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



HTMLGIANTIf you've not yet had cause to visit the hipster ramblings over there at, I'd like to apologize for again bringing something miserable into your life. When I think of hipster writers doing their worst upon an undeserving world, I think of the garbage that spills out of HTMLGIANT. I don't want to give these guys and girls any more attention that they deserve, which is less than zero attention, really, but let's have a quick run-down of one particular brand of cronyism that is evident in their (virtual) pages.

First, HTMLGIANT is a blog, not a magazine. Contributor Roxane Gay even counts each blog post as a separate “accomplishment” in her yearly round-up of accomplishments. It's not like anyone is approving these posts for publication; contributors do basically whatever they want to do.

I wrote 130 posts for HTMLGIANT and sometimes ruffled feathers though that was not my intent.

That's like me tallying up agendas I've written for my projects at work and presenting the final number to my boss at review time. 50 agendas for Project A and 24 for Project B. Tallying up your blog posts–that's more than a little silly, right? It's a blog, folks. Sure, HuffingtonPost is also a blog, but last I heard, AOL wasn't queuing up to buy HTMLGIANT for any reason, and certainly not because of its cultural impact or potential profitability. Also, it's pathetic that Roxane Gay feels the need to apologize for ruffling feathers. Again, it's a blog. Inciting dialogue is kind of the point, right? Not for Roxane Gay, who is desperate for everyone to love her, and who makes a point to kiss asses whenever she can. She is such a faker too, and if you read enough HTMLGIANT, you'll see what a nasty person she can be when someone challengers her, and even more so when a challenger has a well-thought-out argument to back up their statements.

[I'll get into more of the absurd personalities at HTMLGIANT in a future post.]

Many of the folks over there at HTMLGIANT have been through the MFA System. In fact, a great many of them remain active participants in the system. Unable to find real jobs in publishing, many have resorted to being assistant-professors at various universities. And dig this, they're putting each other's work into their syllabi. That's right; the unsuccessful writers are promoting each other's work as “required reading” for their captive Creative Writing charges.

Let's have a look to see which great artists are being taught by one Christopher Higgs in LIT 2020:

LIT 2020 – The Short Story Challenging Conventions: 20th-21st Century Experimental Short Stories

Gertrude Stein – “Composition as Explanation”
Susan Sontag – “Against Interpretation”
Ben Marcus – “Why Experimental Literature Threatens to Destory Publishing…”
R.M. Berry, Lance Olsen, Brian Evenson, Susan Steinberg, Michael Joyce – “The Question of Writing Now: FC2 responds to Ben Marcus”
Anne Carson – The Beauty of the Husband
Blake Butler – Scorch Atlas
Russell Edson – The Tunnel
Renee Gladman – Juice
Thalia Field – Point and Line

I'm no regular “experimental” reader, but even I recognize a bunch of those names. But look at that name that's fourth from the bottom of the list: Blake Butler. I need look no further. He's the main guy behind HMTLGIANT and he writes some of the most stereotypical Gibberish stuff you've ever seen. A sample, taken from Viceland (January 6, 2010):

When it came time to destroy the child, the skin around my nipples blackened. My lungs defected in their swelling patterns, my sternum hardened, groin in crumbs. I could not not hiccup in the hour. I wore the light around my neck in wreaths. The second house was now translucent. I would not be deceived. My upper lip stung raw where I’d shaved it seven times rehearsing. I counted layers with my hips, denting the wall. Seven days in seven minutes. I heard the front door down the hall, its latch still stuck still with my best blood cells, but giving inches—the time had come indeed. Through the window sealed with my saliva, I could see where the father and his doppelganger had hulked the monolith already to the yard, its worn white sides prismatic, erupting in the rhythm of my name, the name I heard the soft mouths together saying softly into the stunned crack of the door, also sealed. I had given all I could. I would not be divided. In the house alone the child was mine.

Read the rest at Vice Magazine: NY TYRANT: BLAKE BUTLER - Viceland Today

[Read more about Gibberish work here.]

[Read more about Blake Butler and his Gibberish work in an upcoming post.]

Awful, right? Did that make any sense at all? What was the point? Blake Butler just jams words together and puts them into sentences. And then he jams sentences together and puts them into paragraphs. He starts out with this blacked nipple imagery and then continues with this nonsense about a groin being in crumbs. What the hell is that supposed to mean? And is one supposed to be able to hiccup in the hour? What is that supposed to mean? He throws in these names of random fluids and body parts: lungs, sternum, groin, neck, lip, hips, blood cells, saliva, mouths. When he can't think of anything to say, Blake Butler resorts to body parts and bodily fluids. Who actually wants to read this stuff? Hipsters at HTMLGIANT pretend that they do, because suffering through a Blake Butler story feels like a literary accomplishment to them, and they think that their commitment to trudge through that nonsense makes them elite readers, better than you or me, and more committed to literature.

The same guy, Higgs, decided to teach the work of perennial HTMLGIANT favorite, Tao Lin, in a recent summer course. Let me give you an example of some Tao Lin prose, taken from an excerpt of his book, Eeeee Eee Eeee (Melville House, 2007):

Sometimes dolphins knew other dolphins—cousins, uncles—that had died, and they said, “It is sad they died but there is nothing to do except be nice to anyone still alive.” But they themselves had not been nice. They had killed Elijah Wood, Kate Braverman, and Philip Roth—people like that. They had made promises and forgotten. One dolphin had become friends with a man with Down syndrome and the man had written the dolphin a letter and the dolphin had not responded. Another dolphin had made promises to meet a person—had promised, and promised again, a third time—and had not kept them, and it had hurt the person. And so they said, “I need to be nicer from now on,” and went home.

If someone had given you that excerpt without any context, you'd assume it had been written by a child. The language is so simplistic and the topics, while supposedly deep (death, broken promises, personal resolutions), are expressed in such a juvenile way. You'd peg this author as nine years old. Ten, maybe. But a fully grown adult wrote this stuff, and several fully grown adults had to agree that it was worthy of publication. (Although Tao Lin's publisher later stated that he published the writer, not the book. Meaning: he bought into the gimmick of Tao Lin, signed him up for a few books, and then was stuck publishing his garbage.) And now Tao Lin's HTMLGIANT crony is teaching this book to his undergraduate students.

Here's an excerpt from Higgs' notes on teaching Eeeee Eee Eeee:

In fact, make case in class for reading every character in the book as the same character, because for all intents and purposes there is no difference between Andrew and Ellen, between Ellen and her mother Jan, between the bears and the president, between the dolphins and Andrew’s boss Matt. They all speak the same way and have the same thoughts. They are all depressed and sad and angsty. (Look at the exchange between Ellen and her mother pgs. 145-155)

Is it a surprise to anyone that all of the characters in Eeeee Eee Eeee are exactly the same character? What exactly qualifies this book, above any other book, to be on the syllabus for Higgs' summer class? What kind of irresponsible teacher cares more about kissing Tao Lin's ass than he does about the education of students who are paying for the privilege of being in his class?

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What if mom and dad knew what they were funding when they sent their little ones away to MFA school? The teachers are promoting the works of their friends to students who (a) have no choice but to purchase and read the assigned works and (b) will likely fall into a trap of thinking that This Is Actually Good Writing. The propagation of the idea that this HTMLGIANT crony writing is Good Writing perpetuates one of the vicious cycles inherent in the MFA system:

  • Students are taught that the bad stuff is good.
  • Students are taught how to write the bad stuff.
  • Students graduate, go out and maybe get editor-type positions at various literary magazines.
  • Ex-students are on the lookout for stories to publish that is like what they've been taught, a.k.a. the bad stuff.
  • The bad stuff gets selected for publication.
  • The students and ex-students are the only ones who like what gets published, and regular readers are alienated.
  • (The ex-students leave their editor posts because they can't sustain themselves financially and end up back in school or working in a totally non-publishing field.)

Who wins in the end? Nobody. What a scam, these cronies who promote each other's work by way of forcing their students to buy and read their friends' books.