Animal Rights Fiction: A Solution?

The two questions I get asked most frequently at Lantern are: (1) “Do you publish fiction on animal advocacy?” (“No.”), and (2) “Do you know of any publishers that do?” I mention Ashland Creek Press (doing sterling work in this area), but then usually observe that, when it comes to fiction, it’s not so much the subject matter as the genre that counts (literary fiction, mystery, thriller, romance, sci-fi, fantasy, etc.). If your work is a good fit generically, then the subject matter fades in importance (although you hope that the editor/agent will be persuaded by the vividness of your prose to adopt your cause).

Options exist, of course, for self-publishing, and there now are a raft of e-book publishers offering varying degrees of access for readers or writers. Recently, however, I’ve been convinced that a much more exciting and viable route is opening up for animal advocates who love to read or write fiction . . . of whatever kind. Regular readers of this blog will know that I’ve been placing my short stories on Wattpad, a popular site for free genre e-fiction that is regularly trawled by editors and agents looking for new talent. Another platform is Smashwords, where you can offer lots of different kinds of work for free or for money. Both platforms allow a reader and writer to define their genre and sub-genre. Here are Wattpad’s genres; here are Smashwords’s.

Notice anything unusual? No “Animals” section. (This is strange, since many genres include animals in some way—good-looking people turning into wolves or bats, for instance, appears to be popular.) What would happen if writers about animals—short stories or long-form, of whatever genre—took to these and other platforms to showcase their work? Naturally, writers might have to set aside the dream of monetary gain (no matter how fantastical that might be), but it’s my bet that most writers, given the choice, would prefer to be widely read than earn a few shillings for their labor. However, this need not be a zero-sum game, and the benefits would be considerable.

A body of work from multiple authors under its own genre-heading would (a) attract readers who are interested in animals but not necessarily aware of the issues that we advocates care about; (b) provide community, solidarity, and mutual education for animal advocates who write fiction; and (c) offer agents and publishers access to talented writers and a sense of whether folks are interested in reading them. This, in turn, might turn into (d) potential publishing contracts for the more successful of the collective, and further encourage writers, readers, and publishers to pay attention.

Writers (and publishers) have to go where their readers are. Increasingly, those readers are going online to join communities of likeminded fans to read and write fiction (of admittedly variable quality) that is immediately accessible. This is especially true of fiction and genre fiction in particular. It would be a shame if animal advocates missed out.

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Habeas Corpus: An Analysis

I’ve posted another short story on Wattpad, this one almost entirely lighthearted. It was my immediate response to learning the premise of Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert. “I can only imagine,” I said to myself, and “Habeas Corpus” was the result of that imagining. To my surprise, when I no longer needed to imagine and actually read Gilbert’s book, I found my story eerily prescient—both conceptually and thematically. “Habeas Corpus” is, as its title suggests, a reflection on what it means to have a body and to be subject to its desires. The story is about Carol, needy and impulsive, whose wish for a kind of transcendence is thwarted by her own choices and, more pointedly, by the preconceptions, judgments, and impulses of the men she encounters. It’s also a gentle satire on the language of self-help and personal growth. I had a lot of fun writing it, and I hope you will have as much—or even more—fun reading it.

Posted in Short Stories, Writing

Norm Phelps (1939–2014)

Norm Phelps

Norm Phelps

Norm Phelps—the author of four books (The Longest Struggle, The Great Compassion, The Dominion of Love, and Changing the Game), all of which were published by my company, Lantern Books—died on the last day of last year, less than a year after the passing of Rynn Berry: another writer,  independent scholar, and friend. I was proud to be Norm’s publisher and learned a huge amount from his work and his insights. He was an exceptional writer. Not only was his prose clear and passionate, but he presented his manuscripts with the highest degree of professionalism. They were accurately footnoted and properly formatted, which saved me a great deal of time and gave me extra confidence that Norm knew what he was talking about. He received my editorial suggestions gracefully and willingly, again demonstrating how good a writer he was. (In my judgment, those who accept editorial suggestions are usually the best writers; those who refuse to change a word are the worst!)

Most importantly, Norm had something to say—and he did so with compassion as well as passion. He struck me as a very reasonable man: someone not interested in the petty brouhahas that bubble up constantly in the animal advocacy movement. He took the long view and I very much appreciated that. In fact, I thought Changing the Game precisely encapsulated his thesis that animal advocacy needs to place itself within the long arc of social justice movements and not worry about immediate success when other movements took many decades to do so.

I will be forever grateful for Norm’s vocal and demonstrable support for the magazine that I co-founded, Satya, and for Lantern, which he championed at every opportunity. Norm truly appreciated independence of thought, and put his time and money where his mouth was. He took books seriously—including, to my surprise, mine. He kindly took the time and the energy to review The Polar Bear in the Zoo and The Elephants in the Room at length and with his customary acumen and generosity. It’s rare these days to find people who’ll not only read your writing but pay you the compliment of an honest review. He did both, and I was deeply touched by that generosity.

I recall I first heard Norm speaks at an outdoor rally back in the early 2000s, when he worked for The Fund for Animals. I believe he was speaking on why the animal advocacy movement should reach out to people of faith. I don’t remember much of the day, except that it rained and Norm talked with the perspective of someone who’d lived his beliefs and wasn’t just spouting bromides and scriptural quotations.

In recent years, illness had hampered Norm’s ability to attend conferences and meet his fans. I  regret that I didn’t get to know him better over the years. We don’t honor our elders in the movement very well, and that’s very much to be regretted. Our company, the movement, and the world are much enhanced with Norm having been a part of all of them.

Posted in Editing—Publishing—Writing, Publishing, The Elephants in the Room, The Polar Bear in the Zoo, Writing | Tagged , ,

The Squeeze: An Analysis

Stuart Wilde

Stuart Wilde

This is a brief description of the source and origin of “The Squeeze,” a short story I posted on Wattpad a few weeks ago.

Way back in 1991, I worked as the mail-order manager for the U.K. distributor of a large number of small U.S. independent publishers—most of them specializing in New Age spirituality or alternative modalities of living and breathing. I wrote catalog copy and handled the mailing list and awaited the owner of the company (who doubled as the catalog designer) to get around to finishing his work. It so happened that he came from Canvey Island.

One of the individuals distributed by the company, and about whom I had to compose a few words, was a personal growth guru by the name of Stuart Wilde. Through the inspiration of the photograph above, he became the genesis of Mickey Melon. Now I have absolutely no evidence that Stuart Wilde, who died in 2013, was anything other than an upstanding and thoughtful counselor of the human condition. “The Squeeze” is by no means a statement on Stuart Wilde’s work and thought, about which I have no comment. The photo above says more about 1980s fashion than it does about Stuart, who, judging by the encomia on his website, appears to have had a sense of humor, which is how I would have hoped he would have taken this story, had he lived to read it.

I’ve always been interested in gurus who are part flimflam artists and part genuinely insightful into the spiritual life. In some ways, that may be my very definition of the guru. One day, I plan to write a novel about a character based on Simon Magus, the charismatic fraud who taunts St. Paul in Acts of the Apostles to prove exactly what makes him different from (and inferior to) Jesus Christ. I admire such an individual’s self-confidence and frequently accompanying wit, and so it is with the hapless Ganesh and the rambunctious force of nature that is Mickey Melon. And, like Melon, I happen to have no problem with the placebo as a means of healing. If it works, why worry about how or why?

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Fçñp: An Analysis

The Sparrow

The Sparrow

A few weeks ago, I published a short story on Wattpad about a female named Fçñp (don’t worry: the name’s deliberately unpronounceable). Here are a few of my thoughts explaining my choices and some of intentions with the short story.

Several years ago, I was lying in a hammock under a cloudless blue sky at a beachside eco-resort in Belize (now there’s an opening clause!) reading Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow when I was overcome with an irresistible urge to parody it. The Sparrow and its sequel, Children of God, are two highly imaginative and wonderfully well-executed examples of “first-contact” narratives: stories of what happens when one civilization meets an alien society and there are no obvious means of communicating with and/or understanding the other. Russell is an anthropologist by profession, and her story of how a Jesuit-led mission to a distant planet in search of the beings who produce a beautiful music, and what happens when the mission arrives, is informed by the history of Western civilizations’ encounter with the Aztec, Inca, and Mayan empires (as well as the societies of the native peoples of North America). She admirably demonstrates in her two books that these conquests weren’t simply about scientific curiosity, pure greed, and the desire to grab as much land for one’s patria as possible, but were also motivated by genuine spiritual beliefs. She also shows how what results on first contact—often accompanied with turmoil, destruction, and loss—isn’t necessarily anybody’s fault or bad faith, but the result of the inevitable cross-pollination of preconceived cultural expectations.

It turns out that the haunting music emanates from a highly refined race of beings whose aristocratic, even exquisite, civilization is founded on the brutal exploitation and suppression of the more numerous, but more agrarian creatures. The arrival of the Earth mission inevitably sets in motion the upending of the social order and tragedy for the human beings. Russell demonstrates that sometimes beauty arises from terror and that democracy sometimes requires the destruction of the aristocratic culture that came before.

As a vegan used to being greeted with mystification and occasionally suspicion over my choice of diet and lifestyle, I’ve occasionally felt that I’m a creature from another planet. It was too good a joke to miss in making fun of myself and the bafflement that greets me not to turn myself into a Vegan. It was an enjoyable challenge to create wholly unlikely creatures by rephrasing common idioms based on physical gestures—“to bat one’s eyelids,” and so on. I let the parody flow and it turned, quite rapidly, into a space version of Casablanca: where an impossible love briefly flourishes before the heroine is forced to leave and the hero returns to virtually certain death.

To my surprise, the story evolved into something more serious—an indication that my urge to pastiche The Sparrow overlay an actual emotional and intellectual impulse. The short story becomes a reflection of my fear that Earth will suffer the same fate as our hero’s adopted cluster because of our failure to grasp how serious our predicament is. In that regard, I had in mind the admonitions of that wonderful (and funny) Cold War film The Day the Earth Stood Still (the 1951 version, of course). I would hope that we will wake up before it’s too late, but I can see us following exactly the trajectory that awaits the doomed mission and its cluster.

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The Merchants of Venice: An Analysis

Merchant of Venice

Edward Hall’s The Merchant of Venice at BAM

A few weeks ago, I published a short story on Wattpad called “The Merchants of Venice.” This essay will explain what I was trying to do with the short story and unpack some of its influences.

In 2009, I attended a production of The Merchant of Venice by Edward Hall’s Propeller Company at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. I knew the play well, having taken the role of Bassanio in high school and studied Shakespeare at college. Hall’s production, however, offered a radical departure from the norm. Not only was Propeller an all-male company, but the entire play was set in a prison. The Christian merchants—Antonio, Gratiano, Bassanio, and Lorenzo—were a gang seeking power over a Jewish gang led by an equally tough Shylock, for control of the jail and access to the “women,” who in this case were the prison “wives” of the dominant gang members.

I found the production revelatory. Merchant had always struck me as more of “problem” play—more akin to the cynical Troilus and Cressida and nausea-inducing Measure for Measure than the delightful As You Like It, rambunctious Twelfth Night, or playful Much Ado About Nothing. There is no disguising Merchant’s anti-Semitism or the mercenariness of the male protagonists. What has tended to be hidden, however, by the pretty language and the supposed paradise of Portia’s estate in Belmont are the intersecting bonds transacted and extended throughout Merchant. Not only did Propeller’s production make Belmont fantastical—since these men were never getting out of jail to go anywhere—but it brought forth, in the most literal way possible, their enforced and perpetual situational bondage.

One obvious bond is Shylock’s arrangement with Antonio for a loan of money in exchange for a pound of the Christian’s flesh. It is simultaneously a contractual agreement and a metaphorical tie between Christian and Jew—one that binds them emotionally and psychologically together, to either’s disgust. Such emotional and financial bonds—between Antonio and Bassanio; between Portia and her late father; between Portia and her would-be husbands; and Jessica and her father Shylock—reveal a world where love is inextricably bound to the promise and acquisition of money. In fact, one might go so far as to say that love is money. Even though Portia’s dead father has tried to educate her on the meaning of true love, and Bassanio makes the right choice in picking the casket of the “least” value, the suitor is, quite literally, a financial speculator as much as a romancer. Bassanio’s, Gratiano’s, and Lorenzo’s speculation pays off handsomely.

Propeller’s production brought out starkly the “bond” that men share and the homoeroticism of men conspiring to gain access to women and their money. Hall highlighted how women, through marriage, are stripped of their independence and wealth. Devoid of the delusions of romance and with everyone locked away in prison, this production showed clearly how dominant men competed with other dominant men for sex, money, and status; and yet how all the would-be players were ultimately constrained by a system (capitalism, perhaps) that held them unwittingly together in bondage. The flip-side of bondage is betrayal or forfeiture, and the play is full of it: Jessica betrays Shylock; Bassanio betrays the love that Antonio bears him by effectively leaving him for a woman; Shylock’s bond is forfeited when Portia, in the disguise of Balthasar, betrays the Jew in court by asking for mercy and then deploying legalism to win the case; and Lorenzo and Jessica’s great encomium to love in Act V Scene I (“The moon shine’s bright) presents a litany of lovers who have betrayed and cheated.

* * *

Cannibalism in Autumn

Cannibalism in Autumn

These were the themes that I took into the story that became “The Merchants of Venice.” The main character, Tony, is obviously a stand-in for Antonio. Like the Shakespearean character, Tony is a merchant and single. Shakespeare always leaves someone alone at the end of his major comedies: Antonio in Merchant, Jacques in As You Like It, The Captain and Malvolio in Twelfth Night, Don Pedro in Much Ado About Nothing. Some have argued that this is Shakespeare’s psychological response to thwarted homosexual love that (then) had no option for marriage. That seems to me to be the least interesting theory. More intriguing (to me) is the concept that the singleton sees marriage for what it (then) was—a contractual exchange of property among men. Burned by an impossible love, the lone figure has no time for the delusions that genuine affection can last a lifetime or for the supposed notion that genuine love can exist only in marriage. The lone figure is therefore the most honest, or at least the most open-eyed about life.

With this in mind, I decided to make Tony cynical and knowing—and the world in which he moves exploitative and dehumanizing. He trades in human beings, forming bonds with women and girls young enough to be his daughter through money or the addicting ties of hard drugs. He lives in a world where no one is who they seem to be, where love is always purchased or sold, and where the pounds of flesh that he commodifies are extracted through exploitation and in mutual parasitism—rather as in Dali’s Cannibalism in Autumn (above). It seemed a fair reflection of Shakespeare’s world—at least as expressed through Propeller’s production of Merchant. Tony’s sangfroid is hard won: he’s careful to hide his emotions, particularly when it might manifest itself in fear, behind a veneer of nonchalant superciliousness.

I populated the story with other names from Merchant—Lorenzo and Jessica—and made Tony’s brother and sister-in-law William and Kate (after Shakespeare and the name that Shakespeare gives his sparkier female characters). Tony’s escort became Bianca, or “white,” to play on the name given (occasionally ironically) to virtuous virgins in Shakespearean and Jacobean dramas (cf. Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew and Thomas Middleton’s Women Beware Women). The one sop to my own experience was to recall my aunt’s concern regarding her daughter’s marriage to her husband that she would be swaddled in love and not allowed to grow as her own woman. Thankfully, this concern has not proven true. As in Merchant, the relationship that truly matters is between two men: in my story that between the two brothers. I had my own brother in my imagination as I wrote the dialogue between Tony and William—although my brother’s children aren’t yet old enough to be married, and I haven’t ever seen my brother drunk. I also expressed a genuine emotion when I describe Tony’s voice thickening over never having children.

Finally, a word about Tony’s phrase “le point vierge.” The phrase was coined by the French Catholic theologian Louis Massignon, and was taken up by the American Trappist monk Thomas Merton. It literally means “the virgin point,” and refers to that part of the soul that remains immaculate and/or the genesis point of spiritual purification. Here Antonio, ever the cynic, is corrupting the phrase to refer to Jessica’s physical and metaphorical deflowering following her wedding. He is also expressing contempt for a notion of marriage whereby a relationship is made “honest” by the sacrament.

That said, almost in spite of himself Tony recognizes that in Jessica and Lorenzo’s marriage is the possibility of a rededication to another, more authentic set of relationships between a couple than have defined his life heretofore. Tony knows that William sees through his glib sophistication. Although William doesn’t really press Tony on what he does for a living, Tony is fully aware that William is comfortable with the choices that he (William) has made, in a way that Tony is not with his own. Their relationship may depend upon subterfuge—on not stating out loud what Tony does for a living—but Tony and William rely on the other’s discretion, and that is enough to sustain them. That’s why, even though William’s drunken observation that Tony could do worse than marry Bianca is shot through with a teasing, passive-aggressive irony, it’s also a genuine wish on William’s behalf that Tony find some permanent happiness. I left the tone of Tony’s response deliberately vague. We, like Tony, have no idea of who Bianca is and what she genuinely wants for her future.

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The Enigma of Departure: An Analysis

Enigma of Arrival

The Enigma of Arrival

Last week, I posted a short story on Wattpad called “The Enigma of Departure.” The story takes its title from the Italian metaphysical painter Giorgio de Chirico’s painting The Enigma of Arrival (left). I have been interested in de Chirico’s paintings, particularly his pittura metafisica period, for what I take as their metaphors about an alienated human condition within an urban, even wholly aestheticized space. The Enigma of Arrival is, as the title suggests, elusive: conjuring up images of expectation; an encroaching and vaguely menacing darkness; and cloaked and anonymous, faceless figures amid architectural symbols that feel portentous or ominous, without any clear identification of what, if anything, they portend. To me, de Chirico’s work of this period has a melancholic and valedictory feel, as though we’d at last stumbled upon a scene where something significant had occurred that might have changed us or altered the trajectory of our lives but which had concluded a few hours before we arrived. This was the mood I aimed to capture in “The Enigma of Departure.”

Nighthawks

Nighthawks

The short story began as an exercise in the use and variation of an extended metaphor about space and time. I wanted to constrain my characterization of any protagonists within the framework of spatial and temporal metaphors, much as the individuals within the frame of a work of art are similarly held in space and time. I drew upon (left) Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks (and numerous film noir tropes) for some of the spatio-temporal metaphors that Josh’s girlfriend calls forth. Like de Chirico’s world, Hopper’s vision in this painting is of disconnected and faceless individuals stuck in an eerily becalmed and alienated urban landscape. Both Hopper and de Chirico provide their paintings with a great deal of stillness and silence and interiority, even though both depict an exterior and the individuals are observed at a dispassionate distance. I like that both paintings show that even a warm light need not necessarily lead to connection or comfort. When I thought of contemporary architectural urban space, I likewise thought of this scene (below): again, virtually devoid of animate life, expressive of arrival and departure, and yet also silence and solitariness.

Washington Street, Brooklyn

Washington Street, Brooklyn

I wanted to capture the same mood in “The Enigma of Departure.” The characters we read about should feel at once close to us and yet unknowable. Everyone in the short story is arriving too late (or at the incorrect conclusion) or choosing the wrong rendezvous, not merely metaphorically but also aesthetically, since Josh and his girlfriend occupy very different conceptual spaces (literally). It felt important to me as a representation of their utterly contradictory visions that Josh should be named and his girlfriend should remain anonymous—her irony and despair emerging through a close third-person narrative that maintained its distance through the governing metaphors, and which gave the reader the impression that she was observing herself going through the motions (sic) of grief. We are meant to see from the outset that she knows that, for all the attractiveness of his energy, Josh is an absurd figure, his freneticism and self-regard not merely representational of his youth but of his failure to take the time truly to be present to and with his girlfriend. That she is effectively unknown to us, the reader, mirrors how self-absorbed Josh is.

Her stillness and her attention to detail make her the target for Josh’s family’s casually devastating pronouncements and, more cruelly, the scapegoat for their grief. I wanted the reader to feel how unfair it was that she should be obliged to carry the weight of his death around with her, when she didn’t know Josh well and didn’t even imagine that their relationship would last. The reader should recognize how young she is to have been loaded down with so much, and yet to suspect that she knows how inconsequential, trite, and even preposterous were Josh and her post-adolescent sensibilities and the couple’s half-assed and clichéd gestures toward a kind of grand amour.

To place so much emotional and narrative burden on an extended metaphor—albeit one with the potential for a knowing irony and deliberately euphuistic excess—is risky. “The Enigma of Departure” could be accused of being mannered and artificial, all style and no feeling. I’m aware that, as in a de Chirico, one could fill a canvas with symbols that carry a certain dream-like associative power (the sculpted torso, the pillar; in my case, the bridge and the open-topped automobiles moving along a road at night) to generate an artificial depth of meaning that might “fool” the viewer into supplying the vision with more weight and emotional power than it might “deserve.” However, as my quote marks indicate, I’m not convinced that one can determine what is merely gestural and fake and what is not—especially in the strange, haunted plazas of a de Chirico dreamscape or in the imagination of two characters who are so committed to the artifice of their romantic spaces.

And yet. . . . There is something magnificent and attractive about the foolishness of young love and its temporary absoluteness—about, one might even say, its commitment to filling the anonymity and lack of specificity of space and time with meaning and import. My hope is that the reader glimpses through the irony and narrative coolness—that in fact the irony and coolness for all their deflective qualities actually bring into focus—the woman’s need to be seen and to be free to dream of genuine togetherness and the romance of the journey.

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