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My Daily Read: Steven Barthelme

Steven Barthelme is a professor of English at the University of Southern Mississippi. His new collection of short stories, Hush Hush, will appear in October from Melville House.

Q: What’s the first thing you read in the morning?

A. First, I read email, MSN home page, and the MLA job list.  Recently I’ve been re-reading and re-reading proofs of the new short-story book, which is like looking at yourself in the mirror repeatedly—sometimes you look pretty, but mostly you worry.

Q: What newspapers and magazines do you subscribe to or read regularly? What do you read in print vs. online vs. mobile?

Online, the Houston Chronicle, The New York Times, and the Washington Post, the Chronicle mostly for sports, the Times for news, politics, and unclassifiable odds and ends, in a rationed way since they started charging for access, and the Post since the Times starting charging  (it annoyed me, and, anyway, futile resistance is a metaphysical allegiance, and an old habit).  In print I read USA Today and subscribe to The New Yorker, Newsweek, Time, Cook’s, Poets and Writers, AWP’s The Writers Chronicle, Men’s Health (it used to be funny), and off and on, literary magazines like The Yale Review.  I used to be addicted to magazines and still like them and regret their sinking beneath the waves as a cultural artifact. Here and there in my house there are piles and piles of recent magazines, boxes and boxes of old magazines.

Q: What is the best article you’ve read recently?

Best, I don’t know.  Louis Menand and Joan Acocella in The New Yorker.  Menand recently wrote an interesting thing about Joyce; Acocella a piece about the Brothers Grimm.  A blackjack article called “The Man Who Broke Atlantic City” in The Atlantic.  A Clive James piece on Slate about Valéry called “How poets write great poems,” which a student directed me to.  And older things that I stumbled upon on on the Web—a piece called “This is Your Brain on Metaphors” by Robert Sapolsky and another by Guy Deutscher called “Does Your Language Shape How You Think?” in which Benjamin Lee Whorf (speak no evil of Benjamin Lee Whorf around me) is patronized unmercifully.   That’s about, oh, 10 percent of it.  The other 90 percent is articles like “How to Manage Chinch Bugs” and “What Gisele Bündchen’s Really Like.”  During the school year 50 percent is student work, some of which is astonishingly good.

Q: What books have you recently read?  How do they stand out?

Two good short story books by young writers.  The Agriculture Hall of Fame, by Andrew Malan Milward, a colleague of mine, a strong debut collection.  And Alicia Erian’s The Brutal Language of Love, a stunningly clear-eyed book which stands out for the way she gets the treachery of trying to live honestly into the stories. I re-read an old Malcolm Cowley memoir called Exile’s Return, one of those books one wishes was as good as it wants to be; it’s a caution to memoirists, for how tricky it is to write with yourself as part of the subject. I read James Wood’s How Fiction Works and Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer, both very good; they stand out for the grace of the prose and for general good sense.

Q: Has your reading of professional journals changed in the past 10 years?

Professional journals in the strict sense don’t exist in creative writing.  Once in a while I wander into scholarly journals in the broader discipline but it always feels like I’m underdressed at someone else’s country club.  That hasn’t changed.

Q: The book as object: Is it a pleasure, necessity, anachronism?

A. Most likely all three.  I published a book of essays called The Early Posthumous Work a couple of years ago and while sales were modest (to put it charitably) I was and am happy to have all those pieces—some first published in newspapers or Sunday supplements—between covers.  I’m dimly aware that this means only that they have a half life of 30 years instead of 30 hours, but like anyone facing extinction, I’m ecstatic to have the extra time.  Three of my books are available as ebooks. I’m glad of that, but the print versions, the objects, are more reassuring. Writing is such an anxious and ephemeral hobby that one wants something one can throw.

Is electronic publishing “real” publishing?  Sure it is.  But the editorial judgments about what to include and what to exclude, are in some venues not as strongly enforced, economically.  You can see this as a victory for democracy, more is more, hang all the gatekeepers, or you can see it as a victory for noise.

I suspect eventually all publishing will be electronic, but people now living will be dead by then, likely replaced by those hairless heads in glass cylinders that you used to see in sci-fi movies.

Q: What has led you to the short story, rather than the novel, as a fiction writer?

A. I’ve written novels which publishers wisely chose not to publish.

Q: Along with fiction, you’ve published essays and a memoir, co-written with your brother. Do you find the different realms of writing very distant?

Not so much.  Perhaps because my real interest, trumping everything else, is in writing and reading sentences, I find all forms of writing that I’ve done, including advertising, very similar.  I was interested in Stephen Dobyns’s discussion of poems, in Best Words, Best Order, in terms of the sentence.  And I vividly recall my brother Pete, who was a hotshot advertising guy in Houston (and published three mystery novels), once critiquing an ad I had written for him, and what he was mostly noting, with a harsh eye but a generous heart, was bad writing that I had left in the ad that I never would have left in a short story; this taught me a great lesson.

Q: What is your next book project?

A novel.

Q: Do you read blogs? If so, what blogs do you like best?

I do read blogs, but randomly.  John Dufresne, who is a friend.  Normblog, Norman Geras.  Jurgen Fauth’s Fictionaut.  The Brevity blog.  But usually just whatever pops up on a Google search.

Q: Do you use Twitter?  If so, whom do you follow?

No Twitter, no Tumblr, not Orkut nor Badoo.  On Donder and Blitzen.

Q: What are the guilty pleasures in your media diet?

Oh.  Uh, see all of the above.

Drawing of Steven Barthelme by Ted Benson

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