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.

CLICK TO READ MORE...Guess Who (Part 1)

8Sep/11

The Paris Review Loves Cronyism, Nepotism and Sex

The Paris Review The Paris Review is a literary magazine that holds a special place in the history of modern literature. For one thing, it’s one of the few literary journals that most regular people have heard of, and for another, it’s stocked in most bookstores—even those that have only a small selection of literary journals. There are actually hundreds of literary journals being published today, but most of them are unknown to readers at large because of their limited distribution; most literary journals have a very small circulation and are difficult to find at bookstore. Not The Paris Review, which can be found almost everywhere.

So The Paris Review is one of the better-known literary journals. That fact probably also has something to do with its long history. Founded in Paris by Harold L. Humes, Peter Matthiessen, and George Plimpton in 1953, The Paris Review began with a simple editorial mission:

“Dear reader,” William Styron wrote in a letter in the inaugural issue, “The Paris Review hopes to emphasize creative work—fiction and poetry—not to the exclusion of criticism, but with the aim in mind of merely removing criticism from the dominating place it holds in most literary magazines and putting it pretty much where it belongs, i.e., somewhere near the back of the book. I think The Paris Review should welcome these people into its pages: the good writers and good poets, the non-drumbeaters and non-axe-grinders. So long as they're good.”

With the above set-up, even if you’ve never picked up a copy of The Paris Review, you’d probably expect it to contain some good stuff. Given the above, the “good stuff” conclusion seems logical, right? The magazine has been around for a while. It’s well-known, you see it all of the bookstores, and you have this impression that it is well-respected. You might be surprised, then, to learn that TPR contains some of the lamest, least-relevant, laughably juvenile stuff being published today. And under their new editor-in-chief, Lorin Stein, the quality and reputation of TPR is plummeting at an ever-faster rate.

Much has already been written about what happened when Stein took over the magazine in 2009 and subsequently “un-accepted” several poems which had previously been accepted for publication. Pretty classy of Stein: “I'm the new boss around here. I know you've been counting on your work being published—but I don't like the editorial decisions made by my predecessor, so you’ll have to look for a new home for your work.”

It's damn rare to have something accepted only to have it un-accepted later. Daniel Nester at the website We Who Are About To Die wrote an eight-part series about what went down at The Paris Review and if you want to know more about what happened, Nester gets into all the details surrounding this un-acceptance debacle.

The un-acceptance thing was one of the first things that Stein did as the new editor-in-chief. Since that very questionable editorial decision, he’s been busy on a number of fronts, all designed to make The Paris Review magazine and website appeal to the most insecure, un-self-aware, sheep-like Lit Biz drones. He’s also spending a fair amount of time publishing his cronies and the kind of stuff that is only appealing to uptight people who think they’re finally getting in on what they missed out on in junior high school.

Stein has even turned The Paris Review blog into a relationship advice column. One of his favorite topics? Sex! (Oh my now, isn’t he so naughty?!)

CLICK TO READ MORE...The Paris Review Loves Cronyism, Nepotism and Sex

8Sep/11

Another perspective

Offering a different take is Paul Vidich, of The Millions, who makes the claim that there is only one problem related to the decline in consumption of the American short story: there are very few mainstream magazines that publish fiction. In other words, it's not the product, it's the delivery mechanism.

Publish or Perish: The Short Story.

An excerpt:

Is today’s short fiction not as good? Hardly. Why aren’t readers holding up their part of the bargain? The answer, let me suggest, is related to how readers are given the opportunity to read – distribution, in commercial terms.

This other guy, Karl Wenclas, takes a look at the modern literary landscape and sees many of the same problems that I see.

He discusses the lack of quality writing today, and I like the analysis he does of the endings of several stories that were anthologized in Best New American Voices from 2008, 2009, and 2010.

The Literary Story Examined.

In this next link, Wenclas makes the point that writers are writing for themselves, not the masses:

Hitting the Demographic.

Vidich's defense of the quality of today's short story is completely absent. He proposes that the quality of the stories is high, but does nothing to support his claims. Wenclas' empirical study of the endings of the stories in Best New American Voices makes for much more compelling evidence; the crappy quality of the work is right there in front of you, not masked by that arrogant, “Hardly.”

CLICK TO READ MORE...Another perspective

8Sep/11

It’s So Very Droll

The Literary business has a completely backwards idea of what makes something funny. Something truly funny is going to have you laughing out loud, regardless of where you are, or who you’re with, or what you were just doing. Something that is truly funny is going to compel you to react in an honest, heartfelt way, without ego, and without artifice. On the contrary, something classified as “funny” by a Lit Biz person is seen to the rest of us as arch, detached, and aloof. A Lit Biz person’s reaction to something that they think is funny would be along the lines of “Ho ho, Barron Worthington Huntersmythe the Fourth, now that is so droll, I tell you, so very droll. Good one, Barron.” These people, they're so uptight.

People in the literary business value archness and distance as indicators of a humorous piece of writing. Nothing that is actually funny. “Wryly observed” is how they would describe their version of funny. The entire industry has decided that what's detached and ironic (their version of ironic) is “funny.” And as a result, we don't get to read anything that's actually funny anymore. We're stuck with this non-funny version of funny.

A “Humor” magazine called McSweeney’s Internet Tendency will publish things like this:

Example 1: Excerpt from “After A Thorough Battery Of Tests We Can Now Recommend “The Newspaper” As The Best E-Reader On The Market.” by John Flowers:

This is the very beginning of the story:

For the past three weeks our team of engineers has analyzed the most popular e-readers on the market in order to confer our annual “Editor's Choice” Award.

Devices were judged on a variety criteria [sic] to see how each functioned given a set of circumstances. The criteria themselves were weighted for the final score; individual and final grades were assigned on a curve.

Each device had its strengths. For some it was speed; for others it was capacity. Some were better with shorter articles; others with longer works. And cost, as always, was a factor. But in the end, one e-reader stood out.

The Newspaper.

CLICK TO READ MORE...It’s So Very Droll

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...

CLICK TO READ MORE...Guess Who (Part 2)

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8Sep/11

HTMLGIANT loves HTMLGIANT

HTMLGIANTIf you've not yet had cause to visit the hipster ramblings over there at HTMLGIANT.com, 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.]

CLICK TO READ MORE...HTMLGIANT loves HTMLGIANT

8Sep/11

Lorin Stein, Mister Cronyism

Lorin Stein A recent blog post over at The Paris Review displays exactly the kind of cronyism that I've come to expect from the Editor in Chief, Lorin Stein.

In a different post, I noted that Anna Stein (Lorin's sister) was promoting her brother's magazine in an interview (she says that she's very much looking forward to the next issue of The Paris Review), without revealing to the interviewer that she was Lorin Stein's sister. Not very honorable of Ms. Stein, who is in the business herself—she's a literary agent. In early August, it was apparently Lorin's turn to return the favor, pushing a book on TPR blog-readers that was written by an author who is represented by Anna Stein's agency.

The blog poster asks the following question:

Are there any books coming out this fall that you’re particularly excited about? —Leo

An excerpt of Lorin Stein's answer appears below:

Lots—and the stack keeps growing. Two days ago, for example, my sister gave me the galleys of a first novel, Various Positions, by the young Canadian writer Martha Schabas, all about the sexual awakening of a ballerina.

It's an editor's right to like whatever he wants to like, but with such a visible position in the literary world, should Lorin Stein be doing advertising for his sister's client? Instead of doing favors for their family members and friends, editors like Lorin Stein have a greater responsibility to their reading public. Instead, he's functioning as free advertising for his sister's agency by noting a client's book in his blog.

(I'll also note that Stein again loves his faux sexual content. Everything, no matter how mundane or exciting, is made better in Stein's eyes by a dash of faux sexual content.)

Doesn't anyone in this business care to excuse themselves from praising—or outright promoting—works that might be tainted by the stain of cronyism? Does anyone in the publishing world have any sense of ethics or morals?

8Sep/11

Guess Who (Part 3)

Guess Who?This next writer is one whose name is not generally known to the reading public at large, but is fairly well-known within literary circles. This person founded a prominent literary magazine thirty years ago and continues to provide editorial oversight at that magazine today.

This person's work is dreadfully overworked and is crammed full of MFA-workshop writer tricks. You'll see indefinite articles dropped, you'll see forced metaphors, you'll see faux-drama, but you won't see anything that is actually interesting or impactful as a story in this person's writing.

This guy has published, co-authored and co-edited a whole bunch of books, and has won a heap of awards, including a Guggenheim Fellowship (200+ fellowships are granted annually, with and average award of approximately $40,000 for winners to spend as they see fit. Fellowships are meant to give winners the ability to spend time doing their creative thing, free from the pressures of their normal obligations. From Wikipedia: they are awarded to individuals “who have demonstrated exceptional capacity for productive scholarship or exceptional creative ability in the arts.”) and the O. Henry Prize, an award that’s given to a number of short stories each year.

Given this author's immersion in the literary world, and given the fact that others have seen fit to lavish praise upon his work, you’d want to believe that his stuff is pretty good, right? But it’s not. It’s terrible. (If you've spent some time at this site, you might have picked up on the fact that the stuff that wins awards and garners praise from the Lit Biz crowd is generally terrible.) He writes in the show-off self-conscious way of the MFA graduates that he teaches in classrooms and workshops. His stuff is overly showy and somehow at the same time, boring as hell.

From his website, the start of a story called “Gardener of Heart”: (1)

[Right from the title, this story is awkward. One wants this to read “Gardener of the Heart” not “Gardener of Heart.” When I think of a gardener, I think of someone who cultivates and harvests things, items, vegetables, crops, or flowers. The author is already showing off and trying to look like he’s more clever than I am, by making his gardener a person who gardens a character trait, not an object.]

CLICK TO READ MORE...Guess Who (Part 3)

8Sep/11

Meet Ms. Lily Hoang

Lily HoangLily Hoang is one of the HTMLGIANT regulars who is also a MFA grad who now teaches in the MFA program at New Mexico State University. These details in themselves are not very distinctive, as many MFA graduates go on to teach English at the college level because they can't get a job in the publishing business. They've got to do something with that degree, right?

[For more information about the kinds of cronyism practiced at HTMLGIANT, please read this post.]

But Lily Hoang is one kind of fraud who practices cronyism like it's nobody's business. Let's take a look at a few different facts about Ms. Hoang and then draw some conclusions based on what we just learned.

CLICK TO READ MORE...Meet Ms. Lily Hoang

26May/11

Coming Soon.

How Publishing Is Rigged: Content coming soon.

Filed under: The basics