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

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.]

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