FUN CAMP comes out May 31, and in it is a short chapter/speech called “All You First-Timers with Deadbeat Dads,” which was originally published online by American Short Fiction.
Today, I got an email from the writer Adam Peterson asking if I’d seen this post from a site called How Publishing is Rigged: http://howpublishingisrigged.com/crumbs/#more-711 “People ask me if I’ve seen this all the time, like in cautious voices as if I’m going to be really hurt,” Adam wrote. “Apparently it’s a really high search result for my name or something.”
I followed the link and, sandwiched between a critique of Steve Edwards and Lydia Davis, was a critique of my FUN CAMP short, misattributing it to Adam.
I’ve pasted the (anonymous) critique below, which also includes my short in its entirety. Bolds mine:
This guy put a bunch of his Crumbs together to make a book. Well, that’s not really accurate—it was a chapbook. (A chapbook is a limited-production book, usually fewer than 100 pages, and often made by hand, like on someone’s dining room table.) But who might go out and buy his book? His friends might. Might. And maybe some MFA-holders who happen to be enamored of the very short story format. Or aspiring writers who want to be published in The Cupboard and are trying to kiss Peterson’s ass. But beyond that, there’s nobody in the real world who wants to read a single page of this garbage, let alone a full book of these things. But let’s look at the Crumb that Peterson wrote that made it into a recent issue of American Short Fiction. This Crumb is over before the thing even gets started. Not that a Crumb ever does get started.
“All You First-Timers with Deadbeat Dads” (American Short Fiction, August 2010)
The returners can tell you that camp is catnip to those bastards. Too perfect an opportunity for him not to pop back into your life, take you for a drunk backcountry cruise, and defend his absence away from the castrating gaze of you-know-who. When yours shows, you’ll offer a firm handshake and say, “Father, it is good to see you. I appreciate that you’ve driven some miles to visit me, your kin, to whom you wish to demonstrate your love. I cannot, however, accompany you to your truck for a harmless joyride, as each minute of my day at camp is accounted for, and I am under no circumstances permitted to leave camp boundaries at any time. Out of concern for your immediate safety, I plead you’ll depart expediently. Chef Grogg has no doubt been alerted to your presence, and he is one dumb deadly animal.” It’s a mouthful, so I had the speech printed up on little cards to keep on you at all times. Show of hands, who needs one? Come on, hands up. Nothing to be shy about. You all’ve got a leg up on the pussies from unbroken homes. While they mosey into adulthood expectant in their dumb grins, you’ll have already learned just how hard you can bite without drawing blood.
Where is the story here? Where is the plot? Alas, there is no story, and alas, no plot. There’s nothing at all to do with a story like this. In fact, this is not a story in any sense of the word as there is no narrative. The first sentence is a terrible metaphor too. My family had cats when I was a kid, and when cats go for catnip, they cannot be deterred from their pursuit of the catnip. There’s no “popping back in” for catnip, as though it were a casual pursuit. Once discovered, there’s continuous constant pursuit of that catnip; the cats are going to get to that nip and will not be deterred. For camp to “be catnip” to a deadbeat dad, camp is something that deadbeat wants as much as a cat wants catnip. But that’s not what the author is actually trying to say, is it? He’s trying to say that camp draws deadbeat dads for quick visits to camp. The author was trying to not use a cliché and instead of coming up with something original and thoughtful, Peterson used a metaphor that is confusing and inaccurate.
This “story” is also attempting to be funny—and fails. The overly formal language causes this piece to fall victim to the problem of most “humor” pieces written (and enjoyed) by the Lit Biz crowd. These people think that irony and “snarkiness” makes something funny. In the mind of the Lit Biz person, a child who (1) speaks with an adult’s vocabulary and who (2) has an affected way of talking is funny. And I’m not saying that a child can’t speak with a fully developed vocabulary or that a character in a story can’t have an affected way of talking and be funny, but that character had better have the context to show the humor that is present due to their unique manner of speaking. The context doesn’t exist here, where all on its own, it’s supposed to be funny that this camp kid talks like an English major with a stick up his ass. The author also throws a shocking word into the mix (oh! pussies!) to show that he—and his character—can be daring. That word is completely out of place with the rest of the character and the author has thrown it into this piece to try to be cool. And that word “pussies” is pushing the limits of crass language to this guy, never mind that you could hear a Pop Warner football coach using calling his 14-year-olds “pussies” without drawing so much as a surprised glance from any of them. Peterson, on the other hand, is probably still blushing.
Peterson’s partner at The Cupboard, Dave Madden, is certainly offended by this “pussies” remark. In an interview conducted by HTMLGIANT, Madden makes the following confession:
Dave: If I get offended by manuscripts that aim solely to shock or disrupt it’s more in terms of my sensibilities than any kind of ethical-political offense. Like that stuff gives me the vapours. And it tends rarely to be genuinely shocking or disruptive.
Doesn’t it sound like Madden is talking like the kind of thing that Peterson did—with the “pussies”—in the above story? And who on earth talks like that—stuff gives him the vapours?? Apparently Dave Madden, publishing giant (that was a little joke; Madden publishes very little), has the delicate constitution of a 94-year-old woman. From 1850. Don’t you love knowing that Dave Madden and guys like him are making decisions about what you get to read? Just because Madden and Peterson’s influence is limited to The Cupboard doesn’t make them any different from editors at large magazines. The editors at the bigger magazines have the same delicate constitutions and sensibilities as Dave Madden. Do you think that emotionally frail guys like Dave Madden can make good guesses as to what you’d like to read?
Sorry, Dave Madden! Looks like the misattribution got you roped in too.
But honestly, I’m not sorry for any of this. It is completely fascinating and the best web surprise since peterbd emailed me.
One thing I’ll be curious to hear from non-insane people about is whether anything in FUN CAMP is genuinely offensive.
I did wrestle a little with the speaker’s use of “pussy” when writing the piece. It’s a word I avoid in actual speech, uncomfortably gendered and often used misogynistically. It’s basically hatespeech lite, and I want in life and writing to be a good feminist in every way I can think to. But the speaker here so clearly has a chip on his shoulder, an enormous hostility toward people whose parents haven’t split up. The speech, to me, would be worse without it.
Maybe “pussy” is like a semicolon: You only get one per book.
I can’t think of a better note to end on than that.