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

8Nov/11

Who’s my Guinea Pig?

Guinea Pig

Earlier this year, Boston Review published this boring piece of MFA Story-styled fiction. I’d like to take you through this story bit by bit and point out some of the places where this story fails. And I promise you, I’m not looking high and low to find examples of stories that fall into one (or more) of those four categories. Pick up any magazine, flip to the fiction section and within the first few paragraphs (if the work contains paragraphs) you’ll be able to tell which of the four story types you’ve got on your hands.

Link to the full story: Guinea Pig by Charles Johnson, Boston Review January/February 2011

Here's how “Guinea Pig” starts:

I was a student at the University of Washington in Seattle, with a double major in Philosophy and English, those two broken and declining (if not already dead) fields in higher education.

There are major warning signs right from the beginning that we’re going to have an MFA Story ahead of us. Didn’t even have to finish the first paragraph, right? From the start we have an English major—no, wait, our guy is a double major—he’s got Philosophy too. And we have a college, so the story is most likely set on or around a college campus. Of course the featured university is the very same university where the author is a professor. I know this because I looked him up: “Charles Johnson is a National Book Award–winning author and Professor Emeritus of English at the University of Washington.” As in: Seattle, Washington. I wonder if Charles Johnson also majored in Philosophy.

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8Sep/11

Four Kinds Of Stories

booksThe crappy stories coming out today can basically be broken into a few key types, each with particular identifying characteristics. Stories might feature slightly different topics and subject matters, but once you start to analyze the fiction that's most eagerly pushed by those in power, you can easily assign one or more of the following labels to each story. (There can also be a fair amount of overlap, as you'll soon see.) As I expose some of the truly awful literature that’s out today, I'll use these categories to describe the stuff I'm picking apart.

Modern literature would be in a much healthier place if instead of being able to lump contemporary fiction into the above categories, we were unable to assign labels to the work we read. I’d much rather discover that a story is new, fresh, different, and defies categorization. But what I've found again and again is that everything that I read can be labeled with at least one of the above four categories.

At magazines big and small, editors are all looking for the same attributes for the work that they publish: Be boring. Be lifeless. Be humorless. And the result is that all of these stories are fundamentally the same. And the editors at the publishing houses are no better than editors at the magazines. They also stick to the established formula and publish things that are safe: “We published Safe Novel X last year. Safe Novel Y looks just like Safe Novel X so let’s publish that one too.”

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8Sep/11

MFA Stories

Most of the fiction out there today can be slotted into one of four categories, and in this examination of prominent story types, I’ll discuss what I call “MFA Stories.” The other types of stories are:

Please note that there can be a lot of overlap with these story types. An MFA Story can also be a Bauble Story, for example. But for starters, let's talk about the stories that fall into the MFA Story category. New Pages perfectly captures the description of an MFA Story in their review of stories they read in a new literary magazine. As described by New Pages, the stories in that new magazine were:

“Polished, refined, and serious.”

“Polished,” in Lit Biz terms, means something that is worked over, academic but not organic, with every comma in its place, and where every character has the vocabulary of an MFA grad. And in writing these stories, these MFA Story writers always choose the longest and least well-known words whenever possible—no matter that they frequently don’t understand the actual meaning of those words themselves. It’s like they're the kid trying to show-off in class, and they think that the use of such words makes a story “polished.”

“Refined,” in an MFA Story means: nothing indulgent, lacking in the quality of real life, everyone sitting in a room with the lights off and their clothes on. No outbursts please, emotions must be controlled!

And “Serious” means: humorless, and when there are attempts at humor, there will instead be irony (a Lit Biz person's definition of irony), or archness. They’re aiming for restrained guffaws, these people, not laughter.

Are you at the edge of your seat, craving the next “polished, refined, and serious” story in that magazine? No chance. I know; these stories sound awful because they are awful. But with the huge numbers of MFA programs churning out thousands of MFA grads annually, there are an awful lot of MFA Stories.

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8Sep/11

Gibberish Stories

Inkblot

Most of the fiction that’s published today can be categorized into one of four categories, and in this examination of prominent story types, I’ll look at the “Gibberish” type of story. Do keep in mind that there can be a fair amount of overlap between the story types. A Gibberish Story can also be a Crumb, for example. The other types of stories include:

There is an increasing trend among the Indie Lit crowd to write nothing but nonsense. A reader of these Gibberish Stories doesn't even need to pay attention to what's on the page to “get the idea” of what was written. Because in actuality, there’s nothing to get; a reader can make up the bits he might have skipped anyway, since anything goes and the actual words used in a Gibberish Story are unimportant. In the Gibberish Story, holes ooze teeth roadways and pimple scarlet booby traps of eyeball lighthouses.

The people in that Indie Lit scene try to get away with so-called-liking this Gibberish stuff because one doesn't have to understand or even read a word of it to talk about it with their friends. It's like interpreting an ink blot—nothing's wrong, per se. And it's all “art,” right? So everyone can have and discuss their opinions, they can argue the merits of one thing and the demerits of another thing they've read in a Gibberish Story. They can even “disagree” with their friends (there are few things scarier to a Lit Biz person than going out on a limb and slamming something that is counter to what all of their friends are promoting) and feel good about themselves for “taking a stand.” For the lazy and the conflict-averse, this Gibberish is perfect fodder for a literary discussion among hipsters. They don’t have to read anything, and they don’t have to make real arguments that might be counter to what their friends are saying because nobody’s wrong and nobody’s right. Everyone gets a gold star for participating, just like in nursery school.

But give this Gibberish stuff to any real person and they'll tell you that it's total crap. The security guard on the night watch at my office would get through the first sentence of a Gibberish story and quit right there. He'd tell me he'd rather pass his between-rounds time playing solitaire, thank you very much. Hell, I'd rather pass my time covered in crawly things.

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8Sep/11

Bauble Stories

Antique Jewelry BoxMost fiction published today can be quickly identified as one of four basic story types and in this post, I’ll look at what I call the “Bauble Story.” The other types of stories are listed here—but please remember—there can be a fair amount of overlap. An MFA Story can have a lot of Bauble Story elements, for example. The other story types are:

The Bauble Story is the stuff that is most easily identified by its close attention to surface details about delicate things—and most often, foodie-type things: detailed descriptions of culinary creations, baubles of an edible sort. Details about stemware and A-line dresses, three kinds of blue cheeses and carefully-folded lingerie. Pretty dainty pretty dainty things and nothing else, stories that are like a slow walk around Tiffany’s. Never you mind that an itemized list of delicate details offers nothing more than a glimpse of your grandmother's linen closet; the more delicate and boring the details, the better. A Bauble Story clasps its hankie-holding, lace-gloved hand to its just-modest-enough décolleté and sighs in relief: We've not gone too far. Our heart's gone a mite bit aflutter, but all's well after all.

The rich, emotionally terrified people who write these stories—and they don’t have to be women, or even feminine topics; masculine concepts (imagine detailed descriptions of the weathered surface of a leather messenger bag) are equally viable as subjects in a Bauble Story—are getting only so far themselves. And to protect their delicate sensibilities, these people have chosen to write about the safest, most boring things ever. And I'll ask again: why do they think we want to read this stuff? We're interested in literature that takes us somewhere new and gets our hearts pounding, not these careful observations of delicate pretty surfaces. It's very frustrating to see the same thing in venue after venue, even as those same venues purport to be new, edgy, and different.

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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

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)