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

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.

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Here's a quick Bauble excerpt:

“The Bureau” by Roxana Robinson, published in the Spring/Summer 2010 H.O.W. Journal:

Finally I go to the bureau—it's now mine, I own it—and I open the top drawer. Immediately I'm hit by a dense unpleasant smell. It's the way Mother smelled when she was at that place. It's not the way she ever smelled during the rest of her life, which was fresh and clean, with some light flowery cologne-y scent. Her scarves, her sweaters, everything smelled of that.

That's in the first part of the story, but the entire story is full of careful descriptions of feminine objects found in a bureau. Here's another excerpt:

Two baskets full of costume jewelry: long gaudy plastic necklaces, and some of beads and knotted macramé, made by my sister. I have never seen my mother wear anything like this, except in the last years when she was living in that place, where other people dressed her.

A pair of thick-lensed glasses, colorless plastic with big clumsy rims. They are completely alien. She never wore glasses except very rarely, for driving. But she hasn't driven in years, and she has never owned a pair of glasses that looked like these. A pile of worn and faded scarves, all giving off that dense awful smell.

Three pairs of strange gloves, including one of kid leather, one of cotton. They look somehow medicinal, as though they are to be worn over something that was applied underneath them. Two cut-off gauntlets from the kid gloves.

Really, the entire story—what's left of it, it's not like it's a long story—is that way. Jewelry boxes, bags, scarves, barrettes, a complete catalog of old lady items. This careful list-making was akin to pushing the limits for this writer. This was Robinson working with extreme emotion, but to you or me, this was merely an inventory. This is not the kind of thing that I or anyone I know would want to read in their free time.

(Few things in life—if any—are as boring as a H.O.W. Journal story. What uptight, elitist, self-entitled, over-educated—but moronic—machine selects the shit they publish? If you want to entertain your friends by showing them how bad publishing can be, show them something from the H.O.W. Journal. Or, better yet, read it aloud. They will beg you to stop, but everyone will get a laugh out of it in that “are you fucking kidding me” way first.)

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A Bauble Story can also stretch out into novel length. The below excerpt is part of the description that Publisher's Weekly subscribes to the novel, The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake (Doubleday, 2010) by Aimee Bender:

...Bender has been called a fabulist, but emerges as more a spelunker of the human soul; carefully burrowing through her characters' layered disorders and abilities, Bender plumbs an emotionally crippled family with power and authenticity. Though Rose's gift can seem superfluous at times, and Bender's gustative insights don't have the sensual potency readers might crave, this coming-of-age story makes a bittersweet dish, brimming with a zesty, beguiling talent.

Publisher's Weekly recognizes that this prose is heavy on the description of all of the food-related items, and it's coming up short in terms of actual emotional impact. We want stories that get right in there, right where things get uncomfortably thrilling, or joyous or devastating. We don't want a detailed description of yet another armoire—all that surface stuff doesn't go any deeper than the surface, and that keeps readers at a distance—a huge problem. There's no emotion in the carefully crafted details that describe grandpa's favorite set of cufflinks. We're looking for substance, not surface details. What's more, we're looking for work that is beyond—far beyond—the specialty food items one finds in downtown gourmet shops. That snobby stuff doesn't matter to real people, but it's the most important thing in the world to these Bauble writers—and it's all they can handle.