John Edgar Wideman has always been one of my literary heroes, from the top of his prematurely bald head, a smooth brown dome towering six feet five inches into the air, down to the bottom of his oversized feet. In fact, it was his clean-cut, square-jawed visage and clear-eyed pose replicated inside the back cover of his paperback books that spurred me on back when I used to harbor dreams of being a literary star myself.
The opening line in Weight, the first story in Wideman’s God’s Gym short story collection, was so simple and so true that for years I would find myself just out of the blue saying “my mother is a weightlifter.”
My mother is a weightlifter. You know what I mean. She understands that the best laid plans, the sweetest beginnings have a way of turning to shit. Bad enough when life fattens you up just so it can turn around and gobble you down. Worse for the ones like my mother life keeps skinny, munching on her daily, one cruel, little, needle-toothed bite at a time so the meal lasts and lasts. Mom understands life don’t play so spends beaucoup time and energy getting ready for the worst.
She lifts weights to stay strong. Not barbells or dumbbells, though most of the folks she deals with, especially her sons, act just that way, like dumbbells. No. The weights she lifts are burdens, her children’s, her neighbors, yours. Whatever awful calamities arrive on her doorstep or howl in the news, my mom squeezes her frail body beneath them. Grips, hoists, holds the weight. I swear sometimes I can hear her sinews squeaking and singing under a load of invisible tons.
from Weight by John Edgar Wideman, first published in Callaloo
Wideman has never enjoyed great commercial success. Even though much of his early work has been published to critical acclaim, he has always seemed to keep the literary establishment at arm’s length. Which is why I wasn’t surprised to read in Publisher’s Weekly that he would be releasing his next book through Lulu, a self-publishing imprint that is better known for the unknown authors who use their services when they get tired of being rejected by literary agents and book editors.
In an unusual move for an established author, critically acclaimed novelist, memoirist and National Book Award finalist John Edgar Wideman is teaming up with self-publishing and print-on-demand service Lulu.com to release, Briefs, Stories for the Palm of the Mind, a new collection of his short stories. The new book will go on sale exclusively through Lulu.com beginning March 14 and will be launched at a series of live readings from the book that will be held in New York and Los Angeles.
For someone who came of age when having a novel released by a major publishing house was the only way for an author to legitimize his or her efforts, Wideman’s embrace of both self-publishing and the micro story signal a new attitude by a writer known to be very protective of the sanctity of the writing life.
“My first microstory was commissioned by Oprah’s magazine,” Wideman said. “They asked for a story of less than 500 words.” To his surprise, he enjoyed the exercise. Wideman seemed gratified by his forays into the ultra-short fiction genre. “At first I was daunted by the small space available to me,” he said. “Now, the stories are getting boiled down.”