Lorrie Moore is a fiction writer who seems to publish a new short story in The New Yorker every few months. (That's the way it seems to me anyway; if anyone knows who published more, or more often, please message me on Twitter. I trust someone out there has the proper statistics.) As part of their 2011 end-of-year wrap up, The New Yorker asked Moore to write about her favorite books of 2011, and this is what she had to say:
This past year I read the novels, stories, and memoirs of friends, colleagues, students, and acquaintances with much admiration. These books were all absorbing and important works of literature—which goes without saying, or perhaps with saying, depending on the title. Of the books I read this year by people I’ve never laid eyes on, the most peculiar and brilliant may have been “The Tiger’s Wife,” by Téa Obreht.
There are several amazing things about this opening paragraph. But let's focus on the first of them. Isn't it astonishing that every single one of the books written by a friend of Lorrie Moore is an "important work of literature?" Lorrie Moore is saying that if you knew her, and you're a writer, you write important literature. All it took for the great Lorrie more to deem your work "important" was to have been a student of hers, or a friend, or a colleague, or an acquaintance. Books written by people she's "never laid eyes on" fall into a different, more suspicious, category.
Read that except again.
"All of my friends write historically important works of literature" is what Lorrie Moore has essentially said here. It's a given in the literary world that if you know someone else in the Lit Biz, they'll publicly "love" your work. And you're expected to "love" theirs. This goes beyond Facebook support, beyond a tweet or two, and beyond words of praise, shared with the author. This is giving your friends' book a glowing review. This is mentioning your friend in an interview, using your status to further your friends' status. This problem of believing that "your friends all write historically important literature" tightens the circle around the literary elite, into which friends are welcome and the rest are outsiders.
The other amazing thing is that Lorrie Moore happens—oh she just happens, does she?—to select a work that has been often named by the Lit Biz world as one of the finest of the year. No surprises here; The New Yorker even featured the author, Téa Obreht, as one of their "20 under 40" authors to watch. Lorrie Moore was reading from the playbook and acting out the same routine that we've come to expect from those in the Lit Biz world:
- "Love" the work of her friends
- Promote the safe work that has been pre-approved by the Lit Biz world
Best American Short Stories 2011 came out a few months ago and even though I’d read most of those stories already since BASS stories are typically pulled from a handful of magazines each year, notably The New Yorker and The Atlantic. In fact, out of the twenty stories in this year’s BASS, thirteen are from one of the following four magazines (The Atlantic only had one this year):
- The New Yorker: 7 stories
- Tin House: 2 stories
- McSweeney's: 2 stories
- Granta: 2 stories
It does seem a bit short-sighted to me that the people behind BASS are finding “The Best” stories in the same handful of magazines from year to year. There are hundreds of literary magazines available each month, each containing at least a few short stories. And really, should The New Yorker automatically captures a majority of “The Best” of them, each year, simply because they're The New Yorker?
James Franco has been turning up in the fiction section of various magazines and websites over the past year, and it’s a problem. It’s not a problem that he’s an actor, or that he’s handsome, or rich. The problem is that his work sucks, and it was being an actor, handsome, and rich that led to his recent run of publications.
- He’s had fiction in Esquire.
- He’s had fiction in McSweeney’s.
- He’s been writing reviews [Review 1] [Review 2] in The Paris Review blog.
- He read something on video for The Paris Review blog. In his bed. (Because Lorin Stein loves to be faux-naughty, anything that contains the slightest hint of sex is embraced at TPR.)
- He published a short story collection with a non-indie press.
- It's well-known that he got a MFA at Columbia and is pursuing a Ph.D. at Yale.
[To read more about how The Paris Review loves Cronyism, Nepotism and Sex, click here.]
I don’t have anything against James Franco personally, though I suspect the guy is due for a major embarrassing scandal, given all of the attention that’s been paid to him and the extent to which he seems to over-extend himself. But my scandal theory, why the hell is he showing up in the fiction section of these magazines?
Is he any good? Is that why James Franco is taking up real estate in these popular magazines?
Earlier this year, Boston Review published this boring piece of MFA Story-styled fiction. I’d like to take you through this story bit by bit and point out some of the places where this story fails. And I promise you, I’m not looking high and low to find examples of stories that fall into one (or more) of those four categories. Pick up any magazine, flip to the fiction section and within the first few paragraphs (if the work contains paragraphs) you’ll be able to tell which of the four story types you’ve got on your hands.
Link to the full story: Guinea Pig by Charles Johnson, Boston Review January/February 2011
Here's how “Guinea Pig” starts:
I was a student at the University of Washington in Seattle, with a double major in Philosophy and English, those two broken and declining (if not already dead) fields in higher education.
There are major warning signs right from the beginning that we’re going to have an MFA Story ahead of us. Didn’t even have to finish the first paragraph, right? From the start we have an English major—no, wait, our guy is a double major—he’s got Philosophy too. And we have a college, so the story is most likely set on or around a college campus. Of course the featured university is the very same university where the author is a professor. I know this because I looked him up: “Charles Johnson is a National Book Award–winning author and Professor Emeritus of English at the University of Washington.” As in: Seattle, Washington. I wonder if Charles Johnson also majored in Philosophy.
Welcome to How Publishing Is Rigged.
This site is a plea for sanity. Over the years, I’ve learned a lot about the dismal state of modern publishing and I’ll be using this site to share what I've learned. I care passionately about the future of literature and this site is my attempt to publicly expose the many things that are wrong with modern publishing. Please know that my efforts here are all for the good; I'm looking for change, and hopefully you’re here because you care and you also want things to change.
Once you get familiar with what’s available at How Publishing Is Rigged, you'll witness that publishing is controlled by a handful of individuals and their attendant cliques, and you’ll see that these people are the worst arbiters of quality. This small group of people gets to decide what’s read by the rest of the world, and that world is nothing like the decision-makers. Collectively and individually, today's literary gatekeepers are on the lookout for certain elements in the stories they publish: they seek writing that is cold, formulaic, uptight, boring, humorless and lifeless. The end result? The worst stuff gets published—at the magazine level and at the book level. The poor quality of the work has readers abandoning literature in droves. It’s no wonder that the publishing industry is in shambles—nobody wants to read what’s being published today.
In magazines and in books, I’m seeing the same kinds of stories over and over again, and all are devoid of real emotional content. I see MFA-type stories chock-full of English professors. I see nonsensical gibberish stories, stories that are nothing but trifling observations, and stories that go into great descriptive detail but lack any notion of substance or depth. On this site, I’ll perform detailed analyses of specific writers and works that exhibit these current literary trends, and in doing so, I'll expose the failures of these trends.
We want to feel something when we read a good story. We want fiction that has immediate and lasting impact on our souls and our lives, not the same old useless crap that we’re getting from today’s decision-makers. To turn the publishing business around, we need to boot today's literary gatekeepers and demand wholesale changes throughout the industry. And I'm not talking about buying more e-books, I'm talking about real changes that permeate every level of the publishing business. We don't want our literature to “hew to the established line” because the established line sucks. Anyone who defends the rules of modern publishing is either personally invested in the propagation of the current literary trends, or simply doesn't fully understand the extent of the damage that's been caused by those currently in power. Real changes in the industry will only be brought about by dramatic changes within its very core. Do your part and demand those changes from the gatekeepers out there in the Lit Biz world. Together, we can bring about the real changes that are needed.
The crappy stories coming out today can basically be broken into a few key types, each with particular identifying characteristics. Stories might feature slightly different topics and subject matters, but once you start to analyze the fiction that's most eagerly pushed by those in power, you can easily assign one or more of the following labels to each story. (There can also be a fair amount of overlap, as you'll soon see.) As I expose some of the truly awful literature that’s out today, I'll use these categories to describe the stuff I'm picking apart.
Modern literature would be in a much healthier place if instead of being able to lump contemporary fiction into the above categories, we were unable to assign labels to the work we read. I’d much rather discover that a story is new, fresh, different, and defies categorization. But what I've found again and again is that everything that I read can be labeled with at least one of the above four categories.
At magazines big and small, editors are all looking for the same attributes for the work that they publish: Be boring. Be lifeless. Be humorless. And the result is that all of these stories are fundamentally the same. And the editors at the publishing houses are no better than editors at the magazines. They also stick to the established formula and publish things that are safe: “We published Safe Novel X last year. Safe Novel Y looks just like Safe Novel X so let’s publish that one too.”
Most of the fiction out there today can be slotted into one of four categories, and in this examination of prominent story types, I’ll discuss what I call “MFA Stories.” The other types of stories are:
Please note that there can be a lot of overlap with these story types. An MFA Story can also be a Bauble Story, for example. But for starters, let's talk about the stories that fall into the MFA Story category. New Pages perfectly captures the description of an MFA Story in their review of stories they read in a new literary magazine. As described by New Pages, the stories in that new magazine were:
“Polished, refined, and serious.”
“Polished,” in Lit Biz terms, means something that is worked over, academic but not organic, with every comma in its place, and where every character has the vocabulary of an MFA grad. And in writing these stories, these MFA Story writers always choose the longest and least well-known words whenever possible—no matter that they frequently don’t understand the actual meaning of those words themselves. It’s like they're the kid trying to show-off in class, and they think that the use of such words makes a story “polished.”
“Refined,” in an MFA Story means: nothing indulgent, lacking in the quality of real life, everyone sitting in a room with the lights off and their clothes on. No outbursts please, emotions must be controlled!
And “Serious” means: humorless, and when there are attempts at humor, there will instead be irony (a Lit Biz person's definition of irony), or archness. They’re aiming for restrained guffaws, these people, not laughter.
Are you at the edge of your seat, craving the next “polished, refined, and serious” story in that magazine? No chance. I know; these stories sound awful because they are awful. But with the huge numbers of MFA programs churning out thousands of MFA grads annually, there are an awful lot of MFA Stories.
Most of the fiction that’s published today can be categorized into one of four categories, and in this examination of prominent story types, I’ll look at the “Gibberish” type of story. Do keep in mind that there can be a fair amount of overlap between the story types. A Gibberish Story can also be a Crumb, for example. The other types of stories include:
There is an increasing trend among the Indie Lit crowd to write nothing but nonsense. A reader of these Gibberish Stories doesn't even need to pay attention to what's on the page to “get the idea” of what was written. Because in actuality, there’s nothing to get; a reader can make up the bits he might have skipped anyway, since anything goes and the actual words used in a Gibberish Story are unimportant. In the Gibberish Story, holes ooze teeth roadways and pimple scarlet booby traps of eyeball lighthouses.
The people in that Indie Lit scene try to get away with so-called-liking this Gibberish stuff because one doesn't have to understand or even read a word of it to talk about it with their friends. It's like interpreting an ink blot—nothing's wrong, per se. And it's all “art,” right? So everyone can have and discuss their opinions, they can argue the merits of one thing and the demerits of another thing they've read in a Gibberish Story. They can even “disagree” with their friends (there are few things scarier to a Lit Biz person than going out on a limb and slamming something that is counter to what all of their friends are promoting) and feel good about themselves for “taking a stand.” For the lazy and the conflict-averse, this Gibberish is perfect fodder for a literary discussion among hipsters. They don’t have to read anything, and they don’t have to make real arguments that might be counter to what their friends are saying because nobody’s wrong and nobody’s right. Everyone gets a gold star for participating, just like in nursery school.
But give this Gibberish stuff to any real person and they'll tell you that it's total crap. The security guard on the night watch at my office would get through the first sentence of a Gibberish story and quit right there. He'd tell me he'd rather pass his between-rounds time playing solitaire, thank you very much. Hell, I'd rather pass my time covered in crawly things.
Most fiction published today can be quickly identified as one of four basic story types and in this post, I’ll look at what I call the “Bauble Story.” The other types of stories are listed here—but please remember—there can be a fair amount of overlap. An MFA Story can have a lot of Bauble Story elements, for example. The other story types are:
The Bauble Story is the stuff that is most easily identified by its close attention to surface details about delicate things—and most often, foodie-type things: detailed descriptions of culinary creations, baubles of an edible sort. Details about stemware and A-line dresses, three kinds of blue cheeses and carefully-folded lingerie. Pretty dainty pretty dainty things and nothing else, stories that are like a slow walk around Tiffany’s. Never you mind that an itemized list of delicate details offers nothing more than a glimpse of your grandmother's linen closet; the more delicate and boring the details, the better. A Bauble Story clasps its hankie-holding, lace-gloved hand to its just-modest-enough décolleté and sighs in relief: We've not gone too far. Our heart's gone a mite bit aflutter, but all's well after all.
The rich, emotionally terrified people who write these stories—and they don’t have to be women, or even feminine topics; masculine concepts (imagine detailed descriptions of the weathered surface of a leather messenger bag) are equally viable as subjects in a Bauble Story—are getting only so far themselves. And to protect their delicate sensibilities, these people have chosen to write about the safest, most boring things ever. And I'll ask again: why do they think we want to read this stuff? We're interested in literature that takes us somewhere new and gets our hearts pounding, not these careful observations of delicate pretty surfaces. It's very frustrating to see the same thing in venue after venue, even as those same venues purport to be new, edgy, and different.
Most of today’s fiction can be placed into one of four story types and in this post, I’ll be looking at the variety I call “Crumbs.” A Crumb is a type of story that is very popular in the Lit Biz world today. A Crumb is usually a very short story, lacking in plot and characters, and is often just a series of observations, without any actual narrative. The other types of stories are listed here—but please remember—there can be a fair amount of overlap. An MFA Story can have a lot of Bauble Story elements, for example.
A Crumb can only do so much. Often, it will set a scene, provide a series of observations about that scene, and then simply end. Give a normal person one of these Crumbs, tell them it’s a complete story, and they’ll think you were totally putting them on. The piece (it's so hard for me to call them stories, since they're not stories by definition) never goes anywhere and then after a few hundred words (or fewer than 100 words), it’s just...over. An observation about the stories that are published in today’s journals: they’re getting shorter and shorter all the time. And it’s not that one can’t do a really good shorter short story, but the current trend is almost universally toward ever-shorter stories, dwindling in length down to the shortest form out there, which is called “hint fiction” a.k.a. “flash fiction” and comes in at under twenty-five words. These “stories” are devoid of substance, and have no point whatsoever.