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Wednesday, April 10, 2019

CRITICAL MASS REVIEW

LITERATURE

The literary review of the Shreveport Regional Arts Council’s Critical Mass is unlike any literary competition I know. In part, this is because submitted manuscripts are “hung” as part of an exhibition of work by artists in a variety of disciplines; in part, because of how these works grow out of, and represent, the city’s creative community. The 18 submissions for this year’s “Best in Show” –

Critical Mass 7 – came from a variety of artists, some of whom work in multiple forms. There was poetry, fiction, screenwriting, even a short documentary script. Literature, in other words — which is among the most individual forms of expression — tells in this context a story that is collective in an unexpected way. As such, it is with no exaggeration that I assert this is a competition in which whether one wins or not is secondary to a broader conversation between artist and artist, and artist and audience.

In that sense, “Best in Show” winner Carolyn Breedlove writes for herself, but also out of her community, as all the writers in the competition do. Breedlove’s story “Pacific,” an excerpt of a novel, revolves around a young woman in the aftermath of a sexual encounter — although it is the brilliance of the narrative that we see none of that. Instead, Breedlove hints at the situation via inference, the asides and reflections of her main character as she begins to make her way home. The effect is to universalize the narrative, allowing us to feel and recognize the experience of her trouble, which is, after all, more important than its cause.


The reason this works is Breedlove’s acute attention to detail, to the menace that surrounds the character without ever quite asserting itself. Something similar might be observed of the other 17 entries in Critical Mass 7. Ashley Mace Havird, a previous “Best in Show” recipient, also engages in a slow build, allowing us as readers to piece together the world she is describing in her submission “Swimmer,” a chapter from a speculative novel that takes place 400 years in the future, after Earth has flooded due to climate change. David Bottoms’ “Happiness is an Inside Job” offers a closely observed account of a single day in the life of his protagonist — a day in which nothing happens, and yet at the same time, everything does. And then, there’s ML Dumars, whose trio of short, impressionistic narratives hint at the presence of the magical just below the surfaces of daily life. 

What all these writings have in common is a sense of life as fluid, a landscape through which their characters must move. The world, in other words, is bigger, more mysterious than we imagine, and even the most mundane activities are fraught. This, in turn, suggests something of the vision these writers share. It’s telling that every writer with whom I spoke was delighted at Breedlove’s selection as “Best in Show”; they spoke about her novel, her commitment to her work. By the same token, I want to imagine something similar might be said of any one of them. This is the mark of a community in which artists come together and support each other, in which the creative act is more important than the personalities. It’s no stretch to suggest that is a hallmark of Critical Mass: The art always comes first.


David L. Ulin is the author or editor of ten books, including Sidewalking: Coming to Terms with Los Angeles, which was shortlisted for the PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay. A 2015 Guggenheim fellow, he is the former book editor and book critic of the Los Angeles Times.

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