountains of Youth. But reading through the novel might be like returning to a small, familiar town you knew years ago—the roads and basic landmarks are the same, but there's been a lot of development and the details are all different.

The book's narrator and protagonist, Cyrus Slant, seems initially to be a character that we've met before, inhabiting a place that we've seen a few too many times in the dusty environs of so-called "southern literature." He is a case of arrested development: a young man (but not quite as young as he seems) raised without exactly knowing who his father is, whose mother died when he was still young and impressionable. He lives in and works for the Dixie Court Hotel, in "Stillwater County" in North Carolina, not far from one small town named "Odium" and another called "Hunters." Stillwater County also comes complete with a mysterious swamp, an aged black seer, a haunted house (with its own bottle tree for capturing the rambunctious ha'nts), a mysterious, rebellious vanished Native American named Quiet Bear (purportedly a Gingaskin Indian), and a wandering idiot manchild (to borrow a riff by the Coen Brothers on Faulkner in Barton Fink) who is tolerated affectionately by the community and who likes to paint everything yellow.

Put this way, every cliché in the regionalist book seems to rear its ugly head. It's only a matter of time before Otis checks himself into the jail to sleep off a drunk, before some Snopes shows up wanting to sleep with his sister (or even worse, your sister), and before long people will be digging up the yard for gold on this side of the street while Confederate ghosts thunder down the lane in a duststorm of butternut and gray.

Thankfully, however, the sum of the parts in Fountains of Youth are greatly outweighed by its whole; Ausherman makes use of the more familiar and treadworn characteristics of southern fiction largely to subvert homespun myths and to comment on the very act of myth-making. The Dixie Court Motel, for example, rather than being owned by Compsons or Snopes or characters named Big Daddy or Stella Rondo, is owed and operated by Indian immigrant Amitabh Patil, who has helped raise Cyrus alongside his daughters Mina, Arati, and Cyrus' secret love, the beautiful and absent Sonali.

Cyrus has been raised to think that his father is most likely either the famous journalist and raconteur Lester Current (a kind of self-mythologizing cross between a later day H.L. Mencken and Tom Wolfe), or just possibly the local legend, the rebellious, mysterious, and absent Quiet Bear. Obsessed with Current, Cyrus has read everything the man has ever written and even has begun composing his own brief articles in the manner of Current about his own friends, family and Stillwater County. When Current returns to Stillwater County to confront the demons of his youth and checks into the Dixie Court Motel, Cyrus, in turn, is able to confront the legend of his maybe-father in the flesh. The man, as so often seems to be the case, doesn't quite live up to the legend. When Cyrus asks him whether he'd actually hunted moose with concussion grenades and held a dying Israeli soldier in his arms, Current tells Cyrus that he has "Applied my poetic license. Took some liberties with Madam Hyperbole." When Cyrus asks how many embellishments have been made, Current first tells him, "just a few details here and there," but finally admits, "They sure add up fast over a lifetime."

Ultimately, the reader realizes that many of the novel's themes intersect in Lester Current, and that the writer is in some ways more of a symbol than a character. This is a novel about fathers: the father that Cyrus thinks either Lester or Quiet Bear would be, on the one hand, and his surrogate fathers in Patil and Moses Jefferson (the blind African American psychic) on the other. Too, this is a novel about legends and myths, and the way we use stories and folklore to create meaning and instill order on the chaos that surrounds our lives. Even as Cyrus puts to rest some of his own questions about his legacy and his past, he weaves new tales.

Ausherman takes chances in Fountains of Youth. So many novels set in the south get so mired in the swamplands of formula and familiar tropes that making use of those commonplace formulations in even postmodern, subversive ways risks snap judgments on the parts of readers wearied by the familiar. The romantic triangle between Cyrus and two of the Patil sisters seems a bit obvious although the end of the novel takes some turns that no one will see coming. And some of the articles by Current and Cyrus inserted in the text throughout the novel tend to get a little tedious and to slow the narrative's momentum. But through it all, Cyrus is an engaging, likeable, and interesting narrator, and Ausherman paints secondary characters like Patil, his daughter Mina, and Moses Jefferson in subtle shades that reflect the full range of their humanity.

Fountains of Youth by Stephen Ausherman
Livingston Press, ISBN: hardback 1-931982-55-4 ($25.00); paperback 1-931982-56-2 ($14.95)

Duotrope's Digest is an excellent submission tool for writers

A few weeks ago storySouth's fiction editor, Scott Yarbrough, mentioned a new site called Duotrope's Digest. It seems a writer had submitted a story to him after first learning about storySouth on Duotrope.

As is the way of the modern world, I immediately Googled Duotrope and soon wondered how I could not have known about this amazing submission tool. In short, Duotrope's Digest is a free online database of over 1200 current markets for short fiction and poetry. Complete guidelines are provided for each market along with a link to the market's website. (As an editor, I like this last feature since it requires that anyone submitting to a place at least check it out online. I'm always amazed how many writers submit to magazines without actually reading said magazines). The report on each market also includes average response times to submissions, as provided by anonymous and registered users, along with acceptance rates.

The fact that Duotrope can track submission times and rejection/acceptance rates leads to an interesting part of Duotrope's Digest, the response time stats. Here a writer can see which magazines and markets are among the fastest responders and which are "the slothful" (to use Duotrope's phrase), which have high acceptance rates and which are "challenging" (to again use their phrase). Of course, any writer should take these stats with a pinch of salt since they are dependent on the self-reporting of fellow writers, a notoriously unreliable means of collecting information. In addition, the website's servers are extremely slow, meaning it can take long periods of time for needed information to pull up.

Still, Duotrope's Digest is an amazing aid to any writer submitting their poetry and fiction to different places. I'd recommend that all writers sign up for their free service, which enables one to use their submission tracker and also receive their weekly newsletter (which I enjoy because of its regularly updated market news). If you really like what Duotrope's Digest is doing, then consider supporting their enterprise with a donation.

An Idiot's Guide to Growing Kudzu

Anyone who doesn't laugh at How to Grow Kudzu by Tifton Merritt obviously hasn't been exposed to the charm of this now legendary Southern invader.

Among my favorite parts:

Deciding When to Plant:

Kudzu should always be planted at night. If kudzu is planted during daylight hours, angry neighbors might see you and begin throwing rocks at you.

Selecting the Proper Fertilizer:

The best fertilizer I have discovered for kudzu is 40 weight non-detergent motor oil. Kudzu actually doesn't need anything to help it grow, but the motor oil helps to prevent scraping the underside of the tender leaves when the kudzu starts its rapid growth. It also cuts down on the friction and lessens the danger of fire when the kudzu really starts to move. Change oil once every thousand feet or every two weeks which ever comes first.

The Sorrow Psalms: new poetry anthology revives interest in elegies

Of all the poetic forms, the elegy can be the most stirring and profound. Whether written as a poetic lament for a friend (as John Milton did in 1637 with his pastoral elegy "Lycidas") or as a lament for all the dead (as in Allen Tate's "Ode to the Confederate Dead"), a well-done elegy reaches beyond death as an abstract concept and embraces it as the very essence of what every human experiences at the end of their life.

Unfortunately, in recent decades elegies have fallen out of favor with both poets and the reading public. Perhaps this is a result of our ever-extending life spans and a youth-obsessed culture which promises that we can forstall the inevitable for another day—and if we can't do that, we can at least ignore it. This view has never set well with me. By sanitizing death and locking it away in a rarely seen closet, we are unprepared for the end when it finally comes to ourselves and those we love. This doesn't mean one should embrace death; it means that one embraces life even more when one realizes death waits for us even on the most beautiful and sunny of days.

Perhaps my feelings on death have caused me to embrace The Sorrow Psalms: A Book of Twentieth-Century Elegy, edited by Lynn Strongin and published by the University of Iowa Press. A gifted stylist, Strongin's poetry and nonfiction have graced storySouth several times. With this anthology, though, Strongin has transcended everything she has accomplished as a writer. In one fell swoop she has provided proof that the elegy is not dead but instead thrives, blossoming forth from a new generation of poets.

The anthology opens with W. B. Yeats’s “An Irish Airman Foresees His Death” and continues through such well-know elegies as Tate's previously mentioned poem to lesser known poems like Billy Collins' masterful "The Dead." Perhaps because of the solemn, death-obsessed nature of Southern Literature, Southern writers are well represented in this anthology, with James Dickey (and his wonderful poem "Buckdancer's Choice"), R.T. Smith, G.C. Waldrep, Allen Tate, and Carolyn Maisel being just a few of the names here.

As someone who reads very few poetry anthologies each year, this is one I have found myself turning to time and again over the last two months. The poems here reassure and calm, teach and enlighten, and most of all connect us even more to life by going through the valley of death. I can not recommend this anthology enough.

Drivers, a new short story collection by Nathan Leslie

There are few experiences so quintessentially American as the automobile. Yes, the world is full of cars, with the Germans and Japanese car industries continually giving Detroit a run for its money. However, after spending a number of years overseas I believe I can safely state that most of the world sees the automobile very differently than Americans do.

You see, for much of the world a car is merely a status symbol or a means of getting from point A to point B (or, of course, both). In the United States, though, the automobile is a symbol of freedom. Yes, people in America purchase cars for the same reasons of status and transportation that appeal to people in other countries. But if one digs deeper into the American car psyche, one finds a deep yearning for freedom, for the ability to pick up and leave our old lives and drive around this gigantic country of ours and never stop. Forget about the car actually taking you someplace--the more important fact is the freedom the car could one day give you.

I have been thinking about the American love of cars while reading Nathan Leslie's new short story collection Drivers. Evey story in this collection focuses on cars, either through the vehicles themselves (such as a lovely Studebaker Starliner) or through the people who drive them. I have long been a fan of Nathan's first person writing style and this collection showcases his ability to great effect. However, if this was merely another collection of short stories, I doubt it would have siezed my imagination so tightly.

Instead, Nathan has woven his characters and stories into that most American of ideals--the freedom the automobile gives us, the freedom to drive away from our lives. Nevermind that many of the characters in this collection don't embrace this freedom, or if they do embrace it they don't know what to do with the gift they've been given. Instead these characters live their lives as we all live them: day by day, accident by accident, traffic jam by traffic jam. But despite this drudgery, the potential for freedom still lurks behind each story and that is what I loved about this book. That is also, I believe, why Americans love their cars. Even if you drive a beat-up minivan who's main purpose is driving the kids to and from soccer practice, when you grip that steering wheel you can at least dream of setting off down that highway and not stopping until your old life disappears in your rearview mirror.

Anyone who's found themself gripping their steering wheel in this type of manner will enjoy Nathan Leslie's new book.

Scott Yarbrough is storySouth's new fiction editor

As anyone who has submitted a fiction submission lately may have noticed, the reponse time has been a bit slow (glacial would perhaps be a better word). The fault for this rests solely with me. As storySouth has grown, instead of bringing on more editorial help I stubbornly decided to dig myself into a deeper and deeper hole with the fiction and nonfiction work.

The good news, though, is that after digging halfway to China, I've finally read the writing in the dirt. While I will continue to share co-editing work with Jake Adam York, and will retain responsibility for the Million Writers Award and nonfiction submissions, I am delegating all fiction editing to our new fiction editor, Scott Yarbrough.

Scott Yarbrough is a great fiction writer who has published fiction in Blackbird, Flyway, Apalachee Quarterly, The Clackamas Literary Review, New Orleans Review, Iron Horse Literary Review, and a number of other places. He has co-authored a textbook on literary studies and lives with his wife and two daughters in Charleston, South Carolina, where he teaches at a small college. Scott is also not a stranger to storySouth readers. His story "Stranded at the Top of a Ferris Wheel with Judy Long, County Fairgrounds, April 7, 1982" was published here in 2003 and honored as a story of the week selection by MobyLives.

I encourage people to drop Scott a line and welcome him aboard. In addition, he is now reading submissions for our fall 2006 issue. His contact information is on the guidelines page.

Oxford American's spring 2006 issue

I'm no longer feeling guilty about storySouth's spring/summer 2006 issue being a bit late. My reasoning: even though the temperature outside is in the mid 90s and July sits just around the corner, the spring issue of the Oxford American just hit the stands. As a son of the South, I'm certain that both of these late events result from the sluggishness of high temperatures and long, editorial fishing trips to cool, shady riverbanks.

That said, good things come to those who wait and the Oxford American's new issue if proof of this. The issue is titled "Best of the South." However, instead of mimicking the endless parade of "best of..." newspaper articles and books (featuring, for example, a list of the best barbecue places in the South), the editors of the OA have collected a series of odes to Southern cultural and physical landmarks.

One example of these odes is "An Ode to the Moon Winx Lodge Sign" by Michael Martone. This well written essay examines the history of a neon sign in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, as the sign's motel descends from a classy place to stay to an hourly rental spot to a flop house. Other essays in the issue explore such topics as odes to chicken feet, Memphis nights, and, in what must be one of my favorite titles, "An Ode to a Pretty Ugly Truck."

In recent decades the "ode" has fallen out of favor with many writers, so I am glad to see the OA bringing back this worthy part of our literary heritage. Check out the new issue of OA here.

Books to look for: Mockingbird : A Portrait of Harper Lee by Charles Shields

As readers of W.A. Bilen's wonderful essay "Hiding Harper Lee" already know, the greatest living enigma in Southern Literature is Harper Lee, author of the classic novel To Kill a Mockingbird.

While I agree with Bilen's point that people should respect Harper Lee's desire to have a normal life and to avoid the glitz and fanfare that have arisen around her only novel, I also understand that there are many people who desire to learn more about the author of what one of the top novels of the 20th century. For these people I suggest they check out Mockingbird : A Portrait of Harper Lee by Charles J. Shields. Shield's book examines Lee's life and her most famous book and puts to rest a famous rumor (that Truman Capote wrote To Kill a Mockingbird) while also pointing out that Lee had a much larger role in the creation of Capote's classic In Cold Blood than many people thought.

New issue of storySouth out in late July

As anyone who has submitted a story to storySouth may have noticed, our response time is lagging. The short reason for this is that we are awash in a deep sea of submissions. The good news, though, is that I'm bailing out my lifeboat and should get back to people on their submissions shortly. In addition, the next issue of storySouth will be a combined spring/summer issue and will be out by late July.

9/11 Haunts "Hole In The City"

Richard Bowes, whose story "There's a Hole in the City" recently won storySouth's 2006 Million Writers Award for best online fiction, is the subject of an article at SCI FI Wire. Bowes said that the story was inspired by the events of 9/11: "On 9/11 and for a few days afterwards, Greenwich Village where I live was partly cut off from the rest of the world. You had to show proof you lived here to enter the neighborhood. Outsiders could not come in without permission. No planes flew overhead; no cars moved on the narrow streets. It was, I think, closer to being a separate village than at any time since the early 19th century."


The Da Vinci Code Wins a Big One for Free Speech

In a victory for fiction authors, a judge in Britain has rejected a copyright-infringement claim by Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh, authors of The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail. Their book was one of many sources of information that Dan Brown used while researching his blockbuster The Da Vinci Code.

As I've said before, writers need to be very worried about continuing attempts to copyright and patent protect the ideas and plots which form the core of fictional writing.

My favorite part of the judge's ruling is this quote: "It would be quite wrong if fictional writers were to have their writings pored over in the way DVC (Da Vinci Code) has been pored over in this case by authors of pretend historical books to make an allegation of infringement of copyright." (emphasis mine)

Pretend historical books! Bet the authors who sued Dan Brown wish they'd just kept their unimaginative mouths shut.

Million Writers Award now open

The 2006 Million Writers Award is now open for nominations through March 1, 2006. As with the award in previous years, individuals may nominate one short story published in an online magazine and editors of online magazines and journals may nominate three of their stories. Only stories over a 1,000 words in length will be considered.

For more information, including how to nominate a story, go to the Million Writers Award page.

Walking History

Byron Williams writes over at The Huffington Post that he wants "a different King," a different Martin Luther King, Jr., than the one most at play in the popular culture. Williams prefers the uncompromising King of the "Letter from Birmingham Jail" to the less threatening King of the "I Have A Dream" speech and to the imminently-ascending King of "I've Been To the Mountaintop."

Williams writes:

If one dares to conduct a modicum of research, they may soon discover that contrary to the myth, the "I Have a Dream" speech may not be representative of King's best work of 1963, let alone his lifetime.

Earlier that year, King wrote his "Letter from Birmingham Jail," which was a radical, non conformist response to an open letter by eight white clergy that believed his methods were extreme and precipitated violence.


If I must watch King's final speech (I've Been to the Mountaintop) please show me more than the final 60 seconds where he seems to come to terms with the inevitability of his own death.

I want to hear the part of the speech were he links his movement to the "wells of democracy that were dug deep by the Founding Fathers." I would like to also hear how he was calling for economic boycotts, urging African Americans to exhort their economic strength by supporting black owned businesses.

This may be a King that is harder to digest. In fact, I am not certain that we even have a quorum to take up a vote for this King.

Indeed, the "I Have A Dream" speech is a perennial favorite and is much more well known than "Letter from Birmingham Jail," which I believe is not only one of King's great works but one of the greatest prose works in American literature.

"Letter from Birmingham Jail" contains my favorite sentence in all of English prose:

We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God-given rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jet-like speed toward gaining political independence, but we still creep horse-and-buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter. Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say "Wait." But when you have see vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she can't go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five-year-old son who is asking: "Daddy why do white people treat colored people so mean?"; when you take a cross-country drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading "white" and "colored"; when your first name becomes "nigger," your middle name becomes "boy" (howeverold you are) and your last name becomes "John," and your wife and mother are never given the respected title "Mrs."; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of "nobodiness"—then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience.

The long periodic sentence is one of my favorites because the syntax embodies the thought — having to wait for the main clause of the sentence, the grammatical delay, embodies and forces a kind of experience of the waiting King refuses. Frustrate your frustrators. King's protest philosophy embodied in language.

More readily quoted, however, are the dream-tableaus from the "I Have A Dream" speech:

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today.

I have a dream that one day down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of "interposition" and "nullification," one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers. I have a dream today.

I remember many times my own mother quoting from the last two of these paragraphs. In the hope for judgment "by the content of their character," my mother saw, I think, not just the hope of the Civil Rights movement, but as well the hope and promise of America. And because we were in Alabama, I think, my mother thought the image of white and black children joining hands was the image we had to realize. In those images, I think, my mother found a way to imagine herself and her children as participants in the struggle—she wasn't even old enough to drive when the great events in Birmingham and Montgomery, just a few hours away, swept the television screens—and I think that may explain why many people, many white people especially, may turn to "I Have A Dream."

Participation is still important, I think, even at this historical remove, and I know that Williams is calling for a more robust participation, which is why he's chagrinned at some of the more facile, more packaged forms of participation, asking "Can someone explain to me why Netscape is offering MLK Jr. weekend trips from $199.00?"

But I can't join Williams in equating common memorial forms with a kind of ameliorationism.

He writes:

How many reenactments of marches and "freedom rides" will it require before we realize that those of us that participate in such events are unwitting co-conspirators in a movement committed to making King as non-threatening as possible to the general public?

I find the tour a particularly important exercise.

Over the Christmas holidays, I drove across south Alabama from Dothan to Marion, where on February 18, 1965, one of the most important — and most forgotten — moments in the Civil Rights movement occurred.

That night, the congregation of the Zion AME church gathered to march from the church's front doors into the town square, gather outside the city jail and sing to James Orange, a voting rights coordinator who was being held there. Once they entered the square, they were met by the Marion police and a large contingent from the Alabama State Patrol and a number of other whites. Asked to disperse, the congregation stood while their Reverend knelt to pray. A state trooper clubbed the Reverend over the head, someone cut the lights in the square, and the police and state troopers began to beat everyone, even chasing the protesters into adjacent buildings, including a cafe, to continue the beating.

In Mack's Cafe, just behind the church, two troopers ascended to the upper room where they continued their beating. One of them beat an old man named Cager Lee. When Lee's grandson, Jimmie Lee Jackson, tried to protect him, a state trooper shot Jimmie Lee in the stomach and, according to some witnesses, drug Jimmie Lee downstairs and into the street to beat him further.

Jimmie Lee's shooting and subsequent death galvanized the Civil Rights movement. It led to the Selma gathering just weeks later, to Bloody Sunday, and the five-day march to Montgomery.

I drove to Marion to see the square, to understand the geography in which this all occurred. I drove to internalize the geography in which this all occurred, my plan to continue on to Selma and then to Montgomery, to trace the events of February and March 1965, from the shooting of Jimmie Lee Jackson to the shooting of Viola Liuzzo, my plan not to joy in the uplifting vision of Dr. King, but rather to look toward the terror that made the fight necessary, to look toward the terror of the fight, to take it in, as much as one can.

I grew up in Alabama, but I felt very out of place. As I walked around the square, a trio of gentlemen — one black, one white, one Asian — eyeballed me, knowing me foreign. Local suspicion is part of small town life, but in their gaze my respect was growing for those who came to these towns in the 60s from elsewhere and my respect was growing for those who stood up to the most powerful people they'd ever known.

Thinking back to King's refusal to wait, I can understand the motives to frustration, the call to action.

Much more difficult to understand, however, is the courage. And my own small Civil Rights tour made me admire the difficulty and the courage of the movement all the more.

An hour later, I was in Selma, outside Brown's Chapel where all Selma's protesters gathered. Outside the Chapel, as outside Marion's Zion, is a black granite slab inscribed with the names of those who fought in the movement. Here, too, is a monument to King that says "I Had a Dream." I wondered at this past tense. True enough, historically, King had his dream, but I didn't want to think of the dream being past as well, especially as, at that moment, I was the one white person anywhere to be seen.

To be there, to think about the beatings that cracked John Lewis's skull, that killed James Reeb, to wind through the almost claustrophobic streets of Selma and its sometimes ghostly buildings, to rise over the Alabama River on the Edmund Pettus bridge and cruise through the slow rolling barrens and swamplands, to consider the five-day march, their sleeping in fields in the hard wet cold that it seems only Alabama can harbor — well, all that was nothing, really. Just a day's drive. Nothing.

But it made me recall that the marching wasn't just about walking. It was about putting the body in harm, both the more immediate harm of the billy-club or the attack dog and the slower harms of miles of hard clay and cold, about opening one's self, not just to be seen, to be witnessed, but as well to be tracked, followed, perhaps attacked, as Viola Liuzzo was on March 25, 1965, hours after the climactic speech on the Capitol steps in Montgomery.

There, King recalled the martyrs of the movement, including Jackson and Reeb. Liuzzo would go later that night. "In spite of this," he wrote, in spite of their deaths, "we must go on and be sure that they did not die in vain. The pattern of their feet as they walked through Jim Crow barriers in the great stride toward freedom is the thunder of the marching men of Joshua, and the world rocks beneath their tread."

King said as well:

... it was normalcy in Marion that hled to the brutal murder of Jimmie Lee Jackson. It was normalcy in Birmingham that led to the murder on Sunday morning of four beautiful, unoffending, innocent girls. It was normalcy on Highway 80 that led state troopers to use tear gas and horses and billy clubs against unarmed human beings who were simply marching for justice. It was normalcy by a cafe in Selma, Alabama, that led to the brutal beating of Reverend James Reeb.

If we drive, if we tour, if we walk, let it be not, as Williams worries, to take from the movement what King called "a certain kind of fire that no water can put out." Rather let us go in order to keep the stories of that fight from sinking back like footsteps into weathered ground. Let us go to find their footprints and to keep it all from being normalized.

I'm writing this from Denver, where I work, and Monday is Martin Luther King Day. My wife and I plan to join the city's "marade," a march/parade from Civic Center Park to City Park where stands a statue of Martin Luther King, Jr. Denver, I suspect, was much more hospitable in the 1960s than either Selma or Marion, so I won't feel the unease I felt in Marion, but we'll still be walking for something, if for nothing else then to make our bodies feel something small we can multiply in imagination into some astonished, admiring disbelief. Or into some astonished, admiring belief.