Christine Sneed: “The Virginity of Famous Men”

The Virginity of Famous MenThe Virginity of Famous Men by Christine Sneed

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I picked up this collection of stories from Christine Sneed the night she spoke to our writing group in Naperville back in September 2017. We had asked her to do a presentation for an hour at one of our regular weekly meetings. She proposed an outline for a talk “On Maintaining Momentum in Your Fiction.” We thought it would have some value for many of the fiction writers in our group. Alas, some were disappointed, and several felt the talk to be somewhat condescending and elementary. I don’t remember the word “momentum” being mentioned.

I grant it would be difficult for someone unfamiliar with the group to know what level of skill , what knowledge of literature the audience would bring. So perhaps Ms. Sneed can be forgiven for her compact high-school English lessons on character, conflict, plot and point of view.

Personally, I was interested in reading some genuine prize-winning literary fiction (as opposed to genre fiction, of which it turns out I am mostly guilty. Sneed’s fiction has won numerous prizes and acknowledgements, she teaches writing, and she directs the MA/MFA program at Northwestern University. So I wanted to learn from her stories. By Sneed’s own definition, literary fiction is character-driven fiction in which the character’s interior life is described and explored in a way that leads to an insight about his/her place in the world. The stories in “The Virginity of Famous Men” fit that bill pretty well.

They are not plot driven and don’t concern themselves so much with external conflicts. Take “Beach Vacation”, in which a woman ends up vacationing with her teen-age son at a resort where she discovers she really doesn’t like her kid very much. Well, rightly so, the kid’s a jerk, end of story. In “The First Wife”, that personage describes her marriage to a celebrity as it moves to its inevitable slow death. In “The Prettiest Girls” a Hollywood studio representative on location in Mexico falls for a pretty local girl and brings her back to L.A. We are no less surprised than the narrator when she eventually leaves him for another man. Very little actually happens in these stories. True, the characters DO things, but not BIG things that you would consider major scenes in the plot. Yet, I didn’t feel much was happening on the interior, either. Except for the mother in Beach Vacation, characters didn’t seem to learn anything – either about themselves or the world. But maybe I’m just missing it.

My favorite stories included “Five Rooms,” which I thought clever and original and well-written. A bored and bitchy teen-age girl is farmed out as penance for some infraction to help out a blind neighbor. Through the girl’s narration, which is strong and true, we discover that she isn’t such a bad person after all, far from it; and she herself discovers her own depths of goodness and compassion.
I also liked “Roger Weber Would Like To Stay.” Roger is the ghost of a dead pianist and onetime Romeo from an earlier era who haunts a single woman. She takes to him at first, but then he just starts to wear a little thin.

Another inventive story that benefits from a quirky situation and a colorful narrator is “Whatshisname.” Josh has suffered brain damage that makes him prone to irrational behavior and occasional “pronoun dyslexia,” according to his somewhat insensitive and lowclass girlfriend. Amusing things happen in the story – Josh wins the Lotto and comes up with some really stupid ways to spend the money for excellent causes — but it’s mostly about their relationship.
All of these stories are nicely written, and as mentioned, many of them introduce quite imaginative characters and situations. But if you are used to genre fiction where shit happens or people do things, you might get bored. On the other hand, if you are into literary fiction, this book is full of it.

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The Plot Thickens at Iowa Summer Writing Festival

IowaPictureI enjoyed a great week in Iowa city at the Summer Writing Festival. This is the second year I’ve indulged myself in this floating literary community, where writers of all genres, abilities and experience wade into the waters as deeply as they please. Personally, I wanted to dive into the deep end and participate as fully as I could. But getting the most out of it takes a lot of energy.

I had signed up for Kelly Dwyer’s class on “Plotting the Novel.” To start with, Kelly took it easy on us, not requiring any reading or writing before the class met. But from our first session Sunday night, it was work work work the rest of the week. Our ultimate goal was for each of us to produce a working plot outline for our fiction projects, but additional assignments had us writing every day.

Possible distractions from writing  are the social activities of the week-long sessions. I wouldn’t want to miss these bits that make the Summer Writing Festival special. Every day the “11th Hour” lectures feature presentations from the talented faculty. A Monday night reception (with open bar) at the most excellent Prairie Lights book store is followed by readings. The Beadology store offers an open mic for the participants to share their works in progress. Throughout the week there are dinners, dancing, and lunches with classmates. All day every day participants are hanging out writing, drinking coffee, and socializing at the Bread Garden.

Arriving in Iowa City I had only the vaguest idea for a book. By the end of the week I had somehow put together a fairly detailed outline for my next novel. Thanks to Kelly Dwyer and the helpful and astute comments from classmates, I have enough of a plan to start work immediately, plus an opening scene and lots of good ideas. Beyond that, I also feel refreshed , energized and motivated to begin the new project.

I won the award, but I couldn’t take it home.

The Naperville Writers’ Group awards the “Enwigger” each year to a member for Outstanding Contributions to the organization. This year I was honored to share the lovely object with likewise attractive Loretta Morris. In a fit of chivalry, I insisted that she take the award home to cherish — for the first six months, that is. I will claim the Enwigger for the last  half of the year, until the next popular vote, when it will be bestowed on another deserving writer. Meanwhile, I enjoy the warmth and fuzziness of my peers’ appreciation.

Last year I was recognized with “The Foot” Award, ostensibly for Most Improved Writer. Although also a prestigious honor, the Foot is not quite so pretty and shiny as the Enwigger. In fact, the Foot spent the previous year in an obscure corner of my library, where I could see it and enjoy its significance; but where the somewhat disturbing thing would be unlikely to invite awkward questions from visitors. Nevertheless, it’s the thought that counts.

The Path to the Spiders’ Nests

The Path to the Spiders' NestsThe Path to the Spiders’ Nests by Italo Calvino

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Hard to judge a novel like this, knowing it’s in translation, not being familiar with Calvino at all. The tone is stark, matter-of-fact. He tells the story of young Pip, an orphan in a devastated Italian town during WWII. His sister is the dark whore of the Long Alley, who consorts and collaborates with the occupying Germans, while Pip ends up tagging along with resistance fighters up in the hills. Taking the child’s point of view is an opportunity for Calvino to write some really terse but telling descriptions of the various characters. They run the scale from dedicated communists to self-serving opportunists, and in the middle of it is Pim, who isn’t sure what he really wants. All we know is he can never return to anything like a normal life as his world has been turned upside down.

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