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James R. Gapinski’s favorite books of 2015

To wrap-up the year, our managing editor, James R. Gapinski, chimes in with his top five books of 2015. A few days ago, Melissa Reddish also shared her list.

Binary Star, by Sarah Gerard

If you want predictable syntax crammed into neat boxes, look elsewhere. Binary Star takes risks. Come for the inventive structure, stay for the characters who seem to be in a constant state or implosion and/or explosion.

Scrapper, by Matt Bell

Scrapper tells a riveting story set in a near-future version of Detroit, ravaged by climate change. Its unassuming blue collar protagonist has waaaaaaay more shit going on than first meets the eye. This book is its own masterclass in character development.

The Seven Good Years, by Etgar Keret (Translated by Sondra Silverston, Miriam Shlesinger, Jessica Cohen, and Anthony Berris)

Etgar Keret’s memoir explores the seven years between the birth of his son and the death of his father. Yes, the book builds toward a death, but it’s more about celebrating life. And it’s filled with the sense wonder and whimsy that have become a staple of Keret’s work.

Gutshot, by Amelia Gray

The stories in Gutshot have a visceral intensity to them. They rip open your perceptions of what a story is and can be. They scream at you and dare you to flinch. Yeah, you might bleed out by the end, but you’ll feel alive the whole goddamn time.

 Citizen, by Claudia Rankine

I’m not surprised that Citizen is also on Melissa’s top-five list as Book I Would Slip into Everyone’s Bag When They Weren’t Looking. I gave this book to my partner over the holidays—then she received a second copy from her sister. When you read this book, you want to share it. And you want to share it quickly. These pages have urgency. You’ll finish it in one sitting, and if you’re not already a proponent of #BlackLivesMatter, you will be. Read it. Now.

Melissa Reddish’s favorite books of 2015

Melissa Reddish, author of My Father is an Angry Storm Cloud and the forthcoming Conium Press title, Girl & Flame, shares her top five books of the year.

Hybrid nonfiction:  Tender Points by Amy Berkowitz

Exploring her fibromyalgia while weaving together a portrait of trauma, invisible illnesses, gendered medicine and misogyny, and other ephemera, Berkowitz creates a fluidly fragmented, beautiful, haunting, and lyrical portrait.

Short Story Collection:  Valparaiso Round the Horn by Madeline ffitch

It was difficult to choose a single story collection, as this is my go-to genre, but this collection climbed steadily to the top with its off-kilter worldview and old-school adventurer vibe.  Each story is a little weird gem that is artfully crafted and sticks with you.

Poetry:  [insert] boy by Danez Smith

Okay, so this was technically published in Dec. 2014, but it is so good, I just had to include it.  When I first read “Dinosaurs in the Hood” through a friend’s Facebook post, I sat back and said, ‘whoa.’  The collection as a whole does not disappoint.

Graphic:  Rat Queens by Kurtis J. Wiebe and Tess Fowler

Part D&D love letter, part drunken bar fight, this comic is fun and funny and bawdy and constantly entertaining.

Book I Would Slip into Everyone’s Bag When They Weren’t Looking:  Citizen by Claudia Rankine

By far my favorite moment of protest in the bombastic insanity that is the 2015 election cycle (aka watching the slithering underbelly of hatred and bigotry reveal itself), was the woman who quietly read Citizen during a Trump rally.  Lots of whoa moments in this book as well.

Chelsea Werner-Jatzke and James R. Gapinski share their panel picks

Two of our editors share some panels they’re excited for. Naturally, we’ll be spending a lot of time at The Conium Review table (#2025). But there will be three of us at AWP (Chelsea, James, and Uma), so hopefully we’ll all get to attend our panel/presentation wishlists.

Chelsea Werner-Jatzke’s top five eight panels (because lists of five or ten are just too neat and tidy for a badass like Chelsea):

  • Thursday, 9:00am to 10:15am. History, Speculation, and Invention in Long Form Fiction. (Christopher Robinson, Jan Elizabeth Watson, Jaquira Diaz, Melissa Falcon Field, Sebastian Stockman). Room 200 D&E, Level 2.
  • Thursday, 1:30pm to 2:45pm. The Hybrid Book: Publishing Poetry and Art Together. (Allison Campbell, Henry Israeli, Bianca Stone, Ben Fama, Elizabeth Clark Wessel). Room M100 B&C, Mezzanine Level.
  • Friday, 9:00am to 10:15am. The Ethics of Book Reviewing. (Eric Lorberer, Stephen Burt, Carolyn Kellogg, Brian Evenson, Rusty Morrison). Auditorium Room 1, Level 1.
  • Friday, 1:30pm to 2:45pm. Word Meets Image: The Video Essay. (Ned Stuckey-French, Eula Biss, Kristen Radtke, John Bresland). Room 101 F&G, Level 1.
  • Friday, 1:30pm to 2:45pm (competing against the previous panel for attention). Music in Prose: Crafting the Lyric Sentence. (Pearl Abraham, Hanna Pylväinen, V.V. Ganeshananthan, Stephanie Grant, Will Byrne). Room 200 H&I, Level 2.
  • Friday, 3:00pm to 4:15pm. Where We Begin to Revise the Poem. (Keetje Kuipers, Erica Dawson, James Harms, John Hoppenthaler, Peter Campion). Auditorium Room 1, Level 1.
  • Friday, 4:30 to 5:45pm. Let Us (Not) Teach You a Lesson: A Pleiades Writers’ Symposium on Moral Fiction.(Phong Nguyen, Bayard Godsave, Christine Sneed, Seth Brady Tucker, Michael Kardos). Room L100 D&E, Lower Level.
  • Saturday, 1:30pm to 2:45pm. Rock and Prose: Musician/Fiction Writers Reflect at the Crossroads. (Steven Ostrowski, Steve Yarbrough, Lynne Barrett, Joe Clifford). Room 208 A&B, Level 2.

James R. Gapinski’s top five panels:

  • Thursday, April 9th, 3:00pm to 4:15pm. How I Taught Then, How I Teach Now. (Joseph Scapellato,  Derek Palacio,  Cathy Day,  Matt Bell,  Jennine Capó Crucet). Auditorium Room 1, Level 1.
  • Friday, April 10th, 9:00am to 10:15am. Four Writers of Experimental Fiction Disagree. (Jeff Jackson,  Kate Bernheimer,  Susan Steinberg,  Alan Michael Parker). Room 211 C&D, Level 2.
  • Friday, April 10th, 3:00pm to 4:15pm. The Uncanny Reader: the Art of Unease in the Short Story Form. (Marjorie Sandor,  Karen Russell,  Kate Bernheimer,  Steve Stern,  Kelly Link). Room 101 H&I, Level 1.
  • Friday, April 10th, 4:30pm to 5:45pm. Fail Better: Successful Writers Talk About Failure. (M. Molly Backes,  Roxane Gay,  Megan Stielstra,  Dean Bakopoulos,  Rebecca Makkai). Auditorium Room 2, Level 1.
  • Saturday, April 11th, 1:30pm to 2:45pm. Weird Science: Strategies to Encourage Innovative Writing in the Workshop (Andrew Altschul,  Lucy Corin,  Eric Puchner,  Melanie Rae Thon,  Deb Olin Unferth). Room 200 B&C, Level 2.

James R. Gapinski’s AWP Bookfair table/booth picks

With over 700 presses and organizations represented at AWP, it’s difficult to see them all. Naturally, I need to start with a self-serving plug: your first stop should be Table #2025: The Conium Review.  After that, explore as many new presses and publishers as possible (that’s my gameplan). But it’s good to have a few specific tables in mind—beacons amid the storm.  Here are my top ten exhibitors (in order by table number):

  1. Table #226: Gold Line Press / Ricochet Editions
  2. Table #324: Small Beer Press
  3. Table #343: Fiction Collective 2
  4. Booth #415: NewPages.com
  5. Table #422: NANO Fiction
  6. Table #439: The Review Review
  7. Table #925: Juked
  8. Booth #1007: VIDA: Women in Literary Arts
  9. Table #1122: [PANK] / Tiny Hardcore Press
  10. Table #1837: Two Dollar Radio

So if you’re a bit lost, maybe use these tent-poles as your guide too.  But don’t get stuck on lists and favorites; the most interesting conversations often come from presses you’ve never heard of.

About the Author

James R. Gapinski is The Conium Review‘s managing editor. He holds an MFA in creative writing from Goddard College and teaches writing at Bunker Hill Community College. His work has appeared in theEEELNANO FictionHeavy Feather ReviewJukedAtticus Review, Word Riot, and elsewhere.

“Why VIDA Matters to Me: Part II, Words are Power (Or Another Rant about Stephen Tully Dierks),” by James R. Gapinski

Preamble (again, in case you missed Part I)

A few months ago, I was talking about the VIDA “count” with a friend-and-fellow-writer.  The count has been at the forefront of our editorial discussions this year—The Conium Review journal has a large gender gap, but we’re trying to change that this year and beyond.

In the middle of the conversation, my friend-and-fellow-writer said something like “I feel like, as a woman author, I should care about VIDA, but I don’t.  It doesn’t matter to me.”

“Doesn’t matter?”  I couldn’t believe it.  But over the past few months, I’ve dug deeper.  I’ve explored some critiques of VIDA, and I’ve discovered how some writers, editors, and readers consciously or unconsciously determine that underrepresentation and misrepresentation isn’t a ‘big deal.’

I can’t speak for my friend-and-fellow-writer, but I can speak for myself and why VIDA matters to me (and by extension, why the VIDA count is on The Conium Review’s radar).

Part II, Words are Power (Or Another Rant about Stephen Tully Dierks)

While the VIDA count matters to the integrity of literature and books (see “Part I” of this essay), it has deeper connotations too.  Words are power.  By silencing women, the publishing industry explicitly proclaims that women do not matter.  The “important authors” that we read in MFA programs are mostly white men (or maybe not—that depends on your MFA program—but generally speaking, most academic programs venerate a ton of white men alongside tokenistic women and minorities here and there).  Men are the ones who currently have the most omnipresent voice, and so we can’t help but pay attention.  White men have become the metaphoric “megaphone guy” from George Saunders’s essay “The Braindead Megaphone.”  (Yes, I realize Saunders essay isn’t about this topic specifically, but the metaphor fits.)  Men have the power.  Words are power.  Silence is subjugation.

Just look at Stephen Tully Dierks.  I can’t write an essay about misogyny in literature without talking about Dierks.  It’s on everybody’s minds right now.  It’s current.  It’s worth mentioning again, because it speaks to the larger problem (not just a problem with “Alt-Lit,” but a problem with the literary community as a whole).

I didn’t know the name Stephen Tully Dierks before September 30th, when VIDA shared a Facebook link to the Gawker article “Hip Alt-Lit Editor Quits Public Writing Career After Rape Accusations.”  Since then, I’ve read Sophia Katz’s essay, in which she details the sexual assault perpetrated by Dierks.  I’ve read a firestorm of Internet commentary.  I’ve read Dierks’s half-assed apology that included way too many supposed excuses for his despicable actions.  I’ve read about the other victim who came forward.  Whenever something pops up about Dierks, I read it.

Most of the literary community has supported Katz.  Many have taken to the Internet to express well warranted outrage.  A smaller number of people defended Dierks.  While I am all for “innocent until proven guilty,” Dierks’s half-assed social media apology points squarely toward his guilt.  In it, he does not deny Katz’s version of events.  On the subject of Dierks’s apology, I find one line most revealing.  He notes “I clearly gravely misread the situation and Sophia’s actions, words, and silence.”

In Sophia’s account, this silence is evident.  Certainly, she is not silent the entire time.  She tries to talk Dierks out of it.  She says “no” more than once.  But she eventually gives up because he keeps pushing and pushing.  He is offering her a rent-free place to stay in Brooklyn—difficult to come by—and she has no other alternatives besides the street.  He coerces.  He pressures.  He gives her intoxicants.  The entire situation is engineered to throw the balance of power in his favor.  She is silenced by his power.  She had little space to resist.  He forced her, even if he didn’t do it with physical violence.

Dierks says he misread her silence, but silence is not consent.  Again, I do not know Dierks, but from all accounts, he is a predator.  He invited a very young girl to stay at his place—a girl without financial means to escape and stay elsewhere—he tried to impress her with all his connections, he made her sleep in his bed even though she brought a sleeping bag, he waited for the lights to go out, he ignored her whenever she asked to stop or requested that he put on a condom.  He used his power.  He took away her capacity to resist.  He silenced her.

This is a man who worked as an editor.  This is a man who is making decisions on which voices to publish and which to reject.  And while he is the ultimate example of a piece of shit editor on everybody’s mind right now, any editor who willfully silences women is perpetuating a community where people like Dierks can thrive under the radar, his abuse going undetected for quite a while.

While there is a lot of outrage floating across the Internet, many only extend criticism to the Alt-Lit scene.  This problem is bigger than Alt-Lit.  This is a mainstream problem.  Maybe editors are more subtle in the mainstream—maybe they don’t coerce young authors like Dierks did—but they perpetuate the underlying culture that made Dierks believe he was simply “misreading the situation.”

This is why VIDA matters.  We need to shift the balance of power, and it’s something that needs to be addressed across the board, not just in the Alt-Lit scene.  There are gender gaps—and power gaps—everywhere.  Voices are being silenced.  Certainly, the Dierks case is extreme, and these gaps don’t always lead to rape, but they still lead to marginalization and a feeling of helplessness.  The publication gender gap hurts the community as a whole.

Journals need to be part of the solution, not the problem.  It’s like Roxane Gay says in her essay “Beyond the Measure of Men,” “If women aren’t submitting to your publication or press, ask yourself why, deal with the answers even if those answers make you uncomfortable, and then reach out to women writers.”

Because we need Dierks (and others) to look at the literary community and see all the empowered, loud, wholly un-silent women.  We need him to realize that the literary world is one where he is no longer in control.  We can only move toward that goal when women are more widely published.

Talking about Katz, Dierks, consent, and silence is a good start.  The conversation has already exploded across social media, and hopefully it will become something deeper and more reflective than simply calling out Dierks.  We need to call out the entire mindset that preceded this incident.  We need to reflect on the VIDA count now more than ever.

About the Author:

James R. Gapinski is The Conium Review‘s Managing Editor. He holds an MFA in creative writing from Goddard College. His work has appeared in theNewerYork, Line Zero, Heavy Feather Review, and elsewhere. James lives in the Boston area with his partner, two cats, and a collection of 8-bit video games.

“Why VIDA Matters to Me: Part I, Men Only Tell Half the Story,” by James R. Gapinski

Preamble

A few months ago, I was talking about the VIDA “count” with a friend-and-fellow-writer.  The count has been at the forefront of our editorial discussions this year—The Conium Review journal has a large gender gap, but we’re trying to change that this year and beyond.

In the middle of the conversation, my friend-and-fellow-writer said something like “I feel like, as a woman author, I should care about VIDA, but I don’t.  It doesn’t matter to me.”

“Doesn’t matter?”  I couldn’t believe it.  But over the past few months, I’ve dug deeper.  I’ve explored some critiques of VIDA, and I’ve discovered how some writers, editors, and readers consciously or unconsciously determine that underrepresentation and misrepresentation isn’t a ‘big deal.’

I can’t speak for my friend-and-fellow-writer, but I can speak for myself and why VIDA matters to me (and by extension, why the VIDA count is on The Conium Review’s radar).

Part I, Men Only Tell Half the Story

I’m getting tired of hearing the same half of the story on a continuous loop.  Certainly, there are good male authors (I hope I’m one of them), but the literary world is publishing way too many of them while simultaneously ignoring way too many women.  Sure, men are capable of writing new, innovative fiction.  However, that fiction is invariably filtered through the same gendered lens.  We can pretend that gender doesn’t matter, but we secretly know that it does.  Right?  A man, for example, could not write Elissa Schappell’s Blueprints for Building Better Girls.  A woman, for example, could not write Junot Díaz’s Drown.

It’s tough to consider “a man could not write” or “a woman could not write” arguments in isolation, because gender is just one part of who a person is.  You can easily imagine all sorts of differences between authors.  And you can imagine how every iota of difference creates a different experience and a different story and a different lens.  But on a fundamental, broad-stroke level, gender matters.  The underrepresentation of women matters.  VIDA matters.  Because if the publishing industry continues to discriminate against women, we’re ignoring half of the conversation.  We’re missing out on a huge chunk of the human experience.  We’re hearing the same monotone voice over and over, ignoring the women who have entirely unique stories to tell.  Stories that we need to hear.

The male narrative has been shoved down our throats so often that it’s all many readers know.  This brings us back to The Conium Review.  We’re guilty of having a shitty count (VIDA doesn’t officially count us, but we’ve ran our own numbers). However, we’re hitting the reset button, learning from our first four issues, and making changes at the journal.  We’re not going to get truly innovative fiction while only publishing a single worldview.

In a 2011 interview (reprinted in the anthology Paper Dreams), Cate Marvin of VIDA recalls her reaction to the first “count” in 2010; she mentions reading male-dominated literary journals, noting “The fact is, I often felt bored when reading these publications.  (And I felt guilty for being bored!)  Now I know why (whereas before, I felt I ought to be interested).”  Frankly, male authors are starting to bore me too.  It’s not that these authors don’t resonate with my experience.  Some of my favorite authors are men: Etgar Keret and George Saunders, specifically.  But other men on my list o’ faves have been replaced by Aimee Bender, Amelia Gray (super excited that she agreed to judge our Innovative Short Fiction Contest), Lucy Corin, Karen Russell, Karin Tidbeck, and other women.  They tell the other half of the story.  Women turn the literary monologue into a dialogue, and that’s pretty damn exciting.

Even if somebody overlooks the obvious social justice issues, the low publication rates of women matters because it negatively impacts the literary narrative.  We keep getting that tired monologue.  Personally, I want to read a variety of voices.  I don’t want the same ol’ same ol’.  I want to be challenged by what I read (and what I write), and that doesn’t happen when the literary community recycles the same half of the conversation in slightly different packages.  That’s why VIDA matters.  It impacts anybody who loves reading and writing—female and male alike.

About the Author:

James R. Gapinski is The Conium Review‘s Managing Editor. He holds an MFA in creative writing from Goddard College. His work has appeared in theNewerYork, Line Zero, Heavy Feather Review, and elsewhere. James lives in the Boston area with his partner, two cats, and a collection of 8-bit video games.