Too Graphic for a College Newspaper?

A student I work with was solicited to write a story for a local college newspaper.  The student has a reputation for his dark writing style, but has been recognized as an outstanding author and actor.  The paper did not print the following story, as they said it was too graphic.  Thoughts or comments?:

Lake Shore Driving:  Headless on the North Shore
by Frank Black

Jamie’s got his head in his hands, having just hacked it off with the cordless reciprocal saw Annie ordered for him off the internet the night she overdosed and stopped breathing-and blood came out her ears.  This made Jamie very sad, so he cut off his head-and now it’s in his hands-and he’s watching and pondering curiously at how his scabby, haggard heart continues to pump random arcing spurts of thick blood out the ragged, chunky stump of what’s left of his neck-and thinks he should’ve thought this through a bit more, which is an odd thought to think when your decapitated head is resting in your hands.

Jamie’s head is in his hands-severed from his torso-and he’s staring at the ceiling, wondering how to get blood out of stucco.  If Annie were here she’d know.  Annie knew all about things like that-domestic things-Martha Stuart things: tracking the perfect vein, turning water into wine-getting thick blood stains off a stucco ceiling.  Annie liked to play house and she was good at it-and Jamie misses her.  He misses everything about her-all the little things-the way she’d smile crookedly when he’d come to out of a seizure-the way she liked to cut herself in the bathtub.

Jamie’s jogging his sawed off head like a basketball and he’d really like to stop, but with the separation of mind and body making it impossible for any electrical impulse in the form of thought or want to travel any further than his hanging esophagus before falling flat on the floor-he just keeps tossing his head back and forth from right hand to left hand to right and back again.  He’s yelling at himself to stop-a futile exercise considering there’s no wind to vibrate his vocal folds, assuming he has any folds left after hacking at his throat with a hand-held circular saw-circular saw-more like a glorified pizza cutter with teeth-and even if he could generate any significant level of noise, it’s not like the headless other part of him would hear it…He really wishes he would stop throwing his head around.

If Annie were here she’d take care of it.  She’d know what to do.  She’d know how to fix this, how to fix him.  She was always fixing him.  She was good at fixing him-good at making things right-and he’d give anything-any-goddamn-thing to have her here right now to sew his dumbass back together-to pick him up and put him back together.

Jamie took to dying the morning he found Annie in the bathtub.  The water was black with blood from cuts on her legs, cuts on her arms, cuts on the bottoms of her feet and her pale blue skin almost reflecting the pool like bone china.  It was impossible to know how long she’d been in the water; Jamie had blacked out early the evening before, seven drinks deep into his third drunk that day, but when he grabbed her, when he picked her up and pulled her to him to hold her to him she was cold.  Jamie groaned.

Jamie’s head is on the front lawn having been tossed through the dining room bay window.

The rest of him-confused and headless, is feeling his way through the broken glass, climbing out, trying to escape-shredding and tearing the flesh of his arms on jagged shards of window protruding from the frame-leaving clumps and lumps of blood and meat behind as he falls to the ground.

Jamie helplessly watches his headless-self scramble to his feet, stumble in to the street, and get rundown by a school bus full of theology students and all he can do is think about Annie.

Jamie closes his eyes.

28 Comments

jessige

about 11 years ago

I would think it depends on the school.  It's pretty nasty, but was the graphic nature the only reason given for declining to print it?

heysme

about 11 years ago

Dark yet intriguing.
I could see an elementary school paper not wanting to print but not a high school or college paper.
We are exposed to a heck of a lot more than this on a daily basis through radio, billboards, newspapers and tv.

emmadogs

about 11 years ago

wow, great story.  I don't understand why a college newspaper would find this to be over the top.

spy1

about 11 years ago

Irony in the headlessness is the easy part. Getting the psychological right is the work. Seems to have transfixed on the gore and didn't create a character worth caring about. Unless this is only an excerpt. And Stewart instead of Stuart. A good start, but why print an unfinished piece?

Shane May

about 11 years ago

It's flash fiction

Tony D.

about 11 years ago

Perhaps it was not rejected so much for its gory details as cited but because of the lack of writing quality and they didn't want to hurt the author's feelings. As a writer myself, I get much more out of honest criticism than empty praise. So here are my thoughts, based on over 30 years teaching writing as well as writing and publishing dozens of articles, plays, and books:

The problems with the piece include too many unconnected thoughts, especially in the very first sentence, that serve more to confuse readers than draw them in and set the stage for what is to come: we start with Jamie's head in his hands and end with a memory of Annie's ears bleeding?. There is also an immediate grammatical error that is very distracting ("Jamie's got"), an over reliance on weak verbs (is, is, is, was, was was!), a lack of brevity (see just about any sentence), repetition (did he mention Jamie was headless?), run-on sentences ("It was impossible to know how long she'd been in the water; Jamie had blacked out early the evening before, seven drinks deep into his third drunk that day, but when he grabbed her, when he picked her up and pulled her to him to hold her to him she was cold."), an entire paragraph in italics for no apparent reason in which the writer switches from present to past tense, erratic punctuation (why is "any-goddamn-thing" hyphenated?), and using adjectives as nouns ("dumbass" should be describing a missing noun, e.g., "his dumbass body"). But these are all technical things that can be fixed. Above all it displays a sophomoric approach to writing in which the writer would sooner shock his audience than craft a well-written piece that moves them to think. And its not really a story, which involves plot and character development (take note, Mr. Lundgren!); it's really more of a sketch of a scene. I know, I'm nit-picking here, but to make a point.

I can't believe any newspaper--school or otherwise--would commission this writer to produce this sort of piece: it isn't news or reporting or even opinion; it is a work of fiction, and a poorly formed one at that. Even if this was submitted to a fiction writing class I would send it back for a revision. 

That being said I don't want to discourage the writer: I admire his effort to do something different. My advice to Frank Black (if indeed that is your real name!): like James Joyce, you first have to be able to write "Dubliner's" before you can create "Finnegan's Wake": in order to break rules effectively, you must first have mastery over them. Best of luck with your writing, and I hope we see more of it as you develop you talents!

edgeways

about 11 years ago

I gotta side with Tony on this. Absolutely, there are glimpses of good stuff here. I found it a bit too disjointed to be effective. Frankly I wouldn't necessarily call it "dark" so much as blood soaked, which is different. Heavy editing and a rewrite could see something solid, and shorter.

Tony D.

about 11 years ago

Edge, I agree more blood soaked than dark. But I am no fan of "flash fiction" and so that my also be coloring my critique. (My opinion is that If you're going to bother with flash fiction, why not take it a step further and turn it into a prose poem?) 

Anyway, Mr. Black, I hope you find this helpful, as that is my intention:

So, here is that first sentence again:

"Jamie's got his head in his hands, having just hacked it off with the cordless reciprocal saw Annie ordered for him off the internet the night she overdosed and stopped breathing—and blood came out her ears. This made Jamie very sad, so he cut off his head—and now it's in his hands—and he's watching and pondering curiously at how his scabby, haggard heart continues to pump random arcing spurts of thick blood out the ragged, chunky stump of what's left of his neck—and thinks he should've thought this through a bit more, which is an odd thought to think when your decapitated head is resting in your hands." 

Two sentences, 111 words, five weak verbs, no clear conflict to drive the story forward.

And just a quick bit of editing:

"Jamie's decapitated head rests in his hands; his mind remains on Annie and the night he found her overdosed in the tub, blood draining from her ears. In his ensuing depression Jamie freed his head with the cordless reciprocal saw Annie had ordered online just before she took that last bath. Now he finds himself staring at the thick blood spurting from his ragged stump of a neck and wondering if he should've taken more time to think this through—and just how the hell he's gonna pull himself together this time."

Three sentences, 94 words, one weak verb, and a final clause that gives the piece direction and focus: his conflict at this point. Still, not perfect, and likely not the direction Mr. Black was intending. Just providing an example to back up my previous critique.

Mr. Black has the raw material; he just needs the refinement.

adam

about 11 years ago

Quit double spacing after periods!

adam

about 11 years ago

You're missing some of the allusions there, Tony. While, "Jamie's got his head in his hands" may be poor grammar, it precisely conveys what "Jamie's decapitated head rests in his hands" does not.

Tony D.

about 11 years ago

Oh, I I know, Adam. As I said, just an editing example of brevity without knowing the author's intent for the piece: no idea really what he is trying to convey.

adam

about 11 years ago

And seriously, quit with the double spacing after periods. Unless you are using a typewriter, stop it.

Shane May

about 11 years ago

i like flash fiction. it makes me happy.

Tom

about 11 years ago

I'm sorry, Adam.  I always space twice after my sentences too.  I don't know quite why.  I swear that's the way I was taught -- on a computer, not a typewriter.  It could be worse though.          I could space like 10 times after a sentence.          That would be really annoying.

Tom

about 11 years ago

Crap.  So apparently the comments automatically reduce to one space, whether you type with one, two, or ten.  So that pretty much ruined my last comment that was meant to piss off Adam.  So now my last comment is kinda pointless.  Just ignore me; carry on.

duluth_bishop

about 11 years ago

Although the analysis is interesting, I guess the question I would like to pose is still "Is this too graphic for a college newspaper"?  I tried to insert a "Yes \ No" poll, but can't figure it out in the editor.  So in fairness to the conversation that initiated the initial post, could I get some feedback on just the issue of what is written, not how it is written? I'm sure the author appreciates the reviews, but in fairness we were more interested in your thoughts of this being dismissed due to the graphic content.

edgeways

about 11 years ago

Could college age readers handle it? Yeah sure. But editors are well within their purview to reject submitted stuff for nearly any reason, even subjective reasons. This may be projection, but my non-existent spidy senses are wondering if you are angling for a "censorship" angle? In a general culture which CSI graphics is prime-time this is small beer.

Mark

about 11 years ago

@duluth_bishop In this case, you can't ask for one without the other. The editors have to assess whether it is "worth" publishing. Do the benefits outweigh the costs? In other words, is the so-called "outstanding" writing worth the so-called "dark" subject matter?

My personal assessment is that the writing is a far cry from outstanding. The writer seems to be using shock value to make up for other deficiencies. It's amateurish at best and shouldn't be published. Keep working at it.

udarnik

about 11 years ago

I agree with Tony D.'s opinion that it was easier to reject than edit or criticize. Too graphic, no; too crappy, possibly. Even flash fiction needs character development -- I know little about the two characters and feel nothing toward them.

In any case, if a publisher/editor says "sorry, nope, too graphic," you either rework or submit elsewhere and chalk it up to a lesson learned.

[email protected]

about 11 years ago

1.  Newspapers print news and opinion, not creative fiction generally, and so it may have been rejected for that reason.
2.  Tony D. would be an admirable writing mentor.
And his arguments carry a lot of weight here.
3.  But mostly, this dude, if he/she wants to be a creative writer, needs to buy one book of Raymond Carver and one book of Russell Edson and ask:  what makes both of these great.  Then, go back and write again, every day.

Tony D.

about 11 years ago

Rhetoric Guy, thanks for the kind words. I would also include Annie Proulx on that list. The woman works magic writing in fragments. You hardly notice she writes mostly incomplete sentences.

Hope Mr. Black takes our criticism as encouragement!

hbh1

about 11 years ago

Does this college newspaper typically print flash fiction? Then you might have an argument. Otherwise, edgeways is right--most newspapers do not do so and would dismiss it out of hand. 

I'd recommend trying the literary magazine, but if the author is more attached to images than storyline, I agree with Tony that this leans more in the direction of a prose poem. Go more dreamy, more vivid verbs.

carla

about 11 years ago

The use of violence in fiction is a complicated and emotional topic.
Some readers (and viewers and listeners) just plain like it and seek it out.  Others will tolerate it if it advances the story.  Others hate it no matter what.

But whatever camp one is in, one thing seems clear, it is grossly overused in the current market.

In the story of Jamie and Annie we see a lot of images in our heads as we read it and they are well constructed.  But they are just strung together in a gratuitous gore fest with insufficient meaning.

The story is very short and the idea of Jamie with his head in his hands is a powerful image.

We know that Jamie killed himself because he loved Annie and she died.
We know a lot about them - that they are both substance abusers and that she house keeps and cuts herself and that he depends on her.  And maybe the back story about how they got that way is not necessary -- you know, the usual abusive past and all that.

In a way, there is brilliance in the terseness of it.  It's a gut punch.  But some more traditional structure -- like rising action or denouement -- might be helpful.  

I liked the mix of point of view.  We know what is in Jamie's severed head even though we are not exactly in there with him.  And we also know that there are theology students in the bus and somehow it's important that their chosen method of quest for meaning is a contrast to Annie and Jamie's utter inability to find much meaning in anything.

I wanted Jamie to do more than just close his eyes -- to close his eyes and take us with him to whatever alternative reality he next found.

jessige

about 11 years ago

To answer your yes or no question, duluth_bishop, I would reiterate my initial comment:  it depends.  The answer is the same as the porn answer--I know it when I see it.  And "I" am a lot of different people.  In this case, "I the editor" obviously believed it was, and that's the opinion that matters.  

Also, Tony D., I am going to directly quote you for the rest of my life:  "You have to write _Dubliners_ before you can write _Finnegan's Wake_."  That is perfectly put.

Beverly

about 11 years ago

Here's my edit. I'm going back-and-forth on whether to say "decapitated head" to start off.

"Jamie's head lay in his hands. He'd just hacked if off with the cordless reciprocal saw Annie bought him off the Internet the same night she overdosed. She stopped breathing and blood came out her ears. This made Jamie sad, so he cut off his head and held it where he could watch and ponder how his haggard heart could continue to spurt blood out his ragged stump of a neck. He wished he had thought this through a bit more. He wished Annie were there to help."

Endion

about 11 years ago

I agree with the Flash Fiction comments. When I pick up a paper it usually isn't to read a story of fiction. That is probably why it didn't run in a paper.  

That is also why I rarely read the Transistor's short stories, it just confuses me when I grab a paper and read some stuff that people write. I won't get off on that here though.

I've never typed on a typewriter and was taught to always double-space after sentences. I was also told we would be on the metric system by now too. 

The double-space thing is the hardest habit I've ever had to break.

zra

about 11 years ago

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