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


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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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...

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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)