A Review of Venita Blackburn’s “How to Wrestle a Girl”
Short and Sour?
I’ve probably talked about this here on Medium.com before, but it is difficult to publish a book of short stories unless you’re an author who has published a novel first. If the publisher is looking for a stop-gap release between novels, then you might be able to publish a short-story collection. The thinking is that short stories don’t sell as well as novels, so for an author to come along and deliver not one but two short story collections in succession is a rare thing, indeed. Venita Blackburn, then, is that rarity of a writer. She has already published a debut story collection called Black Jesus and Other Superheroes. Now she has unveiled her second collection, How to Wrestle a Girl, with a major publisher.
Blackburn is a writer of talent because she can successfully sell story collections to publishers without anything in the way of a novel (the big money makers) for output. However, I must caution that Blackburn’s writing is not to everyone’s taste (including mine), though she has very important things to say about race, gender, body shaming, and sexuality. Still, most of the stories in How to Wrestle a Girl veer closely to being weird for being weird’s sake, and many of them (to me) didn’t make much sense at all.
For instance, there is a story in this collection called “Bear Bear Harvest™,” which is about a young girl who goes to have her fat sucked off her body so that it could be used as processed food. However, that’s about as far as the story goes. The rest of it, all 11 pages of it, was mere padding — leading up to the “punch line” of having the girl’s body fat harvested. That’s it, that’s all. Many of the other stories offered here have the same issue. There’s a longish story about a special effects designer for B-movies that has an interesting premise, but it kind of ambles along until it ends. It is listless and it goes nowhere, and I’m not sure what the point of the piece was.
However, I did say that Blackburn was an important writer — especially as a Black writer and one who writes about body issues and shame. She has characters who are intersex or are queer or are fat. It’s important to write about the marginalized as Blackburn does here. Still, I found that she often forgot to tell a story, choosing instead to be experimental or find new ways to write about these characters for the sake of logic. Your mileage on that may vary, but I just thought that most of the stories in How to Wrestle a Girl just ran out of gas early. In fact, one of the pieces collected here is nothing but a crossword puzzle! (Shades of Jennifer Egan’s narrative-bending technique of using a PowerPoint presentation as a narrative device in A Visit from the Goon Squad, perhaps?)
However, this book is interesting in that the book is split into two parts. The first part is a jumble of short stories — some of which are particularly short and last only two or three pages. The second part is composed of slightly longer stories and has the same main characters in all of them, and there is a linear progression to how the stories play out. In this sense, Blackburn is angling more towards novel writing without having to commit to writing a novel. Many of these stories — save for the crossword puzzle and even some quizzes about the characters that pop up — are less experimental and are thus more compulsively readable. Except, the problem is that these pieces play out like vignettes and don’t cohere into a bigger narrative. Thus, it’s hard to enjoy this section of the book, though in bits and pieces there are some vivid images and pertinent things said about the status of women’s bodies and how they can possess and surpass the strength of men.
Overall, I’d like to be able to say that Venita Blackburn is a writer to watch out for and is a voice to be reckoned with. However, it pains me to say that I wasn’t sure what the fireworks of this book were really about. In small doses, Blackburn draws out characters who wouldn’t normally be written about in much literature: queer, Black, and sometimes obese women who are grappling to make sense of the world and its treatment of them. I also thought that Blackburn was daring in trying out new narratives without usually resorting to sci-fi tropes to tell her tales. However, at the end of the day, something is lacking from these pieces: a story. You don’t have to necessarily tell a story conventionally, but you do have to give the reader some nugget to care about the characters you’ve created and the world you’re populating them in. Most of the time, these stories just drifted. There was no purpose to them, no rhyme or reason for their existence. Given that so many of these stories are short, there needed to be more of a point to the micro-fiction. At the very least, I guess I can be generous and say that if you don’t like where a particular piece is going, you don’t have long until you’re off to the next one. Except the problem is the next one is usually more of the same.
All in all, I feel sorry about How to Wrestle a Girl. I can see its literary importance, but it just didn’t activate itself for me in meaningful ways. I honestly wanted to like this book more than I did because I can certainly see the value and appeal of Blackburn as a writer. However, the vast majority of these stories just left me cold and left me wondering how they got published in an environment where short story collections just don’t sell in the same volumes as novels supposedly do. I suppose they’re novel enough (ha!) to justify their publication. But I did feel like they should have offered something more. In conclusion, all I can say about How to Wrestle a Girl’s tales is that they have a slippery grapple hold. The most charitable thing I can say is that they’re mostly short. If you’re willing to try something experimental that doesn’t always achieve a great deal of narrative success, read this book. Otherwise, time is probably better spent reading something that goes from Point A to Z more linearly. Perhaps something more like a novel, alas.
Venita Blackburn’s How to Wrestle a Girl will be published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux / MCD x FSG Originals on September 7, 2021.
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