For those of you who regularly follow blogs they’ve originally met up with on WordPress.com, the name of Joe Ponepinto, or “jpon,” as he is known on his site (The Saturday Morning Post, http://joeponepinto.com), will not be a stranger. It’s one of the sites published at least once a week, on Saturday mornings, of course, and has an intelligent and loyal following of folks interested in the many and sundry questions and dilemmas facing the modern fiction writer and aficionado. For those of you who haven’t met up with Joe yet, I would encourage you to visit his site and follow the dialogues thereon, because you are in for a treat. Even more, I would encourage you to buy his new book, The Face Maker and Other Stories of Obsession, available from Woodward Press, LLC (and Amazon.com). My post today is mainly to communicate my sense of Joe’s professionalism, generosity, and talent, in that order, with talent in the ultimate position for purposes of emphasis, as one puts the most overarching consideration or the most all-inclusive last.
I say Joe is a consummate professional because not only has he been the Book Review Editor of The Los Angeles Review and Co-Editor of The Delphi Quarterly, but he combines this with an additional career path of freelance editing. Finally, and for many people the most important factor, he is a writer himself, and thus is emphatically not in the position generally reviled as “those who can’t do, teach”; rather, what he can “teach” us is derived from his own experiences with writing and submitting works, and he is both up-front and conversationally inclined when it comes to discussing the ins and outs of story and book publication and its rewards, woes, and pitfalls.
I say Joe is generous too, meaning it in more than one sense. For starters, once he had given his time and energies to being instrumental in the formational and continued stages of the Woodward Press, he generously offered, if sent mailing addresses, to send a free copy of his book mentioned above to each person who had been following his site and commenting regularly for at least a year or so. I myself was in doubt as to whether or not I qualified, because though I have commented regularly on Joe’s site, I have only been blogging since July 4, 2012 and began following his site sometime after that. But never fear, Joe accepted my interest in his proceedings as valid, and sent me a copy of his book. And what I was to discover therein made me feel that Joe is a generous person all around, with his characters as much as with his readers, and that’s a good feeling to have about a writer. After all, his avowed subject was obsession writ large, and so many writers would have taken the easy path and created a collection of notable eccentrics and cranks and let that pass for an honest effort. But Joe Ponepinto’s characters live and breathe both genuine feelings and heartaches and sometimes have tainted victories, and their obsessions are truly honestly come by in the course of their attempts to resolve their differing dilemmas. We live with them through their trials and can see the sometimes twisted sense of the solutions they come up with, knowing even as we do that they are not twisted individuals except in the senses in which what they are going through could happen to any one of us, given the same pressures and incentives.
There is one issue I would like to address about Joe’s book which made me a little less than happy until I thought it through, but then I realized that it was almost certainly meant in a more traditional sense than it seemed. As those of you who follow my own site probably know, I am an inveterate reader of blurbs on books. Although I do sometimes pick up a book, take a look at the cover, the author’s name, heft it in my hand, and go by such tangibles and intangibles as linger in that process, I also always read the blurb and see what weight it carries in my mind. Here’s what Kelly Davio, the Editor of The Los Angeles Review, had to say about the book: “In stories that range effortlessly across time period and place, Joe Ponepinto delivers the kind of masculine character we crave in literary fiction; these characters wrestle with the most essential questions of morality, and they bare-knuckle box with their human frailties. If the characters’ decisions are disastrous, they are passionately made. If their fates are tragic, their efforts are heroic. Ponepinto is unafraid to follow human nature to its final conclusions, no matter how difficult those conclusions may be.” What could bother me about that? you ask. Here’s my quibble, and also my resolution:
There is a bit of an ambiguity in the expression “the masculine character we crave in literary fiction….” Who craves masculine character? Is this a reference to the fact that most of Ponepinto’s central characters are male? But he does have female characters, and his touch with them is equally talented. What, then, is “masculine character” in fiction? (I would just interject here that in his posts as in his stories, Joe’s touch with women and female concerns and issues is both adroit and politically sensitive. So, what does this remark of Davio’s mean?) Traditionally (to take it that way, as I assume it is meant), when critics or scholars spoke of the “masculine character” of fiction or a writer’s touch of masculinity, an unintentionally backhanded compliment when not applied to men but which in that character was sometimes applied even to women writers, they usually meant that the writing topics in question had “rigorous thought structure” and were “gifted with creatively inspirational moments.” By contrast, critics of bygone times meant by “feminine character” in writing to deny or negate in the topic treated strength and agility of composition, as well as indicating that there was a nebulous sort of “hands-off,” “squeamish,” or “lady-like” appeal to the fiction frequently but unfairly assumed to be the sole province of women writers. Don’t get me wrong, some very fine fiction was characterized also in this light, such as the fiction of the literary craftsman Henry James, whose writings were sometimes spoken of as “feminine” and “too sensitive” (as indeed was Henry James himself, in half-earnest jest, by another writer). In any case, Joe Ponepinto’s writing shows a great deal of “rigorous thought structure,” like the underpinnings or bones of a face, and a plethora of “creatively inspirational moments,” like the nerves and flesh. (And here, I’m borrowing some imagery from his award-winning story in the collection, entitled “The Face Maker.”) As well, none of it is “feminine” in the former pejorative sense, by which I mean that Ponepinto does not once in my reckoning shy away from a challenging fictional turn of events or become too “squeamish” or “lady-like” to give his characters (and his readers) their full due. So, though I object to the characterization of fiction as masculine or feminine, in this case I can allow that the terminology, while slanted is, if correctly translated, just. Joe Ponepinto is a very talented, accomplished, and mature writer.
Perhaps my favorite story in the whole collection is “Living in Dark Houses,” a story in which a troubled and abused teen finds a hero and unlikely mentor in another teen, slightly older, who has had his own childhood likewise taken away from him. The surprising ending is one which I leave Ponepinto’s readers to discover, along with all the other fine fiction contained in the book. It is a veritable treasure trove of perspectives, all of which overtly examine the topic of obsession while not obscuring the path to it, which we may find ourselves going down any day. Ponepinto is not wincing away from the path that leads willy-nilly through it and to startling and marvelously evocative conclusions, true pictures of the human condition which make us wonder if we are really any of us free of eccentricity and oddness. It is this ability first and foremost to connect with one’s fellows which characterizes the best and most talented achievers of all time in the field of fiction, and Joe Ponepinto is seemingly quite capable of laying claim in the course of time and further writings to be one of that august number. Way to go, Joe! You’re an excellent model to follow! (And now, we’re all waiting for the next book to come out!)