Taking Men's Fiction By The Horns
The “men’s fiction” part of BULL's title does not refer to its contributors: stories by female authors appear in the issue. The question is, do men need a magazine specifically about themselves and for themselves?
In an interview with The Review Review, editor Jarrett Haley said he had “a strong desire to really do something about all the ‘men don’t read fiction’ sentiment being bandied about in publishing.” Implicit in that statement is that fiction published in other venues is usually for women. Or that men will skim through other journals and read only the stories written for them and leave the rest.
I like that BULL doesn’t entirely know where it’s going just yet, but wants to go somewhere. As a male reader, I like that it really wants me to engage. All the same I feel that the magazine has its heart in the right place and doesn't want to turn off potential female readers, although that might be impossible in a magazine that has no stories about female main characters. Women are almost nonexistent on the staff, but the magazine encourages submissions by women.
If you saw the cover of the first issue and asked, “Men’s fiction?”, the answer is, it’s the main characters. Men in their 20s to their 40s, roughly, with problems ranging from imprisonment and bank robbery to marital problems and ennui, live and breathe in its pages, usually speaking for themselves. The first-person narrator is the model for eleven of the fourteen stories, which is a little too much for me but it's a matter of taste. All of the stories take place in the present day and there is strong writing, with wit, sophistication, and urgency, but a couple of stories made me wonder if, in some cases, BULL will elevate subject matter over writing quality.
The two big-name writers featured on the cover arrive back-to-back in the middle of the issue, HarperCollins-published Kevin Wilson landing with a solid, four-page piece in which a youngish man tells us about his lunar eclipse night in “The Moon’s Face, Darkened.” It’s not a great night for the character. His wife leaves the house to moon-gaze with an “outdoorsy type” he’s pretty sure she has been sleeping with since high school; meanwhile, he hangs out with her much older brother. The last lines: “I went outside and stared up at the moon, angry and rusted, ruined. I wished I lived in a time when I could point to the sky, at the oddness occurring for only a brief time, and wield some kind of power over those who had no idea how the world worked.” Every line is polished and the story has a rich subtext.
Ironically, in the interview mentioned above, managing editor Jared Yates Sexton says, “One of the constants I run into, going through the submissions, is the traditional man and woman relationship story in which the woman has done something wrong or isn’t trustworthy and the man drinks or raises hell in order to deal with it.” This story would fall under that description but is more subtle. Is it the case that that kind of story is acceptable only with a spin, and don’t most well-written stories have spins?
I wondered how BULL was able to get pieces for its first issue from such established writers, and a major question for the future is whether it will be able to continue to do so.
Padgett Powell’s contribution is a flash piece called “Gothiccey and Beckettey,” about half a page long, an exercise in dialect, and a fun read. It struck me as odd that he received front cover billing for a reading experience that lasts just over a minute. (Powell has another piece, titled “Dump,” on the magazine’s website, published in March.)
The magazine stares at you with a bearded man’s face, thick-framed glasses and Beatles hair, a suit jacket and tie. It’s like a young dad staring into your eyes. It is the portrait of Chuck Klosterman, the subject of the issue’s interview. A very good interview, it turns out, with Sexton firing away, and Klosterman going deep on how his journalism background led into his novel writing and how he feels about a certain type of literary success, mentioning Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom: “Those are both great books by great writers. They’re well done and well executed. But their movement into import, and sort of the evolution of those books, is sort of a fake thing we’ve agreed to do.”
Beyond the big names, the magazine has some interesting writing from up-and-coming writers.
I read the last story first, “New Baby” by Joshua Kleinberg, a writer living in Columbus. It’s a very suburban story and (warning: spoiler alert!) I was troubled that the narrator hid the crucial bit of background about a stillborn baby from the reader for so long. It is also strange that he never has the least bit of sympathy for what his brother is going through, which is a possible divorce based on the stillborn baby.
Next, I turned to “Mihara,” by Patrick Parr, a contributor who teaches at a school for Japanese high school students in Switzerland. The story is about a volcano in Japan where people go to commit suicide. The narrator and his buddy are dealing with a Fight Club-sized case of ennui, and they just want to feel something. In the end, however, the main characters remain less vivid than the people they watch commit suicide.
Nick Bertelson’s “Everything Far Away Up Close” mirrors the structure of the earlier piece, “Mihara,” but with a greater length of time involved. An alcoholic addresses the reader, who is understood to be playing the role of an AA meeting attendee. We don’t learn that much about the narrator as he is in the present, which raises questions about the frame.
Fiction for men does not mean that BULL publishes only fiction by men. Sara Lippmann’s “House Boy” is a pretty funny voice piece—the narrator, a young Israeli man keeping a rich family’s house in Bucks County, PA, sounds almost like Borat: “The pool makes hypnotic on me. The wind blows, the water gleam the color the eyes of Tzipi when she wear blue contact lens. I swim Olympic. I swim and swim without thought or molesting.” I liked the use of setting here, which most of the other stories don’t focus on so much, and also the story’s treatment of cultural displacement—the author’s goal seems to be to point at some absurdity in how we live.
In the other female-authored story, also with a particularly strong setting, Ethel Rohan’s “Lodgers” puts us on an Irish farm, with the stink of cow shite rolling in through the windows. Rohan is an Irish writer with books from PANK and Dark Sky Books released in the last two years. Curtis Dawkins (see below) reviews one of her books on the magazine’s website. “Lodgers,” one of just three stories in the issue written in the third person, is about a teenage boy named Rory who becomes aroused at the possibilities raised when an attractive Dublin woman named Ashling lodges with his conservative parents. Rory’s conflict between his new desires and his destiny is well-drawn and believable.
I really liked “The Heart is a Strong Instrument,” by Jon Morgan Davies, for its fantastic writing. A story about HouseGuy_42 and a party in virtual reality he goes to, where he (his avatar?) gets stabbed in the chest by Karen_Loves_U69. The strangeness level is such that I didn't know exactly what the scenario was, but it happens in computer-speak dialogue (in sans serif type), punctuated by lyrical descriptions of action. The bizarre comedy is enjoyable: “‘Karen_Loves_U69: !!! the blood the way it gushes out did u see that?’ She stabbed me again. ‘HouseGuy_42: STOP’”
In general, BULL publishes pieces that are on the shorter side, averaging nine pages in length, with the longest piece being fourteen pages. And what is so masculine about all this so far? The stories simmer with nuance and ordinary lives as much as any you would find in a mainstream literary magazine. But then you get to Ryan Glenn Smith and Curtis Dawkins, the writers I felt BULL is really making a claim on.
The former’s bio starts: “When he was a soldier, Ryan Glenn Smith published dozens of articles for the United States Army about what a bang-up job we were doing in Iraq.” His story, “Ventura,” is a thirteen-page, first-person narrator piece about a young guy working on a muscle car who gets involved in a bank robbery with a dude named Reggie. It’s not quite there, in terms of the authority and credibility in the writing: it has a twist ending in which the cute girl at the diner that the rogue bank robber picks up turns out to be a canny stick-up artist, gets away with the narrator’s car and the bank’s stolen money, and this is somehow a clearing of the board for the narrator.
Dawkins, however, is BULL’s beating heart. In fact, his book of short stories will be the first ever book published by BULL Books, according to his bio, which also reads, “He earned an M.F.A. from Western Michigan University and is currently an inmate at the Michigan Reformatory in Ionia, Michigan.” Intriguing paradox there. Dawkins also writes very good book reviews on the magazine’s website. The two prison stories he has in this issue, “In the Dayroom with Stinky” and “A North,” are dispatches from a place you (perhaps) and I cannot understand. Dawkins’ is a compelling voice, and I like the special relationship the magazine has with him. His book will be something to watch for.
BULL delivers an enthusiastic new forum for emerging talent in a well-designed package, with evidence of thoughtfulness behind the project on every page. I’ll be looking forward to future issues, no doubt about it. And some of the strongest writing comes in the stories about men written by women, so I hope female writers will continue to submit fiction to the magazine. Also in that vein, I wouldn’t mind seeing more variety in the characters, perhaps older ones, perhaps very young ones, and perhaps ones of different ethnic groups and a broader spectrum of class and living circumstances (most stories in this issue are about lower-middle-class whites and several are about suburbia).
BULL publishes biannually ($12 for a single issue or $20 for a subscription) and features book reviews, interviews, and fiction on its website. The staff is pretty big for a new market: fourteen people according to the website, and nineteen according to the magazine. There are no length requirements for submissions, but it asks for “good stories that address men’s issues, span male perspectives, or otherwise appeal to a male audience. We want interesting and engaging, acute and insightful.”