Laughs Online

the onion

In 2003, when I first moved to New York at eighteen, I remember reading The Onion at various coffee shops, clutching it in a mittened hand in Washington Square Park. The Onion was also online then, of course. It’s been online since 1996, which is crazy considering what the Internet looked like back then. (When I try to remember it, all I can see is a blue screen and some primitive, boxy text.) Even by 2003, the Internet was still mostly for researching school projects or messaging your friends late into the night from your dorm room. It was not where you went for humor writing.

For that we had print edition of The Onion, available in those wire baskets at the front of bookstores and on downtown street corners. We had Shouts & Murmurs and David Sedaris in the pages of our parents’ New Yorker subscriptions. We had Woody Allen paperbacks, crispy with age, picked up at used bookstores. By the grace of God, we had Pastoralia and CivilWarLand in Bad Decline with its original, hideous cover.

And that was pretty much it.

Recently, Christopher Monks, the editor of McSweeney’s Internet Tendency was interviewed for Medium (part one is here), and it’s made me consider how the Internet has ushered in a golden age of humor writing. Monks reads all submissions himself, a round-the-clock endeavor requiring both impressive stamina and clarity of vision.Continue Reading

Round-Down: Writing Assistance Apps–Trendy? Or Here to Stay?

Pathe_phonograph_1898With National Novel Writing Month already halfway over, many writers may be struggling to find new ways to motivate themselves to finish their marathon projects. Whereas old school methods such as the satisfying, yet solitary, thrill of accomplishment may have been enough back in the day, now, technology-hungry, modern-day writers have many more reward options at their fingertips.

The smartphone app Write or Die 2 provides writers with rewards when they reach personal writing milestones. You can set the app to create positive sounds and display kitten images for every word-count or words-per-minute goal you attain. Similarly, you can set the app to make horrible noises and display things such as spiders every time you get off track. It will record your stats and allow you to compete either against other writers, in addition to yourself. Like the app QualityTime, Write or Die 2 attempts to make users aware of how they waste their time while also mitigating the attention-cannibalizing effect technology often has.

If you think you might outsmart a machine, the app has “kamikaze mode,” which will start erasing all your previously typed words until you start typing again. When I was in school, the way to achieve this same effect was to have my writing teacher stand over me during a free write. Every time my pen stopped, she would whisper, “Don’t stop,” until I would, aggravated, write, “I don’t know what to write!!” over and over again until the sheer momentum of not stopping would catapult me over my block (and over my momentary dislike of my teacher).Continue Reading

Indie Spotlight: Stillhouse Press

stillhouse press

Founded in January 2014, Stillhouse Press has one book out of the hopper, five more slated for publication in 2016, and the press is poised to take the literary scene by storm. Stillhouse was founded by novelist Dallas Hudgens, who also began Stillhouse’s sister imprint, Relegation Books, and the press operates as a collaboration between Northern Virginia’s Fall for the Book festival and students from George Mason University’s creative writing programs.

Stillhouse’s first book, Helen on 86th Street and Other Stories, is a Helen86_Final Cover.inddwonderfully sardonic collection of stories by the late Wendi Kaufman, author and professional champion of authors through her work with Alan Cheuse’s NPR show “The Sound of Writing.” The title story of Kaufman’s collection appeared in the New Yorker, and the rest of her book is equally as strong, with a terrific cast of women narrating their navigations through the modern world at various stages of life. Stillhouse’s other titles, which are slated for release throughout 2016, look to be an exciting mix of poetry and prose by new and established authors.

Currently, Stillhouse accepts submissions of poetry, literary fiction, and creative nonfiction, asking a mere $5 reading fee through Submittable. Stillhouse also awards the Mary Roberts Rinehart prize—$1,000 plus publication; the Rinehart prize alternates between nonfiction and fiction each year for a literary manuscript of 60,000-90,000 words. The 2015 winner is Jacqueline Kolosov, whose manuscript Motherhood, and the Places Between, will be published in September of 2016.

For Ploughshares, Editor-in-Chief Marcos L. Martínez elaborates on the genesis of Stillhouse and shares the essentials of what readers and writers need to know about this exciting new press.Continue Reading

Round-Down: Amazon Opens Amazon Books in Seattle


Amazon Books, Amazon’s first brick-and-mortar bookstore, opened last week in Seattle’s University Village.

The store is similar in appearance to many book retailers, though Amazon Books interestingly (and necessarily) does not note hard prices on its items in-store–the store has a commitment to its Amazon prices, which frequently change.

Because of this, those browsing the Seattle Amazon Books location are encouraged to instead look up prices on the Amazon app while in the store, and are able to buy their books either online or on the spot, at the physical location.

Amazon’s press release mentions that the books in its store “are selected based on customer ratings, pre-orders, sales, popularity on Goodreads, and our curators’ assessments. . . . Most have been rated 4 stars or above, and many are award winners. To give you more information as you browse, our books are face-out, and under each one is a review card with the customer rating and a review.”

Unsurprisingly, most prominent media outlets have covered the news of the store opening. At the Los Angeles Times, Samantha Masunaga details some of the competition Amazon might face now that it’s ventured into retailing books at a physical location and cites declining revenue, digital competition, and smaller rivals as potential issues for Amazon.Continue Reading

Round-Down: First Ever American Writers Museum Slated for 2017


The United States is getting a new addition. In early 2017, the first museum dedicated to writers from the USA, the American Writers Museum, will open. Its mission will be to celebrate American writers and literature.

The idea came from Malcolm O’Hagan, an Irish immigrant and retired engineer who is raising the funds for the project. He recently announced that the museum will lease an eleven-thousand-foot space on Chicago’s Michigan Avenue, near Millennium Park.

It should come as no surprise that an Irishman came up with the idea: the Dublin Writers Museum is another destination that focuses on how nationality connects authors. Dedicated to preserving the country’s vibrant literary history until 1970, the historic building hosts letters and other personal items in its display cases.

Similarly, the Writers’ Museum in Edinburgh celebrates Scottish literary history—though the museum only features three famous Scottish canonical authors (Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott, and Robert Louis Stevenson). Like the Dublin Writers Museum, it carries rare books, personal objects, and portraits.

Upon hearing that the American Writers Museum will be the first of its kind in the USA, I found myself asking, “Why? Why hasn’t anyone come up with this idea before? Is it because the United States as a country is still relatively young, historically speaking?”

But then again, we have the Smithsonian American Art Museum, which was established in 1829. So what is it about writers that has made them perhaps harder to consider from a national perspective?

Is it because American Literature is a notoriously slippery category that breaks down upon too much analysis? I wonder how the museum plans to define “American.” Many citizens of Central and South America bristle at those in the USA who use the term “American” interchangeably with the phrase “from the fifty United States.”

Perhaps it’s because, up until now, museums on writers tend to focus on one author–converting their homes into museums, as in the case of the Carl Sandburg museum in North Carolina, located at the home he kept before he died, or in the case of William Wordsworth’s Dove Cottage.

Of course, there have been exhibits on writers forever. They’re known as libraries.

Paintings and sculpture lend themselves easily to exhibitions, as they provide items to display. Museums focused on writers seem to be more about the personal effects of an author, rather than about displaying his or her work of art (which, again, would look more like a library).

And yet, Jim Leach, former Chairman for the National Endowment for the Humanities, speaks to the void in the American museum world, which no doubt the American Writers Museum aims to fill. The Museum’s mission webpage quotes Leach: “We collect in central points the artifacts of civilization and honor politicians and soldiers, athletes and artists, inventors and entrepreneurs, but we neglect our writers. In a country established as an idea explicated in written documents and embellished by generations of poets, novelists, and critics, the case for commemorating the written word is self-evident. After all, what is written describes a people and what is celebrated defines their values.”

And so, I’m excited to see what the museum comes up with in terms of themed galleries, interactive exhibits, educational programs, and special events. It has already coordinated with over fifty individual writer museums across the country and has enthusiastic support from scholars, teachers, businessmen, and politicians alike. As both a writer and a citizen of the United States, it’s hard to feel anything but patriotic about this addition to the national museum scene.

Round-Down: Amazon Sues for Fraudulent Product Reviews


Amazon is suing over one thousand people who used Fiverr, the odd-jobs website for digital tasks, to offer paid fake product reviews at the site. The lawsuit alleges that “defendants are misleading Amazon’s customers and tarnishing Amazon’s brand for their own profit and the profit of a handful of dishonest sellers and manufacturers.” Some fake reviewers also abused the site’s “Amazon Verified Purchaser” program to have their fake product reviews appear “verified.”

The fake reviewers were supposedly giving a ratings-boost to the products, which might otherwise have suffered from few reviews or, worse, a large number of negative reviews. Flooding the products with positive reviews, regardless of their validity, would give the products a better average ratings.

Adrienne LaFrance at The Atlantic notes that in many instances, one-star reviews by actual customers serve great purpose. “Honest, critical Amazon reviews—one-star reviews, especially,” LaFrance writes, “are valuable beyond their utility to consumers. And that’s because they’re a reflection of cultural expectations and values as much as they are a tool that might help you make a purchasing decision.”

While it seems unlikely that any pay-for-review service would offer anything but limp words with unhelpful, vague, and likely incorrect praise, the problem is bigger than a rise of clutter on the web.Continue Reading

Round-Down: The Hogarth Series Will Reinvent Shakespeare’s Works As Novels


Jeanette Winterson’s novel The Gap of Time, released only one week ago, is the first book launched of a larger series, called The Hogarth Shakespeare. The series, from the revered Vintage Books, plans to do the very exciting and almost unthinkable: reimagine Shakespeare’s classic plays as novels penned by some of today’s finest modern writers. The Hogarth Shakespeare series’s press release speaks to the larger mission of the project, noting that “these new versions will be true to the spirit of the original dramas and their popular appeal, while giving authors an exciting opportunity to reinvent these seminal works of English literature.” Winterson’s The Gap of Time takes its cue from Shakespeare’s beloved and strange The Winter’s Tale.

Other writers contracted to contribute books to the series include Pulitzer-Prize–winner Anne Tyler, who will adapt The Taming of the Shrew, and Margaret Atwood, who will adapt The Tempest. View a full list of the forthcoming titles here.

The project will explore and reveal the universality of Shakespeare’s enduring and compelling works–less “updates” to the originals than reinventions of the classics. What I am most looking forward to seeing is how his characters breathe on the page anew: in different bodies, with different blood, in different times, but navigating much the same emotional and thematic terrain as in their origin stories.

The novels also have the fascinating potential of showing us the implicated offstage action and interiority of these people and their conflicts. There is, in some sense, no way to exit. The stories will of course look and feel valuably different–and Winterson’s The Gap of Time is historic, a nod to the four-hundredth anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, with which this series smartly coincides.

Winterson discussed Shakespeare’s enduring legacy in an article published on Vintage’s website, in anticipation of the book’s release, writing that “When people now say Shakespeare’s difficult, we shouldn’t read Shakespeare, it’s crazy, because all you need to do is immerse yourself in those plays and a whole new world begins to open up for you. It’s never a waste of time.”

Now it seems there is another way to read Shakespeare, to enjoy his legacy as it moves into a larger legacy of great writers and great writing being made today. To purchase your copy of The Gap in Time, click here.

Indie Spotlight: Autumn House Press

autumn press

Autumn House Press was formed in Pittsburgh by poet Michael Simms in 1998, just as commercial and scholarly presses were responding to economic woes by slashing budgets and shrinking lists, abandoning established poets along the way. Autumn House made a name for itself by publishing an impressive roster of notable poets, including Gerald Stern, Ada Limon, Ellery Akers, Chana Bloch, Richard Jackson, Ed Ochester, Frank Gaspar, and Andrea Hollander. In 2008, the press expanded into fiction and in 2010 began publishing nonfiction; the press also is known for its influential contemporary anthologies.

In June 2015 after several years of training his replacements, Simms turned over the running of Autumn House to Christine Stroud, who selects, edits, and promotes new releases, and Alison Taverna, who manages business affairs. Simms continues as president of Autumn House, but his role is primarily that of mentor and advisor to the staff.

Autumn House’s most recent books include Twin of Blackness by Clifford Thompson, a terrific memoir in which the author, born in 1963, recounts his upbringing in a lower-middle-class black Washington D.C. neighborhood alongside his “twin”: “I feel toward blackness the way one might toward a twin. I love it, and in a pinch I defend it; I resent the baggage that comes with it; I have been made to feel afraid of not measuring up to it; I am identified with it whether I want to be or not—and never more than when I assert an identity independent of it.”

Other new titles are Our Portion: New and Selected Poems by Philip Terman, recently excerpted on Writer’s Almanac with Garrison Keillor, and So Many Africas: Six Years in a Zambian Village, Jill Kandel’s quiet and candid memoir of moving to a remote part of Zambia as a newlywed in the early 1980s.

Autumn House primarily accepts book-length poetry, fiction, and nonfiction submissions through its three annual contests, which award publication and a $2,500 prize in each genre. Through its online imprint, Coal Hill Review, Autumn House also sponsors a yearly chapbook contest in poetry whose deadline of November 1 is quickly approaching.

For the Ploughshares blog, Autumn House founder Michael Simms shares more about Autumn House’s history, aesthetic, and outlook, and he discusses Vox Populi, his new publishing venture.

Kate Flaherty: Autumn House initially published only poetry. What prompted the addition of fiction and nonfiction? How has the press evolved as you’ve expanded?

Michael Simms: Our fiction and nonfiction initiatives came about as a result of natural growth in our community. My former colleague Sharon Dilworth, who had been the fiction editor at Carnegie Mellon University Press for ten years, put forward some interesting ideas about book projects she wanted to work on and she brought considerable talent and a wide network of authors, including Stewart O’Nan and Kathleen George. Later, Phillip Lopate encouraged us to start a nonfiction line, and he agreed to judge our nonfiction contest for the first couple of years.Continue Reading

Round-Down: McDonald’s Happy Readers Initiative Fated for Great Success



Roald Dahl’s estate, the National Literacy Trust, and McDonald’s have teamed up in a smart, new installment of the fast food franchise’s recent UK literacy initiative, Happy Readers. Fourteen-million Roald Dahl books have been created specifically for the project, featuring excerpts from some of the author’s classics, and will be distributed with Happy Meals in the United Kingdom.

In an interview for The Guardian, Director of the National Literacy Trust Abigail Moss said, “Many parents will have enjoyed the wonderful world of Roald Dahl when they were young and now they’ll be able to share these iconic stories with their children. The scale of the campaign will reach millions of children, including many who haven’t owned a book before, inspiring them to enjoy reading and improving their life chances.” This isn’t an empty public relations promise, either: around fifteen percent of children do not own a book, and McDonald’s’ considerable reach will help not only to change that disappointing fact, but to encourage many young people to grow into lifelong readers.

The facts compel: young readers, and those read to when young, are better set up for success. If there is any criticism of the Happy Readers initiative, it is that it has only taken off in the UK and has not yet been launched in other countries.

Unlike Chipotle’s Cultivating Thoughts series, McDonald’s Happy Readers seems to risk little in distribution. I approached Chipotle’s venture with a degree of hesitation for its implicit suggestion that literature is disposable. Happy Readers, however, is circulating the work via specially printed booklets. In addition, the initiative isbeing produced by a company that, according to Gus Lubin and Mamta Badkar at Business Insider, has “daily customer traffic (62 million) greater than the population of Great Britain.” It’s a project that is especially exciting for its growth potential–the prospect of this project moving its franchises globally.

This is a truly thoughtful and smart move on the part of a company that has come under relentless fire for its public face as a fast-food industry giant uninterested in the well-being of its customers.

“Cow Country” And The Problem With Pseudonyms


A recent post on the Harper’s blog has gotten me thinking about pseudonyms. In it, Art Winslow posits that a new novel, Cow Country, from an obscure vanity press was actually authored by Thomas Pynchon under the pseudonym Adrian Jones Pearson.

As evidence, Winslow points to certain aesthetic similarities between the author and Pynchon, including its meta quality and the use of outlandish names like “Dimwiddle.”

Cow Country is at heart a playful novel, side-splittingly funny in a goofy, almost junior-high way, overworking its material far past expected bounds, taking Emily Dickinson’s idea of telling it “slant” and running with it in wild abandon, sometimes to the extent of losing its very breath. There will be recurrent talk of lost civilizations, forgotten cultures, and tongues. The novel seems to revel in its own delight of cultural esoterica, and it displays both a fondness for and a corresponding suspicion of countercultural motifs of the 1960s–70s as well.

Sure, sounds like Pynchon. Also Pynchonesque is the premise of the imagined scheme: to expose the advantage granted to “names” over unknown authors while a book’s content goes ignored.Continue Reading