I can’t remember when I first heard of Alex Perez. It just feels like he’s always been there. Been here. A smart, independent thinker, a talented writer who went to Iowa for fiction but took a (very) different path post-graduation than most of his Iowa peers. Than most of the lit world, in general. He doesn’t fit any stereotypes. Doesn’t check boxes. He always has something interesting to say on the current state of literature, on being a man in the writing world, on being working class in the writing world, on being Cuban-American in the writing world, on not fitting into stereotypes or boxes in the literary world. I don’t know, did I just put Alex in a box(es) with those statements? I hope not. Nobody puts Alex in a box. I’ll just let Alex speak for himself:
“My family left Cuba, left everything behind to come to America, and I was afraid of some of the most mediocre people on the planet. I was deeply ashamed. … I remained a pussy until 2017, when Hurricane Irma, a category five monster of a storm, was set to destroy Miami. A day before impact, I was sitting at Starbucks with a buddy, and said, “If we get through this one, I’m going to write whatever the fuck I want from now on.” The fear of the storm coincided with the peak of my shame, and I just couldn’t take it anymore. Irma ended up missing Miami, but something had changed. I dropped the agent soon after and started writing political/cultural stuff; I started writing about all the stuff I was secretly talking about with friends. My first published piece of cultural commentary, an essay about Philip Roth and American manhood, appeared in Tablet Magazine. I’ve been doing it ever since. This is how I make a living now. It’s very nice to get paid to write, I must say. I highly recommend it.”
Let’s start at the beginning, or what is sort of the beginning: how did you end up at Iowa? And you were there for fiction, yes? Not nonfiction, even though, and we’ll get to this later, that is mostly your focus at present.
I ended up at Iowa because my baseball career fizzled out and I needed something to do. I was a jock—with intellectual leanings—up until 22, when I wasn’t good enough to compete at the highest level anymore; the game, as they say, passed me by. Sports are great like that because you can’t reason with or lie to yourself about physical limitations. I was a good baseball player, until I wasn’t, and the shift happened overnight. I’d reached the limit of my God-given talent, and that was that. I remember the exact moment it happened, too. I was on deck waiting to face a guy throwing mid-90s, a real flamethrower. I’d seen the lower 90s, but this guy was a different animal. I thought: I got this, I’m a stud, I’ve been a stud all my life, but just in case, let’s be smart here and take the first pitch. Let’s see what this boy’s got. So I stepped into the box and took the first pitch…but I didn’t see the ball. I heard it hit the catcher’s mitt though. The game decided my fate: I couldn’t see—forget hit—a 95 mile per hour fastball, and so it was over. My dream of being the next Alex Rodriguez was wiped away, so I decided to give the writing life a shot—maybe I could be the Cuban-American Ray Carver. I applied to Iowa—without ever having taken a workshop or a creative writing course—and got in. My short stories of urban Miami and the “immigrant experience” went over well, I guess. For better or worse, I was now a fiction writer.
Or, let’s go back even further. In one of our first email exchanges you said, “I’m Cuban-American from Miami, from a completely nonliterary family.” What was your growing up like in Miami? And how, then, did you become interested in literature and what did your family think of it?
Growing up in Miami was great and weird; the city’s strangeness is probably my biggest literary influence. It’s not a literary city, so I remember getting weird looks from teammates and friends whenever I had a book. I was very much a secret intellectual back then, which was my first real taste of being an outsider. I didn’t want to be thought of as a nerd by my crazy Cuban cousins or my grimy friends. Growing up, I spoke Spanish more than English and my earliest memory of the power of storytelling came from my grandfather drunkenly telling stories about his days in Cuba and hating the dirty, rotten communists. Typical Miami shit. I was always a smart kid, so it was natural that I’d be attracted to books, but it wasn’t until late in high school that I leaned into my artistic side a bit. And it wasn’t books, but my obsession with Bob Dylan that gave me the push. First Bob and his music, and then the books.
My parents are wonderful, supportive people, but they were confused and probably devastated when I stopped playing baseball and decided to write. My mom had no idea what Iowa was—still doesn’t—and had no clue as to what went on there. She probably thought I was joining a cult; she wasn’t wrong about that. When I got in, I screamed, “Iowa, Iowa, Iowa, I got in,” and she said, “Que?”
Who were some of your early literary influences and did they change while at Iowa? Can you remember what authors initially made you want to be a writer?
My earliest influences, predictably, were Bukowski, Kerouac, and Hemingway. As a former jock, I was attracted to those guys and their strong, masculine writing right away. Being Hispanic, Junot Diaz, of course, was revelatory. You could write about fucked up Hispanic shit and white people would eat it up! If you’re out there, Junot, come back! Don’t let those angry ladies who begged you for blurbs run you out of the game. No seas pendejo. Would Yunior be such a little bitch…
Okay, back to the question. At Iowa, like everyone else, I got heavy into Carver, Denis Johnson, Richard Ford, O’Connor, and all those MFA writers who were popular back then. My favorite writer, though, was my Iowa professor and mentor, Charles D’Ambrosio. I don’t know what Charlie is up to now, but he’s one of America’s greatest living writers.
What was it like once you got to Iowa? How did you find your peers? Your professors? What did you learn? In terms of writing? Did you find it valuable? I’m assuming there’s a reason it’s ranked number one, MFA program, in the country…. How did you feel about it then, and how do you feel about it (Iowa), now, in retrospect?
Iowa was great, but it took some time to get used to the atmosphere. I went from hanging out with baseball players and refs—Miami-speak for refugees—to interacting with kids from Harvard and other ivies. My professors, especially D’Ambrosio, were wonderful. The most important thing I learned at Iowa was that I could hang with other talented writers and wasn’t out of my league. I wasn’t the best writer there, but when I realized that I could hold my own and I had something interesting to say, I accepted that I could be a writer. That acceptance was extremely valuable because, unlike my peers, I hadn’t been dreaming of being a writer since I was a kid. In terms of writing, to keep it short, I learned what I was good at and what I wasn’t good at it.
Iowa is the best program in the country—at least when I was there—because it attracts the top writers, gives them money, and then lets them write and figure it out on their own; the only mandatory class is workshop on Tuesday afternoons. I loved my time there, but I’ve heard that the social dynamics have changed since I graduated in 2009 and that wokeness has taken hold. The Workshop used to take pride in its insularity, but it seems to have been infiltrated by the culture war forces that destroy all elite liberal institutions.
What was the economic situation at Iowa? Meaning, did everyone attending come from middle to upper middle or higher economic classes? Is there an economic component to the MFA equation in your experience?
Most people were upper middle class or rich, which is always the case in elite institutions. Who even knows what an MFA is? Only people from certain demographics—rich and elite—are aware that you can go to writing school and get paid to fuck around and write; hell, I know a handful of kids who graduated from Iowa and then got another MFA or two. I was only made aware of the grift, at 23, because a buddy of mine decided he wanted to be a poet and clued me into the MFA game.
The rich, white people I met were cool, but rich, white people have changed a lot since then and are a lot less cool than they used to be…we’ll get to that later. Iowa did a good job sprinkling in some lower tier brutes like me to add some spice and color to the program, but it’s tough, since so few working-class, or even middle-class people, can entertain the idea of becoming a writer and living the attendant lifestyle.
Who else, what other writers, were at Iowa with you? Did you become close with anyone? What was the vibe there? Was it more a feeling of comradery or more of a competitiveness?
Maggie Shipstead was there, as was Jenny Zhang. A good friend of mine, Tom Macher, put out a great book—Halfway—a few years after graduation. Jennifer duBois. Keija Parssinen. Chris Leslie-Hynan. Anna North. Sterling HolyWhiteMountain is a fascinating writer who published a story in The New Yorker recently. There’re many others who’ve published and been very successful. Of those who are still writing, I’m certainly one of the least successful; and now I might even be the Iowa pariah, since I’m a “heterodox” writer. I follow the Workshop on Twitter, but they don’t follow me back, which says it all. I don’t take it personally, of course, since I have certainly brought shame to that esteemed American institution. You never know what will happen when you let a Cuban in! I’m the Iowa pariah, I like that.
The vibes were great because I was free of the baseball life and was around intellectuals for the first time in my life. I never felt competitive because baseball had disabused me of any thoughts of grandeur or greatness. My chance at greatness had come and gone, and now I just wanted to scrape by as a lowly scribe. There was no way I could compete with the Harvard kids, with their elite ways and work ethic, and that was fine. I did feel that the rich kids were competing for the spot as the next “sexy young thing from Iowa” to land the massive book deal, but that was less an Iowa thing and more about the striving, credentialist worldview of the elite class.
In our initial email exchange, you said: “It started to feel like the literary world had no place for a writer like me, someone writing masculine fiction about urban dudes in Miami …”
When did you begin to feel this way? While at Iowa? After?
I heard a rumor recently of a male writer whose work (story) was accepted by a major literary magazine, and then, due to a female editor’s complaint that the story was “too bro’y” (again, this is at least thirdhand gossip), the acceptance was rescinded.
Is there a place in the literary world for you?
I began to feel like there was no place for a guy like me—someone writing masculine fiction—a few years after I left Iowa, around 2013/2014. The literary culture, as well as the culture at large, began to shift around that time. Before that, it was still a wonderful free-for-all.
Here’s an example: At Iowa, I put a story up for workshop called “The Locks,” which was about a college baseball player and a pair of college football players from the University of Miami; they meet some girls at a party on campus, but the football players decide to take the girls and the baseball player—the narrator—to another party in Opa-locka, which is the Miami hood and where they’re from. Shit goes down in the hood. The story is sexual and gritty and maybe even nasty, but it was a hit at Iowa. My peers, mostly elite whites, had surely never read a story of hood deviance and squalor; they loved mucking around with my hood characters who were talking about scoring touchdowns and scoring with white girls! Rich whites love that sort of thing, at least they did back then. No one said that the story was problematic because the word didn’t exist yet; neither did wokeness. What was really interesting, however, was that you could tell that some people thought the story was misogynistic, but the woke language structure didn’t exist yet, so they stayed quiet or talked among themselves about the nasty Cuban in their midst. It was obvious that what would later become wokeness—that prudish passive aggressiveness—was already lurking; the idiotic grievance language wasn’t around yet and rich whites weren’t pathologically obsessed with race and gender like they are now, but the seeds had already been planted.
Fast forward a few years and the buzz words arrived, as did the love affair with race and white guilt and all the other virtual signaling mumbo jumbo rich white people never shut up about. That’s how rich white people stopped being cool. Someone convinced them that being rich and white is bad and now writers and artists are walking on eggshells. It’s okay to be rich and white, elite whites! Don’t feel guilty!
If I was at Iowa now and workshopped the “The Locks,” they’d probably kick me out of the program and run me out of town. So, nope, there’s no place in the elite literary world for a writer like me.
[editor’s note: I wrote the following question prior to the Supreme Court leak]
There does seem to be a definite … ideology when it comes to what fiction is accepted, be it a story in a magazine or a novel with a big publisher: meaning, “they” aren’t going to take a story or novel that humanizes, say, a pro-life individual. It reminds me of how they used to say you couldn’t write about a “promiscuous woman” unless something bad happened to her at the end. And maybe same about homosexual characters in the past. They all had to get their comeuppance. And I would say the same would be true of characters not espousing certain political viewpoints today. That is, liberal viewpoints.
I think I should be able to write a compelling, well written short story about a pro life advocate (despite myself personally being pro choice) or someone who is unvaccinated or someone who is “bro’y” (whatever that means) without anything “bad” happening to them or without them realizing their “wrong” and have it accepted by a major magazine (assuming it was compelling/well written enough, in keeping with the other fiction they take in that regard). But you know it wouldn’t be taken.
It is my opinion we should be allowed to humanize everyone in art, in writing, because we are all humans. Just because someone has different opinions than us doesn’t mean they are wrong and we are right. It just means we view things differently. They don’t have to be bad people. Unworthy of being written about.
What is your take on this? do you see this sort of…one-sided representation… in literature today?
My take is the only take and the one everyone knows to be true but only admits in private: the literary world only accepts work that aligns with the progressive/woke point of view of rich coastal liberals. This is a mindset that views “whiteness” and America as inherently problematic, if not evil, and this sensibility animates every decision made by publishers/editors/agents. White people bad. Brown people good. America bad. Men bad. White women, I think, bad…unless they don a pussy hat. This explains why nearly every book is about some rich fuck from Brooklyn confronting his white guilt or some poor black girl who’s been fighting “whiteness” and “patriarchy” all her life. All this stuff is ideologically-driven horseshit propagated by some of the most artless people on the planet. We know who they are.
You know, too, reader. Go on, whisper it to yourself. It’s okay, I promise. Fine, you can’t do it—that’s why I’m here. The Iowa pariah will say it for you! I’m working the gimmick already. Here it goes: 80% of agents/editors/publishers are white women from a certain background and sensibility; these woke ladies run the industry. And contrary to popular belief, I don’t hate the Brooklyn ladies. On the contrary, I respect how these passive aggressive prude ladies took over an industry. Tip of the hat, Brooklyn ladies.
Everyone knows these ladies took over, of course. Everyone querying agents knows this. Everyone dealing with a publicist knows this. If you follow one on Twitter, you follow them all. Every white girl from some liberal arts school wants the same kind of books…I’m interested in BIPOC voices and marginalized communities and white men are evil and all brown people are lovely and beautiful and America is awful and I voted for Hillary and shoved my head into a tote bag and cried cried cried when she lost…
These women, perhaps the least diverse collection of people on the planet, decide who is worthy or unworthy of literary representation. Their worldview trickles down to the small journals, too, which are mostly run by woke young women or bored middle-aged housewives. This explains why everything reads and sounds the same, from major publishing houses to vanity zines with a readership of fifteen. The progressive/woke orthodoxy is the ideology that controls the entire publishing apparatus.
You’ll never read a story about a pro-lifer or someone unvaccinated, as you said, because the woke commissars don’t consider them worthy of being humanized or represented in literature. Let’s be honest: these types of people, especially if they’re white working class, are looked at as repugnant by woke progressives. The fact that we’re even talking about pro-lifers and the unvaccinated in a literary magazine and treating them with respect is damn near revolutionary. I’m sure some readers are disgusted and enraged right now that we’re not damning our fellow Americans.
I think your career, as well, has been held back by these very same forces. Your work is abrasive in a working-class manner that disgusts the woke gatekeepers of the industry. You don’t write about Brooklyn women with all the proper beliefs and pristine voting records who blame the patriarchy and capitalism for every problem in their lives. Your women, from Ohio and Michigan and Florida—from America! —are broken by life and their self-destructive tendencies and not by passing political fads; your women probably don’t even vote! Which is to say that your women are the wrong type of women.
Also in one of our initial emails you said, “I was a waiter a few years ago at Bread Loaf and that's when I knew that the traditional literary world was beyond saving.” Can you expound upon that? Firstly, what was it like being a waiter at Bread Loaf? What exactly is Bread Loaf? (I really have no clue.) And what made you think the lit world was beyond saving at that point?
Bread Loaf is the most famous writing conference, where “the best” writers are awarded waiterships and have the great privilege of waiting on everyone at the dining the hall; I was a waiter back in 2016. The tradition, last I heard, was disbanded after my year because the waiters basically revolted. At Bread Loaf, bored, old dilettantes with money get to play summer camp for a week and a half, while desperate young writers hoping for a big break bow at the altar of the Brooklyn lady agents the conference ships in. Rich geezers, woke whites, and the occasional token POC sprinkled in, since it’s a “progressive” space—the literary world in a nutshell. I wanted out of the literary world after the conference.
As I’m working on this interview, today, Saturday, April 30th, I learn of two tragedies: first, the son of Lydia Davis and Paul Auster dying…. Absolutely tragic and heartbreaking story…. Then, that Naomi Judd’s death was a suicide…
Just thinking a lot about how sad it is we have lost the ability to humanize one another, have empathy for each other, or we have become proficient in dehumanizing half of “us,” which is unacceptable, in my view.
And thinking too about something someone said recently about how Sherman Alexie should have chosen … forgetting the wording…to “uplift minority voices” to read on The New Yorker podcast… rather than Raymond Carver. I thought that was such a cynical, sad way to look at literature, at art, at stories, which, I think, primarily should be about the human experience, not one gender’s experience, or a certain race’s experience, or a person with a specific political bent’s experience…
When we lose the ability to relate to another human being simply for being human and the frailties being human brings to each of us, we have lost something like civilization, haven’t we?
When the number one leading cause of death for people ages 18-40 is fentanyl overdose, how can we allow anything to divide us? I don’t care what gender/race/sexuality you are, you’re experiencing pain and suffering and heartache, as the victims themselves and of the living family members (which I have witnessed first hand numerous times, as probably almost everyone reading this has at this point).
So going back to who Sherman Alexie should choose to read on a podcast… I mean, how about the story that speaks to him as a human being? That makes him feel something, that he can relate to, that we can probably all relate to? I don’t know, isn’t that the point of art and literature?
The story chosen by Alexie - “Where I’m Calling From” by Raymond Carver – is about addiction, failure, loneliness, isolation, shame… what could be more relatable today in the fentanyl/opioid/suicide epidemic? I personally know so many people who have lost loved ones to suicide and overdose in the last ten years. I know no one who died from Covid. Yet, we barely talk about suicide or opioids or overdoses. The stories of Raymond Carver and Denis Johnson, for two examples, are more relatable than ever. and more necessary. Than ever. in my opinion.
“Uplift minority voices” is woke white people talk. If they really wanted to uplift minority voices, they’d diversify their hiring practices and hire black female editors, Hispanic dudes, old Asian ladies, and other actual “marginalized” people. I’d love to read books selected by an old Asian lady or one of my half-literate Miami Cuban friends, but that would never happen, of course; that 80% of editorships/agent gigs taken up by the woke white ladies would have to shrink, and those careerist gals can’t allow that to happen. They want to wear their little tote bags and hang out in their midtown Manhattan offices with their fellow career gals and go to lunch and brunch. It’s a sweet life, I get it, I wouldn’t give it up either. So instead of giving up their spots to an actual minority, we get to hear woke idiocy, like telling Sherman Alexie, a native American person of color, to “uplift minority voices.” This mindset is toxic because it fractures the human experience in such a way that kinship between different people becomes impossible. You can only empathize with someone if you share their identity markers or political orientation. I categorically reject that view, as it only foments division and hatred.
What connects people isn’t color or creed or gender or stupid political taxonomies, but the existential despair that comes for us all. How do you respond to that despair once it comes for you? I never feel closer to a person than when they share a piece of their despair with me, and rarely, if ever, does it have anything to do with politics or ideology. It’s always about loneliness or heartbreak or loss, etc. It’s about life. The best art reflects that despair we all face back at us; it doesn’t separate us from other people.
The separation induced by categorical classifications that seek to villainize the other is why very few people care about our fellow Americans overdosing in record numbers (over 100,000 last year alone). This is despair on an unimaginable scale, but since most of the people dying are men from flyover country—you know, the villains—it’s okay to look away; it’s even okay, in some spaces, to applaud their demise. They’re white trash, they’re rubes, they voted for Trump, that’s what the “good” people say to dehumanize them. Some even say that they’re privileged, which reminds me of that one Denis Johnson story in which one of the characters tells Fuckhead to look at the hole in his cheek and dares him to say it’s going to be okay. I dare the “good” people to tell a white dude from a hollowed out midwestern town who’s hooked on fentanyl that he’s okay. Look at him, while he’s passed out in the gutter, his heartbeat slowing to a trickle, his dreams, if he ever had any, fading, and tell him he’s privileged. Go on, tell him before he ODs.
Something else said of Sherman Alexie reading recently on The New Yorker podcast was that certain people were disappointed in The New Yorker “supporting” Alexie because he hasn’t yet “atoned for” his (some alleged and some admitted) sins. How can anyone on Twitter know what Alexie has or hasn’t atoned for? Wouldn’t that be a private matter, the public would not be privy to? Atonement? At some point, we would all be on a list because we are all sinners. And if sinners can’t make art, I mean, … I guess we should just close the book on art. Right now. Schadenfreude is a sin, too. You know? As is, I believe, self-righteousness. Lack of humbleness. Lack of one’s own humility. Lack of the ability and willingness to forgive.
I don’t remember what Alexie is supposed to “atone” for anymore—and I’m not going to check—because it’s none of my business. If he slighted or hurt someone and thinks he needs to atone and apologize to that specific person, then he should do so. But leave me out of it. Perhaps I’m old school, but I don’t need atonement from writers or artists. What would that even entail? Is Alexie supposed to go on a national speaking tour apologizing to every one of his readers before we’re allowed to read his work again? Does Alexie need to appear out of thin air and prostrate himself before me, “atoning,” whenever I grab The Toughest Indian in the World from my bookshelf?
The point is that I don’t care about the personal lives of the writers I read because I’m not a judge or a jury, simply a reader. Like you, I think we’re all sinners, and if “bad” people can’t make art, well, then we’re in trouble. If that’s the rubric, where do we draw the line? We obviously can’t read Burroughs because he shot his wife dead and ran off to Mexico. What about a notorious drunk like Carver? Or David Foster Wallace, who, by all accounts, treated women like shit? For me, it’s simple: if I like your writing, I read it.
But these people on Twitter who ask for atonement from writers they’ve never met aren’t driven by morality; it’s all a purity test. They think Alexie must pay because he’s a bad man now, and if you don’t agree, you’re bad by association. These are the kinds of people who’d throw their friends under the bus the first chance they got. They’re soulless lemmings who have no poetry in their hearts.
There is a place for all writers, all artists, of every creed, gender, sexual orientation, race, religion, political leaning… because there are humans belonging to all those categories and thus people hurting in all those categories, in need of solace, a piece of writing/art they can relate to…
I recently read to my husband, a man who admittedly has never read a book, a man who has worked his whole life in an auto factory, as did his father, as do both his brothers…anyway, I read to him from Jesus’s Son (Denis Johnson), I read the story “Work” to him, because he, as an opioid addict, was able to relate to it, to get something from it, to recognize himself on the page.
I don’t want to argue linguistics, but is he not a minority that also needs uplifting? As an auto factory worker, as an opioid addict? As someone who has struggled w addiction in an industry in which addiction proliferates? At the very least, he is in need of uplifting. And of the ability to read a story and see himself on the page. To know he’s not alone. That he, too, is understood.
Your husband is a member of that most hated American group: the white working class; and even worse, he’s a man. Men like your husband and his father and brothers literally built massive swaths of this country, but in today’s identity schema, they don’t even register, unless we’re counting them as overdose statistics. Only certain groups are allowed to be labeled “marginalized” or “minorities,” which is why identity politics is such a failure. We all feel marginalized at certain points in our lives because that’s what life is.
And “marginalization” is only a matter of convenience to the people who push this divisive ideology. Take Asians, for instance. Asians were considered “minorities” for many years, but now that they’re getting into all the exclusive high schools and elite universities due to their incredible work ethic and intellectual capabilities, they’ve lost minority status. Harvard is actively reducing the admissions of Asian students because they’re taking up too many spots; it doesn’t matter that Asians are earning those spots. But the rich woke parents’ kids were losing spots, so something had to be done. They cooked up some cockamamie “personality score” to keep Asians out, because on academic credentials alone they dominate everyone.
Hispanics, on account of their rightward shift, will also be losing “minority” status soon; they’re afflicted with “whiteness” now, according to experts, whatever the hell that means. Different groups and identities exist, and some have even suffered systemic injustices, sure, but when words like “minority” and “marginalized” are used by power-hungry ideologues, it has nothing to do with unity and everything to do with division. Which is to say that it’s all bullshit and the best grift going today.
How were Carver and Johnson seen at Iowa while you were there and how do you think they and their work are viewed today? I was reading about Jack London, who allegedly inspired that story of Carver’s read by Alexie, about how his death may have been a suicide, by morphine, at age 40, something of which I was unaware… but more relatability, today. I just don’t know if there are any more relatable topics today than addiction and suicide, do you? And Carver and Johnson were both known addicts. And both overcame their addictions, yes? Even more reason to keep them around. In my opinion. To not write them off, so to speak. as too masculine or too male or too white or too whatever. [note to editors at major literary publications]
When I was at Iowa, from 2007 to 2009, Carver and Johnson were treated like the literary titans they are. Jesus’ Son was basically the MFA handbook during that era. If you were writing short stories, you read Jesus’ Son and did your best to ape Johnson’s inimitable style. Johnson hasn’t been banished yet, but Carver certainly has. Carver, of course, was a dreaded drunken white man—with working class sensibilities—and all those types are “problematic” now. Johnson, it seems, earned more goodwill with the woke, since he died recently and was a beloved teacher to so many. But if I had to guess, the reckoning is coming for Johnson soon—he’s too masculine, too white. In the end, there’s no escape from the woke commissars. Johnson won’t be cancelled, but simply disappeared. Remember John Updike? Exactly. People will stop reading and teaching Jesus’ Son, and Denis Johnson will disappear. The same goes for Barry Hannah and Richard Ford and Larry Brown and all the other guys who were beloved by the MFA crowd ten to fifteen years ago. It’s unfortunate, too, because these guys, even if they can be hyper-masculine, get at the root of human experience and despair better than most. Carver, for instance, with his little stories about nothing, coldcocks me every time. He got it. Sad to see the old boy go.
Speaking of “masculine writing” – again, whatever that means (I think it means about as much, or as little, as “chick lit” did decades ago) - I love this recent story of yours “Freedom” in The Adroit Journal which is a story about a Cuban grandfather living out his last years in the United States; more specifically it is about the grandfather butchering a pig at a family get together and telling the story of his youth in Cuba, recalling a drunken night with a wild horse on the streets of Cuba, and how he was freer then, that night, then any night since.
“I should’ve never gotten off that horse. I should’ve never gotten on that raft. I should’ve never come over here. I was free, and now, well, look at me. Look at me. Do I look free to you? Have I ever looked free to you?”
When did you write it and when was it taken and are you writing more stories like this one? I definitely think you should! I found it very compelling and interesting and well written. And humorous.
“Freedom” was the last short story I wrote in 2019 before I stopped writing fiction altogether and pivoted to cultural criticism/punditry. What’s relevant about “Freedom” in regard to the conversation we’re having is that it’s what I call a “token good boy” story. Woke white editors, like those at Adroit Journal, practice literary tokenism out of political correctness/virtue signaling. They need to publish some black writers, a Hispanic or two, whoever else counts as a victimized POC these days, and a ton of man-hating feminists.
If you’re a POC, you can’t just submit any old story about the POC experience, but one in which the narrative framing is about victimization at the hands of America and “whiteness” and all the other predictable tropes that now dominate literary fiction. When you write into this framing, you’re performing like a token good boy, hence, you’ve written a token good boy story. The trick to a token good boy story is situating the “brown” characters as victims while also providing the woke white editors palatably edgy scenes that never tip over into the problematic, so they feel like they’re reading an “authentic” POC story. You slip in a word in Spanish or have a character cross the border and dodge a border patrol agent or two; you know, the stuff that makes woke whites salivate. Which is to say that in the literary scene POC characters are only allowed to be victims or noble savages, ideally both—a pure brown person victimized by an evil white system.
If a POC writer wants to publish, they must master the token good boy formula. This is less writing than it is calibrating; you have to calibrate how all the ingredients play off one another in the hope that the woke white editor will be titillated by brown suffering. I did this with “Freedom” and all the other token good boy stories I wrote. I stand by “Freedom,” as I stand by everything I’ve ever written, but it’s definitely a perfect example of the pandering required of POCs. It’s a good story, but I got tired of calibrating. I wanted to write stories like “The Locks,” in which my POC characters aren’t victims or noble savages. To answer your question, no, I don’t write token good boy stories anymore, but I have an entire collection or two of them. I also have an entire collection of what I call fucked-up Miami stories.
Let’s talk about humor. Where is the humor today? In writing and in general? I get the sense we are being told things are too serious for humor right now. But haven’t things always been very serious throughout history? And yet, levity, humor has saved us. Kept us sane. Provided much needed relief. Hasn’t it? do you find much humorous writing anywhere currently? Any? in fiction? Or even nonfiction? Thinking of Nick Hornby and Hunter Thompson, in the past…. Bringing humor to their writing…Dorothy Parker, of course.
The humor is gone because writers are so well-mannered and politically correct; to be funny, you need to be unhinged or at least court “unhingedness,” which is an impossibility for the contemporary writer seeking to ingratiate himself with the woke gatekeepers. To be a writer today is to know what you can and can’t say; the talking points are passed down and disseminated online. Eventually the taking points and the proper beliefs are internalized, resulting in a perfectly honed built-in sensitivity reader. In order for someone to be funny they either need to know nothing of the current anti-humor sensibility or be highly aware of it and are actively transgressing against it. The great humorists working today are on black Twitter or in YouTube comments and other spaces where the woke eye isn’t watching; Trump’s twitter was also hilarious, and its banning was a great loss for humor writing. Basically, if someone knows what the word “problematic” means, their ability to be funny drops precipitously. As someone who loves old school stand-up and zany, unhinged writing, I especially hate wokeness because it killed comedy as a mainstream American attraction.
Side note: I remember a writer on Joe Rogan who was on there to promote a book he’d written about Hunter S. Thompson, and he seemed… apologetic for having written it. almost like, “fuck, I started this thing before masculine white writers got canned and, well, I went ahead and finished it, but, geez, I’m sorry abt it.” I thought, wow, dude, don’t fucking publish a book if you’re that ashamed of it or the writer it’s about. But I don’t think he was. I think he felt pressured by peers to feel he was. To feel that way.
Have you felt this pressure?
I think every guy who writes from a heterosexual male point of view feels the pressure to apologize for his manhood. First, let’s define masculine writing, since we’ve mentioned it a handful of times. Masculine writing=writing about heterosexual male concerns from a non-feminist point of view. It doesn’t mean that the masculine writer can’t be a feminist or write about feminism or whatever, but he can’t care about not being seen as a feminist or an ally, which is the main concern of most male writers now; this is why the writer you mentioned apologized. If a man is worried about what feminists will think of him, he’s not a masculine writer because he’ll never be able to write honestly about the male condition. He will be the worst of all creatures: the mushy male feminist.
The flipside of this hatred of traditional masculinity—because that’s what it is, hatred—and pandering to feminists is that this atmosphere produces all these miserable young men who end up hating women and writing from that corrosive, boring point of view. These guys are mostly young and will hopefully grow out of their misogyny, but this is what happens when a culture pathologizes traditional masculinity and calls it toxic; some men will become the monsters society says they are. I don’t want to read the work of mushy self-loathing male feminists or bitter twenty-two-year-olds who hate women; I don’t consider either of those styles “masculine writing,” but the fact that most people assume that when I say masculine writing, I mean misogynistic rantings, is a big part of the problem. To even talk about the condition of men is a trap because people frame you as a woman-hater.
The truth is that men and women are different—very, very different—and we’re building a society almost exclusively for women. Women are graduating from college in far greater numbers than men. Men are suffering from addiction and committing suicide at higher rates. It’s hard to be a man, and we should be able to write about this honestly without being labeled “toxically masculine.” If we were, I’m convinced, we’d see far less pussified male feminists and actual misogynists.
Back to our initial email exchange, you said: “My career goals for a long time were strictly fiction related. I never had any intention of being a critic or getting involved in the stupid culture war or even tweeting, but it started to feel like the literary world had no place for a writer like me, someone writing masculine fiction about urban dudes in Miami just fucking around. I had a big agent, the whole deal, but I always knew it wasn't going to work.”
When did you, sort of, make this…observation, or, decision, that “it started to feel like the literary world had no place for a writer like me,” despite having, as you say, “a big agent”?
How was the “big agent” acquired, merely by being a “product” of Iowa? By the showing of a work in progress, a piece of a novel or a series of stories? Did the agent send stories out for you for a period of time? how did you and the “big agent” part ways?
I first felt that the elite literary world had no place for me around 2014/2015, when I had a novel out on submission. The novel was a coming-of-age story about growing up in Miami; it’s populated by urban young men, and it is not written in the style of a token good boy story. My agent, a very nice lady, sent it out, even though I could tell she had some reservations. But this was during that period before wokeness had totally taken hold, so things were still a bit nebulous. Long story short: the novel was sent to ten editors—all white women expect one—and I remember thinking, well, this might not go so well.
The responses were mostly positive, but without mentioning their reservations, the editors said the novel wasn’t for them. I’m a POC, of course, so they couldn’t say that my depiction of Miami or the Cuban-American experience wasn’t authentic, but their discomfort, I’m sure of it, had to do with the book’s urban male sensibility. These were sweet white ladies from Oberlin College who never interact with uneducated brown people, so I get their distress. My characters weren’t noble savages, but straight up savages.
I got the agent by querying the old-fashioned way; I sent a handful of short stories to the “top” agents around that time. The Iowa credential is very useful in that regard. The agent and I amicably parted ways, which was for the best. She was probably relieved that she didn’t have to read any fucked-up Miami stories anymore, and I was already planning my heel turn.
You continue, in that initial email exchange: “At a certain point, I don't remember when, it just became obvious that literary writers had to have all the left-leaning checked marked opinions, as you say. I waited for a few years, hoping things would change, but when it became obvious they weren't going to, I said fuck it and started writing cultural/political stuff.”
So how did this path course change, reroute, what were the initial steps taken? And do you make a living in this way? Writing cultural/political stuff?
In 2015, after the novel didn’t sell, I kept writing short stories and messed around with another novel, but my heart just wasn’t in it. It’s important to note here that I still had the agent at this point. Even though I knew that the agent and I weren’t a match and that I wanted to write material that would deem me problematic, I was still afraid of losing big time representation. I was still beholden to the false accomplishment of being “agented.” I know a lot of writers hold on to the wrong agent for this reason, since so much importance is placed on being represented, but it’s a huge mistake to keep an agent just so you can say you have one. I suspect that many writers reading this feel that they should’ve dropped their agent long ago. You’re right—drop the agent. Be nice and professional about it and don’t burn any bridges but drop the agent.
So I waited around for a few years, hoping wokeness would abate, writing stories I wanted to write and keeping them hidden. I felt like shit. Worse than that, I felt like a pussy. My family left Cuba, left everything behind to come to America, and I was afraid of some of the most mediocre people on the planet. I was deeply ashamed. Someone should’ve kicked my ass, one of my former teammates or one of my Cuban friends who think writing and reading is for losers. Someone should’ve kicked my ass and said stop being a pussy. Those are very important words. To the writers out there who are ashamed of themselves for hiding and pandering and going along as literature is decimated by the spiritless mediocrities, I say it to you now: Stop being a pussy. I’ve given you permission to man up and woman up.
I remained a pussy until 2017, when Hurricane Irma, a category five monster of a storm, was set to destroy Miami. A day before impact, I was sitting at Starbucks with a buddy, and said, “If we get through this one, I’m going to write whatever the fuck I want from now on.” The fear of the storm coincided with the peak of my shame, and I just couldn’t take it anymore. Irma ended up missing Miami, but something had changed. I dropped the agent soon after and started writing political/cultural stuff; I started writing about all the stuff I was secretly talking about with friends. My first published piece of cultural commentary, an essay about Philip Roth and American manhood, appeared in Tablet Magazine. I’ve been doing it ever since. This is how I make a living now. It’s very nice to get paid to write, I must say. I highly recommend it.
I’m always surprised more fiction writers don’t do what I’m doing, but I understand the trepidation. It’s hard to think of yourself as anything other than a “fiction writer” or a “poet” when that’s been your identity for so long. Now, I identify as a writer who’s paid and read by thousands. To the writers out there thinking of pivoting in this direction, if you have the stomach for it, give it a try.
You say, “I always felt that the real writing was happening on the fringes.” What do you mean by that? And did you feel that way while at Iowa? Did anyone else there seem to feel this way also? What did your professors seem to feel, about the literary world, at that time?
I think that even at the most institutionally elite places you’ll find writers who come from the societal fringes or whose worldview is fringe; these are the people who are crafty and know how to hack the system. These are the people/writers I find most interesting. The rich whites don’t have to hack the system, since they are the system, so I’m interested in the working-class schemers who picked the institutional lock and weaseled their way in. These people may not overtly speak of their scheming ways, but they naturally come together. It’s always beautiful to watch it happen, how kindred spirits come together. It happened at Iowa because it happens everywhere. There were even professors at Iowa who were on the fringes; they’d made it to the top of the literary world, but they would forever be fringe. Outsiders will always be outsiders, especially when they’re on the inside.
So do you have a collection of stories about urban dudes in Miami? In an interview with Subtropics you say, “As a writer, this particular brand of disconnection and isolation, which is probably the norm in any major American city, interests me.” Did you explore these themes in your past fiction writing? And/or do you still have a desire to at some point in the future?
Most of my fiction writing was about isolated young men in Miami. Isolated due to their liminal existence: are they Cuban? Are they American? Are they both? The distinct brew of rage and malaise that festers inside young men and animates their every interaction is endlessly fascinating to me. This rage/malaise with Miami as the backdrop is how I can best describe my fiction. It’s hard to say if I’ll ever write fiction again, but if I do, it’ll certainly be about the male experience. It will be about Miami.
Also, in the Subtropics interview you did years ago, it is said of you, “You were a promising baseball player.”
When was this and did you ever seriously consider baseball as a career path?
Did this coincide with or precede your interest in being a writer?
Why do you suppose so many writers look down on sports, or regard them with contempt, those who watch sports, in particular.
I see so many parallels between sports and the arts. Between being an athlete and being an artist. Am I wrong? Can one not relate to the other?
Like I said up top, I was a baseball player until the game let me know that my time was up. Most writers look down on sports because there’s always been animosity between jocks and nerds; nerds, even though they won’t admit it, are jealous of the jocks. They’re jealous for good reason, too, as they know that physical strength and performing physical acts at a high level is extremely impressive. We also live in a culture that values physical weakness and frailty, so watching someone who is physically strong and capable will repulse the willfully meek. I’m not saying writers need to be bodybuilders or anything like that, but here’s one of my favorite quotes, from powerlifter and strength coach, Mark Rippetoe: “A weak man is not as happy as that same man would be if he were strong. This reality is offensive to some people who would like the intellectual and the spiritual to take precedence. It is instructive to see what happens to these very people as their squat strength goes up.”
I’ve written some good stuff, but nothing feels better than performing a near impossible physical feat at an elite level. I had some days as a baseball player where I reached greatness. Hitting a homerun and rounding the bases, for instance, is incredible; fifteen to thirty seconds of perfection that no one can take from you.
And of course, there are many parallels between being an artist and an athlete. Learning to fail with grace, which is the great lesson sports teach, is invaluable to the life of the writer. You’re a star one minute and a loser the next. You learn to confront and accept your physical limitations. You learn to accept that some men are just better than you. You even learn to respect these men if they’re your teammates. The lessons I learned on the field have stayed with me and I have no doubt that if I hadn’t played baseball, I would’ve quit writing long ago.
Why does this literary world feel so… bland, so unexciting? Or, maybe I am referring to the mainstream literary world. The Poets & Writers literary world. I pick up Poets & Writers and I just feel… nothing. I want to pick up Poets & Writers and feel excited, giddy, to read about new books, new authors. I want to see Scott McClanahan on the cover! And new, young writers with the equivalent of mixtapes, rather than immediate five or six figure deals with one of the big five publishers, you know? I want to read crazy, unedited, wild shit! Shit that makes you go, “REALLY? Can HE/SHE/THEY SAY THAT??!”
You left the literary world but did the literary world leave you? Do you still read contemporary fiction? What do you read? What or who do you get excited about?
The literary world is so bland because of the ideological uniformity of the scene. As I’ve said throughout, most writers are seemingly aligned with progressive orthodoxy and wokeness. I say seemingly because a lot of writers reach out to me in private—like you did—who haven’t bought in but are afraid to speak out publicly. So what you have are writers who are woke and others pretending to be woke out of fear and the result is a scene that is totally flattened aesthetically. Isn’t it weird that most writers sound like operatives for the Democratic Party? Do they want to be the press secretary for Joe Biden or do they want to be writers? Do you have to wear a pussy hat and pray to RBG and idolize little doctor Fauci if you want to be a writer? I’m not saying writers need to be rightwing, but it’s strange that most writers present as Democrats.
This restrictive culture that demands ideological uniformity creates a scene in which writers trade relevance and ambition for “literary community.” If you’re not a good, little woke writer who dons the pussy hat you won’t be part of the “literary community” and lose out on publishing your flash fiction about hating America in Ploughshares or a webzine read by fifteen pussy hat wearers. What’s wild is how writers with zero readership micromanage their careers! Tweeting all the Democratic Party talking points. Supporting the correct politicians. Hating the designated “bad” people. These unknown writers watching what they say and doing all this work—for no payment! —and no one even reads them! The mainstream literary world operates this way, as does the indie scene. Everyone a good, little striver, striving for scraps.
The crazy unedited shit we want to read doesn’t exist because writers are now some of the most self-conscious and self-censorious people on the planet. They can’t say anything we’ve said in this interview. They can never have the fun we’re having here. As the man said: Sad! All this to say that, yes, the literary world left me behind, but now I’ve transcended the literary world. This interview, as a matter of fact, feels like my swan song. My final goodbye to the “literary community.”
These days I mostly read contemporary fiction for reviewing purposes. Here’s a list of writers/magazines I’m excited about:
Lastly, what do you think of Elon’s “take over” of or involvement with Twitter?
I, for one, am excited.
This morning I emailed a cpl friends that I saw someone call me “scum” in a tweet. One of my friends said they reported it as harassment. I understand their intent – my friend’s - and I’m appreciative but I told them I would never report it, it means literally nothing to me, and I believe in free speech, ppl should call me whatever name they want. Esp since they don’t, apparently, have the balls to email me directly and have a conversation about why they believe I’m scum. [email me! ee at hobartpulp dot com; love to chat!]
But anyway, the point is, I don’t care who calls me what. Especially some person who doesn’t know me and that I don’t know. Have never had a conversation with. But I support their right to say it, to call me scum. 100%. (So I hope they don’t get put in “Twitter jail” pre Elon influence, as my friend said they might.)
What are your hopes for Elon Twitter changes? And how do you personally define FREE SPEECH? And why do you think it’s important, if you do? Even on a social networking site like Twitter?
My hope is that Elon makes Twitter more fun, which is already happening. But isn’t it funny how Elon is bad now? All the little liberals received the talking point that Elon is bad now and that’s that. It happens every time with such predictability. It’s crazy how liberals turned against free speech and Democrats became the party of worshipping authority. As for me, I’m a free speech absolutist. Free speech matters because I’m an American and this is America. One more time:
THIS IS AMERICA!