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

8Sep/11

Guess Who (Part 2)

Guess Who?

Here's another installment of Guess Who? that's guaranteed to surprise and horrify you. Here we have an author who is near-universally praised among the literary set. “Real People” even know this author's name. This person is a prolific writer—in magazines and in book form too. It seems like a short story by this individual is coming out every week. Let's have a look at the first two paragraphs from a story that has appeared in a recent story collection, and that was also excerpted online:

“Excuse me?”
It was the third day of her new life. This life was diminished as in the aftermath of brain surgery executed with a meat cleaver yet she meant to do all that was required of her and to do it alone, and capably, and without complaint. (1)

You might think that I messed up something in that third sentence. “Oh, Rigged,” you're thinking to yourself. “You forgot some words in there somewhere. And clearly you've also left out some punctuation.” Alas, I left nothing out. This is how the story was printed in a story collection, and also in at least one print magazine. This so-called master of prose wrote the first two paragraphs of that story just as they appear above.

Here's another except. This is the very beginning of a different story from a different story collection:

You are the love of my life. Only you!

He was seventeen. He woke from sleep with the abruptness of a rifle shot. These past months his sleep had become a stupor, a torpor, a warm suffocating black muck that was his only solace. By day he was suffused with shame for his very name Smartt and for what was crudely whispered and scorned and laughed at that accrued to Smartt but by night he slipped from that identity like a young snake shedding its first crinkly skin, no longer Smartt but a no-name being of coarse appetites and raw emotions inhabited him, and this was his solace. (2)

In this unintelligible example we have a series of syntactical disasters and several lazy attempts at symbolism. This author thinks that it was clever to give the character the name “Smartt.” This is as subtle as naming a baker in a story, “Mr. Baker.” And if you're over the age of nine, you're too old to be using the “snake shedding its own skin” simile. And yes, this author thinks that they can get away with such lackluster language. Read this first part of this sentence again:

By day he was suffused with shame for his very name Smartt and for what was crudely whispered and scorned and laughed at that accrued to Smartt...

What, specifically, is accruing to this guy, Smartt? Is it the “name shame” or the “crudely whispered things?” The syntax has totally broken down and by the end of that last excerpted sentence, I am totally lost. Can I guess at what our writer is getting at here? Sure, I can guess. But shouldn't an esteemed writer be able to construct clear prose? Why should I have to guess?

There’s no excuse for shoddy copyediting, but one expects at least the first page of a story to get a careful read—and probably multiple reads—by the author and the editor who does the accepting of the story for publication. But not with this author. The emails I send to the Director at my company get more scrutiny than the published prose of this author. The above paragraphs (and parts of paragraphs) are all found on page one of their respective stories. And look at everything that got through and into publication—in magazines and also collected into story collections. An eighth-grade English class would tear apart those sentences with ease, because those kids can easily tell that those sentences are artless garbage, and full of grammar errors besides.

What do two these story excerpts have in common, besides being embarrassingly bad? They're both stories written by none other than...

Joyce Carol Oates

Joyce Carol Oates

Joyce Carol Oates. Surprised? She’s celebrated as a master writer, and yet nobody actually is taking a good look at what she’s producing.

She is getting published nearly continuously and her productivity is tricking Lit Biz people into thinking that she’s good. And nobody seems to be doing any editing of her work whatsoever. I'm convinced that she writes something, hits save, and then sends the story along for publication without ever giving it a second look. The various editors who publish her work don't give it so much as a glance—sure, they'll run it, who are they to turn down a Joyce Carol Oates story, much less question the quality of her prose—and there it goes. Stories run un-read, un-edited, full of punctuation problems, grammar problems, and sentence construction problems all right there for the reading. This is what modern publishing is trying to pass off as “great literature.”

What I see is someone who is very productive, but also very lacking in ability and effort too. Who's to say that someone who gets a lot of work published is necessarily good? I'll challenge editors and readers alike to read—really read—the next Joyce Carol Oates story they encounter and give it an honest appraisal. Be a student in that theoretical eighth-grade English class and really examine each thing you read. Look at each sentence, be critical. You know what's good.

Everyone except publishing business people can easily tell what's good and what's not. Trust your judgment even if it doesn't align with the judgment of fancy editors at fancy magazines. And trust me: you're right. You can tell what’s good and what’s bad, and the vast majority of what is produced by the modern publishing system is terrible.

  1. “Probate” from Fifty-Two Stories, 2010, and also appeared in Salmagundi, Winter 2011. Included in the collection entitled Sourland (Ecco, 2010).
  2. “Cutty Sark” taken from Salmagundi, Spring 2009, also included in the collection entitled Dear Husband (Ecco, 2009)
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