An artistic and political defense of the most misunderstood punctuation mark

[This post first appeared at johnpistelli.com on December 22, 2018]

Literary influence is usually amorphous, which is why an influence-obsessed critic like Harold Bloom has to bring in words like clinamen, tesserae, and apophrades as well as esoteric schools of thought like gnosticism, kabbalah, and psychoanalysis to explain it.

Even when you can identify what one writer took from another, it is often a matter of “sensibility” or some other indefinable; when Borges reverses time to propose that Kafka influenced Browning, he’s referring to an air of menace hovering over a quest and not some more specific gleaning. More narrowly…


Four poems from the Devil about the Blessed Mother in and around L.A.

[Going through some old notebooks, I found a sequence of poems I wrote about five to seven years ago. I didn’t title them collectively at the time; I now call them “The Mary Variations.” I was inspired by a statue of a strangely exultant Virgin Mary I saw in front of a church on Wilshire Blvd. in Los Angeles in 2012. The first poem, “An Incarnation,” was published in the literary journal Atomic in 2015; you can still read it here. I never sought publication for the other three. The concept of the sequence is that Mary returns to earth…


A short story about mothers and mollusks, vacation and vastation.

[This short story first appeared in 2014 in a print issue of the Winter Tangerine Review. It is about class and sex and gender, and about the kinds of alienness that are vaster than the differences between humans, even as they may symbolize those differences. It is about culture and money, sex and loneliness, eating and being eaten. It is about being underwater; it is about going on vacation as an adolescent. Its characters, let me warn you, do not speak in the polite argot of “race-gender-class,” because they do not belong to the class that does so.]

They met…


American high school dystopia in the late ’90s: a chapter from a novel

[This is a chapter from my as-yet unpublished novel about the hopes and horrors of American suburbia at the turn of the millennium, The Class of 2000. While it comes at the midpoint of the novel overall, it also works as a freestanding short story. I worried this chapter would violate certain ethical precepts about fiction writing today, not only because it portrays human problems that some critics believe are better left unspoken in literature, most notably sexual assault, but also because it does so by tangling the moral response to this dilemma into such a knot of crossed purposes…


Fiction between novel and story, plus 13 great examples from Herman Melville to Valeria Luiselli

Why did I write a novella and not a full-length novel?

The novella has been “having a moment” off and on for the last decade (I haven’t written the only “In Praise of Novellas” article), but I can’t blame trendiness. Many years ago, a “meme” in the original Web 1.0 sense — what I think YouTubers now call a “tag” — circulated among bookish denizens of Livejournal (to give you an idea how many years ago I mean) canvassing our literary tastes. One of the questions: Epic or novella? I remember thinking it was a strange questions — why choose…


The life of an artist: a chapter from a novel

[The following is a complete chapter from my 2017 novel Portraits and Ashes. Why Chapter Seven? Because it’s my favorite in the book — it goes from California to the Rust Belt trailing a garden of desert flowers, a feminist art installation, a Borgesian book, and a doomed ménage à trois in its roiling wake — and because it makes the best freestanding excerpt of the 10 chapters. This chapter introduces the third of the novel’s three protagonists: Alice Nicchio-Strand. The other two protagonists, Julia Bonham and Mark Weis, are more or less ordinary people drawn into an extraordinary plot…


A short story about sex, death, and L.A. delirium.

[I wrote this short story in 2015, and it was published in a now-defunct literary journal called Writing Raw. Since the journal and its archive are gone, I present it here. It pretty flagrantly runs afoul of certain assumptions about the ethics of fiction that were not yet fully solidified or broadly accepted in 2015 but that now are. Nevertheless, I stubbornly continue to believe that fiction writers should 1. make things up and 2. imagine what it’s like to be other people. My loyal readers of a suspicious bent will note the recurrence in this work, as in several…


A privileged radical tells all in the age of global pandemic: a chapter from a novella

[The following is the third chapter from my novella, The Quarantine of St. Sebastian House. Published in May 2020, it is the first longform work of literary fiction about the global pandemic.]

3. The Critique of Everything

He knocked like a police officer or a soldier: three hard raps on the door with the side of his fist. When I didn’t answer right away, because I was spending a rare moment filming a message for my online class — a few students had emailed to complain about my lack of engagement — he pounded three times again. This startled me…

John Pistelli

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