Be More Like Odin, Writers: A Piethos Review
Sure I have been to "literary competitions" before. What are you competing for? You're competing, generally, for some kind of conferred status. This is the whole publishing game basically. Imagine that you drop out of New York society to live in a portable house by the freeway with two dogs and you dedicate all of your time to making your friends happy. You tell them stories, with this goal in mind. One day a Zipcar crashes into an elm tree outside your window and you bring the confused driver water and dandelion wine, introduce him to your dogs, tell him a story to settle his brain as he whispers of rent prices and fare hikes. He opens his eyes, moved by your simple charity and goodness, and offers to tattoo a colophon on your forehead with thick silver needles, so that you'll be a real person.

Literary competitions are crap, except for Piethos. I participated in Piethos III: Pearly Legal at Alex of Slice Magazine's invitation, competing against four other readers:

So the rules of this Piethos: each reader issues a challenge, anonymously, to another reader. Each reader then receives a challenge, anonymously, from another reader. You then write an original short story on this theme. People are judged based on their adherence to the theme, plus on literary quality, plus on panache, plus connections. The audience decides who will, in the end, receive the pie.

Strictly speaking, the pie in question wasn't a pear pie. It was pear, blackberry, ginger. It was provided by the Fat & Flour baking organization, who are to be commended on their choices.

What is the point of this kind of behavior? Why is it better than most crap literary readings? Why is being conferred with food more ennobling somehow than being conferred with the status of "best reader?"

Basically: it is good to compete for food. There is a sense of real urgency about the fiction we write when an event highlights the complicated "triangle trade" we engage in when we write fiction, a complex negotiation between (1) telling the truth through lies, (2) pleasing an audience, and (3) making sure that the energy loss of writing a story is mitigated as much as possible by earning money for food, clothes, and art. Piethos brings all of these into sharp relief.

Lauren Spohrer won the pie; she deserved to. She got a basically impossible prompt—write about a building in love with a younger building—and made this work, somehow researching all kinds of filthy-sounding architectural terms and crafting the story of an aging, vaguely religious edifice of the past crumbling from its own erotic longing, kind of like Lolita, but with buildings. Many of us think of ideas like this for writing. Few of us follow through on them. It is good to compete for food. It makes us stronger, as a people.

What is perhaps even more hopeful is that she shared the pie. She had already won the essential thing about it, the confidence of the cro-magnon whose eyes twinkle with firelight: survival is possible. Once she knew the central fact of that, the tree, she could give away the fruits. I dunno about the ginger but I can't knock this pie.

Community is an important thing, along with food. If you didn't make the people smile it didn't matter where you were published or what tattoos you had on your forehead or where you went to school. If you didn't make the people smile they wouldn't feed you. But if they fed you, you fed them back.

Back in the day, if you could convince the peasants in your region of Norway that you were the real Odin, you would get mad food. People would not want to cross you. The Norse sagas gave us the concept of elves, dwarves, apocalyptic end-of-time battles, and many other concepts lifted by J.R.R. Tolkien for Lord of the Rings, instrumental in creating modern fantasy fiction. A focus on food created a multi-million-dollar entertainment industry and altered the destiny of literary fiction forever whether those of us who like the idea of literary fiction admit that to ourselves or not.

Last night I found a diner in my neighborhood in the strange no-man's land between Bushwick and Ridgewood, and ordered a plate of apple pie with ice cream on top of it, and the word ENJOY written in cursive across the plate using some kind of strawberry jelly. It cost four dollars, but I didn't win it by making someone either very happy or very upset, so in some ways it cost more than that.

Posted by future on Sun, 20 Mar 2011 17:53:14 -0500 -- permanent link

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