How Publishing Is Rigged You thought it was a meritocracy??

8Sep/11

About This Site.

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.

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8Sep/11

Four Kinds Of Stories

booksThe 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.”

CLICK TO READ MORE...Four Kinds Of Stories

8Sep/11

MFA Stories

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.

CLICK TO READ MORE...MFA Stories

8Sep/11

Gibberish Stories

Inkblot

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.

CLICK TO READ MORE...Gibberish Stories

8Sep/11

Bauble Stories

Antique Jewelry BoxMost 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.

CLICK TO READ MORE...Bauble Stories

8Sep/11

Crumbs

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.

CLICK TO READ MORE...Crumbs

8Sep/11

Guess Who (Part 1)

Guess Who? Let's say you had a friend who you hadn’t seen for a while. They’ve asked you what you’ve been reading lately, and instead of showing him some good stuff, you decide to show him what the Lit Biz people are touting as genius these days. “I’ve been reading some great stuff recently. Stuff that really makes you think.”

So you sit him down and read him some of these so-called great stories. “Here's the first story,” you tell him. “The entire first story.” You tell him that the title of this story is “The Child”:

She is bending over her child. She can't leave her. The child is laid out in state on a table. She wants to take one more photograph, probably the last. In life the child would never sit still for a photograph. She says to herself “I'm going to get the camera,” as if saying to the child, “don't move.” (1)

He looks puzzled, your friend. He looks very confused. You show him the second one, but not before telling him the title of this one. It’s called “Away from Home”:

It has been so long since she used a metaphor! (2)

He doesn’t know what to say. Or where to begin. His brows are furrowing. He asks you, “How can these things be stories?” He points out that there’s no narrative and no plot. “All true,” you tell him. “But the Lit Biz people think this is great stuff.” He is thoroughly dismayed.

You show him the third story, and its title. “The Lit Biz people think that the titles are clever. But any normal and sane person will find the titles absurd. ‘The Child.’ It's a lazy title, a title that could mean almost anything. A completely generic title.” You give him the third story’s title, which a Lit Biz person would find quite droll: “Information from the North Concerning the Ice:”

Each seal uses many blowholes and each blowhole is used by many seals. (3)

Your friend doesn’t want to hear any more of this garbage, but you’re making a point, so you beg him to hang in there. He's reading them for himself now, and you give him one called “Spring Spleen”:

I am happy the leaves are growing large so quickly. Soon they will hide the neighbor and her screaming child. (4)

And here’s the fifth complete story, called “They Take Turns Using A Word They Like.”

“It’s extraordinary,” says one woman.
“It is extraordinary,” says the other. (5)

Your friend is horrified that this is the stuff that the Literary world has deemed “genius.” “But these are useless,” he protests. He thinks you’re playing some kind of joke on him. But no, you tell him that this author is held up in the Lit Biz world as a star who also writes things that are a wee bit longer. Story number six, “The Churchyard”:

I have the key to the churchyard and unlock the gate. The church is in the city, and it has a large enclosure. Now that the gate is open, many people come in and sit on the grass to enjoy the sun.
Meanwhile, the girls at the street corner are raising money for their mother-in-law, who is called “La Bella.”
I have offended or disappointed two women, but I am cradling Jesus (who is alive) amid a cozy pile of people. (6)

And seven, “At the Bank”:

Again, I go to the bank with a bag full of pennies. Again, I guess that my pennies will add up to $3.00. The machine counts them. I have $4.92. Again, the bank officer says I am close enough to the correct amount to win a prize. I look forward to seeing what the selection of prizes will be this time, but there is only one prize, a tape measure. I am disappointed, but I accept it. At least, this time, I can tell that the bank officer is a woman. Each time, before, there was no way to tell if she was a woman or a man. But this time, though she is still bald, her motions are less mechanical, her voice is higher, she smiles, and there is a pin on her chest that says, “Janet.” (7)

Finally, story number eight, “In the Train Station”:

The train station is very crowded. People are walking in every direction at once, though some are standing still. A Tibetan Buddhist monk with shaved head and lone wine-colored robe is in the crowd, looking worried. I am standing still, watching him. I have plenty of time before my train leaves, because I have just missed a train. The monk sees me watching him. He comes up to me and tells me he is looking for Track 3. I know where the tracks are. I show him the way. (8)

Beyond calling these stories “underdeveloped, boring, pointless crap,” your friend doesn’t know what to say but he sure is pissed that you’ve gone and wasted his time. What’s more, give this stuff to any regular reader, and they’d be embarrassed to know that these stories were all published and touted as “great works of art” by the Lit Biz people. It’s embarrassing that these literary gatekeepers can’t tell good work from bad.

CLICK TO READ MORE...Guess Who (Part 1)

8Sep/11

The Paris Review Loves Cronyism, Nepotism and Sex

The Paris Review The Paris Review is a literary magazine that holds a special place in the history of modern literature. For one thing, it’s one of the few literary journals that most regular people have heard of, and for another, it’s stocked in most bookstores—even those that have only a small selection of literary journals. There are actually hundreds of literary journals being published today, but most of them are unknown to readers at large because of their limited distribution; most literary journals have a very small circulation and are difficult to find at bookstore. Not The Paris Review, which can be found almost everywhere.

So The Paris Review is one of the better-known literary journals. That fact probably also has something to do with its long history. Founded in Paris by Harold L. Humes, Peter Matthiessen, and George Plimpton in 1953, The Paris Review began with a simple editorial mission:

“Dear reader,” William Styron wrote in a letter in the inaugural issue, “The Paris Review hopes to emphasize creative work—fiction and poetry—not to the exclusion of criticism, but with the aim in mind of merely removing criticism from the dominating place it holds in most literary magazines and putting it pretty much where it belongs, i.e., somewhere near the back of the book. I think The Paris Review should welcome these people into its pages: the good writers and good poets, the non-drumbeaters and non-axe-grinders. So long as they're good.”

With the above set-up, even if you’ve never picked up a copy of The Paris Review, you’d probably expect it to contain some good stuff. Given the above, the “good stuff” conclusion seems logical, right? The magazine has been around for a while. It’s well-known, you see it all of the bookstores, and you have this impression that it is well-respected. You might be surprised, then, to learn that TPR contains some of the lamest, least-relevant, laughably juvenile stuff being published today. And under their new editor-in-chief, Lorin Stein, the quality and reputation of TPR is plummeting at an ever-faster rate.

Much has already been written about what happened when Stein took over the magazine in 2009 and subsequently “un-accepted” several poems which had previously been accepted for publication. Pretty classy of Stein: “I'm the new boss around here. I know you've been counting on your work being published—but I don't like the editorial decisions made by my predecessor, so you’ll have to look for a new home for your work.”

It's damn rare to have something accepted only to have it un-accepted later. Daniel Nester at the website We Who Are About To Die wrote an eight-part series about what went down at The Paris Review and if you want to know more about what happened, Nester gets into all the details surrounding this un-acceptance debacle.

The un-acceptance thing was one of the first things that Stein did as the new editor-in-chief. Since that very questionable editorial decision, he’s been busy on a number of fronts, all designed to make The Paris Review magazine and website appeal to the most insecure, un-self-aware, sheep-like Lit Biz drones. He’s also spending a fair amount of time publishing his cronies and the kind of stuff that is only appealing to uptight people who think they’re finally getting in on what they missed out on in junior high school.

Stein has even turned The Paris Review blog into a relationship advice column. One of his favorite topics? Sex! (Oh my now, isn’t he so naughty?!)

CLICK TO READ MORE...The Paris Review Loves Cronyism, Nepotism and Sex

8Sep/11

Another perspective

Offering a different take is Paul Vidich, of The Millions, who makes the claim that there is only one problem related to the decline in consumption of the American short story: there are very few mainstream magazines that publish fiction. In other words, it's not the product, it's the delivery mechanism.

Publish or Perish: The Short Story.

An excerpt:

Is today’s short fiction not as good? Hardly. Why aren’t readers holding up their part of the bargain? The answer, let me suggest, is related to how readers are given the opportunity to read – distribution, in commercial terms.

This other guy, Karl Wenclas, takes a look at the modern literary landscape and sees many of the same problems that I see.

He discusses the lack of quality writing today, and I like the analysis he does of the endings of several stories that were anthologized in Best New American Voices from 2008, 2009, and 2010.

The Literary Story Examined.

In this next link, Wenclas makes the point that writers are writing for themselves, not the masses:

Hitting the Demographic.

Vidich's defense of the quality of today's short story is completely absent. He proposes that the quality of the stories is high, but does nothing to support his claims. Wenclas' empirical study of the endings of the stories in Best New American Voices makes for much more compelling evidence; the crappy quality of the work is right there in front of you, not masked by that arrogant, “Hardly.”

CLICK TO READ MORE...Another perspective

8Sep/11

It’s So Very Droll

The Literary business has a completely backwards idea of what makes something funny. Something truly funny is going to have you laughing out loud, regardless of where you are, or who you’re with, or what you were just doing. Something that is truly funny is going to compel you to react in an honest, heartfelt way, without ego, and without artifice. On the contrary, something classified as “funny” by a Lit Biz person is seen to the rest of us as arch, detached, and aloof. A Lit Biz person’s reaction to something that they think is funny would be along the lines of “Ho ho, Barron Worthington Huntersmythe the Fourth, now that is so droll, I tell you, so very droll. Good one, Barron.” These people, they're so uptight.

People in the literary business value archness and distance as indicators of a humorous piece of writing. Nothing that is actually funny. “Wryly observed” is how they would describe their version of funny. The entire industry has decided that what's detached and ironic (their version of ironic) is “funny.” And as a result, we don't get to read anything that's actually funny anymore. We're stuck with this non-funny version of funny.

A “Humor” magazine called McSweeney’s Internet Tendency will publish things like this:

Example 1: Excerpt from “After A Thorough Battery Of Tests We Can Now Recommend “The Newspaper” As The Best E-Reader On The Market.” by John Flowers:

This is the very beginning of the story:

For the past three weeks our team of engineers has analyzed the most popular e-readers on the market in order to confer our annual “Editor's Choice” Award.

Devices were judged on a variety criteria [sic] to see how each functioned given a set of circumstances. The criteria themselves were weighted for the final score; individual and final grades were assigned on a curve.

Each device had its strengths. For some it was speed; for others it was capacity. Some were better with shorter articles; others with longer works. And cost, as always, was a factor. But in the end, one e-reader stood out.

The Newspaper.

CLICK TO READ MORE...It’s So Very Droll