Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Review: Pocket Kings by Ted Heller

Many a novel has been written satirizing, in some form or fashion, the literary world and its pretentious, back-stabbing denizens. However, most of the works within this sub-genre seem too much like shooting fish in a barrel or self-congratulatory or, most commonly, quickly outdated. That Pocket Kings by Ted Heller, son of Joseph Heller, suffers from none of these defects is a testament to the author's talent and his ceaseless and unflinching eye towards exposing contemporary literature's marginal status and fixation on sales as the benchmark of "success." One of the refrains of this brilliant novel is protagonist Frank Dixon's obsessive/self-absorbed/nervous glance at his sales rankings (he's the author of several hack novels). On page three of Pocket Kings Dixon is America's 711,653rd most popular novelist (better than your truly, I kept thinking).

Realizing his career is going nowhere fast, Dixon gives up, dives headlong into the world of online gambling (he goes by the name Chip Zero) and lies to his wife and friends that he's writing his next book--all the while earning hundreds and thousands of dollars gambling (and flirting) with people he's never met. Gambling is one of the few things in life Dixon admits that he's actually good at.

In other words, the protagonist turns on its head the old ironically inspirational nugget from Samuel Beckett: "Try again. Fail again. Fail better." Nah, Dixon argues. If your ranking is in the 700,000s, give up and find something else more pleasurable and profitable to do. Life is too short. This is both the heart of Pocket Kings and its most controversial point. Giving up is anathema to the literati raised on the belief/fallacy that hard work eventually pays off. But--this novel proffers--what if it doesn't? What if the dream of literary reward is a bogus offering, a chimera based on good old American false optimism and creative writing boosterism. This novel points out the hard truth: the literary world can only accommodate an extremely small set of winners. Everyone else loses. Heller points out that despite the touchy-feely encouragement, finding success in writing books is just like everything else these days--acting, professional sports, art, music. Most of the competitors fail.

Peppered with real contemporary references rather than fictionalized versions thereof, Pocket Kings is a delicious read: Kim Kardashian, Charlie Rose, A Million Little Pieces. Nothing and no one is spared. This novel portrays the contemporary winner-takes-all-mentality vividly, from the loser's point of view. It is a culture in which the celebrity writer flavor of the month garners the sales and attention, while the midlist authors are relegated to bottomfeeding. Throughout the novel Dixon has a particular loathing of slick over-hyped Post-Modernists--Johnathan Franzen, Jonathan Safran Foer, Jonathan Lethem, Michael Chabon, and David Eggers. Dixon fantasizes sucker-punching the likes of them.

And yet. Heller saves the juiciest nuggets for Dixon's alternate reality--online gambling. It is by playing cards that Dixon exposes his latent addictive tendencies. What Pocket Kings suggests is that many writers, mediocre or otherwise, would rather be doing something else with their time other than writing. Why? In Pocket Kings Heller suggests this has to do with the fact that the cut-throat nature of the literary sphere is such that "conversations between two writers are like two dogs casually sniffing each other's rear ends and then ten seconds later gouging out each other's throats." One page later Heller compares the smell of another writer's book in galleys to "changing the diapers of someone else's baby." Soon after Dixon writes a cheesy blurb for a book he has never read. It's the kind of blurb any writer knows might easily find its way onto the back matter of his/her novel with or without his consent. Heller exposes the tit-for-tatness of literary goings-on for what it is--a sham, a game in which the participants pat each other's backs and trade favors for mutual self-benefit.

Pocket Kings is not a perfect novel. Heller could have trimmed a few pages here and there and benefitted. Some sections of the novel are, in its satirizing, a smidge over-the-top (but not many). However, for the most part Pocket Kings is top-shelf material--high satire which not only offers bone-crunching truths worthy of a non-fiction expose, but also a wealth of insight writers might glean from their own writerly worlds. Afterall, Dixon is the "master of the suburban mimetic" (the book is filled with such sly digs and literary affectations). Pocket Kings is both a cautionary tale, and also perhaps a path to a form of literary liberation.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

A Sliver of Silver

Like most Americans I spend far too much time in my car. Not only do I live 40 minutes away from where I work (which is about average nationwide), but my various hobbies, interests, social outings, and errands, put me on the asphalt frequently. So I think about cars a lot--far more than they deserve.

In fact I could probably write a thousand little essays on various little car-related observations on top of the book of short fiction I've already scribbled on the subject.

One of the societal certainties over the past few years has to do with the uptick in silver and pewtery paint jobs for automobiles. According to the New York Times (Oct. 8th, 2010) nearly 31% of new automobiles are silver or silverish (gray, etc.) in hue. That's a whole lot of silver paint jobs. The question is: why?


1. Silver=money. This is the Jaguar effect. If you buy a $12,000 silver Hyundai (like I did) it will look like a more expensive car, or so the thinking goes. This is keeping up with the Joneses. This is car manufacturers offering the illusion of style rather than actual style. This is the 21st Century disco effect--everything should be smooth and chic (silver finishes are apparently more expensive). However, when every car is silver does silver still glitter?

2. Silver is colorless. Despite the appearance of glitz and glimmer, silver is understated. How many gold cars do you see on the road? Gold on automobiles is gauche. Silver says upper-middle class classy-but-not-in-your-face. Silver says you too can buy me.

3. Silver is depressed. And still on a cold winter afternoon silver cars seem lifeless. Something about the silver fad makes me think subconsciously we are buying cars as suits--something to wear (drive) to the office. We no longer drive because we want to, we drive because we have to. Silver is an affirmation of this. Cars fit to make a professional appearance.

4. It's a recession color. With the decline of the stock market and dollar, what does best? Gold and silver. Silver is a precious metal you can drive.

5. We were supposed to have flying cars by this point, right? That's what we learned on The Jetson's, at least. Silver automobiles won't fly, but they might resemble the color of jetliners, which might have the same subliminal effect, or something.

6. Silver blends right in. It's similar in color, most noticeably, to the road on which we drive--which, at least in my area, is only a shade darker in most places than the paint jobs. Silver also blends right in to other (mostly silver) cars. They disappear. We don't notice them. If you want a car which doesn't say too much, silver is for you.

7. Silver accommodates. It makes one feel at home. When one has a fancy dinner party one busts out the fancy silver. Now we can have the same effect with our cars.

8. Silver reveals a lack of self-esteem, a malaise, as it were. What happened to the (overly?) optimistic bright red cars of the 80's? What brown wood-paneled station wagons were to the 1970's nearly identical swooshy bubble cars are to the teens.

9. An old article in New Scientist (Dec., 2003) reports that silver cars are safer. Perhaps the car industry is simply protecting us in a shield of glitz?

I'm sure there are other reasons.

Monday, June 25, 2012


One word: Kei$ha. What the literary world needs right now are writers with dollar signs in their names. Or something. I mean, I want a dollar sign in my name. Since a student once unknowingly referred to me as Prof. Leslie Nielson, I’ve been pondering Ne$tle as a possible version of this moniker. It smacks of chocolate sauce and money or chocolate covered money or money to buy lots of chocolate—all good associations for a writer to cultivate! People like chocolaty money. Thus, perhaps this would mean more sales. Chocolate could become my shtick.

“Earnest.” That’s a good word to describe many of the literary goings-on these days. We wring our hands about the state of literature (fiction, poetry, fill in the blank). We fret so about the lack of readers. We tremble at the thought of a bookless future. Even the “ironic” writers are, beneath the POMO games, earnest.

Whither the literary Lady Gaga? Lady Didion? Lady Oates? I’m not sure how a meat dress would come across in an AWP panel, but it would be an improvement upon the usual mustard yellow sun-dress, henna, Birkenstocks and collection of tasteful hipster piercings and ankle tats. We need a writer with a name like Madonna—one word, something in-your-face and heretical.

We can do better; we can advance our “success” (however one might measure these things). What we need is more swagger, not more fretting. As a group, writers tend to be self-effacing, solitary types. We shy away from the limelight. We retreat into our zones of comfort. Let’s consider the music industry as a better model—a model that not only has swagger but builds upon a certain tongue-in-cheekness that the literary world often lacks.

Brass tacks: at this juncture in literary history most writers are writing for friends and family and other writers. It’s become a closed circle. The sooner we admit this brute fact, the better off we’ll be. This has been the case in the plastic arts for decades. Let’s not wallow in denial.

Speaking of hipsters: another route we could go in getting our swag on would involve using the Indie rock model. Here monosyllabic plays best—Beck, Feist, Smog. You want a name which you can’t easily forget. I’m personally obsessed with the name “Smog.” I had the pleasure of seeing him—real name Bill Callahan—in a Washington D.C. dive last summer. He recently dropped the Smog tag and went with Bill Callahan—decidedly less catchy. So there is a void in the ironic/hipster name department which some lucky writer could fill. May I suggest “Detritus”? It has all that grimy authenticity, without the L.A. connotations. If you want to go nautical this-and-that, “Jetsam” would also be an adequate substitute.

My point is this: the literary world needs some buzz, something else to add excitement to a fast-aging medium aside from David Foster Wallacy footnotes, excess profanity, and pinot-grigio-and-brie-heavy readings spurring on scintillating rounds of Words with Friends (but little exchange of literary book matter).

In the 50s Time would feature articles on Mailer or Roth or Updike. Back in the day mass media paid attention to what writers did, deemed us “important.” Now we are far less important than the latest World of Warcraft rip-off. When I started my writing career I never thought I’d be outdone by videogames. Back in the day publishers were awash in money and bookstores were plentiful. Now—I kid you not—the best bookstore in my zip code is Goodwill (they have two bookshelves of used books). Now writers have to be their own P.R. department. So 99.9% of writers are not making money; not successful; not on the cultural radar. Might as well have some fun at least.

Feel free to contact me with alternate moniker possibilities—with or without dollar signs. Until then, don’t pay attention to Amazon sales rankings (lest you become an online gambling addict—see Ted “Hella” Heller’s latest novel for allusion).

--Originally appeared on Murder Your Darlings, May 2012

Car Balls

During my morning jogs around the neighborhood I used to see a blue Jeep equipped with a pair of tan lifelike testicles dangling from the rear axle. Every time I’d run past the house I’d wonder what the owner of the Jeep was perchance thinking. I’d wonder what possesses someone to consciously purchase a pair of testicles for their car? Moreover, where exactly does one purchase a pair of Jeep testicles? Are they an option for all Jeeps? Additionally, do Jeep testicles differ from sedan testicles or are all moving vehicle testicles built alike? Alternatively, perhaps the Jeep simply sprouted testicles one fine spring morning and the owner scratched his or her head and thought, I never thought of my Jeep as a boy before, but I guess it is. I always wondered about the sex of my Jeep and now I know.

Usually, though, I’d simply wonder what exactly the testicles were made of. The hairless scrotum had kind of a sandbag appearance, reminiscent of what the wizard dropped from the air balloon at the end of the Wizard of Oz. However, after repeated observation, I began to believe the testicles were made of some kind of thick rubber filled with two large ball bearings—perhaps homemade.

I have to admit I kinda wanted to gently kick the testicles to find out.

Then, as fast as the Jeep testicles appeared, the Jeep testicles disappeared. I jogged on by the rancher one morning and the Jeep was sackless, neutered without remorse. Were the testicles simply a vestigial organ once on all moving vehicles and their brief appearance was cut short by their retreat into the bellows of the Jeep? Were they knocked off in a traffic accident? Perhaps the testicle rubber ripped and in some intersection in northern Virginia the tattered remains of a Jeep scrotum flaps about in the breeze next to an old Big Gulp cup and cigarette butts? Or was there another fascinated passerby who just had to snip the Jeep testicles free? Was this an act of testicular vandalism?

As I jogged away that day I decided never again would I jog past that Jeep. With testicles removed it now oddly looked maimed and mutilated, even though it also looked exactly as the Jeep should look. This is what happens when cars sprout genitalia, I thought. We get used to it. We begin to look askance at cars sans genitalia. Car genitalia becomes the norm. “Oh, you mean it’s that time of the month for your Lexus again?”

“Yeah, the worst part is the fuel injection cramping.”

“My Audi has some real cock chafing going on. Good thing it’s not one of those low-riders.”

I decided to Google “car testicles.” And so I did. A site called broadly advertises testicles for trucks: “In my mind a big ass truck is not complete without a nice set of bumper nuts hanging off the hitch,” the site reads. The company sells scrota in blue, black, camo, red, yellow, flesh, white, brass and aluminum. “These nuts weigh one pound and hang 8 inches!”

Not only are bumper nuts good for trucks, but as the bumpernuts site reads, “slap a par of these flesh nuts on any kind of vehicle. You will certainly show the world who owns the road.” The site features images of cars, SUVs, and even motorcycles featuring testicles. As for the material that goes into forming car nuts, the site says all of the car balls are made of forged aluminum and one pound in weight.

I could at this point analyze the societal implications of car balls. I could investigate the ramifications on gender and culture. I could discuss the fascination with car balls as a metaphor for a society suffering through the dregs of the great recession. Or something.

I won’t.

Some mysteries are better left unexplained.

--Originally published on Atticus Books website.

Composition Books

Recently I’ve been reflecting on my relationship to technology (or lack thereof). While I’m a notch or two short of a pure Luddite (I do drive, I can’t avoid a computer screen and maintain employment), I find myself distrustful of technology at best, and as a writer dismissive of it completely.

In using the word “technology,” by the way, I’m referring to our common understanding of it—gadgetry. I’m not a gadget guy. No GPS (I use maps). No iPad; no iPhone; no iAnything. I refer to my cell phone as my “terrorist cell”—you know, one of those pay by the minute jobs you get at 7-11. It’s always off and I only buy minutes about twice a year. Also—and most pertinent here—I almost always write fiction by hand. My row of heavily used composition books stretches across an entire book shelf.

As an instructor of composition (among other societal ills) I often have my students broadly define technology early on in the semester. And yes, I have them do so in a composition book. They usually come up with something like this: “anything that helps us make life easier.” This insight usually casts a pensive shadow upon the otherwise chirpy class. Yes, refrigerators do help make life easier. Yes, it’s nice to have a washer and dryer—life would be much more difficult without them. Yes, Microsoft Word certainly is a nice invention; I wouldn’t want to use one of those clickety-clack typewriters of yore. They are grateful.

However, in practice Millennials can be twitchy and impatient, ready to draw out their ubiquitous smart phones during any thirty second lull. The most popular Millennial maneuver is in-pocket texting, a practice which makes me (and many others in the educational sphere) see some dark shade of pedagogical red. Physically a textaholic might occupy a seat in my classroom, but mentally they are over the social networking rainbow.

Here’s my writerly beef with gadgetry distilled to its essence: it doesn’t make my writing life easier. Sure, it does help if I’m walking around a city and need to find a restaurant, if I need to call a friend, if I want to bid on a pair of Nike LeBron 9 iD on eBay whilst walking down 19th and M Street. However, the reason I write by hand has to do with the fact that writing well takes laser-like focus and attention. Gadgetry offers just one more layer of annoying distraction. My landline and HP desktop offer more than enough, thank you kindly.

One of my writing buddies asked me recently: but doesn’t this make your writing inefficient? Perhaps, but when I type up my handwritten work I find myself also tweaking what I wrote. My writing process simply adds one more layer of revision—which never hurts. At any rate, who said writing should be efficient? When I was writing my forthcoming novel, I never thought Today I must pound out 3,000 words. I wrote what I could on a given day—by hand, mostly sitting outside on my patio. Sunlight is good.

NaNoWriMo has positive benefits, but its one negative side effect is devastating: writing should not be measured by quantity alone. A novel is not a sack of rice measured by the pound. In fact, I would say that the NaNoWriMo-ification of writing has to do with the fact that currently there is a bevy of writers in our society, but who is taking the time to read what is actually produced? This is a problem. So, I like to sloooooow down. To parallel the slow food movement, there needs to be a slow writing movement. Turn off the iPhones and focus on the page. I suspect that some writers gadget-up to avoid the shackles of writerly loneliness. Nothing wrong with this—writing is lonely. However, I prefer my writerly loneliness unshaken and unstirred.

Sorry, I can easily froth myself up into a state of curmudgeonly fumigation. I am a crank at heart. Here’s what it comes down to for me: while I benefitted greatly from my five plus years as fiction editor of The Pedestal Magazine, my several years as editor of The Potomac, and my two year stint as series editor of Dzanc Books’ Best of the Web 2008, 2009, I now feel once again released back into the world of creation (and the sharing of that creation). Thus this entry.

If I had my druthers, I’d pretty much want to sit in a quiet room and write. And then write some more. I have more novel, story, poem, and essay ideas than I know what to do with. I’ll bring some of them to light here. Blogging—or whatever one might call this—is a good way to make sense of it all (ultimately, I am grateful for the internet as a means to reach a few extra sets of eyes). More importantly, you won’t have to read my chicken scratch. It’s illegible.

--Originally published on Atticus Books website

On Short Fiction

In my fantasy world grocery stores would carry short story collections, placing them right next to the cash registers—next to the Kit-Kats and Twizzlers.

One of the ironies of American readership is that novels sell better than short story collections. This has always struck me as counter-intuitive. Short fiction is not only arguably a superior form, but it’s short. As Poe famously wrote, a short story should be read in one sitting. For workaholic, short-attention spanned, sometimes anti-intellectual Americans, I’d think the short story would be the go-to form. Also, unlike the novel, which has its roots deeply in European literary history, the short story is essentially an American form. Irving, Hawthorne and Poe defined the form: these three great American writers were to the short story what Gates and Jobs were to the personal computer. Yet, Americans often return to the novel—For comfort? Breadth of storytelling? High school English class set our standards? I’m not sure of the cause myself.

Short fiction is not only arguably a superior form, but it’s short.

What novel is more affecting than Joyce Carol Oates’ “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” (that’s the one about the young girl, Connie, who is the victim of some serious—and perhaps otherworldly—stalking)? Every time I read this story goosebumps prickle my skin. A more recent classic is “What You Pawn I Will Redeem” by Sherman Alexie—a story about a homeless Native American who finds his grandmother’s regalia at a pawn shop and the store owner promises to sell it to him at a discount rate if he can round up the money in one day. Alexie’s masterful story takes on epic qualities which a novel would spell out; the hinted epic qualities are more effective and lingering—this is why Hemingway’s iceberg technique plays so well in the short story form and why he was a better short story writer than a novelist.

As I wrote several years ago in Tara Masih’s anthology about flash fiction, one of the most interesting aspects of short stories has to do with the vignette: who doesn’t want a slice a life along with their sliced cheese?

--Originally published on Atticus Books website.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

About Me

Nathan Leslie’s six books of fiction include Madre, Believers and Drivers. He is also the author of Night Sweat, a poetry collection. His first novel, Tommy Twice, will be published by Atticus Books later this year. His short stories, essays and poems have appeared in many literary magazines including Boulevard, Shenandoah, North American Review, and Cimarron Review. He was series editor for The Best of the Web anthology 2008 and 2009 (Dzanc Books) and edited fiction for Pedestal Magazine for five years. His website is