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Tough love for literature

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Episode 295: Unreliable Narrators

It’s a new season on the calendar, and that means a new season of Book Fight. This fall, we’re going to be exploring the canon of creative writing, trying to find the best stories to teach in creative writing classes. Each week we’ll have a different theme, either a craft element or type of story, and we’ll each nominate a story we think works particularly well in the classroom. We’ll pit the stories against each other and by the end of the episode crown a winner.

This week we’ve got Denis Johnson going up against Matthew Vollmer, with two stories featuring unreliable narrators: “Emergency” and “Will and Testament.”

We talk about drug stories, different ways of thinking about “unreliability,” and the difficult guesswork of figuring out what stories students might respond to. Also, the difference between a “good” story and a “teachable” story.

As always, you can stream the show right here on our site, or download the mp3 file to listen to later. Or check us out in Apple podcasts, where you can subscribe (for free!) and catch up on older episodes. We’re also available on Spotify, Stitcher, or just about any other podcast app. If for some reason you can’t find us in your favorite app, please reach out and let us know!

If you like the show and would like more Book Fight in your life, consider subscribing to our Patreon. For $5/month, you’ll get access to regular bonus episodes, including monthly episodes of Book Fight After Dark, where we read some of the world’s weirdest–and steamiest!–novels. We’ve also recently begun a new series of Patreon-only mini-episodes called Reading the Room, in which we offer advice on how to navigate awkward, writing-related social situations.

Thanks for listening!

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Episode 190: Summer of Selfies, Curtis Sittenfeld (“Show Don’t Tell”)

This week we’re discussing a recently published story from The New Yorker by Curtis Sittenfeld, author of a number of books, including Prep and American Wife. In “Show Don’t Tell,” Sittenfeld turns her attentions to a fictionalized version of the Iowa Writers Workshop, and the anxious first-year students who are awaiting decisions on their funding for the next year.

Since both of your Book Fight hosts are Workshop grads, we take a little stroll down memory lane and compare our own experiences with those of the story’s characters. Though we also attempt to consider the story on its own merits, and we wonder whether it’s one that people outside the writing world would find compelling.

Also: another installment of Millennial M0m3nt. What American industry are the young people killing this week?

As always, you can stream the show right here on our site, or download the mp3 file. You can also find us in the iTunes store, where you can catch up on back episodes and subscribe (for free!) so you’ll never miss another installment.

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Episode 167: Mary Kubica, Don’t You Cry

Dear Listener,

We are truly sorry about this week’s book pick, which is–how to put this politely?–pretty sucky. The one of us who picked the book understands where he went wrong, and is very contrite about his mistake. It’s been a learning experience! He understands that if he picks a book this bad again, he might be placed on six months of book-picking probation. A tough punishment, yes, but also a fair one.


We talk about the ways this book disappointed us. We talk about the ways this book disappointed others. Then, in the second half of the show, we introduce a new segment, Unpopular Opinions. It’s lots of fun!

As always, you can stream the episode right here on our site, or download the mp3 file. You can also find us in the iTunes store, or wherever you normally get your podcasts. Subscribe, and never miss another installment!

Stream Episode 167:

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Writers Ask: Spies Like Us

On this week’s episode we discuss a recent essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education—How Iowa Flattened Literature, by Workshop grad Eric Bennet—and whether we agree with the various charges it levels against Iowa specifically and the project of teaching creative writing more generally. We also answer a listener question about how to select the journals to which you submit your work, and whether there are special considerations for as-yet-unpublished writers.

Alternate titles for this episode include: How the CIA Killed My Novel of Ideas, and Dr. Conroy: Or, How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love Sensory Details.

Your podcast correspondents, enjoying a winter in Iowa City.

Your podcast correspondents, enjoying a winter in Iowa City.

As always, you can stream the episode right here on our site, or download the mp3 file. Or check us out in the iTunes store (or through whatever podcast app you prefer, like Podcatcher, Stitcher, or Instacast) where you can subscribe for free and never miss another episode. If you want to help support the show, and also a great independent bookstore, please use any of the Powell’s links on our page–if you get to their site from ours, anything you buy will throw a little money our way.

Thanks for listening! We welcome feedback on what we talked about. Feel free to leave a note in the comments, or shoot us an email.

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Writers Ask: Goofus and Gallant

On this episode of Writers Ask we actually dole out some real, earnest advice: on applying to MFA programs, keeping your life and work in perspective, and how to find books in a Barnes and Noble. Also, why shouldn’t you include the phrase “Pushcart Prize nominee” in your cover letter to literary magazines?

Here’s a little sample of Goofus and Gallant, for anyone who wasn’t a regular Highlights for Children reader in their childhood (or adulthood; we don’t judge).

Goofus and Gallant

Solid advice! Unless Gallant drops those scissors and they spear him in the foot.

Stream the episode here, by clicking on the little player thingy:

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You can also find us in the iTunes store, by clicking on the link below. And if you’re buying books, click on that Powell’s badge (or any of the book links on our site), then shop as you normally would. A small percentage of your purchase price will come back to us, and help support the podcast.

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Episode 16: Tom Grimes, Mentor

Reading Tom Grimes’ memoir about his time at the Iowa Writers Workshop–and his long-running relationship with its famed director, Frank Conroy–has brought on a combination of nostalgia and post-traumatic stress syndrome in your humble podcasters, who both graduated from the Workshop roughly a decade after Grimes. Tom recounts his first, humbling workshop with Conroy, and Mike realizes he’s always longed for the kind of mentor relationship so lovingly described in the book.

Grimes has described Mentor as the autobiography of a failed novelist, though one clear lesson of the book is that success and failure are both relative. Continue reading


Episode 7.5: Jason Lewis, The Fourteenth Colony

NOTE 4/6/14: Due to some sort of technical issue I am unqualified to explain, this episode seems to have been lost to the universe, so the download link won’t work. Apologies to Book Fight completists across the globe.  – Tom

Our guest from Episode 7, Jason Lewis, was nice enough to hang around and chat a bit about his own book, The Fourteenth Colony, and his decision to self-publish using funding generated by Kickstarter. Jason paired the novel with an album’s worth of original music, and we’ve included a couple of those songs in the episode for your listening pleasure. Continue reading