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A Mysterious Finalist

Homo Superiors is a Lambda Literary Awards finalist for Gay Mystery!

Three years ago, My Dear Watson was a finalist for Gay Romance, now I've got another chance with another book in another category (you can see Homo Superiors, based on the Leopold and Loeb crime, was still in progress back then).

Congrats are in order for my fellow Lethe Press finalists, and for our publisher, Steve Berman!


Homo Superiors is a #LambdaLiterary Award finalist for #Gay #Mystery--the true mystery is: will my claustrophobic #Chicago #crime book hold up as a mystery?

Scholarship Out of School

The Dropout, The Worker
Since I quit that PhD program at UT Dallas (and I still spit on the memory of it quite bitterly), I've been hard at work. First up were the on-the-ground concerns of sudden, full-time working life:

- It took 4 hours of public transit each day to commute to my new job. That lasted for eight months until my lease was up and I had the cash on hand to move to the other side of the city (where I now happily commute about ten minutes a day, on a bike with a basket).
- During those eight months, I was ghostwriting over $3,500 of smut (at one cent per word) to help pay off my remaining student loan debts, start a retirement account, and fund my move. I'm still trying to get the 2016 max into my retirement account before tax day, but I can do the last of it on my salary alone.
- After moving to a better location (that's being built up even as I sit here, with a corner gas station about to open), I asked for a raise based on the copywriting I do at work, and I received one. I'm also getting a bonus for over 15 hours of transcription work I did last year--during which time, remember, I was also ghostwriting a novel a month. There were a couple of tendinitis flare-ups, but every bit of this work has been worthier of my time than teaching at UTD’s grad program, because it compensates me enough to let me provide for my financial future, rewards me for doing extra work, and continues to provide me with health insurance.

The Worker, The Learner
That's all good, but I must miss learning, right? Hmm. When I ask people why they don't balk at the treatment they receive from grad programs like mine, they pretty defensively insist that they love learning, so much, and maybe they care more about learning than money, unlike me. Oh, please; let's examine that:

- That 4 hours a day on the bus (cut down to 2 hours after I got enough money to take Lyfts in the morning, so I could sleep a normal human amount of hours) meant I had a lot of trapped time on my hands. Right around then, my publisher asked me if I was willing to do an annotation of America's first gay novel, Joseph and His Friend (1870), and I said yes. The artistic life has the same rules as improv: the only correct response is, "Yes, and..."
- So I spent that time on the bus reading the letters of Bayard Taylor, Fitz-Greene Halleck, and Walt Whitman, among others; their biographies, their associations, and their works, discovering all the stories behind the story that is America's first gay novel.
- Then last week I took some vacation time and spent 9 days in my apartment sorting, citing, and compiling the connections. The structure of the project is basically little strings of history, personal anecdote, and secret curiosities to go along with each chapter of the book itself (the manuscript of which I had to clean up line by line to match the original). We’re looking for some gayish American pastoral cover art now.

The Learner, The Lover
Out of this annotation research, the big winner was Walt Whitman. He was the best guy. I read his poetry as an undergraduate and still don't particularly like it--not that it isn't good, it's just not at all to my taste; I'm more for post-modernism, or at least structure and brevity, I still like rhymes, can't seem to cure that, etc. I like Whitman's phrases though ("I am large, I contain multitudes" or "dash me with amorous wet, I can repay you") and I love his intentions and meanings, so basically I love him, the man, way more than his work (though the two are completely intertwined, I get that). His thoughts and asides, his boys, his volunteer work in Civil War hospitals for the wounded (which he was criticized for because it was "unmanly" to nurse if he was healthy enough to fight, according to some). I'm so glad I had a real reason to find out about him.

I know more about American history now, the Civil War, the presidents of the time (Lincoln was a sweetheart too) than I ever picked up in a school. I can assure you that if I had stayed in that PhD program, I never would have had time to do a project as large as this. "Uh, but isn't that what a dissertation is?" Shut your educated-fool mouth: poverty trumps study. If you don't have enough money for food, housing, or health care, you don't have enough time to think about anything else. If a professor tells you otherwise, it's because they need you to stay stupid and studying what will not actually help your circumstances, because their tenure is funded by your underpaid labor or your overpriced tuition. That's true, the advisors at UT Dallas know it is true, they are either too powerless or too unconcerned to change it, and I won't contribute to an evil machine if I can help it. One of my brief cohort-mates from the PhD program quit the teaching part of it (because “I am worth more than poverty-level wages and participation in this institutional nonsense"), got two part-time jobs, but... still pays to attend graduate classes? She says she couldn't be happier. Yes, she could be! Like if she went to a better school! She's barely above an anti-union scab in my eyes, but if she thinks she's happy propping up the place that pays her fellows so horribly, I still don't see how I'm the one who's wrong (because I'm not).

I love learning, I'll work very hard for very little money (my publisher offered me $250 plus royalties for the annotation, and it's taken more than a year of work), but for a school to give me a stipend below the poverty line, forbid outside work, and offer no health care or summer assistance, that is so outrageous you could call it abuse. To take copious amounts of money from students domestic and foreign and provide them with inexperienced TAs as their only instructors in mandatory courses (with almost no guidance and certainly no real consequence for inadequacy) is disgusting, and a failure of a school. My friend who completed a PhD at UT Austin was quick to point out that all the all the information I got out of the Walt Whitman Archive is associated with UT Austin, so I can't be too mad at the University overall (haha, yes I can!), but she also made twice what I was paid for doing considerably less grunt work than they demand from grad students at UT Dallas. She never would have put up with such treatment herself.

The Poetry of it All
I did find some bits of poetry I liked (outside of Whitman's phrases) while reading for this project. This excerpt from Wordsworth leads off "On the Death of Joseph Rodman Drake" by Fitz-Greene Halleck, the inspiration of Joseph and His Friend:

“The good die first,
And they whose hearts are dry as summer dust,
Burn to the socket.”
- Wordsworth.

Whoa, yeah? And this excerpt of Byron, that leads off another gay novel of the time (discussed before on my LiveJournal), which I brought up in the annotation to make sure women aren’t left out of the conversation for a book where a wife is everyone’s worst problem. At the top of A Marriage Below Zero:

"I seek no sympathies, nor need;
The thorns which I have reaped are of the tree
I planted,—they have torn me.—and I bleed:
I should have known what fruit would spring from such a seed."
- Byron.

You see what I mean about rhymes? I’m a sucker for them.

The Artist
I went to a good school once, it was my original alma mater, the New College of Florida, and that's where I got all my research skills (I even got to return to topics from my undergrad thesis with Joseph, just like a real dissertation--Oscar Wilde's name as a code word for homosexuality; Whitman's name worked the same way, and did it first). However, since then (including my MFA, the private after-school program where I taught in South Korea, and my PhD program entirely) it's been nothing but people going through the motions and putting in the minimums to get money from the students and then get out. My way out of that fiasco mentally was the fact that I consider myself an artist first before an academic, and I took my lessons from the examples of artists, poets in fact (though I'm a prose-writer almost exclusively): A.E. Housman got kicked out of school for having a crisis on the day of his exams? No matter, he got a job and did scholarship out of school until they took him back anyway. T.S. Eliot got a job in a bank so that his literal fortunes would stay stable enough to stay out of the way of his real work. Walt Whitman held a university education against men, this is from Intimate with Walt: Selections of Whitman's Conversations With Horace Traubel, edited by Gary Schmidgall:

When Traubel tells Whitman he worked for four years in a printer’s shop, Whitman naturally applauds, this being his own employment history: "Good! good! that’s better than so many years at the university: there is an indispensable something gathered from such an experience: it lasts out life. After all the best things escape, skip, the universities.”

I have escaped the universities! Sweet are the uses of adversity! universities! Same difference! From this project has already come another research book that I'll be doing with one of my MFA cohort-mates, the improv one ("yes, and," remember?), and from that project we have material for a recurring podcast segment that we'll record later this month, and from there who knows what else will come up? I have one last planned book to finished before I turn 30 (the final installment of my young adult Disorder Series, and I just turned 29, so the deadline is on), and after that I'm free to work as I please, go where I please, do what I please, because I've got a job that respects me, and money enough to enjoy my life. I can do work on the side that gives me artistic and academic purpose because I have the means for it. I even had the means to buy scans of an unpublished Charles Jackson manuscript out of the archives at Dartmouth, for nothing more than the pleasure of learning everything I can about him. I've got a lot more work to do, and while it's a tragedy that this kind of dedication and zeal for learning found no means of support in a PhD program, it's not my tragedy anymore, and that's still nice every day.

The Cruelty of Truth

While reading and researching for an upcoming project, I came across Alan Dale's (pseudonym) 1889 book A Marriage Below Zero (so old it's free to read online). Two things struck me right away: this plot sounds an awful lot like my own My Dear Watson, and despite the dismissal of the book as anti-gay melodrama, it's actually a very amusing read. Keep in mind a quote by Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) as we go on: There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.

It reminded me that My Dear Watson has gotten that same sort of criticism, and that one reviewer went so far as to say, "I couldn’t, in the end, give My Dear Watson five stars, purely because of the discomfort it caused me." This is something I disagree with many of my critics about, that if a book makes them happy it must be good, and if it doesn't make them happy, whether or not it's well-written, it simply can't be that good. I'm not the first author to have this gripe, here it is explained by William S. Burroughs in an essay called "A Review of the Reviewers":

Critics constantly complain that writers are lacking in standards, yet they themselves seem to have no standards other than personal prejudice for literary criticism. To use an analogy: suppose the Michelin Inspectors were equally devoid of consensual criteria for judging food. Here is one inspector... "food superlative, service impeccable, kitchen spotless", and another about the same restaurant ... "food abominable, service atrocious, kitchen filthy." Another inspector strips an Italian restaurant of its stars because he doesn’t like Italian cooking. Another would close a restaurant because he disapproves of the chef’s private life or the political opinions of the proprietor or complains that the chicken on his plate is not roast beef.

Admittedly it is more difficult to set up standards for literary criticisms but such standards do exist. Matthew Arnold set up three criteria for criticism: 1. What is the writer trying to do? 2. How well does he succeed in doing it? Certainly no one can be justly condemned for not doing what he does not intend to do. 3. Does the work exhibit "high seriousness"? That is, does it touch on basic issues of good and evil, life and death and the human condition.


To illustrate this point further, I happen to have a side job ghostwriting smut fluff for money, because it's a sad fact that the less I ask readers to think, the more I'm rewarded. I started ghostwriting while attending a PhD program and teaching a Rhetoric 101 class, trying to keep my head above poverty (I quit after one semester of that abuse). I wrote a story set in Victorian London (with vampires and werewolves and male pregnancy, oh my!), a historical time I know pretty well, since I've written both a fifty page scholarly thesis on queer coded language in the literature of the time, and My Dear Watson, which came from the same research. One of the reviewers for the smut story said, "Are you kidding me? The first paragraph reads like a grade school book report, and it gets worse from there. This author needs an editor or maybe a college English class." With what authority did that person write? Absolutely none. I was the professor, and this arrogant person reading silly porn with their free time told me to go take an English class. There are writers who adhere to a 'the customer is always right' mindset, and they are not good writers, they can't be; those writers work in customer service, and that's the opposite of telling the truth.

Which brings us back to A Marriage Below Zero. In Pages Passed from Hand to Hand: The Hidden Tradition of Homosexual Literature in English from 1748 to 1914, Mark Lindsey Mitchell and David Leavitt have this to say about Alan Dale's book, and its critics: "Such a criticism [that it's a melodramatic anti-gay novel] is misguided, however, because it equates the author's viewpoint with that of his heroine, whose perspective counts; how often have the Constance Wildes of the world had the chance to tell their stories? A Marriage Below Zero is a cruel book, yet its cruelty is the cruelty of truth." I too have been accused of hating Sherlock Holmes because the character of Mrs. Watson has issues with him (I am not my character). It is unfortunate that in this world of fan service many female readers will be quick to call Mrs. Watson and/or myself a bitch for getting in the way of the gay couple's true love, when that's not at all how the world works. There was no real choice for women of the era, and what about the Constance Wildes, indeed? What about all the women whose one great hope for a comfortable life was to make a happy marriage, who then get abandoned because their husbands were caught in their own impossible circumstances? Why should one minority be blamed for the other, especially now, when there's so much more cognizance about punching up instead of fighting amongst your fellow oppressed?

I do appreciate the reviews that can see the difference, but there's a lot of the human condition in this urge people have, to hate the truth-teller instead of the truth. The same reviewer who called My Dear Watson skillfully researched and "a haunted and ultimately failed love affair," took a star off simply because the truth was too sad to enjoy. For my next historically researched book, the same reviewer doubled down on the opinion that what is cruelly true must be bad to treat fictionally, or to allow impressionable people to read. Based on the true crime case of Leopold and Loeb (1924), my Homo Superiors was knocked down even further to three stars based on this thought process: "The book is intelligent and well crafted. But it celebrates nothing. It teaches us nothing. I hope Fields’ fascination with the unhappiest aspects of homosexuality does not become the hallmark of her writing career. I don’t think I could bear another book like this." The truth is not always celebratory (in fact it is rarely so), and one's feelings should not dictate criticism this way. If one feels hurt, and sick, and disturbed after reading about a pair like Leopold and Loeb, then I must have done an excellent job in portraying them, because that's how they were. Remember the criteria: 1. What is the writer trying to do? 2. How well does he succeed in doing it? 3. Does the work exhibit "high seriousness"? My goal in Homo Superiors was do show how easily two smart boys can become killers (it happens a lot, there's nothing historical about that; it's recursive, happens all the time), and my goal in My Dear Watson was to show how a true love can still fail. It's a tragedy, yes, but how is it fair to grade a tragedian on the scale of 'what makes me happy is good'?

As with A Marriage Below Zero, so it is with me. Alan Dale's first-person female character was written with such amusing sarcasm that at times she felt practically modern (despite her circumstances as a young dupe married to an unhappy gay man). That tone was a true balm for me, who often wondered if my sassy and assertive Mrs. Watson was anachronistic--apparently she was not! You might say, as my unhappy reviewer does, that a historical context makes the difference: the world was bad for gays and women once, and it's relatively better now, so isn't it irresponsible to dwell on sorrows? I don't think so. What world do you live in that you know no self-loathing homosexuals, dismissively ignored women, unhappy marriages of convenience, or horribly mislaid plans made by those who don't have the power to out-smart the system?

The truth is cruel, and I won't be blamed for that; take it up with the world.

Writing Tips - L.A. Fields

I've been asked to share some author tips, and so here they are, three pieces of advice: Writing Tips - L.A. Fields

(Ignore that living in Texas bit; I don't really live here, I simply exist here, serving time like one does in prison, against one's will.)

Anyway, for you TL;DR types of readers, the short version of those tips is:

1. Listen to me.
2. Are you listening?
3. Don't listen to me.

That's good advice if you want to take it!

Learn about Loeb and Leopold

There is a new Leopold and Loeb website! I could have used this while writing Homo Superiors, but the next author of an L/L representation will have it all at their fingertips. I'm the most recent feature at the end of the fiction page . . . for now.

My short story collection Countrycide is $1 in ebook version all week: here.

Homo Superiors is on the radar for another review: here.

Read my books! Some of them, all of them, throw a dart at the stack and choose that way or go with the cheapest, that’s up to you, but get on it.

Homo Superiors: Audiobook

The audiobook for Homo Superiors is out today!

Listen up!

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L.A. Fields
la_fields
L.A. Fields
L.A. Fields is the author of The Disorder Series, the short story collection Countrycide, the Lambda Award finalist My Dear Watson, and Homo Superiors, a modern retelling of Chicago's Leopold and Loeb crime.

She has a BA in English Literature from the New College of Florida, and an MFA in Creative Writing - Fiction from Columbia College Chicago. She lives in Dallas, TX with a cat and a day job.

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