A Gold Medal in the Humor Olympics

October 25, 2012 § 1 Comment

I wanted to share this lovely letter to Ann Coulter by John Franklin Stephens from the Special Olympics Blog mostly because it is one of the best internet happenings in a while.  But assuming you’ve already read it, liked it, and shared it with all your friends, I also wanted to take a few words to commend Mr. Stephens for his use of humor; it is easy to come out of an exchange with a hate-merchant like Coulter with a moral victory, but Mr. Stephens just plain out-funnies her, too.

There has, thankfully and rightfully, been a backlash against Coulter after the tweet, but such exchanges—the offended defender against the self-righteous provocateur—are usually frustratingly counter-productive: when someone is hurt by a bad joke and writes a serious and heartfelt response describing the pain the joker’s carelessness caused, it often only gives the provocateur a second chance to offend, claiming the offended are being too sensitive or serious while getting more attention and support from their cronies (which was their only reason for being callous in the first place).  In her initial response to the backlash, Coulter was happy to twist the knife, “The only people who will be offended are too retarded to understand it.”

There aren’t many ways to win a debate with a joker like that; they aren’t interested in winning the argument as much as making you feel like a loser.  As a humorist, this fact often worries me; when I see bigots like Coulter using humor to tear people down, I wonder if the funny is really all I’ve made it out to be—a source of joy and insight in our lives—or just another way we’ve invented to bully someone while tricking ourselves into feeling powerful.  That’s why it feels like such a joyous, affirming win to see someone best Coulter at her own game like this.

I love the way he plays it straight in the opening paragraphs so his first pithy point lands hard, and I love the way he introduces each new joke as if he really is just trying to reason out what she could have possibly hoped to communicate with such a blunt statement.  But my favorite part is the way—once he smilingly reveals he’s known her cruel intent all along—that he turns the argument into something else entirely, re-establishing what she meant to belittle as a source of strength.

Then I wondered if you meant to describe him as someone who has to struggle to be thoughtful about everything he says, as everyone else races from one snarkey sound bite to the next.

With this, he raises the conflict above an unwinnable argument about who should be allowed to use the R-word in what context up to a thoughtful discussion about what is actually of value in our society; he doesn’t just see  the mean spirit of her words, but the petty motivation behind them as well, and invites her and us to try to take the same time he does to craft his thoughts with care and consideration.

I’ve written in previous posts that humor’s purpose in our lives is to create bonds and illuminate our mistakes, tearing down those structures which don’t build us up but only bind us.  Mr. Stephens does this perfectly here, illuminating the pain Coulter has caused not by calling her a name or telling her to stop talking, but by inviting her into the sort of dialogue she’d have to abandon her misconceptions to participate in.

Good News

October 21, 2012 § 2 Comments

I’m very proud to announce that I have a new short story up at Versus Literary Journal.

Frank” is about a real-life Frankenstein’s monster who dresses up as a movie-version Frankenstein’s monster to get laid on Halloween, and I’m very grateful to Versus for publishing it just in time for the holiday.

I hope it is a funny and heartful little farce and would really love to know what you think about it, so please do comment below.  Thanks for reading.

Big News

October 16, 2012 § 2 Comments

Sorry it’s been two weeks since I last posted.  I’ve been blessed with lots of ideas for the novel I’m working on and a great bevy of literary events around town to keep me busy.  Last weekend—in addition to great readings by Sheila O’Connor and Cracked Walnut—I attended the Twin Cities Book Festival.  While there, I not only met Chris Ware (every bit as kind as you imagined), but also talked about opportunities with local literary friends.

I’m proud to announce that, as a result of all that hobnobbing, I’ve signed on to be the fiction editor at Red Bird Chapbooks.  Publishers of beautiful broadsides and chapbooks, Red Bird has worked predominantly with poetry  in the past, so I’m excited to be the first official fiction editor and hope to increase the amount of prose we bring to readers.

We are looking for chapbook material: a cohesive collection of short stories, flash fiction, or one single story; around 25 pages worth.  Full guidelines for the submission process are on the website, and I encourage everyone to send us your best work.  As you can see above and on the website, the broadsides and chapbooks are a gorgeous, unique way to bring your work into the world, personal and beautiful in a way that I feel still escapes e-publishing.  I’m really proud to join the organization and excited to read lots of fresh work, so write hard and send it in.

In the meantime, check back here soon, because I should have another big announcement by the end of the week.

The Titular Line

October 2, 2012 § 2 Comments

I’ve been thinking a fair bit lately about titular lines—those lines in a book or movie which include the title of the work (the preceding, for example, is the titular line of this blog post).  The working title for the book I’m currently writing is Slash, and though I think it is the perfect fit in many ways, I’m mourning the opportunity to write a titular line.  Since it is just a single word tied closely to the subject of the book, it seems I have the narrator or one the characters saying “slash” almost every other page, so none of the lines carry the important weight of titular line.

The titular line is important, and as such, it has often been made the subject of fun.  If you haven’t seen the Upright Citizen’s Brigade sketch on the subject, do yourself a favor and click the picture to the right for a link to the youtube clip.  UCB gets it so right here, the sketch spawned it’s own tumblr, examples included below.

What makes the fakes so funny is that the titular line is supposed to be important—much too important, as the clerk in the sketch points out, to be given “to some stow-away who arbitrarily walks through the scene.” But it is exactly this importance that the annoying customer is trying to hijack; the titular line is like a flag to the audience, alerting them to a thematically important part of the story, and Titular Line Guy wants to get to hold that flag.

I sympathize with him now that I’m writing a titular-lineless book.  As an author, the titular line is like a special card you get to play once a story, your only chance outside the first and last lines to make sure the reader is paying you their full attention, not just reading for entertainment, but for importance.  It’s akin to announcing to the reader, “This is important!  It was in big letters on the cover—remember?—so listen up!  This is almost as important as my embossed name and the full page photo of me looking thoughtful on the back cover.”

In making you think of the story as a book or a film with a title, the titular line can take you out of narrative.  Even if it isn’t delivered by a random weirdo, this brief suspension of the suspension of disbelief can ruin the story.  If it seems even a hundredth as arbitrary or obvious as these parodied examples, the narrative will seem contrived or shallow.  There’s also the danger that someone will reach the titular line and say, “That’s all this book is about?,” and quit with the assumption there’s nothing more important to come.

When done well, though, I think the titular line can take the reader briefly out of the story in a good way: they might pause for a second and think about the implications; maybe look back at the cover, keeping their finger on the passage while thinking about the expectations it initially inspired; they’ll think of everything that has happened so far, and how it has changed their idea of the novel; and hopefully dive back in to the next paragraph, ready to see how their understanding of those now familiar words might change again before the final line.

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