Now that John Freeman’s Arrival … arrived, we must forcibly take off our rose colored glasses. In reading current literary fiction and poetry, the ivory tower’s hush of selection begs a clarion call for renewal of strength, that life’s blood given to birth literary work. Literary writing demands nothing less.
Let’s start by touching on John Freeman. As noted on the jacket of his new anthology, Freeman was the editor of Granta until 2013, has written his own share of acclaimed work, is an executive editor at The Literary Hub, and teaches at the New School and NYU. He also happens to be a former president of the National Book Critics Circle.
But what have you done for me lately?
Freeman is a wunderkind of the literary world in the best sense. As writer, editor, and now in a way, curator, his life’s work thus far forces our eyes (enjoyably) into crevices and forks that otherwise go unnoticed. His new anthology, the first of many he plans to produce biannually, took risks that should have been taken by others years ago, namely, ignoring convention to collect what he considers the best short works, whether it be fiction, non-fiction, or poetry, all bound in one volume.
I’m not using a star system here. I hate the star system. As if the blood of writers and editors outpouring can be encapsulated numerically one to five. Read reviews. Read this review. Then read the book or not. But I say read the book, regardless of what this review says, because you will be doing literature a favor and god knows the literary world needs all the readers it can get.
The downside is Arrival reflects the state of literary work today. I want to unfairly use a slang term that generalizes all of it. I want to call it MFA writing. It doesn’t matter whether the writers in Arrival have MFAs—they’ve mastered the form. The correct way to put it would be to say, the works to a one, regardless of the intricacies of each author’s world, stand as exemplars of the style and form of literary work that is in vogue. The world is insular but the circles are large. To blame MFA is to ignore how all aspects of culture shift to this and that until something finally comes along to shift it again. Like art and television, the MFA world both reflects and perpetuates.
The perpetuation in the literary community I find is a distance; an abyss pointedly placed there by the writer. The reader cannot relate in the most primal and important ways that a reader connects to a story. I’m not suggesting that all stories read like Howl. Intricate, subversive, avant garde, and complicated writing can connect just as easily.
And so, to Arrival. I let some time go by between reading the anthology and writing this review in order to gain perspective. I considered what Freeman must have had to go through: brazenly combining format; the need to gain an audience; placing well known writers alongside unknowns; the need to publish the best. I consider that including On Learning Norwegian by Lydia Davis was a jump through the literary world of form.
Then I think of Lidia Yukanavitch, admittedly one of my favorite writers, and how her earlier works lacked, to me, that fire I look for to make them memorable, while a simple more recent article of hers in a Literary Magazine (Guernica) made me sit up and not want to sleep for days. Lydia Davis takes me to Clarice Lispector whose form is still not accepted in America but who was a wunderkind, just like Freeman, bringing to us something alien and artful, books I had to read; there was simply no choice.
And then I tried to remember what I read in Freeman’s Arrival. For example, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline by George Saunders is not a book that I will forget. Neither is Freeman’s Arrival, as a whole. I can’t say the same for all the works within. There is a sense of “oh, yeah,” going back to it. Now I remember. Now the feelings while reading Garments by Tahmima Anam and Black and Blueby Garnette Cadogan are exhumed even as I jump in my mind to Claudia Rankine’s Citizen and anything by Lidia Yukanavitch and wonder if all good literary work must now balance on the head of the pin of injustice. The beauty of Honor Moore in The Mogal Gardens Near Mahresonates as one of the few pieces of poetry in the collection.
But then I want to think of the poet Frank Stanford and The Singing Knives and three bullets to the heart and I realize this is why I am adamant that all writing should make us feel or think, whether subtle and sonorous or fiery, to take us to depths or heights that we must reach.
There are familiar names in Arrival. Names that will perhaps drive (drove) more to read the anthology: Murakmi and Eggers. There are literary names that will be recognized: Simpson and Davis.
Was this Dave Egger’s best? I think not. Exposition aside, his work in this collection is essentially a build up to a one joke punch line. Etgar Karet’s, Mellow is the specific piece that prodded my distaste for current literary trends. It felt to me as much poetry does today, perfect in form, interesting enough to read, yet leaving me with nothing. Why do I care about this story? What has the writer conveyed to me? Why is this something that matters?
Fatin Abbas, On a Morning, left me similarly bereft. It feelslike it should be a great piece. There is one line in the very last paragraph that is meaningful. Was that one line worth the story? I can’t say it was because the thought is not even novel. No wonder the story feels important. Abbas has a Ph.D. in comparative literature from Harvard. She’s also international. She’s an activist. She’s involved with the world. Why then am I left bereft?
These are examples of the main problem I had with Arrival.
I’m currently looking at Solmaz Sharif, another poet, who like Claudia ran with a style, armed [ARMED] for example in her poem Dear Intelligence Journal. But one poem is enough. It’s a style that drones on to make its point in poem after poem. New and shiny. Dying for justice. A splash from an imprint that wants to make splashes like Leslie Jamison’s Empathy Exams and Rankine’s Citizen. Dying–no–living for heart.
But then we are actually dying for justice. Literally. Hashtag Alton Sterling and what is the count now? Alton Sterling was a man, not to be reduced to a hashtag. What the hell are we supposed to write about in this world? How are we to assimilate what we naively believe to be extremes only to find out through video cams, and writing like Claudia Rankine’s and Solmaz Sharif, that we live in the middle of daily wars–too many to recognize.
Is that what writing is for? Is that what stories that break your heart can do? Can we go to our heights and depths and pleasure and take off our glasses still to see the reality before us that makes us want to look away?
How are we to assess the difference between Found Poetry, shining for a moment as do all things new and fab and others who aren’t even part of the Literary world yet, like those who post slam poetry that makes you want to take up arms. Easily, I say. Easily. Just watch and listen to some of the vivid talent in the poetry slams on You Tube.
But Literary Magazines don’t showcase that format. And Literary compilations like Freeman’s Arrival get stuck. Stuck walking a thin line that is not enough and too much at the same time. So John Freeman distresses me. What is he to do? His best, sir. His best.
I want writing I read to start a dead heart. I want words to jump off the page at me and to feel exhausted when I’m done. Give me your best. Give me your soul. The best should be nothing less. I hope for more anthologies from Freeman and will read them with anticipation. Upon writing this review I feel as if I’ve shot an arrow into someone inside a system actually trying to create a shift. That is not my intention.
Arrival was a gift from Freeman to us. For that, we should all be grateful.
But is grateful enough?
Perhaps we should be more.
About the author:
K. D. Rose is a poet and author. K.D.’s favorite writers are dead and her other favorite writers are unknowns she reads in Literary magazines. K.D. regrets not possessing a piece of paper that says MFA but hopes you won’t hold that against her. K. D.’s book, Inside Sorrow, won Readers Favorite Silver Medal for Poetry. Publication is also forthcoming in Word Riot, Poetry Breakfast, Stray Branch Magazine, Strange Poetry, and The Nuclear Impact Anthology. Her poetry and short stories have been published in Candlelit Journal, the Voices Project, showcased in the Tophat Raven Art and Literary Magazine, and on Creative Thresholds online. Her latest release is Brevity of Twit. She has a B.S. in Psychology and a Master’s Degree in Social Work.