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

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.

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So let’s break these stories down a bit. They’re beyond underdeveloped. They have no point. There is no plot, there are often no characters. They’re episodes, fragments, observations. What could be the reasons for writing such garbage? The author actually claims that these kinds of stories are harder to write than actual, you know, stories. Why? Is it because of all the obvious symbolism?

Let’s look at the last example and its “Track 3.” Could that be a reference to God, the Son and the Holy Ghost? How impressive, the author has used a train track number as a symbol. A lame, junior-high-level half-baked homework kind of symbol.

Let’s look at how these stories are positioned on the pages of the magazines they're published in. Each tiny story gets its own page, surrounded by an ocean of white, as though nothing else were worthy enough to share the same page with these things. And these same magazines constantly complain about their money problems. Maybe, I don't know, don't waste your precious pages on twenty-five word stories that each take up their own page?

Lydia Davis

Lydia Davis

So who is this celebrated author?

What you just read were eight “short shorts” by an author named Lydia Davis. A short short (also known as “sudden fiction,” “micro fiction,” and “flash fiction,” among other things) is a very short story, usually fewer than three hundred words, though a short short can be as long as a thousand words. I like to call them Crumbs.

[Read more about the stories I call Crumbs here.]

This author specializes in the form and all of her fiction is like the eight stories you just read. In fact much of her stuff is on the shortest end of short short fiction—known as “hint fiction,”—coming in under twenty-five words.

My god—what's the point of these things? Are we supposed to think these are good? Is this what the Lit Biz gatekeepers think is “good” these days? Why does this small group of decision-makers try to pass this stuff off as “good” to the rest of us? And why do these people consistently select the worst stuff for the highest esteem?

We can decide for ourselves what’s good, thank you very much. But the Lit Biz people are the ones making the decisions about what gets published, and that means that the real readers out there, the regular people, we’re the ones who get screwed.

Would you want to read an entire book of these...things? Lydia Davis not only has entire books of this stuff, she specializes in these kinds of stories. Think about your favorite story. Don't you keep a copy of that story around your home, so that you can return to it over and over again? Now think about these above stories. Would you want to read ten more of them? Would you want to read 100 more? Would you return to these stories, over and over, like you do with your favorite novel? Ask yourself the same questions about different authors: If you've read ten Shakespeare plays, can you do with ten more? After reading ten Dickens novels, can you do with ten more? It's a little different when we're talking about actual works of art, isn't it?

What would be the point of reading ten—a hundred—more Lydia Davis stories? The fact that these are celebrated as master works of art—among the literary crowd only, mind you—is crazy, right?

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Some other examples of hint fiction taken from the online magazine, Wigleaf:

“Her Luck” by Stephen Dunn

Later that night he felt he could sing the duet by himself.

“Broken” by Mercedes Yardley

The dried twigs cracking under her feet broke exactly like the small bones of children. She wished she didn't know that.

No, you're not missing anything. Editors are trying to pass these sentences off as complete stories. They’re not stories, though. They’re quick snippets of observations. Again note the mundane, generic titles of these stories. Note that these authors are attempting to copy Davis’ style. And note that the editors of Wigleaf have fallen for this “hint fiction” trend. They—and editors at loads of other magazines today—love this Crumb stuff. But would you be able to give any one of these stories to any real person and pass it off as entertainment, let alone a significant work of art? Of course not. The above stories are nothing more than trifles.

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Lydia Davis not only specializes in this format, she wins awards for doing the same tired thing over and over again. She’s won a MacArthur “Genius” Grant and her stuff is published by a big literary publisher, FSG.  Editors and ex-editors at FSG talk about her as a genius. Reviewers from the literary set lavish praises upon her stories and her writing. Rick Moody (a Lit Biz guy who is highly regarded in the publishing world; he is also the guy who wrote Garden State –the autobiographical novel upon which the tired hipster film was based) has even called her “the best prose stylist in America.” (9) I’ll bet you didn’t know that the best prose stylist in America wrote a story called “They Take Turns Using A Word They Like” that features two lines of dialogue in which nothing happens.

Where is the creativity in these stories? There is none. There’s also no authenticity, no emotional content, no humanity and nothing engaging in any of these stories. The literary world has been thoroughly duped by Lydia Davis, and they’re trying to pass her stuff off as art. What a goddamn racket.

Are you a master stylist if you do the same exact thing every time you sit down to write? Maybe instead of being the best prose stylist, what you are instead is writer who has created an endless series of lame gimmicks that pretentious, clueless, sheep-like people like to pretend is art. These people can read fifteen Lydia Davis stories in ten minutes, pat themselves on the back and say, “I read fifteen literary works of art today!” and remain lazy-ass clods at the same time. Because after all, after investing just ten minutes, a person can't tell if they've been duped. And the lazy person who feels proud of ten minutes of reading isn't putting in a lot of effort, and they're certainly not putting in the effort to be able to tell good work from bad.

Davis is also considered to be a funny writer by these people. Did any of her stories make you laugh? Something that is truly funny will almost always make you laugh—but these literary types have created their own version of what's funny. To them, irony (their version of it, anyway), archness, distance, and “snarkiness”—hipsters love that word—is considered funny. Not things that are actually grab-your-belly, laugh-later-when-you-recall-the-thing funny. Lit Biz people would describe their version of funny as something “so droll,” or they’d comment, “How wryly observed, ho ho hem hem.” They don’t know what funny actually is.

[For more about the literary world and their version of funny, click here.]

Do you think Lydia Davis sends in one story at a time for consideration for publication? Of course not. Her agent sends dozens of stories at a time—though really, how much work is it to write twenty Lydia Davis stories; she probably wrote them all that morning—and they are invariably published and at good magazines. Never mind that she’s an awful writer, Davis nevertheless seems to be able to publish her appallingly awful stories in all of these literary magazines—magazines like Fence and Granta and The Paris Review. Her stories are also collected in volumes and sold in book form.

Because most readers unfortunately trust the Lit Biz decision-makers to be making good decisions about what gets published and what doesn’t, people in the real world come away thinking that this stuff is the best of what’s out there—or that’s the risk, at least. Doesn’t it make sense that it’s the best stuff that gets the rave reviews, the awards, the fellowships, the grants, the magazine covers, the critical articles and so on? So a would-be reader might simply think that the fault lies with them in not “getting” this stuff, thinking well of it, or caring about it. “Well, I didn’t really go for that Lydia Davis, but I wasn't an English major and I guess publishers know better than I do.”

That’s the wrong thing to think, but the readers of the world can't be blamed for thinking it. Readers naturally believe that there is logic and sanity prevailing within the industry. A reader starts a book club and buys a book that is listed on several “Editor's Picks” lists. Their book club reads the book and when the book club members reconvene, they all come back with the same reaction: “That sucked.” Book club disbands and the next time one of those ex-book club members is looking for a way to spend their free time and money, they pick up a DVD instead of a book. Editors are simply the worst at recognizing quality. And because they're letting this garbage through, publishing is in the sorry state it’s in, and that’s why people are turning away from books more and more.

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Davis is celebrated in literary circles as a genius who pushes the boundaries of fiction. She is worshipped by MFA students across the country, and also regularly imitated by them because even though they'll tell you otherwise, Davis is easy to imitate. When you can just take down an observation about something and call it a story, you don't have to create believable and relatable characters, and you don't have to create plot. You can make your twenty-word observation and call it a story, just like Lydia Davis does. In fact, she’s spawned a set of imitators like Kim Chinquee, who published the below story called “Rib” in The Center for Fiction:

He and I, we used to be a cyclone. Now we're just two people, me walking his dog and cooking him surprises. He tells me I don't have to.  I'll do a load of laundry. Pull some weeds. Walk the dog in circles. Lunch.

I live states away. I’m almost on vacation.

He says the stir-fry is delish. I learned it from the guy who, twenty years before, used to be my husband. His divorce is new. Sometimes he calls me by her name. Sometimes I correct him. 

I learned lasagna from a runner who was last in all the races. Mussaka from the Greek guy who couldn’t keep his hands there. Pizza from a cook who burned on the stove. Tater tot casserole from my mother. He seems to like this.

Back then, when we met, he was a city boy, riding bulls in cities calling him a winner. I'd just moved from the farm. We were sixteen, seventeen, eighteen. Twenty, maybe then some.

We eat at his elephant table. It's high, and we have to sit on bar stools. He chews fast, focused on a movie about a man falling in love and then wronged.

He finishes before me, takes his plate into the kitchen. I put in my mouth a piece of my potato, broccoli, maybe a pea.

He has ten minutes to rest. I see his sunburned head. His body, how it's solid. I know he's not asleep. He is on the sofa, next to the dog, and soon I will be scraping.

I’ll ask you this: was that Kim Chinquee story any better than the Lydia Davis stories? Was it worse? Who can tell? (Quite aside from the copycat Lydia Davis formula, I will point out that Kim Chinquee attempts to make an “arty statement” with the word “delish” in the third paragraph. Let’s break this down: Who is the narrator of this story? Is the narrator a young teenage girl? No, she is a depicted as older, world-weary. Would this older, world-weary person use the word “delish” in this context? No. Instead of being artistic, this “delish” calls attention to itself; it’s jarring in the context of the story. It’s unnatural, it doesn’t fit the character, and this “delish” is simply different for different’s sake.)

It's a lot easier to imitate this kind of thing than it is to go out there and imitate Dickens and write a big ole novel. Here's the idea for a potential Davis imitator: grab your notebook and walk around town for an hour. Make some observations. “The man at the corner market, he doesn't know which loaf of bread to buy. He picks one, pays in cash, and walks north on Acorn Street.” Or how about: “The heavyset girl at the liquor store reached into the cooler for a six-pack of Budweiser, paused, put it back, and got a six-pack of Bud Light.” It's trivial to write a number of these kinds of “stories,” and neither writing them nor reading them requires any emotional investment.

None of these stories have absolutely any coherence themselves as actual stories, not any more than any random observation has. How much success do you think that you’d have if you did your walk around town, wrote a few of these things and sent them off to a magazine for publication? Never mind that you’d be submitting through the slush pile rather than directly to a decision-making editor, and therefore you’d be subject to rules that do not apply to Lydia Davis. Do you think you’d fare well with the editors at these magazines? Maybe you would, if you happened to get a reader who ran with the MFA crowd, and so long as said reader was a Davis fan/imitator. But I’d argue that no reader (and I'm not counting the out-of-touch lit crowd for whom short shorts are presently in vogue) who had the opportunity to read these stories as writing—without knowing the name at the top—would stop and say, “Yes sir! That there author is a genius! Oh boy oh boy, one masterpiece after another!”

It’s not that really short stuff can’t work, as anyone who has read Chekov would tell you. But most people know a talentless fraud when they see one. The popularity of Lydia Davis among the literary set exposes her followers as frauds themselves; a fraud and the frauds who follows her. And realize that as bad as Lydia Davis is, there are many celebrated writers who are just as bad. We've just gotten started on this site, so brace yourself. There’s more.

  1. Lydia Davis, “The Child” The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis (FSG, 2009)
  2. Lydia Davis, “Away from Home” The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis (FSG, 2009)
  3. Lydia Davis, “Information from the North Concerning the Ice:” The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis (FSG, 2009)
  4. Lydia Davis, “Spring Spleen” from Samuel Johnson Is Indignant (Picador, 2002)
  5. Lydia Davis, “They Take Turns Using A Word They Like” from Samuel Johnson Is Indignant (Picador, 2002)
  6. Lydia Davis, “The Churchyard” from Fence, Volume 13 No. 2
  7. Lydia Davis, “At the Bank” from Fence, Volume 13 No. 2
  8. Lydia Davis, “In the Train Station” from Fence, Volume 13 No. 2
  9. Blurb on jacket of The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis (FSG, 2009)