The Art of the Sad Birthday

Birthday Cake by Omer Wazir

Birthday Cake by Omer Wazir

Are you a writer looking for a situation with built-in irony and ample opportunities for subtext? Have you considered a melancholy birthday scene? I’ve collected a few merciless examples for consideration.

barkReferential,” by Lorrie Moore

Moore dives into the irony of the sad celebration in the first paragraph of the story, from her most recent collection, Bark.

Mania. For the third time in three years they talked in a frantic way about what would be a suitable birthday present for her deranged son. There was so little they were actually allowed to bring: almost everything could be transformed into a weapon and so most items had to be left at the front desk, and then, if requested, brought in later by a big blond aide, who would look the objects over beforehand for their wounding possibilities.

The story is more about a flagging relationship than it is about her son, who is in an uneasy state of equilibrium when the story begins. The protagonist’s sort-of boyfriend, Pete, who retreated when her son grew ill, accompanies her on the visit. Pete is the only named character in the story. The son, in the grip of his illness, eschews subtext in conversation, asking Pete questions his mother never asks: “So where have you been?” and “Do you miss us?” However, the son believes that nearly everything, including the “soft deckle-edged book about Daniel Boone” his mother eventually settles on as a birthday gift, contains subtext meant only for him. She knows he’ll become obsessed with the messages he finds in it. Everything has wounding possibilities.Continue Reading

Squad Books

squad books

Look, I’m not trying to be Internetty. But at the end of a year I’ve spent thinking a lot about friendship, I don’t want my last post to be another family tree. Instead, I want to write about books that are my friends. I want to write about the books that I’ve made into parts of me, the ones that showed me something new about myself and the ones that helped me understand, or at least be kind to, a part of myself that I already knew.

I suspect that most of us have bits of culture that we think of as armor. Not all of mine are coherent. A major non-literary one is what a former friend of mine used to call thunderous rap. The spectrum is pretty much DMX to Meek Mill, though these days my preference is either Nicki Minaj or just about any rapper who recorded club hits in the early 2000s. If I need to be brave—for a party, a meeting, a date, a walk home—then chances are I’m listening to Chingy.

I tell you this for context. There are times when I like loud and simple. There are times, though I’m not proud to admit it, when I’m willing to overlook glaring misogyny. There are times when I want what’s familiar. Bear all of this in mind as you’re reading my list of best friends.


  1. Goodbye, Columbus

Everyone’s got a problem with Philip Roth, and I’m not here to disagree. He’s sexist, he’s ranty, and he’s inconsistent. He’s also a genius. And before he was so sexist and ranty, before some of those books that just aren’t good, he wrote a collection of short stories that, half a century later, perfectly illustrate how confusing it is for me to be an American Jew. There’s no image that resonates more with me than Eli, the title character in “Eli, The Fanatic,” walking around his suburban town dressed in a Hasidic Holocaust survivor’s cast-off clothes. No matter what I believe or don’t believe, no matter how I behave, there are times when I feel that obligated to my history, and that conspicuous. I hope this isn’t true for most other Jews. But it was true for Philip Roth in 1958, and it’s true for me.Continue Reading

No Real for You


I’m going to begin by asking your forgiveness for two things I usually don’t do. The first is speaking Spanish in my English. The second is using the prefix meta-.  But this is a family of meta-fictional twins, and come on, don’t you agree that “Pierre Menard, autor del Quijote” sounds better than “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote?”

Here is what I mean by meta-fiction: all these books, stories, and bodies of work contain made-up books and bodies of work. Some are based on real books. Some are making fun of real books, a little bit, gently. Some are invented entirely. And one, you can go out and buy. Hint: it’s not Don Quixote.

In the short story “Pierre Menard, autor del Quijote,” Jorge Luis Borges describes the work of an author who set out to write

the Quixote itself. Needless to say, he never contemplated a mechanical transcription of the original; he did not propose to copy it. His admirable intention was to produce a few pages which would coincide—word for word and line for line—with those of Miguel de Cervantes.”

He succeeds, but what he creates is an invisible work: someone else’s novel.

Plenty of writers have tried to recreate J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. I’m sure it has more twins out there, imitations or fictional versions, but I’m picking these two because I love the books where I found them. In James Magnuson’s Famous Writers I Have Known, a con man named Frankie Abandonato, finds himself impersonating V.S. Mohle, a writer who isn’t J.D. Salinger just as much as the Fiction Institute of Texas, where this impersonation takes place, isn’t the Michener Center at UT-Austin, where Magnuson teaches. Elinor Lipman describes Famous Writers I Have Known as “triumphantly preposterous,” but having been a creative writing student not too different from the ones Frankie teaches, I don’t find it too ridiculous. And I wouldn’t have minded a class with a con man, either—because (and Magnuson doesn’t put nearly this fine a point on it) fiction is its own kind of con.

And then there’s & Sons, a much more serious book, though perhaps more preposterous in its ultimate plot twist. David Gilbert probes through the male relationships in two mirroring families, one of which has at its helm the novelist A.N. Dyer, author of Ampersand, which, to be fair, sounds like The Catcher in the Rye rolled together with Tobias Wolff’s Old School and a bit of The Lord of the Flies. V.S. Mohle’s Eat Your Wheaties, on the other hand—that’s straight Salinger.Continue Reading

Literary Enemies: Cormac McCarthy vs. Philip Roth

roth mccarthy

Disclaimer: These two writers are not actually enemies. As far as I know.

In 2003, Harold Bloom wrote in the Boston Globe that there were only four great American novelists alive and working: Don DeLillo, Cormac McCarthy, Thomas Pynchon, and Philip Roth. I don’t agree. I think there were a hell of a lot more, and still are, and that there is no way in this country and century that the only great living novelists could possibly all be white men. But I also think that two of the writers on Bloom’s list mark the opposite poles of contemporary American fiction. Don DeLillo and Thomas Pynchon are so dissimilar in style, tone, and sense of humor—no, fine, bad joke. Let’s talk about Roth and McCarthy.

Here’s why I think that Philip Roth and Cormac McCarthy are opposites: Roth is a builder, and McCarthy is a destroyer. Roth is an expert manipulator of the English language, stretching sentences beyond where a sentence should go without breaking a single grammatical rule, weaving together ten-page rants and ten-page conversations, describing the world we know with tooth-aching accuracy. Take this line from Goodbye, Columbus: “As a rule, fifty or fifty-five reflects accurately the age of late afternoons in November, for it is in that month, during those hours, that one’s awareness of light seems no longer a matter of seeing, but of hearing: light begins clicking away.” I promise, you’ll remember it in ten months, and you’ll hear the light click. I always do.

McCarthy, on the other hand, takes English and jumps up and down on it. His run-ons are run-ons. If you don’t speak Spanish you’re going to miss bits of plot. His dialogue is sometimes unidentifiable as dialogue. And his imagery is astonishing, astonishingly beautiful, and barely makes sense. I know exactly what Roth means by light clicking away. I’m not so sure I can visualize the charging warriors McCarthy describes in Blood Meridian as “screeching and yammering and clothed in smoke like those vaporous beings in regions beyond right knowing where the eye wanders and the lip jerks and drools”—and yet, somehow, I understand.Continue Reading

From the Slush Pile: What’d She Say?

Frankfurt-Oder, BauarbeiterSo, we’ve talked about the beginning, the end, pluck, resiliency, and life—and yet here we are, still, wading through the slush pile. How many licks does it take to get to the center of a Tootsie Roll Pop? The world may never know, and how to have a reader pass on your work feels just as elusive.  A tip: nothing is more effective than good dialogue to keep a reader engaged, and nothing can turn a reader off faster than schlocky conversation. Picture Charlie Brown listening to his teachers: womp, womp.

Author, Elizabeth Bowen, says, “Dialogue is what people do to each other.” It should be used to convey attitude, not information. When dialogue is used for exposition it sounds stilted and almost always falls flat, taking the reader out of the moment. Dialogue, when done right, provides economy in revealing character through word choice, dialect, and inference, to name a few. Done well, it pushes your story forward by suggestion. Mark Twain says, “The difference between the right word and the nearly right word is the same as that between lightning and the lightning bug.”

Continue Reading

Roundup: Writers and Their Mentors

In our Roundups segment, we’re looking back at all the great posts since the blog started in 2009. We explore posts from our archives as well as other top literary magazines and websites, centered on a certain theme to help you jump-start your week. This week we bring you posts about writers and their mentors.

From Ploughshares: