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

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.

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Example 1:

Steve Edwards “This Girl I Knew” (AGNI Online, 2011)

Glasses, bad bangs, patched blue jeans, creek-stained tennis shoes caked in mud, a father who sells vacuum cleaners, a mother skinny as a nun, a little brother with straw-colored hair and a scowling, confused look in the pews at church: this girl I knew. House at the edge of town, crumbling white stucco. Dog on a chain. Weeds. Wildcat Creek trickling brown and frothy over rocks out back, past an abandoned train trestle and the wreck of an old school bus left to rot. This girl I knew, in whatever room is hers, in that house with its dust-fogged attic windows, its after-dinner hours like onions soft in a pan. Her father sometimes comes for her, runs a hand through her hair. Her mother washes every last stick of silverware, every dish. The night sky presses down on their roof, a long black yawn spiked with stars, bleating crickets. The dog barks once, twice. Outside town, a motorcycle revs its engine: someone bearing down. Then nothing. Sleep. This girl I knew dreams whatever this girl I knew dreams. In the morning it’s back to school, desks, workbooks, an awkwardly held pencil in the cramped claw of a hand. The cigarette and rosewater scent of Ms. Thompson at the blackboard. The flat of Ms. Thompson’s chest, sunburned and freckled, where her sweater makes a V. You should be nice to her, my mother says about this girl I knew. I don’t want to be nice to her, I say to my mother. At recess this girl I knew walks around the playground, alone, talking to herself: elaborate conversations, hand gestures, hysterical laughing. On a dare from the other girls this girl I knew picks a dandelion, pops its head with her thumbnail, sucks the milky stem. I don’t want to be nice to her. Scabbed where she’s scratched them, mosquito bites on her ankles break and bleed. Fuzzy as a peach, the brown splotch of a birthmark on her arm. The way her glasses keep slipping down her nose. The way she pushes them up.

This is a typical example of a tiny little Crumb. At fewer than 400 words, it’s plenty short enough to qualify. Plus there is no story line at all and nothing actually happens in those fewer-than-400 words. “This Girl I Knew” is a series of brief observations and is as underdeveloped as they come. Nothing actually happens. Did you feel anything as you read through the above? Nope. Nothing to feel, nothing to move you, for nothing actually changes in the piece; nothing actually develops. Many of the sentences don’t even contain verbs. And it’s true that a narrative doesn’t need to be constructed out of perfectly formed or verb-rich sentences. But the sentence fragments in this bitty little Crumb are nothing more than sentence fragments without any story to hold them together. It’s “The cigarette” and “The brown splotch” and “The dog” and “The night sky” and of course, “This girl I knew” over and over again.

Would you like to read more “stories” like the above example? Would you like to read more of this story, if indeed there were more of it to read? Were you drawn in to this series of observations? Were you moved to care about anything that was observed in the above piece? Were you left changed, after having read the above? Of course not, on all counts—because anyway, what’s the point of such a story?

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Example 2: Adam Peterson, editor of The Cupboard chapbook series.

This guy put a bunch of his Crumbs together to make a book. Well, that’s not really accurate—it was a chapbook. (A chapbook is a limited-production book, usually fewer than 100 pages, and often made by hand, like on someone’s dining room table.) But who might go out and buy his book? His friends might. Might. And maybe some MFA-holders who happen to be enamored of the very short story format. Or aspiring writers who want to be published in The Cupboard and are trying to kiss Peterson’s ass. But beyond that, there’s nobody in the real world who wants to read a single page of this garbage, let alone a full book of these things. But let’s look at the Crumb that Peterson wrote that made it into a recent issue of American Short Fiction. This Crumb is over before the thing even gets started. Not that a Crumb ever does get started.

All You First-Timers with Deadbeat Dads” (American Short Fiction, August 2010)

The returners can tell you that camp is catnip to those bastards. Too perfect an opportunity for him not to pop back into your life, take you for a drunk backcountry cruise, and defend his absence away from the castrating gaze of you-know-who. When yours shows, you’ll offer a firm handshake and say, “Father, it is good to see you. I appreciate that you’ve driven some miles to visit me, your kin, to whom you wish to demonstrate your love. I cannot, however, accompany you to your truck for a harmless joyride, as each minute of my day at camp is accounted for, and I am under no circumstances permitted to leave camp boundaries at any time. Out of concern for your immediate safety, I plead you’ll depart expediently. Chef Grogg has no doubt been alerted to your presence, and he is one dumb deadly animal.” It’s a mouthful, so I had the speech printed up on little cards to keep on you at all times. Show of hands, who needs one? Come on, hands up. Nothing to be shy about. You all’ve got a leg up on the pussies from unbroken homes. While they mosey into adulthood expectant in their dumb grins, you’ll have already learned just how hard you can bite without drawing blood.

Where is the story here? Where is the plot? Alas, there is no story, and alas, no plot. There’s nothing at all to do with a story like this. In fact, this is not a story in any sense of the word as there is no narrative. The first sentence is a terrible metaphor too. My family had cats when I was a kid, and when cats go for catnip, they cannot be deterred from their pursuit of the catnip. There’s no “popping back in” for catnip, as though it were a casual pursuit. Once discovered, there’s continuous constant pursuit of that catnip; the cats are going to get to that nip and will not be deterred. For camp to “be catnip” to a deadbeat dad, camp is something that deadbeat wants as much as a cat wants catnip. But that’s not what the author is actually trying to say, is it? He’s trying to say that camp draws deadbeat dads for quick visits to camp. The author was trying to not use a cliché and instead of coming up with something original and thoughtful, Peterson used a metaphor that is confusing and inaccurate.

This “story” is also attempting to be funny—and fails. The overly formal language causes this piece to fall victim to the problem of most “humor” pieces written (and enjoyed) by the Lit Biz crowd. These people think that irony and “snarkiness” makes something funny. In the mind of the Lit Biz person, a child who (1) speaks with an adult’s vocabulary and who (2) has an affected way of talking is funny. And I’m not saying that a child can’t speak with a fully developed vocabulary or that a character in a story can’t have an affected way of talking and be funny, but that character had better have the context to show the humor that is present due to their unique manner of speaking. The context doesn't exist here, where all on its own, it’s supposed to be funny that this camp kid talks like an English major with a stick up his ass. The author also throws a shocking word into the mix (oh! pussies!) to show that he—and his character—can be daring. That word is completely out of place with the rest of the character and the author has thrown it into this piece to try to be cool. And that word “pussies” is pushing the limits of crass language to this guy, never mind that you could hear a Pop Warner football coach using calling his 14-year-olds “pussies” without drawing so much as a surprised glance from any of them. Peterson, on the other hand, is probably still blushing.

Peterson’s partner at The Cupboard, Dave Madden, is certainly offended by this “pussies” remark. In an interview conducted by HTMLGIANT, Madden makes the following confession:

Dave: If I get offended by manuscripts that aim solely to shock or disrupt it’s more in terms of my sensibilities than any kind of ethical-political offense. Like that stuff gives me the vapours. And it tends rarely to be genuinely shocking or disruptive.

Doesn't it sound like Madden is talking like the kind of thing that Peterson did—with the “pussies”—in the above story? And who on earth talks like that—stuff gives him the vapours?? Apparently Dave Madden, publishing giant (that was a little joke; Madden publishes very little), has the delicate constitution of a 94-year-old woman. From 1850. Don’t you love knowing that Dave Madden and guys like him are making decisions about what you get to read? Just because Madden and Peterson's influence is limited to The Cupboard doesn't make them any different from editors at large magazines. The editors at the bigger magazines have the same delicate constitutions and sensibilities as Dave Madden. Do you think that emotionally frail guys like Dave Madden can make good guesses as to what you’d like to read?

[For more examples of writing the Lit Biz people think is funny, click here.]

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Example 3: The ultimate Crumb representative: Lydia Davis

Lydia Davis is a writer who fully embraces the Crumb mentality. I don’t know how she managed to pull the wool over everyone’s eyes, but in the Lit Biz world, she is a superstar. But unless you’re part of the Lit Biz world yourself, or you’re someone who’s read some of the criticism at this site, you probably have no idea who she is, so let me enlighten you: Lydia Davis is a sham of a writer who is known as the Lit Biz-proclaimed master of the “short short” form. (A “short short” is a very short story, coming in under 1000 words.) Davis’ stories are actually usually far shorter than the maximum 1000 words, barely taking up a tenth of a page (even though each story gets its own page when published in a literary journal as though the stories are so sacred that no other words dare share the page with them), and are usually under fifty words. Yes, you read that right—fifty words.

[Read an extensive review of Lydia Davis and her work here.]

Here are a few quick examples of Lydia Davis' work; both are taken from NOON, 2011.

(And I’ll quickly point out that the first story in this issue of NOON is by none other than the senior editor of the magazine, Diane Williams. It’s nice when editors are able to publish themselves in their own magazines; really shows a commitment to finding new talent and exhibiting the best stuff out there, doesn’t it? At the same time that these editors are publishing themselves, they're appealing to their readers to “Please Send Us Money Because We're So Poor” because they're almost all short on funds and many are in danger of shutting down completely. What a disgustingly rigged business, publishing.)

“Master”

“You want to be a master,” he said. “Well, you’re not a master.”
That took me down a peg.
Seems I still have a lot to learn.

Yes, that was the whole story. All twenty-seven words of it. Why on earth does “Master” get to be called a story? It's underdeveloped, insubstantial and pointless. All of the Lydia Davis stories are like that, and she has five of them in the 2011 of NOON. Nuts, right? Don't I know it! Five, yes, five!! One of the others is about being a writer—that story’s called “Writing,” which is original, no?—but this one is even better:

“Learning Ancient History”

Are the Saracens The Ottomans?
No, the Saracens are the Moors.
The Ottomans are the Turks.

That’s the story, for real, I’m not making any of this up. We can try to laugh at it but really, it’s a terrible state of affairs when the above…things…are passed off as stories, and great stories at that. Great to Lit Biz people is awful to the rest of the world, but unfortunately it’s editors like Diane Williams who are making the decisions about what we, the regular readers, get to read. Do you want to read things like “Learning Ancient History” all day? Or even for another three minutes? I sure as hell don’t, and I know you don’t, either. Try sending one of these “stories” to your friends, and see what they think about the story's quality. Tell them what I've told you—that this stuff is deemed as “great” by the Literary world. And then ask them what they think about a person who “loves” stories like these. Or claims to love them anyway.

It’s no wonder that NOON includes so many Crumbs in its pages. Diane Williams, senior editor of NOON, writes in the form herself. Here’s a link to of one of her masterpieces:

The Duck”, Esquire, June 23, 2008

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This next guy is a Lydia Davis wannabe; this story is from that same 2011 issue of NOON:

“I Like Vaginas” by Brandon Hobson

He could draw vaginas better than anyone. The boy didn't fear the teachers. He drew people fucking.
“I like black,” the boy said. “Blonde and brown and old ones. I especially like the old vaginas and heads.”
“Get out,” the teacher said.  “Get out of this classroom.”
The substitute teacher was an old woman.
“I like vaginas,” the boy said.

(I’m so sorry to inflict this on you. I really am. But I want you to see some of the garbage that's out there, and I want you to see it verbatim so that you don't think I'm making this stuff up. And I’m so sad to say that there is so, so much more just like this, and it’s all equally awful.)

This Brandon Hobson thinks that he’s pushing the limits in his story, using the word “vaginas.” And he thinks he’s really pushing the limits by using “vaginas” multiple times. The repetition of the word “vaginas” is, to him, tantamount to lighting a match in a room full of explosives. He has taken a huge risk, using “vaginas” in his story, and in repeating it too. Note to would-be writers! Words that represent anatomy do not make for shocking story elements, not unless there’s actual context to that anatomical word.

Was that Hobson story satisfying? Was that a nice hearty read? After reading this blog post, and after they've recovered from all that vagina talk, a Lit Biz person would be patting themselves on the back and bragging to their friends that they’d read five whole literary stories already today. In the Lit Biz world, where extreme laziness runs rampant, that’s something to brag about. But seriously, how are these things getting past the gatekeepers? And why are these gatekeepers pushing these inconsequential fragments on us and pretending that what they’re pushing is great art?

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Were any of those things interesting? Were they engaging? Would you like to share them with your friends? Your co-workers? The woman you see at the dog park every Tuesday? These itty bitty bits are being passed off as complete stories by the Lit Biz people who think that they’re being “different” and “progressive” by promoting these underdeveloped wastes of time.

It’s not easy to write a story. Let's pretend that you were asked to write a story, something to be written down and then maybe later, read aloud to your friends. Naturally, you might start by looking into your past experiences for material. Pretend that’s not an option. Are you able to come up with something completely unrelated to your experience, with all of the details and logic that keeps a story intact? It’s hard, right? I can’t do it, and I don’t try to. But these people who end up writing these Crumbs, they’re trying to write something, and all they're capable of are these snippets of stories, these insignificant and underdeveloped story-less Crumbs. Because they don’t have any stories to tell, Crumb writers are trying to pretend that these Crumbs are worthy of being called “stories” so that they can justify their $100,000 MFA.