Tag Archives: Tin House

Who to Trust on What to Read

Book swapping

How we group “good” and “bad” writing can be really tricky. Each reader brings to a work their own set of values, beliefs, experiences, and tastes. A hardcore Dickinson fan is probably going to look at a new piece of writing differently than a hardcore Philip K. Dick fan.

So how do literary magazines (and even book publishers) make the call? As a reader for Pif Magazine I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. We have a total of five editors going over submissions, and not all of us always agree on what should (and shouldn’t) be published. At the end of the day, however, I feel that what we choose to publish on the site is really strong writing.

What interests me, though, is the recent summer issue of The Paris Review (full review upcoming). I’ve only read a few of the stories and poems so far, but as I’ve been reading I’ve been thinking about them in a new way: If this was submitted to Pif, would I have accepted it?

What bothers me is that the answer has been mostly no. Now, this could be a number of things. What bothers me the most is the possibility that because I wouldn’t have accepted the piece and The Paris Review obviously did, it means I have a faulty sense of strong writing and storytelling. If that is the case, I should probably choose a different field. Another possibility is that The Paris Review’s standards are faltering, or they have been publishing for some unknown political reasons rather than merit. Yet another possibility is that writing is just too damn subjective. One person loves it, another doesn’t, and neither is wrong.

But in a world with so much content being produced and made available, who do we trust to point us in the right reading direction? Everyone must trust a source to tell them what to read and what to avoid, as most people don’t have the time or energy to wade through all of the available content themselves.

I’ve had a love/hate relationship with The Paris Review, and often find myself unimpressed by the writing they publish. On the other hand, I’m almost always impressed by the selection chosen by Tin House, so it may be to my personal benefit to rely on Tin House as my go-to source for new fiction. I think a fun (albeit spendy) experiment would be to try out as many literary journals as possible and find the one that best suits your own individual tastes and then stick with it. I’ve been attempting this for a few years now, though most smaller journals have failed to catch my interest (to be fair, they only get one shot).

As someone as immersed in reading (and reviewing) as myself, it can be hard to be confident in my own opinions. I try to give fair and informative reviews, highlighting the positive but not letting the negative slip by unchecked, either. I hope I can be a good source for you, my readers, when choosing what to read next.


Tin House: Vol. 12, #3 “The Mysterious”

The latest issue of Tin House  is focused around “The Mysterious.” It has a story about Africa’s Johannesburg, one of the most violent cities in the world, a story about immortality elixirs, an interview with Peter Straub, and some gruesome and creepy fiction.

I loved Luis Alberto Urrea’s short story, “Chametla.” It tells of two soldiers, one who is dying and the other who is watching the man dying. As Guerrero fades from life, Garcia tries to bandage his head wound without much success. Then, something very strange begins to happen:

Garcia bent down, but then had to leap back because a small locomotive rushed out of Guerrero’s wound. It fell out of the wound, pulling a coal car and several small cattle cars as if it were falling off a miniscule bridge in some rail disaster. The soft train fell upon the ground and glistened, puffing like a fish. Casan pounced on it and took it in his mouth, shaking it once and gulping it down.

As Garcia continues to watch the man die, he sees all of Guerrero’s memories flow out of his head, miniature and magical, but solid. I loved this imagery, it comes across as unique and beautiful, as well as troubling.

Peter Straub’s interview was both interesting and inspiring. Straub, author of such scary stories as A Dark Matter, Ghost Story, and Shadowland talked about writing horror stories, his own dark childhood, and how he’s trying to show people how crime/horror stories can be great works of fiction.

One thing Straub said in this interview that caught my attention was when he was talking about what makes things scary. He said, “What would be frightening about me jumping out of the bush wearing a pig mask is not the sudden surprise, but that the ordinary world had split open.” I love the idea of the “ordinary world splitting open” as a metaphor for writing horror or any other type of fiction.

Richard Poplak wrote an essay about “The Suitcase Murder,” a murder that “stunned” South Africa, specifically the scary town of Johannesburg. According to Poplak, “…Johannesburg has produced 1.3 serial killers for every decade of its history, with a cumulative tally of about 450.” That’s a lot of serial killers.

But “The Suitcase Murder” was just a single act of violence that for some reason scared the town more than anything had in a long time. One day a suitcase was found on the shore filled with a woman’s chopped up body parts (sans head).

Poplak describes the story of “The Suitcase Murder” in gruesome but provocative detail adding his insight into the social and economic aspects of the town and the effect of this murder on its people.

Another piece of fiction, “Then,” by Kenneth Calhoun is worth noting as well. The story wasn’t the best that I have read but Calhoun has done something unique here with time traveling. In his story each paragraph is related to a couple and their baby, but the order is all screwed up. In one paragraph the couple are sitting on the couch with the baby, in the next she’s pregnant with the baby, in the next they can’t find the baby. This goes on (a little too long) until the end of the story where cops get involved and the story, which until then had been just confusing and a little dark, becomes very dark and all too clear.

These were my favorite parts of this issue Tin House, but it was a fantastic read as a whole which included many diverse elements under the “mysterious” umbrella.

Tin House, Volume 11, Number 4

I am going to take a break from regaling you all with my experiences at NYU to talk about Tin House’s most recent summer issue. 

It’s amazing. 

Feeling nostalgic for the Pacific Northwest I decided to pick up a copy of Tin House and Glimmer Train from the Union Square Barnes & Noble. Tin House did not disappoint. It’s reputation for publishing only the best writing remains intact. 

My favorite piece was “Tales of Darkness and the Unknown Vol. XIV: The White Glove” by Steven Millhauser. Millhauser writes in such a beautiful, eery way that caught me and held me down for all 26 pages. It’s a quiet story at first, with its focus on a boy and his infatuation with a girl and her perfect family. But slowly his perfect relationship turns sour when the girl begins to wear a mysterious white glove she never takes off. A source of much embarrassment for her, she forbids him to see what is underneath. 

As I was reading it I was reminded of a children’s horror story I read once when I was a kid. It was a story about a girl with a ribbon around her neck she never took off until the day she died, and her husband finally saw that it was holding her head on. That story really struck me when I was a kid, and this story affected me much the same way. Nothing really happens, and yet everything does at the same time. It’s part coming-of-age, part mystery, part horror story, but all beautiful.

The glove lay motionless. It seemed to be holding its breath. In the darkness made less dark by the blurry bar of light, I could see the two buttons at the wrist. I realized there were three of us in the room: the glove, Emily, and me. 

Millhauser won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1997 for his novel Martin Dressler and has put out a few short fiction collections. I have never heard of him until now, and I feel very compelled to buy one his collections. 

The other major highlight for me was the poem “Spoiler Alert” by Boomer Pinches. Here are the lines that caught my attention:

Gently I explain that I would like to be intensely remembered 

By as many people as possible. This is a life

Lesson and I am some underpaid substitute teacher.

Perhaps it is because I am an existentialist ex-substitute teacher that it caught my eye. People have worse reasons for liking something. Pinches also wrote a story called “Bethlehem is Full” which was published in 2010′s edition of Best New American Voices. I mentioned liking it in a past post, this second piece has made me think I should read more from him. 

Now that I have finished this issue of Tin House, it’s time to read the summer issue of Glimmer Train.