Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Reading, Writing, and Dance Dance Revolution, pt. 1

You remember Dance Dance Revolution, right? I'm not sure how many people play it anymore, but when you live in New Mexico and you don't want to go to the gym, DDR is there for you. You can do it inside, which is important when the weather tops a hundred five degrees, and when you do it well the game gives you points. Gyms need to try this out, the points thing. When you play it in the workout mode, which is essentially a marathon run in the style of dance, you also see how many calories you've supposedly burned off. It's a score that rewards you for diminishing yourself.

The idea of Dance Dance Revolution, if you haven't played it or seen someone else play, or if you have seen it but you were too busy laughing to work out what was going on, is that there's a song playing, and you're dancing to it. There are some visualizations but you very quickly learn to ignore them -- those are mainly for the audience. What you watch is the stream of arrows flying up the screen. The arrows point left, down, up, and right -- in that order. When the arrow hits the top, when its outline matches with the outline waiting for it, you step on the corresponding arrow on your pad. (You can also use a controller, but only a real jerk would do that.) Sometimes two arrows travel up the screen together. Then you're in a situation where you've got to jump. Sometimes you have to hold an arrow down for a while.

In a good DDR song, the steps correspond to the rhythm, the style, and the content of the music. So you're usually hitting the steps in time with a foregrounded element of the song, sometimes the drums, sometimes the guitars, sometimes the vocals -- usually whatever's most interesting in that given moment. (Unlike Guitar Hero and derivatives, where you often seem to be in the least interesting place because A you are simulating actual musicianship, which is all repetition, and B you've got to share.) When the singer says something like "get up" or "jump" you're probably going to "get up" in some sense or, yes, jump, just as they say it. When the song sounds all slidey and smooth you'll probably slide smoothly over the mat.

The interesting thing about DDR is that you don't learn to play it the way you learn other games. You learn to read it. (Actually this makes you aware of how much you read other games; good designs like those of the original Mario and Zelda games can be said to be legible, while poor designs often feel decisively illegible.) It' a little like music notation except that you aren't generating the music, you're following it. It goes on with or without you -- sometimes punting you out the door, yes, but never in a way that suggests the music itself has ended, only that you won't get to listen to it anymore. The things you generate are 1) points, 2) the praise of your audience, if you've got one, and 3) a feeling in your body that mirrors the feeling of the music, or perhaps more accurately the feeling and the impulse that made the music in the first place.

If you're the sort of person who, when playing air guitar, pays as much attention to the long, slow arc of your hand between the chords as the strokes themselves, you know what I mean.

If you find yourself watching the guitarist's fret hand very closely on the television and imagining what you would have to feel inside about the world and yourself to twist your hand into a proper G chord, and slide your fingers (burning) down to make the next, then you know what I mean.

The people who write the arrows for DDR have gotten good enough at it so that they can often arrange the left-down-up-right arrow sequences in space and time such that when you hear the singer sing and hear the drums and so on you are hitting the pad in the right place in the right way so that you feel as if you know what made them make these sounds because you're feeling it too. Reading the arrows and then translating them through your body into dance gives your brain and your lungs a way to understand what you've read.

And while you're doing this there are a lot of decisions you make that have nothing to do with the arrows, decisions about how to wiggle your hips and your fists, how to move your head and shoulders. There are people who dance like penguins, stiff in the knees, swiveling their hips. There are people who throw their elbows around a lot. It depends on the song and the way it modulates whatever you came in with.

When it all goes right, there's usually a pattern like left right up, left right up, right up left, right up left, left right up, and then this is transposed some way as the song progresses onto the pad in other ways (down up left, down up left) and other patterns are introduced, and these match the song in such a way that you don't need to see them anymore to know what you're doing, or you need only briefly consult them, the way yiu owly nrrd tje foxst amd ldst lwttdrs of a wsfrd to recd it, and the shape. Sometimes you know the next step before you see the next step (though some part of you does see it, always) the way that sometimes you know how to finish a sentence, though it seems so unlikely, though you haven't read to the end (though some part of you has seen it, always). You never quite pay enough attention to see the arrows for themselves, once you know what you're doing, anymore than you really see most words once you've really learned to read. Instead you see the move you'll make, just as when you're reading you don't read the word chocolate so much as taste it, and feel the smoothness of it on your tongue, and the stickiness that stays after at the corners of your lips, in your mustache or the down.

Sometimes there will be a wrong step, one that ignores the best part of the song or chooses the wrong part of the rhythm, or one that puts you in the wrong place, and this feels like when you are reading and somebody chooses the wrong word or the wrong image, or it feels like a comma you don't want to read, or it feels like walking into the supermarket through the left-hand door when you've just been driving on the right-hand side of the road.

The song is like the world. It exists as the backdrop to the steps, or the words, or the art. The art does not happen in itself but in your body and in your understanding of your body, your felt sense of the thing inside you, and of the body of the one who programmed the steps (who also did the dance, first, who programmed it for his own pleasure) and of the bodies of the musicians, who made the music that made the programmer write the steps, who wrote the song, in other words, to please their own bodies, and you can feel how it felt to write the song and write the steps, and this enhances your feelings as you rehearse the steps.

Like the way that as you read more you learn to read the words and feel them in your body, and in your body feel the body that wrote them, and to feel the bodies of others who've read it, or will read it, or could read it, reading, humming along.

The way you sometimes find your tongue moving in your own mouth with someone else's words as you read them, or later -- your tongue being someone else's tongue.

The way that language is the richest way (perhaps other than music) to feel this way in your body, to feel the presence of another, the sheer depth and breadth of possibility, and the glow of the decisions made, like a worm's trail, a sort of absence, in the soil of word. Like the coyote's outline in the brick wall, describing the shape of what's passed through it.

You bend yourself to make that shape.

DDR's arrows are an unusually blunt way of telling you how to make a crude shape, to follow that body, another's.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Some fiction writers I love, some tropes I don't.

The difficult part of submitting to a new magazine, and of reading for one, is that nobody quite knows what's being looked for. You all don't know what we like to read yet (you haven't seen us put together an issue) and in some ways we're not entirely sure what we want yet (it's hard to say what a magazine's aesthetic will be until you've had to actually build an issue or two). And then there's the fact that we genuinely do want to be open to the material we've got no idea we want. But I think it'll be helpful for everyone if we offer some material we especially love so you can get an idea of the range of our interests, as well as noting a few things that do tend to turn us off.

My approach to poetry is perhaps idiosyncratic so I will leave that for another post, with the understanding that poets will likely be able to work out something about our tastes by reading the below post anyway.

Stuff I Love

China Miéville: Miéville is best at world creation, fantastic imagery, and weaving a political argument into his work in a genuinely interesting, engaging way. His language doesn't consistently amaze me in terms of sound and rhythm, but the thickness of it, and the way he uses a mixture of SF, fantasy and horror tropes and terminology can be really thrilling. He doesn't shy away from a fun adventure, a fantastic creature, or a rousing battle. Sheer creativity, imagination, power. Especially love The Scar, Iron Council, and The City & The City. Really looking forward to Kraken, which should be here very soon (thanks Ben!).

Kurt Vonnegut: This goes without saying, I think (though perhaps not so much for people my age, especially given the failure of many in the academy to push Vonnegut as they should) but Vonnegut has long been my favorite writer. My biggest regret with him in some ways is that I've already read most of his material and by all accounts his best; I'm saving what I can, and in some ways I hope to forget what I've read so I can do it all again. His sense of humor, his simple but beautiful language, and his ability to mix human empathy and feeling with brutal honesty are incredible. My favorites among his works are Breakfast of Champions, Bluebeard, and Mother Night. He, like Miéville, had a skill for addressing politics without being didactic or boring. His skill in character creation is severely under-estimated. He was supposed to speak at my school. He died that week instead. His family came and his son spoke. I nearly wept.

Samuel Beckett: This is another that should go without saying but perhaps does not. Of course Waiting for Godot is incredible, funny, bleak bare beautiful. Murphy is very funny and cruel. To be entirely honest, most of his work is less immediately enjoyable for me, but it's so purely itself, so uncompromising in its pursuit of its own ends, that my enjoyment becomes sort of irrelevant, and I marvel at the thing he's built. This is part of what we mean when we say we want to be surprised.

Franz Kafka: Do I really have to say this? Do I need to explain it?

Kelly Link: Kelly Link is incredible, a master of short fiction. Her restless invention, her fearlessness, her mixture of genres, her love for story for story's sake, her style of characterization, her utterly charming voice, her sharp sense of humor, her ability to mix horror and beauty and laughter, the sheer massive amounts of fun she clearly has writing, make her work completely irresistible. Kelly Link, if you read this, please send us something!

Shirley Jackson: This is one Tracy and I share. I'll leave it to her to explain her feelings, but I think Shirley Jackson is probably one of the single most underrated writers in American history. Yes, there's "The Lottery," which is very good, but sort of has a trick to it, right? You read it once and then you can never quite read it again. Her short stories are subtle, strange, frightening, mysterious, and lovely, human and inhuman in the best ways, prickly and weird, engaged with the problems of her time and place from an unexpected, unpredictable angle. If I could only pick one writer whose influence I want to see more strongly in our slush and in the world more generally, I think it would be her.

Tim O'Brien: The Things They Carried is widely recognized as a great novel in stories, but the sheer range and depth displayed therein is, if anything, under-appreciated. Any collection containing something as formally relentless and utterly itself as the titular story next to something as fearless, surreal, inventive and frightening as "Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong" is bound to be one of the best.

Thomas Pynchon: Don't feel like I can say anything about Pynchon that hasn't been said a hundred million times. He's great.

Helen DeWitt: I'll be teaching her The Last Samurai to my creative writing students this fall. DeWitt may be the best living writer by which to understand my aesthetics, because she is both endlessly inventive in formal terms (her manipulation of language and the page, her energetic narration) and devoted to powerful, emotionally resonant narrative (the stories of the various potential fathers and so on). Have you read this? You should read this.

Brian Evenson: Evenson looms tremendous in contemporary writing. His interest in genre, his wide range of styles and subjects, the horror he can evoke, his visceral language, his invention, his crystal clear aesthetic (even as his aesthetic mutates), and his citizenship within the community of writers and readers all inspire. The Subtle Knife is a good starting point.

Of course there are a lot of others as well, including a lot of less widely-known young new writers, but I've omitted most of them for a lot of different reasons you wouldn't care to know. Suffice it to say that I am very sympathetic to the aesthetics of journals like No Colony and Caketrain and so on, but I would like to read many other things as well.

The things my favorite writers share in common, I think, are fearlessness and invention. These are writers who write what they want to read, writers who create works that are utterly and totally themselves. They combine formal innovation with exciting story. And they're, you know, fun.

Tropes I tend not to enjoy

Manliness as the solution: If I'm supposed to leave a story thinking, "Ah, so the solution was being more of a man," or, "Wow, I didn't realize how great real men are," that is not a story I'm likely to go for. Half of English literature thus far reads this way to me and I could use other things in my life now.

Manliness as the means: Likewise, if your prose is calculated to be read in a very deep voice, possibly through a haze of cigar smoke and whiskey stench, this may not be your home. It's not that I'm opposed to masculinity (rather proud of my own) but that tired reiterations of MANLY MANLY MANLINESS are, well, tired.

Stories about drunk guys making fools of themselves: Especially southerners. This seems to be the favored joke of literary journals but I'm so incredibly tired of it I could puke.

Stories about the inscrutability of women: Or stories about the inscrutability of black people, or stories about the inscrutability of Asians, or etc. While perceived sexual and racial difference are still fertile ground for fiction, generally speaking I can't respect a protagonist who finds other human beings so totally baffling -- at least, not if I feel like the writer has the same problem.

Stories about painting houses: I guess teachers really do spend their summers this way fairly often, because sweet Christ have I read too many stories about dudes painting houses. I'm not categorically against this as a subject but it really feels like at this point we need to give this one a rest for a while.

Stories about the difficulty of coming home from war: Some of these are great. And I'm actually very sympathetic to war stories -- I write a lot about it myself, though usually from a less direct angle. The thing that gets me about these is that people tend to write this stuff more from a sense of obligation or opportunity ("people will think this is literary and smart!") and I usually feel blackmailed to respond emotionally, rather than a genuine response. If you really mean it, okay, cool, let's try it. But do you really mean it?

Stories about bad sex: There's a consensus out there that stories of bad sex are more "literary." And, yeah, awkward sex can make for great stories. But personally I'd rather have some fun and read something genuinely hot even in its awkwardness. I feel like I read a lot about rape. That's fine, but what if we publish one story featuring healthy sex for every story featuring sexual assault?

Stories about writers, especially if the writing itself is not central to the story: Oh God. Ugh.

Stories wherein a foreign language is rendered in italics: There's probably a whole post to do about this issue, but since the magazine I edit in my day job is called Puerto del Sol, I spend a lot of time reading stories composed 95% in English, with the other 5% being words any moron could understand from previous knowledge or context, rendered in italics. "Maria asked her abuelo for some tacos." That kind of shit. Foreign language in a story is great, but generally the first thing I'll do is strip the italics from it and see if it still works, because I likely won't publish something with italics if I can possibly help it. I also can't handle the condescension of stories that use other languages like a Super Friends token character. "This situation is muy bad, Super Friends! Hola!" This one drives Tracy crazy too.

But don't worry too much

You write your best work. We'll sort it out. That's our job.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

We've Got Submissions

Thanks, writers, for the submissions so far! Makes us feel like the real deal. Keep 'em coming!

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Why we exist

The literary world is dominated by fear and shame.

Not the whole world. Maybe not even the majority. It can be hard to tell. But studying creative writing formally for six years now has gradually brought Tracy and I to the perspective that fear and shame are far more powerful forces in writing than they should be. Uncanny Valley is the beginning of our attempt to change that.

It begins in high school, with the formal study of Great Books. Where do these books come from? School boards choose them. How do the school boards choose them? By surgically removing almost anything that's fun, interesting, weird, or remotely relevant to the kids reading them. They're being careful. They're watching their asses. These books teach kids that reading is a chore, that reading is for middle-class white kids, and that reading and writing are largely a thing of the past. Because they spend so much time being forced to read things they hate (not only in English class, but in their largely asinine textbooks as well) they're less likely to try out books of their own choosing in their own free time.

And should they want to read for pleasure in spite of all this, how can they find anything they like? Hardly anyone is talking about books as a way of finding pleasure and satisfaction in their lives -- if they're unusually lucky, they have friends and family who treat books as status symbols, the sort of people who "only read the classics" because it excuses them from the necessity of having thoughts or making choices beyond the decision to accept uncritically what everyone else is accepting uncritically, and because it means they have one more thing to brag about in a life full of trophies.

Come college, most people are excused from reading any literature what-so-ever if they don't want to do it. This is probably fine -- we are not about forcing reading on anyone. But what have English departments done to encourage students to spend their electives on literature? They teach the dread dead white dudes. They teach stale poetry and hideous prose. To be fair, they teach a lot of good stuff as well, and, in what is perhaps the ultimate embarrassment, college literature faculty across the country are teaching far more interesting and exciting texts by a far wider variety of authors than the majority of creative writing teachers, especially in the upper levels.

Shamed by the same trophy-hunters who read "only the classics" growing up, terrified of what would happen to their books and their favorites should students have the chance to see something else, faculty focus on the easy decisions, the obvious greats. I was taught King Lear at least three times before I had finished my degree. Tracy read it once in high school and two more times at the undergraduate level. Creative writing programs draw from a shrunken stable of obvious names and, if you're lucky, the occasional writer who isn't part of the club. These rare outsiders are treated like circus freaks: the question is rarely why they are great, but rather how they managed it in spite of themselves. Students are shamed, meanwhile, for all the things they haven't read, but should have: why not more Hemingway? Why not everything Alice Munro ever wrote? And so on. Reading for pleasure is not allowed -- or, if one does read for pleasure, it must be the right pleasure, approved in advance by the right people.

Escape the university into the world of contemporary writing and things actually get worse. Magazines and presses are fueled by guilt and self-loathing. As we've been documenting here for the last couple days, there are a thousand fears, anxieties and jealousies keeping writers and publishers alike from ever feeling real joy. If you write a story with a robot in it, congratulations: everything you do is garbage to the official literary community and all its institutions, which have been so arrogant and self-serving to define the word "literary" as referring both to a narrow set of guidelines concerning aesthetics, content, and structure and any good, worthwhile writing. That which is literary follows formula X, that which is literary is Good, all else is trash.

The fear and resentment this treatment engenders among those who write the "lower" genres can be ugly as well, of course.

Experimental and traditional writers eye each other suspiciously across the table.

If you submit to a magazine without subscribing for a year or two, get ready for a guilt trip, in spite of the facts that A) you've just offered to give your hard work to a magazine that needs it, usually for free and B) acceptance rates at quality publications make it impossible for any writer outside a fortunate few to follow this rule.

If you submit to a magazine with something unlike the material they usually publish, get ready for a guilt trip. Everyone has to mark their territory. No one can change or grow. If they aren't always publishing stories like yours, they'll never publish stories like yours.

If you study writing at an MFA program, here comes the guilt. You're part of a glut. There are too many writers! The unmitigated arrogance of it! If, on the other hand, you don't get an MFA? Well, that's not much better. Who do you think you are, going it alone? You think you've got it all figured out? Got nothing to learn from the masters?

If you don't buy enough books, if you don't buy them from the right people, if you don't also do whatever's been declared absolutely necessary in the past five minutes, get ready for a guilt trip. And if you have the gall to actually sit down and write a book? If you make something people enjoy and share with each other? If you find some modicum of success? Get ready for the guilt trip of your life.

It's not just novels. If you write long stories or poems or essays or whatever, almost nobody wants you anymore. Why? Because they're afraid people won't read long material online, in print, or next to other, shorter things. Because if you take up thirty pages, those are pages that can't be used to host other material, which means they can't be used to extend the table of contents, which means fewer writers will be shaming their families into buying copies. Or, well, honestly we don't know why. But we like long, weird stuff, and we want it to be published again.

Because we've gotten so tied up in our own fears and anxieties, literature today is perceived as being in decline, in mortal danger, even in its death throes. People are worried because they aren't sure there's going to be enough pie left for them when what's left gets divided. They lash out and hurt each other, devaluing everyone else's pitiful little stake, praying that if they can do enough damage there'll be a job or a book or a Virginia Quarterly Review slot hiding underneath the corpse. It's too much. People are stressing out way too much. People are hurting themselves and each other for no reason. They're forgetting to love writing, reading, and each other.

If anything is killing literature, this is it.

Uncanny Valley is here to live without shame, and to help you live without shame too. We are here to open the gates for readers who tuned out years ago because they knew they weren't wanted. We are here to publish great words, regardless of their genre, style, or tradition. We are here, in short, to rock your face. No guilt. No fear. Only writing. Only reading. Only the best.

Butter Your Own Bread

There's another thing that bugs me about journals earmarking writers as their primary sources of subscription: writers generally mean it when they say they can't afford something. It's important to listen to them if you're really thinking of them as your primary market.

After the Ted Genoways article hit, VQR's editors took to the blog to back him up, asking fiction writers, "Why don’t you subscribe to just one or two magazines? Is $50 too high a price for the future of literary fiction?"

First, multiply this request times five or ten or twenty; writers are not being asked to subscribe to just one or two magazines. They're being asked, one, to subscribe to VQR, which at $32/year eats up the better part of that $50, and two, to subscribe to a slew of magazines that would otherwise fail, that need them, a list that VQR rattles off like flavors of ramen: TriQuarterly, New England Review, Southern Review--and those that could have been saved, Ontario Review, Chelsea, DoubleTake, Grand Street, Other Voices, Partisan Review, Story. They follow this up with a guesstimate of just how many magazines could be saved by the intervention of writers' pocketbooks: "We dare say that half of the top fiction venues of the last decade—and indeed some of the great American fiction venues of all time—are in danger of folding or have already folded for lack of readership."

If only writers would subscribe to one or two. If only they'd subscribed to seven or ten. If only they'd shell out some cash to help out half of the top fiction venues of the last decade.

Writers are not obligated to support magazines so that their hopes of publishing may live on. I myself think VQR is a fine magazine to support. So is TriQuarterly, and I'm sure the others mentioned are too. But editors need to do some better math before they make these arguments. How much should each writer spend? Should all writers be spending at this price tier, or are there different levels for single moms in college and tenured writing professors? How much does this all add up to? Divide it out now--how many writers does each struggling magazine/small press get? How much money is there in a household? In the world? How much of a writer's personal or family budget should go to literary journals and how much to a new computer, to renting movies, to eating out? Which of these things is most frivolous?

Viewing a writer as a lone entity responsible for nothing but his or her own livelihood is a serious mistake. Read the comments for this entry at VQR. Or for the original post at Mother Jones. Writers are saying I'm sorry, but I can't pay an extra $50 for the sake of literature. They're saying I'm sorry, I make $12,000 a year and $5000 of that is tuition, but it's not that I don't like you. They're saying I'm sorry, I have a family and work for AmeriCorps for $10 an hour, but it's not that I don't like you. They're saying I'm sorry, it's not that I don't like you; I have the money, but I spend it on other literary journals I like better. Many writers are supporting literature by buying books, by buying anthologies, and by buying journals too--just not all the ones asking for money, and not through subscription. They are also, it should be noted, supporting literature by continuing to write and submit. Mike's said it all on the value of the slush below--writers are making the ground-level contribution toward ensuring that any quantity of good and great literature continues to exist. It is no one's responsibility to make sure that the same venues for that literature exist, now and forever. We have passion, and we have the Internet. Things will continue to get published and read.

Yet the comment threads are torn on these issues, too. More often than not it seems that those who see it the editors' way are skeptical that the writers who have it tough actually have it that tough:

To Travis, who listed the salaries and then said that if he were making $150K a year teaching fiction he wouldn’t care if anyone read his stuff — wow. That’s not exactly the point now, is it? First, let’s not begrudge someone for making a good living at something they’re good at. Secondly, “the point” is there are too many submissions and the readers have vanished. If you’re a writer, is $50 a year really too much to spend on literary magazines? We buy coffee daily at $5 a cup, or pay $50 a month for bad cable TV, or $20 for a round of beers on a Friday night ….. but we have a fit when someone suggests paying to read good writing?!?!?! My head is about to explode.


Genoways is right. The least we can do —- the very, very least —- is to support the lit journal community that all of us submit work to on a regular basis. If you think getting a piece of work accepted now is hard, just think how much harder it will be when all these journals shut down. Butter your own bread, folks. Or at least use that cable TV money to buy books and literary journals; you have a hundred TV channels to watch and nothing is ever on anyway. Invest in your future; read a lit journal instead.

It's rarely the case that writers are squandering their money in such easy ways. Mike and I don't pay for cable, have a strictly limited food and beverage budget, and we consider a trip to Starbucks a once-a-year, clip-a-coupon date. Most writers I know don't pay for these things either, or they sacrifice two for the one, and more often than not the only purchase they truly allow themselves is a modest amount of books. It's the one purchase that seems to alleviate the near-constant sense of fiscal panic and self-denial that struggling writers feel. Especially given that books and journals are still comparatively very cheap. $10 for a Indiana Review or a NoColony or a Keyhole or aPuerto del Sol is a great deal. $14 for a VQR or $17 for a Tin House is also a great deal.

It's simply wrong to say that writers aren't reading. They aren't subscribing--not like they used to. And it's not because they're lazy, or selfish, or stingy, but because there's a finite amount of money and a ever-growing amount of choice. Such a circumstance demands spending money conservatively. For my money, the subscription model is outdated and makes sense only if you really like the publication, if it's really earned your trust, and if it shows itself relentlessly committed to keeping the same standards of quality and innovation. Otherwise, I say buy the individual issues that market themselves best to what you want to read. Many magazines make this way too difficult; concerned as they are with the mantra of subscription, they bury their links and pricing information for single issues. When I was looking for single issue prices for the list of mags above, half of them made it very easy and half of them made it unreasonably hard. Why would publishers place less emphasis on their individual issues than their general operation? Individual issues have better potential to attract readers. For instance, Mike and I bought the Fantastic Women issue of Tin House a few months back. It is an incredible issue; I'd recommend it to anybody, but I'm there for those writers; I wouldn't necessarily take it as an indication that I should subscribe to the whole magazine. However, that single issue bought the entire operation some trust from me, and next time I'm looking for a specific something, I'm more likely to go there first. It's no mark against Tin House; a magazine doesn't owe me an issue that makes my jaw drop every time. But I reserve the right, in this economy, to make smart decisions and to only pay for what I can't live without. I'm a writer, and a reader, so there's a lot that fits that category. Might as well spread the wealth around.

As a final confession, and to be perhaps more open about where I'm coming from, I had a subscription to The New Yorker for one year. I papered my apartment walls with the covers, and I have never renewed.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Reasons People Think Fiction is Dead

It is not new to argue that fiction, or literature in general, is dying, but it does seem to be an especially popular argument of late. There's Ted Genoways crying the murder of university publishing, there's Lee Siegel lamenting the lack of pushback from antsy revolutionaries, there's Garrison Keillor apologizing to us for the gatekeeperless new world we find ourselves publishing in. Despite their different takes on our impending cultural doom, it's clear that they're all worried about some pretty similar things. Foremost among them is that writers who want to publish aren't publishing in the same ways; they aren't adhering to some of the same systems and etiquettes. And one of the most entrenched etiquettes in the publishing world is to subscribe to those magazines you want to submit to. This is supposed to serve a pragmatic function--how do you decide where to submit if you haven't read enough to see where your work might fit--but more pressing for the heralds of the apocalypse is the aspect of tradition. The idea is that literary magazines provide the service of publishing writers; thus, writers should support the magazines that support them.

The idea isn't bad on its face, but it is short-sighted. It places the onus on writers, submitters in particular, to provide the capital for their own mechanism of getting read. Not writers in general--people who enjoy the craft, but may not write or like the kind of writing that gets published in Magazine X--and not other kinds of readers, readers who perhaps don't have anything invested personally in the publication but would like to support others' writing. At the heart of the worry, then, that writers aren't reading the journals they submit to is a misconception that the writing population for literary journals and the reading population for those journals is a perfect or near-perfect overlap.

The day when this held true, though, was not one in which writers were simply big-hearted enough to buy up all the literary reading. Instead, the group of people who were reading was largely the same as the group of people who were writing. T.S. Eliot, a father of the modern literary magazine, did not come to writing by the grace of a Muse or sheer farmboy gumption, but by having access to poetry throughout his time in the academy, at Harvard, at the Sorbonne, and at Oxford. Access to literacy and institutions of higher learning was the primary pathway toward any involvement in the arts; a child who never went past fifth grade, eighth grade, even twelfth grade was significantly less likely to encounter the kind of poetry that Eliot and his contemporaries would have had access to. I don't suggest that those fearing the end of literature are actually longing for the days when access to literacy was limited to the privileged classes. I'd just argue that their fears stem from a narrow scope of literary history and the role of the literary magazine within that history. I have to wonder if the perceptions of a cataclysm on the horizon is based partly on a span of literary history that is characterized by, first, increased educational access and second, burgeoning recognition for American literature in the 1950s and 1960s.

Not only did public access to higher education become more widespread post-World War II, but more people than ever could afford it, and would have been more likely than non-collegians to keep up the literary reading habits afterward (in fact, they still are, though those numbers are dropping--see the NEA study below). I would suggest that even now, the idea of being a professional writer seldom really develops before college--there are generally few examples for kids to look to in and around their schools for professionals in the literary arts, whereas in college you'll find lit professors (not catch-all "English teachers"), visiting writers series, creative writing teachers, perhaps MFA programs or artists-in-residence. Simply having access to people who spend the bulk of their time reading, writing, and publishing can put the idea of being a literary professional in your head. Writers who grew up in the days in which such positions were being added and cultivated within the university may have a skewed perception of the novelty, the specialness and academic/cultural desirability of writers. Where once were few, there are now many. Seen with a short view, this might seem to indicate that the field has spread too far (hence the bellyaching about too many MFA programs, too many MFAs). Coupled with new ways to publish, the literary world seems suddenly unwieldy, overpopulated, less special. One way of remaining special is to enforce the old methods and the old transactions. Money for opportunity, whether it's opportunity to learn or opportunity to publish--a time-honored formula, to be sure, and one that provided a way of stabilizing the pool of writers.

Another historical marker that can help explain the fear of literary death is the fact that American literature was largely ignored as a subject of academic and critical study until after World War I, when departments started adding it to the college curriculum. Writers coming of age in such a climate and in the years afterward, when American literature came to be considered a necessary part of any decent English department, may have the attitude that American literature was thriving and now is not, seeing as it was at the pinnacle of its public and academic recognition. Moreover, since this recognition at the academic level was primarily upheld by university support of and public donations to literary magazines, these writers are more likely to see literary magazines as centerpieces of a literary culture. In reality, the literary magazine as a persistent, rather than a transient, source of culture was only the state of things for 30, 40 years--literary magazines in their more-or-less current form have only been around for a century or so, and most lasted no more than three years. Most frustrating for me is when these fearmongers lament the loss of writers the likes of Hawthorne, Whitman, Melville should the literary journals and other traditional gatekeepers fail or be forced to change. The literary systems that undergirded most of the canonized American authors were immensely different from the journal system we know now. Those authors came to us by other means, under other circumstances, and there's nothing to say that our writing will suffer now that the circumstances have changed.

It's not that there is nothing for publishers to worry about. People are reading less, it's true. The NEA has compiled stats indicating that readership is dropping across the board, across age levels, and within households. This is, in many ways, hardly anything to be surprised about. More of a household's entertainment budget is going toward TV, Internet, movies, and so forth; coupled with a recession, this means less money for books. The more pressing part, and the problem the Chicken Littles might better focus on when they beg for more readers, is why people are reading literature less for pleasure across the board, and how literary magazines can revive that pleasure again.

Fiction lives!

Enjoyed this Carolyn Kellogg takedown of Lee Siegel's insipid declaration of fiction's death.

More on slush and the future of publishing

Was surprised and gratified to find, by way of a tweet from Submishmash, a new article at Salon about slush. Laura Miller's argument is disappointing, however, not only because it is slush-negative (this is a little like being sex-negative) but because it traffics in ideas about writing, reading and publication as stale and unpersuasive as those it criticizes. First, let's look at the bits about slush:
You've either experienced slush or you haven't, and the difference is not trivial. People who have never had the job of reading through the heaps of unsolicited manuscripts sent to anyone even remotely connected with publishing typically have no inkling of two awful facts: 1) just how much slush is out there, and 2) how really, really, really, really terrible the vast majority of it is. Civilians who kvetch about the bad writing of Dan Brown, Stephenie Meyer or any other hugely popular but critically disdained novelist can talk as much trash as they want about the supposedly low standards of traditional publishing. They haven't seen the vast majority of what didn't get published -- and believe me, if you have, it's enough to make your blood run cold, thinking about that stuff being introduced into the general population.

Everybody acknowledges that there have to be a few gems out in the slush pile -- one manuscript in 10,000, say -- buried under all the dreck. The problem lies in finding it. A diamond encased in a mountain of solid granite may be truly valuable, but at a certain point the cost of extracting it exceeds the value of the jewel. With slush, the cost is not only financial (many publishers can no longer afford to assign junior editors to read unsolicited manuscripts) but also -- as is less often admitted -- emotional and even moral.

It seriously messes with your head to read slush. Being bombarded with inept prose, shoddy ideas, incoherent grammar, boring plots and insubstantial characters -- not to mention ton after metric ton of clichés -- for hours on end induces a state of existential despair that's almost impossible to communicate to anyone who hasn't been there themselves: Call it slush fatigue. You walk in the door pledging your soul to literature, and you walk out with a crazed glint in your eyes, thinking that the Hitler Youth guy who said, "Whenever I hear the word 'culture,' I reach for my revolver" might have had a point after all. Recovery is possible, but it'll take a while (apply liberal doses of F. Scott Fitzgerald). In the meantime, instead of picking up every new manuscript with an open mind and a tiny nibbling hope, you learn to expect the worst. Because almost every time, the worst is exactly what you'll get.
The snobbishness here is normal among those editors who read slush, and I find that very sad. As I conceded in my last post, most people will not like most of the slush. And, let's be honest, writing a book is hard -- most people will never do it, and among those who do the ability to write a good one is extraordinarily rare. However, one cannot know in advance if one has the necessary talent and skill; one can only write the book. And, having written the book, having poured in months and years, the author is faced with two problems: First, people are notoriously bad at evaluating their own work. It's a well-established fact that the better you are at something, the more you see your work's flaws -- and, conversely, the worse you are, the more you think your prose sings. (Of course, there is also probably a level of competence at which one can evaluate one's own work accurately. And good luck finding it.) Second, as anyone who's written a book knows, the act simply isn't consummated until someone has read it, and probably not until it's been sent out to a publisher or agent or two.

Under these circumstances, bitterness at the slush isn't only cruel, it's a product of selfishness and arrogance. It may be that Miller isn't as good a writer or a reader as she imagines. (Certainly I'm not impressed by her prose in this article -- it strikes me as repetitive, joyless, and trite.) It may also be that any emotionally mature adult going into publishing should go in with the understanding that it will mean reading things one doesn't like. If we were all Salingers and Becketts the world would be a lovely place, but it would also rather obviate people like Miller. Existing in our world means constantly witnessing mediocrity and failure, and it also requires the understanding that mediocrity and failure are not objective facts, but conclusions we make about the books we read -- conclusions that often differ from person to person. While any one major publisher can indeed probably only take one out of ten thousand novels or story collections or whatever from its slush (well, ten thousand sounds like a lot, but I'll take her word) you have to go in with the knowledge that some of the things you reject will be found, loved, and bought by other people. This should have a humbling effect. It should remind us that we aren't reading shit when we read slush -- we're reading someone's best effort. You don't have to like it, but you do have to take a moment now and then to recognize that you, a flawed human being, are in no way above the slush pile.

You are the slush pile. Perhaps it's the recognition of this fact, especially among those who would have been authors could they have gotten past their fears and insecurities, that makes the slush so reviled.

The main argument of the article is that a world without gatekeepers -- a world of self-publishing -- will be even worse for readers than this one, in part because they'll be exposed to (GASP!) the slush. The following paragraph is the nadir of this arc:
Did I mention that there are a whole lot of these books? Bowker, a company that tracks industry statistics, calculated that, in 2009 alone, new titles published outside of "traditional publishing and classification definitions" numbered 764,448. Yes, you read that right: upward of three-quarters of a million books in a single year. Not all of those books were intended for a general readership, but if, say, two-thirds of them were, you could just barely manage to read the first page of every single one of them in the course of year -- provided you also gave up eating, sleeping and bathing. (I calculate about one page per minute; your mileage may, of course, vary.) And this is the situation even in the days before we've come close to hitting the crest of the new, technology-driven self-publishing boom.
While tech utopians need to get a grip -- it's likely that the future will feature a wider array of publishing opportunities and strategies, but deeply unlikely that gatekeepers will disappear or even change too significantly in how they do business -- Miller is exhibiting an equally bizarre perspective. What could possibly have made her imagine anyone trying to do something so inane as to actually read everything published in a given year? This impulse only makes sense if you have a very silly view of reading. If you think there are X worthwhile books a year, and that they exist so that we can (and by "we" I mean the few thousand elites who can afford such a lifestyle) read them and talk about them over wine, then yes, a comprehensive understanding of what's being published must not only seem possible, but necessary. The rest of us generally live content in the knowledge that there are whole worlds beyond our knowledge, and that literature is richer for them, even if we cannot personally master them. (In fact, especially because we cannot master them.)

In a world where self-publishing is common, things will go on much as they did before: only our spouses and close friends will read our novels, our mothers will pretend to, and our grandparents will be proud (in a very abstract way) we made the effort. The average reader will not contend with the slush or anything like it. Those who choose to do so, however, should be humbled by the vastness of human endeavor, rather than snidely clucking and thumbing their noses at those who had the gall to try and make something beautiful before the grave. If they haven't got the energy, the humility, or the empathetic capacity to manage such things, they should probably keep it to themselves.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010


It seems like literary magazine editors spend most of their time online whining about the trials and pains of managing a slush pile. The complaints usually come in a form something like this: 1) There are too many submissions. 2) The submissions are largely inappropriate to the magazine -- the writers haven't done their homework. 3) There are far more submitters than there are subscribers; why don't writers support literature if they want to be published?

For bonus points, complain about how MFAs are creating too many writers, most of which are not "real writers," or haven't got any life experience, or just generally exist as tumors on the ass of the world, not deserving of the editor's precious time. (This argument is most often made by overpaid university journal editors and, ironically, MFAs who have never been published.)

I'll address some of those arguments in detail later, but for now I want to focus on an alternative way of looking at the slush. For me, it's been the best part of getting an MFA.

My vision of the MFA was perhaps unrealistic. I imagined coming to a place where people wrote all the time, and where they shared that writing in and out of class. I thought I would be suffused with the writing of others. In practice, you read two short stories by other students every week, you write about those stories, and then there are two more. It's a good time. It's a good way to learn. But it's hardly immersion. You also read major works by major authors. This is time-consuming and educational, but by definition it can't offer the thing I wanted most: prolonged immersion in what's being written now. Your fellow MFA students may constitute a sort of cross-section of English writing if you're lucky, but it's going to have some gaps. The same goes for any assigned readings offered by your professors.

The best way -- perhaps the only way, apart from reading a wide swath of lit mags -- to achieve the kind of immersion I wanted was in reading slush, in my case for Puerto del Sol, where I currently serve as managing editor. Before I read the slush, I was deeply ignorant. I often felt I was the only writer who did what I did. I felt as if only a narrow spectrum of the possibilities of fiction was represented in literary journals. I felt isolated from the community of writers.

Reading slush showed me a fuller range of writers than I could see by any other means. I have extremely high standards, and so most of the stories I read in the slush don't turn me on. But that's okay; it's a fact of life that most art doesn't work for most people. This is one of the things that confuses me so much about editors who resent their slush. If a story doesn't work for them, it seems like their first thought is, "How could a writer possibly send me such bad, sloppy work? They must not have done their homework! They must not have revised enough!" The funny part is that most magazines are brimming over with stories I can't stand. Some of that is a result of a genuine tendency in the "reviews" especially to reward mediocrity, but fundamentally it comes to a difference in taste. It seems to suggest that the question is less about writers not doing their work and editors not opening themselves to the possibilities of writing. Nobody should publish work they don't feel passionately about, but the anger many editors feel when they don't love a story in the slush is bewildering; of course you won't like most of the stories you read in the slush. Why should this be a cause for anger?

Most people only get to read the stories that were published -- the stories that were successful in attracting an editor's sympathies, the stories that fit a particular niche in a developing magazine. If you're reading slush, you get to read so much work that very few people see. It's not all successful. It's not all brilliant. But to really understand what's happening in writing today, you have to see the failures as well as the successes -- failures, in terms of publishing and not-publishing, actually constitute the majority of written words. Ignoring that rich body of work is something writers can scarcely afford to do.

The slush pile contains the widest variety of literary strategies, styles, and structures I've ever seen. It was through the Puerto slush pile that I found writers like Blake Butler, Matt Bell, Sharon Yablon, and, well, hundreds of others. It was through that slush pile that I found writers from India, writers from South America, writers from Europe. It's been an incredible experience, and it's helped me to understand the possibilities for my own writing and publishing more generally in a way I couldn't have imagined otherwise. I feel like I need it as a writer, or at least I need the experience I've had with it so far.

As an editor, the slush pile is essential to my work. The more stories that come to the slush, the more opportunities I have to discover incredible words, incredible writers. Solicitation and active curating are important to any literary magazine, but they're also limiting: in a very real way, they limit the magazine to the writers and writing that I can imagine within its pages. The slush pile is something beyond my imagination. It's not limited by my abilities, but by the generosity and imaginative powers of a community of writers.

And every well-intentioned submission is a compliment. People seem to forget this, but it's true. Each and every one is a gift.

Which is a long way of saying, I hope you'll submit to us soon.

Way down in the hole

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