The first clue was when my submission to the 2020 version of the contest disappeared from ubmittable without notice. The administrators of the prize tend to be not so great about closing out submissions on Submittable, so I didn’t pay much attention to it (in past years I’d had some marked “completed” a few “decline” and some were just left hanging until I marked then “withdrawn”).
It wasn’t until the end of the year that it occurred to me that my Google news alert on “nelson algren literary prize” had never come up with an announcement of the winner. Digging a bit deeper and I found this:
The Nelson Algren Literary Award contest has been suspended for 2020-21 as we review the program.
Coming at the same time as buyouts in the Chicago Tribune newsroom with architecture critic Blair Kamin and music critic Howard Reich being two of the latest high-profile departures.
There seems to be an overall gutting of the newspaper by the current owners. Starting with the selling of the storied Tribune Tower and continual cuts. The death of the Algren Prize, assuming that this warning sign is indeed a herald of such a thing, is a relatively minor thing in the grand scheme of the despoliation of a once-great newspaper, but it marks the end of one of the richest short story prizes in the United States and a launching pad for a number of great writers.
Because of one of last year’s writerly resolutions, I didn’t send anything out this year, but there was still plenty of overhang from last year and early in the year I managed to get acceptances in both poetry and fiction (the latter even included a double acceptance). My publications for 2020 were my story, “The Namesake” and a poem which was published as “Chicago Sonnet” but is properly “Chicago Sonnet #1” which appeared in Pudding Magazine 69.
For those who like charts, here’s the graph of my fiction rejections over the years
I set three goals for 2020: two related to finishing snd revising the novel and a third that largely involved doing nothing. I kind of failed at all three.
I had bursts of productivity in the spring and the summer but continuing problems with my laptop knocked me out of commission for the last couple of months of the year (it’s back in for its third round of repairs right now). So I not only didn’t finish the first draft of the novel (I’m in them middle of chapter 24 of 28), but I clearly didn’t finish the rewrite and revision phase of the work either.
My third resolution was to cut way back on submissions. I did that. Nothing new went out this year. But I was going to wait until my submittable queue managed to drain to zero entries. Then 2020 came and there are still two submissions lingering (technically three, but the third is for a journal that’s folded and I haven’t withdrawn the submission out of sentimentality).
2020 was, of course, a strange year. My reading habits were severely disrupted when I lost my 60–90 minutes a day of commute time on the “L” which had in previous years been a bastion of protected reading time. Like last year, I aimed to read 100 books and, like last year, I fell short, this year only reading 90.
On the diversity front, my reading was 49.1% by women and 23.4% by people of color. 30% of the books were books that jumped the queue to meet my diversity goals. 15.6% were by dead white men. 42.6% of the books were fiction, 11.7% poetry with a median publication year of 2011. 59.7% of the authors were new to me and 4.5% were by authors I’ve met. 1.5% of the books were re-reads. 13.4% of the books were translations, 41.8% by non-US authors and 2.2% were in Spanish. 6.7% of the books were research for my novel.
Early in the quarantine, thanks to the library being closed, I found myself digging deeper than usual into my long list of books that I’ve put together of titles I intended to check out from the library. I ended up with an accidental pandemic trilogy from this, consisting of The Passage by Justin Cronin (vampire pandemic), World War Z by Max Brooks (zombie pandemic) and The Brief History of the Dead by Kevin Brockmeier (humanity-extinguishing manmade pandemic).
And now my favorite reads of the year (in alphabetic order by author):
In July, I started a countdown to January 20th on Facebook and Twitter. It was nominally to the end of the Trump presidency but about a month into it, I started to think that when I got to zero, I was going to delete my Facebook and Twitter accounts.
I’ve been on both platforms for a long time. I joined Twitter in April 2007. If I remember correctly, my entry to Facebook was January of that year (or perhaps New Year’s Eve 2006—I had an invite from a member of the writing group I was in at the time and in those early days a lot of time was wasted engaging in the useless Skinner box button mashing of zombie killer or something like that.
There have been the occasional delightful reconnections with people from my past. There have been a handful of people who I found myself wishing that I’d spent more time hanging out with them back in the day. But there have also been a number of people that I find myself realizing that there’s a reason why we’ve fallen out of touch.
One friend from my past is Facebook friends with a high school classmate who seems dedicated to posting rather vile personal attacks against my friend and his wife on anything that the friend posts which is in any way political. I don’t know whether it’s admirable or perplexing that my friend hasn’t blocked this high school classmate. For me, I found that back in 2016, entering “friends who like trump” into the search bar and unfriending everyone in the results list did a lot to improve my Facebook experience.
I should point out that I’m not trying to create an ideological bubble, but there’s a difference between holding conservative political views and supporting a racist criminal bully who had he not been born into wealth would be the guy who sits alone on the stool at the end of the bar ranting about the [insert racist term for his latest bête noir here]s who no one talks to because he’s such a vile person. I have not unfriended anyone for, e.g., opposing the Illinois Fair Tax proposal (as misguided as any such opposition might be).
I’ve enjoyed the occasional bits of serendipitous discovery that have been made possible through using Facebook and Twitter. I’ve found authors that I might not have found otherwise and even made something approaching actual friendships with some of them. I have a good memory for making connections between things and have on many occasions remembered something someone posted that they were looking for and then found what they were looking for and been able to connect them to their object of desire.
But I’ve also found myself feeling like Matthew Broderick’s character in WarGames
Because of conversations on Facebook or Twitter, I’ve learned negative things about writers I had previously admired. On the one hand, there’s kind of an obligation to be informed about things but on the other hand, it would be so much nicer to not know that, M— said horrible racist things to C— when he was her student and then when confronted with this knowledge, her response was not good. (I ended up dropping M— from my follow list and putting C— in her place.)
Overall, I’m finding that my time on social media just doesn’t spark joy much anymore. There are plenty of other reasons to leave these platforms, like Mark Zuckerberg’s coddling of the right-wing or the general lack of civility in so much of Twitter, but for me, the main reason to go is it just doesn’t make me happy any more, not even in that meaningless way that the zombie game I played 13 years ago gave me a dopamine hit.
I’m keeping Goodreads. I’m keeping the blog. I’m going to continue to participate in some interest-based internet forums. It’s just Twitter and Facebook that are going away. I’m starting a mailing list which I’ll use for announcing my infrequent publications and offering something interesting every month or two (or three—we’ll see how it goes). I’ve installed an RSS reader on my iPad so I can more systematically keep up with blogs. I’m gonna internet like it’s 2006. I saw something in my spam folder which implied my MySpace account may still exist.
I continue working through the “Technology” class of the Dewey Decimal System, with 660–669.9 being “Chemical Engineering.” It’s easy to forget this while I’m browsing the stacks and I wouldn’t have guessed that’s where I was when I saw this book about GMOs.
There are a handful of areas where my liberalism becomes a bit heterodox and one of these is with respect to GMOs. I’m willing to believe the arguments for the safety of GMOs (a far bigger problem, as far as I’m concerned is not the artificial manipulation of genetic materials, but rather the application of intellectual property laws to organisms and associated legal actions surrounding the escape of said protected genetic material beyond the initial customers).
Lynas was originally part of the anti-GMO crowd and took place in a number of actions to disrupt the development and distribution of GMO plants. Then, while trying to justify his actions, he did actual research and discovered that so much of what he believed was wrong. It’s notable that this project began with a book about being wrong.
As it turns out, there’s an over-romanticization in many instances of old ways of doing agriculture that reek of first-world privilege. Subsistence agriculture means that those practicing it can only subsist and not advance beyond bare survival. Meanwhile the first world is poisoning the earth and, through its burning of fossil fuels, changing the climate so that subsistence in the third world becomes that much harder. Many of the GMO innovations would allow farmers to go beyond subsistence to being able to prosper—the children, especially girls, would be able to attend school and the family would not be living harvest to harvest but would be able to have a financial cushion that would lift them out of poverty. But thanks to the demonization of GMO crops, these innovations are foreclosed and the agricultural ministries in these countries are unable to make improved crops available to their farmers.
And despite fears about health effects of GMO crops, it turns out that there is absolutely no evidence to indicate that they exist.
No graph this month for progress on the novel because there was no progress. I wrote not one word.
I had planned to finish some writing. Lots of writing. But during the first couple of weeks, I was trying to keep up with writing group obligations and put things off. Then, I decided that while I had the chance, I would take my MacBook Pro in to fix a problem with the touchbar (it was getting ghost touches which rendered the computer unusable unless I put the touchbar into spaces mode and didn’t actually use multiple spaces). I figured it would be a few days without the computer. They told me ten days. Not ideal, but OK. Then when I went to check on the computer on the day it was supposed to be returned the system showed that it was still at the Apple store. I called and after some transfers got my own customer service representative who’s been active through the process. Finally on 30 November, it showed as arriving at the repair facility and I got it back yesterday.
And the bad news, despite them replacing nearly every part of the computer, the touchbar problem is still there (I’m guessing they should have replaced the keyboard as well). I’m hoping that when my representative gets back in the office on Monday, we can work something out where I can get a working computer without being without my laptop for three weeks again.
In the draining the submittable queue news, I’m down to two from three with Whiskey Island officially revealed as defunct (via an e-mail from one of the faculty at the sponsoring institution). Another submission hit its first birthday this month. I’m guessing my no submissions until the submittable queue is empty resolution is going to default to no submissions in 2020. Probably for the best.
Usually, I post these when a story is available online or the issue can be ordered. But for whatever reason, the issue of Sandy River Review that contains this piece seems not to exist anywhere but contributor copies. If you’d like to read it, send me an email and I’ll send a PDF. The PDF version is now available here. The website barely acknowledges the existence of the issue still.
I can remember the moment in the shower when the idea for “The Namesake” came to me. It was one of those flashes of inspiration that come rarely, but I had nearly the whole story at once, it was just a matter of writing it down.
And editing it.
And editing it.
The accepted version of the story was draft 6. It was rejected 40 times , including a very encouraging note from Conjunctions indicating that they’d have taken it if it hewed closer to the theme of the current issue, before it was accepted. Twice.
It turns out that one of the publications I sent it to on the last round of submissions who I assumed were just not going to respond (they didn’t answer when I inquired about the story status after a longer than usual wait), were going to respond so a week after the initial acceptance. A few weeks later, I got the following rejection from The New Yorker.
Digging through my records on the story, this dates back far enough that it was among the stories that I workshopped on Critique Circle back in the day.
The biggest change in my writing life this month is returning to having a critique group. Trying to balance critique group responsibilities with my own writing has been a bit of a challenge and I need to do better with this. I did manage to complete chapter 23 and make some progress on chapter 24 in fits and starts, but I’m not writing at the pace that I’d like to be. I had a sense of what I wanted to do with chapter 24 last month, but I never bothered to write any of it down and now I only have a vague notion of where I was going with that.
I did get some great feedback on a story that I’d sent out last year and had a number of near-misses without success. I now know exactly what was wrong with it—and it’s a simple matter of deleting a single section. It’s still a story that I can see generating form rejections when it goes out for a second round of submissions, but I feel confident that it will get accepted somewhere.
The submittable queue has drained a little bit more with a promised response arriving in the form of a rejection. I’m down to just three pending responses with the two youngest pending responses about to turn a year old in the next week.