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


People I’ve never laid eyes on

Lorrie MooreLorrie Moore is a fiction writer who seems to publish a new short story in The New Yorker every few months. (That's the way it seems to me anyway; if anyone knows who published more, or more often, please message me on Twitter. I trust someone out there has the proper statistics.) As part of their 2011 end-of-year wrap up, The New Yorker asked Moore to write about her favorite books of 2011, and this is what she had to say:

This past year I read the novels, stories, and memoirs of friends, colleagues, students, and acquaintances with much admiration. These books were all absorbing and important works of literature—which goes without saying, or perhaps with saying, depending on the title. Of the books I read this year by people I’ve never laid eyes on, the most peculiar and brilliant may have been “The Tiger’s Wife,” by Téa Obreht.

There are several amazing things about this opening paragraph. But let's focus on the first of them. Isn't it astonishing that every single one of the books written by a friend of Lorrie Moore is an "important work of literature?" Lorrie Moore is saying that if you knew her, and you're a writer, you write important literature. All it took for the great Lorrie more to deem your work "important" was to have been a student of hers, or a friend, or a colleague, or an acquaintance. Books written by people she's "never laid eyes on" fall into a different, more suspicious, category.

Read that except again.

"All of my friends write historically important works of literature" is what Lorrie Moore has essentially said here. It's a given in the literary world that if you know someone else in the Lit Biz, they'll publicly "love" your work. And you're expected to "love" theirs. This goes beyond Facebook support, beyond a tweet or two, and beyond words of praise, shared with the author. This is giving your friends' book a glowing review. This is mentioning your friend in an interview, using your status to further your friends' status. This problem of believing that "your friends all write historically important literature" tightens the circle around the literary elite, into which friends are welcome and the rest are outsiders.

The other amazing thing is that Lorrie Moore happens—oh she just happens, does she?—to select a work that has been often named by the Lit Biz world as one of the finest of the year. No surprises here; The New Yorker even featured the author, Téa Obreht, as one of their "20 under 40" authors to watch. Lorrie Moore was reading from the playbook and acting out the same routine that we've come to expect from those in the Lit Biz world:

  • "Love" the work of her friends
  • Promote the safe work that has been pre-approved by the Lit Biz world

BASS 2011 Part 1: The Introductions

BASS 2011Best American Short Stories 2011 came out a few months ago and even though I’d read most of those stories already since BASS stories are typically pulled from a handful of magazines each year, notably The New Yorker and The Atlantic. In fact, out of the twenty stories in this year’s BASS, thirteen are from one of the following four magazines (The Atlantic only had one this year):

  • The New Yorker: 7 stories
  • Tin House: 2 stories
  • McSweeney's: 2 stories
  • Granta: 2 stories

It does seem a bit short-sighted to me that the people behind BASS are finding “The Best” stories in the same handful of magazines from year to year. There are hundreds of literary magazines available each month, each containing at least a few short stories. And really, should The New Yorker automatically captures a majority of “The Best” of them, each year, simply because they're The New Yorker?

CLICK TO READ MORE...BASS 2011 Part 1: The Introductions


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.



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)