971 MENU: An Interview with Gregory Napp
by Sam RuddickPosted on May 14th, 2008 at 12:35 pm
Since its launch in September of 2006, 971 MENU has become one of the most dynamic venues for short fiction on the web. The details are pretty straightforward: the magazine publishes stories of 971 words or fewer, and features new work every month. The exciting thing is the range of work that shows up on the site. The stories are sometimes about plausible people in plausible situations, but sometimes they are wildly absurd. They can be funny, sad, or just plain weird. The aesthetic is always in motion, difficult to pin down. I emailed the editor, Gregory Napp, to see if there was anything he could do to pin it down for us. Napp can be found in Seoul, South Korea. 971 MENU can be found online at http://www.971menu.com.
Sam Ruddick: As an editor, what are some of the things that come across your desk that turn you off? I hate to ask anyone to make generalizations about any kind of art, but are there things that you run into pretty consistently that bother you? Things that writers do that you would call “mistakes”?
Gregory Napp: Presuming we’re talking about stories that are fairly polished, I’d say there are a number of things I usually find disappointing: Stories that do nothing more than celebrate the author’s insightfulness, wisdom, cleverness. So-called experimental stuff, if it doesn’t also have heart. Mere reproductions of the way things supposedly are. Stories that are about situations instead of the people in them. Sentimentality. Rhetoric. Attitude, generally. Basically, most of the sins of which I myself have been guilty. Pat endings. These are all big turn-offs, and they often result from nothing more complicated than the author’s failure to totally engage the work, to sublimate herself or himself. In chemistry, the word sublimate means to transform directly from a solid to a gas—ice becoming steam without first becoming water, for example. Poof. That’s more or less what the author should do in the work—be invisible.
There is also work that demonstrates an impoverished sense of what’s interesting. For example, lots of people think that adding hip cultural stuff to a story will make the story hip, too. Maybe it does, but who says hip is interesting? Who cares if your character listens to Lou Reed? That stuff almost never flies. But occasionally it does. Anything topical is usually a non-starter as well.
But there are plenty of stories where the things I have just talked about are mostly absent, and those stories are always appreciated. They always get a sympathetic reading. And there are a few that indulge in one or another of those sins but are forgiven because they possess some beauty that balances things out.
Oh, and although it’s exactly the sort of thing I would have done not very long ago, it’s also a turn-off when someone submits a story whose length is exactly 971 words. I know it’s my own fault for picking the number, but still, what are the chances that the length of a sublimely-executed story will equal exactly 971 words? Not very high. I usually put off reading those.
SR: One of the things that keeps the site fresh is its diversity. You’ve published work that’s comic, absurd, sad. Ashish Mehta’s “Feeling of Choice,” in November 2007, was a sort of science fiction piece. Is there any particular qualification or set of qualifications for inclusion in 971? Something that thrills you? Besides quality, I mean? Because everyone says that. Can you tell me anything specific about your aesthetic? Or is it a mystery to you?
GN: When a piece draws me in, it has passed the most important test. What thrills me is not once thinking of the author. When what I’m experiencing is close to total engagement, I don’t worry whether a story is of sufficient quality, because it clearly possesses the most important qualities. When I’m engaged, that means the author isn’t doing any of those things I mentioned before. Most of her individual, personal impulses have been vaporized. The story has been created by her better self, and that artifact has arrived in my inbox. The selections, I think, are pretty similar in that regard, even if they are diverse in terms of content, tone, style, and most other measurements.
SR: Contemporary writers you like? Dead ones?
GN: Recently? Fitzgerald, Forster, Kundera, Rushdie, Cormac McCarthy (The Road).
Previously, and still: Chekhov, Kawabata, Nabokov, Murakami, Hemingway, the Barthelmes.
SR: Your “about” page says you don’t believe the very short story is a distinct form, but in May 2007 you published Townsend Walker’s “You’ll Never Imagine.” Strictly speaking, it’s a play, not a short story. So what are your feelings on form? Were you making an exception for a particularly strong piece? Or do you see form as flexible? Story defined by elements like plot and character, rather than, you know, whether or not it’s actually a story. Would you publish a poem that told a story in 971 words or less?
GN: I also say, on the “submit” page, that it doesn’t matter whether a piece looks like a story, so long as it gives off the vibrations that come out of tension and action. I’m big on vibrations. Things that are alive vibrate. This is not any kind of mystical thing; it’s just the way I think about it. What makes a story a story is that it begins with certain tensions and ends with different ones, or at least, by the end of a story, the tension that exists in the beginning has acquired an inflection that could only have been acquired by having things happen in the particular way they happen in the story. What’s important is that something be altered. The relationship between the ending and the beginning, and between that and the action which carries us between them—whatever that relationship is, I conceptualize it as producing a unique set of vibrations. More tactile people might think of a story having a fingerprint. Fingerprints are too static for me, so I prefer vibrations.
To relate this to form, I’ll just draw one comparison, or contrast. People often seem interested in the difference between flash fiction and prose poetry. I wish I could say I had always drawn a clear distinction, but it’s only recently, largely because of my work on 971, that I’ve been able to. Like a story’s, a poem’s energy depends largely on deployment and exploitation of tensions. For a story, most of the tension is situational, usually. A poem is less often bound to situation–instead, other tensions are emphasized (tensions among images, sounds, symbols and so forth). Obviously, neither poetry nor fiction has the market cornered on the use of any of this potential energy, but thinking generally, most people probably agree with my distinction. The underlying reason for this difference is that poetry feels no obligation to show change. Stories are obligated to show at least the possibility of change—and then what happened? That’s why they need situation.
To answer your question—or one of them—if a poem for some reason makes use of situational tension and includes action that changes the situation somehow or inflects it, then it is also a story, and I would definitely publish one. In fact, I believe I have published some. A piece by J. A. Tyler that I published in November is a good example. As for the Townsend Walker piece, the text of a play is of course a story, and one that is almost nothing but situation and action. It definitely falls within 971’s perimeter.
SR: Have you learned anything about your own writing from editing the magazine?
GN: Definitely. A lot of people have clever ideas. That’s not enough. You have to have some relationship with writing that goes beyond using it to do something you think is cool. That’s the author in the way, as I was saying earlier. Before I started working on the magazine I had always wanted to write edgy stuff, both long and short, and like a lot of people I had a first impression of flash fiction as something edgy. Flash fiction sounds sort of cool (which is one of the reasons I have come to dislike the term, but now it’s out there, and I admit it’s less clunky than very short fiction). But flash isn’t naturally any edgier than anything else. At first I was disappointed to discover that, because I had hoped a lot of exposure to flash fiction would help me learn to write edgy, but I don’t even know what that means. I have learned I’m not an edgy writer, at least not in the chrome-and-vinyl sense of the word, and that I’m no longer interested in being one. I didn’t figure that out only from working on 971, of course, but I did learn that there are a lot of people trying to write, and that if I try to impose something on my writing that is alien to me, if I try to be edgy, or anything else specific, I’m always going to look like other people, which means to me that I may as well not bother.
SR: Two more questions: (1) Does the majority of the work you see come from writers who are associated with creative writing programs, and (2) are there any consistent, perceptible differences between their work and the writing that comes to you from people working outside of academia?
GN: I think I get about an equal amount of work from writers inside and outside of writing programs. Generally, stories by writers associated with writing programs have fewer adverbs.
SR: I’m guessing that’s a good thing.
GN: Almost always. And of course I’m sort of joking—there’s more to it than that, but I don’t want to discuss it too much. There’s this big discussion going on about writing programs. My take, and I’m not going to bother explaining this, is that they’re good for everybody, even people who aren’t in them. As far as 971 MENU goes, one of the benefits of being available online is that work arrives from all sorts of writers. I think that’s terrific.