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Current Issue: Winter 2013
Featuring work by Jennifer Atkinson, Michelle Boisseau, Jonathan Fink, Seth Fried, John Fulton, Jane Gillette, Andrew Mulvania, Nick Neely, Sarah T. Schwab, Kristine Somerville, Daniel Talbott, Alexander Teague and Hal Walling.
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I’ve always read novels because as a child that was what I found in the library. Well, when I first started they were slightly shorter children’s novels but novels nonetheless. Short stories for me were dull things I had to study in English class, chosen not so much for their entertainment value but their convenience of teaching literary techniques to teenagers alongside the even less appreciated classical poetry. Yet I had an epiphany about two years ago: a short story is actually more than just the sum of its metaphors and alliteration; it’s a story as entertaining as any novel.
Okay so this may not be the greatest revelation to most people reading this blog post, or even to me really; I have always loved stories in all their forms and shouldn’t have been put off by the shorter ones. I’m certainly not the only one who found studying some of the greatest works of literature in school to be one of the biggest tortures a 14 year old could endure because if you tell someone what is good and why they should think it’s good a lot of people are going to do the opposite. The only way I came to love most literature was when I thought I had found it for myself and the same happened with short stories. I started reading everything Neil Gaiman has ever written a few years ago — his novels, his graphic novels and eventually made it to his short stories. Reading his Conan-Doyle-esque short story ‘A Study in Emerald’ at the height of my addiction to the BBC’s Sherlock certainly helped me see that great stores can be succinct. It really shouldn’t be a shock that I enjoyed them as much I had his other work. So from there, I tried other authors I had enjoyed, like Diana Wynne Jones, before trying some authors new to me like George Saunders and the rest of the short story elite, and still liked it, I got the same usual joy of reading but without the dead arms from carrying a 400-page book. Since, I have voluntarily taken a creative writing class centered on short stories and now read about 20 a week (fiction and non-fiction) as an intern at The Missouri Review; I guess I’m converted.
I’m coming to value the short story more as my life fills up with more places I have to be and people I have to see. It takes me three times as long to read a book as it used to, and it’s only when I am on vacation that I make any headway through my “To Read” list. The convenience of being able to fully embrace a story from start to end in one commuter trip, no more forgetting what happened the last time you had a moment to read or never quite making it to the end, would make anyone happy, (except maybe bookmark manufacturers!)
I see short stories as a new way to get my literature fix but they’re unlikely to replace my novel addiction entirely. I may be a little late to the party of short stories but it seems the terrors of taught literature do fade in time so I guess there’s hope even for classical poetry in my life.
Last week, I gave my class Chad Harbach’s essay “MFA vs. NYC,” which I sent to them from the N+1 website. The essay has a few updated numbers and locations where writers teach, but for the most part, it’s the same essay that went up on Salon months ago and made a nice bit of buzz. Since Harbach’s essay first appeared online, N+1 has produced an essay collection about writing programs and writers living in New York, a book that includes pieces by Alexander Chee, George Saundres, Elif Bautman, and Diana Wagman.
Harbach’s essay is an excellent primer on the current dichotomy in literary fiction. One can disagree with the premise: it isn’t perfect. In the introduction to the book, Harbach writes “this rubric of two cultures, I think, makes for useful descriptions of material, social, and intellectual life for young and youngish American writers. It also, like any useful rubric, leaves stuff out.” I completely agree. So, for a class made up primarily of undergraduates seeking to go into the overlapping worlds of writing, editing, and publishing, this is a terrific essay.
The class correctly picked up on this essay being about money. How to make a living as a writer in these two cultures, what the financial expectations and pitfalls will be, and so forth. Our discussion on this was good, but there were two other tangents that came up that surprised me.
First, several students were aggravated that this was an essay about commerce, and argued that Harbach should have written about something else. What somethings? One student thought this essay should focus less on money and more about what goes into making the art that is distinct to these cultures. Another student that there should be more of a focus on sexism and gender bias and LBGT issues. Many were put off about the association of literature with money in the first place.
While the issues raised are certainly important, they aren’t the focus, nor should they be, of Harbach’s essay. The purpose of the essay is classification, explanation, and definition of a dichotomy that is a helpful guide. It shouldn’t have to be about anything else. It’s like evaluating a Merchant Ivory film under the rubric of action movies: of course, you’ll be disappointed things don’t blow up in slow motion or the cop doesn’t kill six hundred villains. It’s not that kind of flick.
The second issue is about MFA programs.
Every semester, there are at least a handful of interns who are unfamiliar with MFA programs. I usually walk through what the basics of a graduate writing program are like, and I touched on it briefly in class last week. Last year, one student’s mind was completely blown (no, really: he was pretty frazzled, which was a bit endearing) by the whole concept of these programs and writing workshops and all that.
My take on MFA programs was one of caution. I said that they are not academically rigorous. I said that the culture of teaching/writing is ingrained in the programs; I went into my program not knowing anything about associate professors and tenure and all that and, by the end of my third year, I was adjuncting in St. Louis. I said there are significant pitfalls to where programs leave you, which is often up the creek without a paddle when it comes to professional development and, yes, your writing.
One of my students disagreed, and insisted that MFA programs are quite a bit of hard work. MFA programs, this student continued, meant so much for a life of writing, for creating art, and for gaining valuable experience teaching composition. And it was said with quite a bit of heat.
What I actually said was that MFA programs aren’t academically rigorous, which is true, and has nothing to do with how much effort or work an emerging writer puts into the degree. How much effort one points into the MFA degree is, frankly, wholly irrelevant. Unless one is completely lazy, it’s pretty difficult to fail out of a MFA program. Getting in is, by far, the hardest step toward a MFA degree. It is a self-directed program, really, as it creates “time to write” or “time to focus on craft” or something like that, all of which is a good thing. Just recognize it for what it is.
The university shift to a part-time, underpaid, under-appreciated, marginalized work force–or “adjuncts”–is a topic for another day. But if this photo doesn’t give you an idea of what that life is like, take a few moments to Google the issues that have been raised on all your social media platforms and websites like the Chronicle of Higher Education. In fact, many writers are already aware of this but hope to be one of the lucky ones. Emerging writers go into graduate writing programs, get sucked into the teaching life, and then find themselves adjunct teaching, with dozens of students (if not over a hundred students), no administrative support, no benefits, an inconsistent paycheck, and no time to write.
It is reasonable to ask why we encourage anyone to do this. At the very least, we should caution emerging writers, in no uncertain terms, of what they are getting into by pursuing a MFA degree. And I write this as a person with a MFA degree, fully aware of how very very very lucky I have been with my career.
Hindsight is 20/20 and all that, but I don’t regret getting a MFA, and I would encourage a serious emerging writer to do the same. I would also encourage a serious emerging writer to never pay for the degree (like I mistakenly did), to know or at least deeply consider whether or not a doctorate program is in the plans, and to be aware of the issues of wage inequality in higher education. Writing programs are implicitly encouraging a career path of indentured servitude, and in good conscience, I don’t see how we can continue to hoodwink students with this “time to write” nonsense when the writing program culture encourages professionalized poverty. A graduate writing degree is the beginning, not the end, of a writer’s education. And maybe the first of the beginning lessons is to treat that culture with suspicion.
Follow Michael on Twitter: @mpnye
So, you’re picking up one of your favorite literary figures (poetry or prose, living or dead) from the airport before taking them to dinner and conducting an interview. You’re a huge fan and you’re super excited about the assignment, but also a bit nervous. Relax. The main thing you need to be concerned with is having a kickass playlist going on the tape deck when you roll up to the terminal and I’m here to help. I offer no guarantees, but with some deductive reasoning, digital crate digging, and intuition I think we can manage something that leaves everyone comfortable, happy, and bobbing their heads.
Below is a 12 track set that I think should get you from the airport and back again with some stops in between. You can play it in sequence, but it will work on mix-mode as well (this might even be better). The important thing is to have it already playing when you pick them up and to not discuss it at all unless they bring it up first. Basically, play it cool and act like you’ve been there before. I can in no way guarantee that they’ll actually dig this, but I have my hopes. Worst case scenario, just have NPR locked in as station preset 1 in case things get desperate. Best of luck!
Your passenger this week is novelist, essayist, playwright, & civil rights icon James Baldwin. Supremely talented and uncompromising throughout his long career, he relentlessly excavated the experience of being a black American and a gay American, alienated in his home country, but totally of it. He was and is essential.
1. Soul II Soul – Back To Life (However Do You Want Me) [A cappella / Ft Caron Wheeler]
The lush a cappella harmony going on in the first part of this song would hypnotize by itself. But it’s even better knowing that that thick & basic beat is going to drop at about two and a half minutes in and take this track to the next level. It doesn’t matter if you’re only making a quick run down to the gas station to grab milk, wherever you’re driving to while blasting this will feel mysterious and important. Particularly well used in the opening minutes of 1998’s Belly.
2. Wish & Fonda Rae – Touch Me
A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge is so laden with homoerotic subtext that a 1st time viewer could reasonably mistake it for a movie about a confused teen grappling with his unacknowledged urges that justhappens to feature a burn-scarred, dream-stalking, demon with a razor glove hanging out in the background. One of the more festive scenes shows the main character Jesse cleaning his room to this minor freestyle/R&B gem and damn if the tune doesn’t get stuck in your head. It’s great for unpacking boxes, vacuuming, forgetting rush hour traffic woes.
3. Yacht - Le Goudron
At 24, suffocated by the prejudices attendant to being a gay black man in America James Baldwin left for France. He’d live there on and off for the rest of his life (referring to himself as a “Trans-Atlantic Commuter”) and it was there that it was able to pause, breathe, and explore himself beyond the “negro” label forced upon him in his country of birth. All that’s to say that at least one francophone track is essential for this playlist and I can’t think of a better one than the unbounded energy and joy of this Yacht rework of an avante-garde Brigitte Fontaine track. I don’t care how bad your day’s been, it’s impossible to not crack a smile and move to this one.
4. James Brown – There Was A Time
I very rarely hear the final ten seconds of this song because I’m almost always using that time to cue it back to the beginning for yet another consecutive listen, it’s just that good. Recorded live at the Apollo, this one has it all. A driving/infectious rhythm, a supercharged passion & playfulness in Brown’s vocals (the call and response with the audience is a particular delight), the crowd screams coming in throughout… It’ll be real hard to avoid getting pulled over for speeding while listening to this, but I’m fairly confident you’ll feel better about that ticket if you just play it again.
5. Sylvester - I Need Somebody To Love Tonight
Slinky. I don’t know if I’ve ever used that word as an adjective in either print or conversation but damn if it isn’t the thing to describe this tune. A perfect collaboration between two of the best & brightest in late 70s/early 80s dance music (Sylvester & Patrick Cowley) this is a relatively quiet slow burner about nothing more complex than needing someone to be close to, if only for an evening. Sylvester’s vocals come off like a fallen angel with a smirk on his face but dead-serious eyes, and the low-end synth stabs Cowley inserts toward the end of the track add a dark edge to the airy melody. A late night cruising jam if there ever was one.
6. Muddy Waters – Mannish Boy
Baldwin wrote that the effect of the sensual in his beloved blues music was “to respect and rejoice in the force of life, of life itself, and to be present in all that one does, from the effort of loving to the breaking of bread.” Lord help you if you can’t feel that force surging through this song. As an all-time blues standard it’s an easy pick, but it also appears on the soundtrack to Ghosts of Mississippi, the 1996 movie that dramatized the efforts to bring justice for the murder of Civil Rights leader Medgar Evers, the man to whose memory Baldwin dedicated his playBlues For Mister Charlie.
7. David Axelrod – Loved Boy [Lou Rawls, Vocals]
Sometimes vocals just cut you and sometimes, like here, they slowly drag you over a bed of nails. It was David Axelrod’s loss of his own son that led him to write this song. I don’t know where Lou Rawls had to go in order to sing it like he does here, but I’d believe it if you told me he’d lost his own flesh and blood. The trumpet wails that pierce the tune throughout only twists the knife.
8. Willie Wright – Right On For the Darkness
Making up the blues / Holding back schools / Lot of greed, lot of temptation / Proof of one thing, we’re a hell of a nation. Among the many qualities that made Baldwin such an indispensable writer was his dedication to looking at the America promised in our laws, our patriotic songs, and our history books through the cracked and filthy lens that millions of Americans had to view it through each day. Never with hyperbole, but always with honesty, rage, and deep deep pain Baldwin dug into himself to bring to the surface the crushing experience of being a second class citizen in country you’re drilled to believe is a land of freedom and opportunity. Not much comes close to his writing on the subject, but this track (a Curtis Mayfield cover) might carry you to some of the same places.
9. Nicolas Jaar – With Just One Glance (Scout Larue, Vocals)
Sometimes you just have to roll the dice on a song and maybe your passenger will be suspicious of your musical taste forever after and maybe they’ll thank you for enriching their lives. I’m placing my faith in the vocals of Bruce Willis’ daughter and I’m weirdly OK with that. Beautiful track.
10. P.M. Dawn – Paper Doll
I know. You don’t want to admit it. None of us ever does. But it’s a basic law of the universe that we will each experience at least one night spent sitting in a dark room, burning incense, and sifting through photos of our exes on Facebook while listening to P.M. Dawn. It’s best to just try and embrace it. Given that you’d punch a hipster in the face if they ever tried to pull off lyrics even resembling P.M. Dawn’s at an acoustic open mic, it’s totally remarkable that the group had such enormous (if brief) success in the early 90s. That said, their stuff still holds up and continues to be a staple on sad bastard chill-out playlists to this day. Peerless.
11. Miles Davis – Diner au Motel
Without having prepared anything beforehand Davis and his band recorded the score to the 1958 French noir film Elevator to the Gallows over the course of 2 days as scenes from it were projected on the studio walls. As far as crime movie soundtracks recorded by popular artists go, this probably wasn’t surpassed until Curtis Mayfield did Super Fly in 1972. This is the liveliest cut on the album and perfect little driving pick-me-up, it doesn’t hurt that Baldwin and Davis were close friends.
12. Nas – Life’s a Bitch
More ink has gone to Nas’ debut album than maybe any other release in rap history (with even more press recently due to its 20th anniversary). It’s all deserved of course, but it’s also pretty comprehensive, so I’ll just say that on a personal level this song makes it easier to accept the inevitability of death. Perfect production. Classic lyricism. And those coronet wails at the end from Nas’ father…heartbreakers.
Welcome to our many-part series where we chat with Working Writers who have not had success in the traditional sense. No major awards, no books in print, maybe only a few or no publications, but are still writing. Our goal is to give voice to a wide range of writers, to learn from their experiences, and to open a discussion about living the craft. If you fit the description and want to be involved, please send an email to us at TMRWorkingWritersSeries@gmail.com
Today’s Working Writer is Adam Love.
Tell us a little bit about yourself.
I’m from Salt Lake City, Utah. I went to school in Southern California, where my studies were engrossed into three categories: psychology, poetry, and surfing. I moved back to SLC after graduating and tried to figure out what the hell I was going to do with my life. I worked as a child therapist and a tutor for five years, while I decided to pursue the low-residency MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. I worked with many great professors, including Mary Ruefle and Sue William Silverman. I fell in love with the work of Frank Stanford and wrote my critical thesis on his work and how it relates to certain theories in the field of developmental psychology.
After I graduated, I ended up landing a job at Westminster College — initially just for assisting students in a new, distance learning program. After my boss discovered I was a writer, she hired me on as an adjunct writing professor to strictly help out our Bachelor of Business and Master’s of Business Administration students in terms of APA style writing. I’ve been doing this for about two years at this point. It’s a pretty good gig. In my other time I’m writing and reading, trying to find new writers whose work is moving. I read through journals (online and print) on the daily, find new places to submit poems and manuscripts.
Before working at the college, I remember having a difficult conversation with my father who wanted me to “find a real job.”
I wanted to say that I already had one — I just didn’t get paid for it. Artists, musicians, poets. I think we’d all want to make a living doing what we do best: creating.
It’s like we live a double life: we the professionals; we the writers.
Why did you start writing? What do you write?
It’s kind of a funny answer. As a teenager, I fell in love with the comfort I found in my favorite band’s lyrics. I was a huge fan Jesse Lacey’s words (vocalist/guitarist of New York-based rock band Brand New) and what those words could do as I listened to them in my headphones. I wanted to do that: to write words for a “punk band.” So I began scribbling down random thoughts/lyrics on sheets of scattered paper throughout the day. Even though I didn’t play an instrument or have any musical talent at the time, I thought I wanted to be a singer like Lacey.
Once I got to college, I had a few friends suggest I take a poetry workshop with Ralph Angel, based off my aspiration to jot down poems and thoughts in my journals. I hated what I thought poetry was at the time (rhyme-y, sing-songy, and otherwise abstract bullshit) and reluctantly signed up. But on the first day, my mind was changed soon after reading poems by Wallace Stevens and Sylvia Plath — you know, every writer’s first “crushes.”
Since then, I’ve mainly written poetry, but also have written a first draft of a memoir and have written short stories and other various, fiction-y things.
What I discovered out of my creative writing courses was that contemporary poetry could do for me exactly what great song lyrics did. It’s that adage we hear across all workshops, seminars, etc., whether it’s “saying the unsayable,” or “illuminating the ineffable,” or “telling what it means to be human.”
I think, ultimately, a reason why I write is that I enjoy the voices that speak to me, the voices that comfort, the voices that make me laugh or smirk–ultimately, all voices are saying one thing, I think: “I feel/felt this way, too.”
I write because it’s my way of communicating with all those other disembodied voices. It’s a way of saying, “I’m here, too.” And certainly, writing is therapeutic. It’s transcendental. And it’s a way to view yourself outside of the window of your own reality. Some times my poems make sense to me and sometimes they feel as if they were written by someone else. Some days I may connect with a poem I’ve written, some days it may seem like trash. Honestly, I’m not sure what to think of it all.
Poetry seems to be the form you’re most comfortable with. Has it been difficult to write in other styles and genres, such as memoir and fiction?
Poetry is definitely where I’m most comfortable. It’s a private act and, I think, results from solitude. Which is probably why I find it invigorating. I feel like memoir and fiction can easily be in that same category, as well. But since poetry was my first writing home, I think I’ll always find it comforting and secluding.
When working on memoir, it’s like having a conversation with oneself, trying to explain or make sense of one’s life. It’s sort of like when you’re on a long drive and thinking out loud to yourself, trying to reach some resolve about whatever may be on your mind.
And as far as fiction goes, I’ve only dabbled. But for me, fiction is the most “fun” because it feels the most creative. As if I get to weave a tapestry or play around and just have fun with characters/settings and see where they go. I guess it’s more exploratory?
What is your writing process/routine? Do you write daily?
I don’t really know much about process, especially my own.
But I assume I have one — I just don’t know what it is, really. I know there are many, many writers who say that you need to write, daily. But that isn’t how I work; I have to be moved in order to write —and those moments come in waves. Sometimes there is a surge, when I’m churning out three (sometimes four) poems a week — or I can go months without setting my fingers to a keyboard.
I think I probably re-write more than I create. It’s a slightly obsessive habit, actually. Sometimes it consists of me staying up late and re-reading poems over and over again (sometimes out loud) and trying to find the weaknesses or moments that could be strengthened. Or realizing what I ultimately want the piece to convey and which is the best course to take to get it there. It usually takes me a few months to finally “let a poem go,” which doesn’t necessarily mean it’s finished — it’s just that there’s not much more I can do to it.
I guess there’s a lot of sabotage, self-degradation, and self-aggrandizement that needs to happen in order to really make a poem happen. But even then, I find that I’m always left with a little apprehension about a piece — especially if that piece ends up getting published. Because, at that point, it no longer really belongs to you. And you spend time worrying whether you glossed it over enough before you sent it out.
Writing is a really horrid thing sometimes. But I think it all works itself out when you get those moments of true creation to happen. Which are rare. But I think they’re what keep you chasing the dragon, so to speak.
What themes does your poetry explore? To put it more simply, what do you write about?
As far as themes go, I’d say a lot of my work is largely concerned with death and consciousness and an inquisitive nature with astronomy. My [unpublished] first, full-length collection (called Ex-Mormon in a Foxhole) is obsessed with cosmonaut imagery and, largely, the cosmos as a metaphor for death or mind/body discorporation. Whatever term is more accurate. And, as you can guess from the title, there’s a bit of an agnostic quarrel among the poems, struggling and searching to find meaning for the “grand scheme of things,” (if there is any). I mean, I think that it’s such a cop-out for any writer to say they mainly write about death, life/love — but those are, really, the only Two Things.
I mean, sure, the poems can be unpacked and discussed at larger levels — but in the end, what else is there?
There are the people and places, flora and fauna. Beings that we encounter — that we absorb, that enrich us or don’t. There is simply experience through the lens of the human. I write about the everyday. I write about the ineffable. Ultimately, I use poetry to try and explain (as one of my favorite poets puts its) “all the weird, theatrical shit” that happens.
Who are your favorite writers?
You know, I’m actually most hesitant to answer questions like these because once I list a name or a group of names, the reader(s) of this interview will automatically typecast me into some category of writer — or as a version of myself that isn’t necessarily representative of who I am. Or maybe exactly representative of who I am. Which is a natural thing —I do it, too. I see how I can identify with other writers based off who they read, as if it informs something about me by knowing I like a writer who other writers also like.
I think the way I tend to think of my favorite writers is equivalent to the way people participate in Fantasy Football Leagues. A writer’s favorite authors are all part of their ultimate fantasy football team —one that’s super stacked. And I don’t just limit the category of “writer” to poets, memoirists, and fiction writers. It’s all over the spectrum–including screenwriters, cartoonists, comedians, and philosophers. Or the writers who make me realize I have wasted my life trying to be a writer–those are the really good ones!
For instance, once I finished Breaking Bad (for the third time, all the way through), I realized I would never be able to do anything as well as Vince Gilligan and his team had done with that show. It was one of the sadder moments of my life. That’s how good that show’s writing is. And–for the record — I’ll go on paper stating that I do believe Breaking Bad is more than just a TV show — it is a visual novel.
So who’s my dream team? My ultimate fantasy football convergence of writers?
It’d have to be the ones who I feel have let me see every aspect of myself — and all the ones to come.
Also, I find that I have different favorite writers at different points of my life. So it’s hard to say exactly who are my favorites. Even writers I hate move me in some way, or force me to think about the world in a different light. So are my favorite ones really the ones that piss me off the most?
Or are they the ones I feel closest too, because my work tends to approximate theirs? Or is influenced by it?
I guess my favorite writers are really just the ones I return to.
Or the ones that offer me a new way of seeing things.
And even here, I feel like I’m failing. Can’t I just say my favorite writers are the ones who make me turn their pages — the ones whose books I just can’t seem to put down? The ones who make me realize that I still have so much more to learn about my own writing? The kind of writers who do something in their books that makes me say, “I really wish I could do that in a poem. Or in my memoir.”
Those are the ones for me.
How much does it cost to produce a literary magazine?
This question was at the core of last week’s class. I wanted to address this on a number of levels: what is the cost of one print copy, what is the cost of one (current) print run with our subscription numbers, and what is the cost of running TMR over the course of a year?
Not all students love this particular class. More than one had difficulty keeping eyes open, there were plenty of yawns, and even one headsnapper (digression: I did the headsnapper at the very first literary reading I ever went to. My Beginning Writing Fiction instructor, Mary Tabor, required us to go to three during the ten week quarter. The first one was poetry, and I had zero interest. So, yup, the headsnapper: falling asleep, eyes close, head goes backward, chin toward the ceiling, and then, boom!, wake up!, snapping my head back down. Oh, and the poet? She definitely noticed and stared daggers through my skull). Those of us in the humanities tend to have no interest in (or no ability with) money.
In small presses and literary magazines, the disconnect between writers and editors often comes down to money. Editors, whether new to publishing or veterans, become aware of the cost of everything. And, I do mean everything: there are the big costs like printing and distribution, but there are also all the small costs, such as staples and stamps to name just a few, and when the bill collector comes ’round, litmag publishers start attentively scouring the line-item breakdown of costs looking for a way to save a dollar or two. Writers, who paid little for their work, don’t appreciate the constant reminders to subscribe, donate, and buy magazines. Also, they don’t particularly like having their work turned down for publication.
The lack of money is the biggest killer of literary magazines. Making my students aware of it is critical.
Also, production costs are an excellent argument for online publications. When they were first launched, online literary magazines struggled for respect. To an extent, they still do. Now that we all read online content on a daily basis, readers embrace magazines like Shenandoah, TriQuarterly, Kill Author, Exquisite Corpse, and Barcelona Review, as well as magazines that do a regular mixture of print and online content, such as Gigantic, Hobart, and PANK.
Still: while new publishers might embrace the “content is king” idea, it seems that reputation, a logical development, from good content, still drives the literary magazine market.
It wasn’t a part of my class, but on Thursday, Karen Russell was on campus and read from her work. At the beginning of the semester, I hand out a syllabus that includes dates and locations for readings throughout Columbia. The dates are subject to change, such as Colson Whitehead’s reading (due to a snowstorm), and I announce readings during our production meeting on Tuesdays. I don’t make it to every reading every week—who does?—but I do stay aware of which interns make it to the events.
The majority of my class made it to Russell’s reading. The room was packed: people stood along the back wall, extra rows of chairs were brought in, and people still had to sit in the aisles. There was even a group of people who drove in from Kansas City.
Russell was terrific. She read parts of her new novella, Sleep Donation, and her story “Reeling for the Empire” then took a few questions. She was intelligent and charming, particularly her anecdote about her sister wondering why sisters always died in Karen’s stories. The MU bookstore showed up (they don’t always do that) to sell copies of her book and if the line was any indication, they hustled a few copies out the door.
At readings, an author almost always has copies of her book for sale; often, this is ignored by the audience. Russell’s work is, of course, excellent, but most authors sell their books at readings based on the strength of their interaction with the audience. I’ve never seen an author sweat and stammer through a reading and then have two hundred listeners clamor to buy the book.
Publishing a book is no longer enough: the author too has to be part of the package, The Platform, willing to go out in public, give readings, make small talk, be friendly, be nice, etc. It’s exhausting. On Friday, Marilynne Robinson was at Mizzou. But her event was invitation only, kept small. Word is that she is a bit shy and doesn’t like doing public events. Which is her prerogative. Though, does she really need to do public events anymore if she doesn’t want to? So, then, why do them at all? And if you do them, and they are invitation only, doesn’t that make literature seem closed off, exclusive, elitist?
Just questions there, no concrete answers.
I’d prefer to keep my publishing class idealistic: we “publish the best work” and we do things only because “art is good.” But that wouldn’t prepare them for the work they have to do after they leave my class. Publishing, whether you are out front or in the back room, has all kinds of mundane facets that need to be recognized and taught. Knowing how it’s made doesn’t make bratwurst any less delicious.
Follow Michael on Twitter: @mpnye
My sister used to have this grand idea that she would read all the books in the world when she was younger and my parents supported it (why wouldn’t they — their child wanted to read instead of watching endless cartoons), while I scoffed in her face. (If you can’t already tell, I’m the older sibling.) Reading all the books in the world meant that she had to read every book she laid her eyes on from cover to cover. I used to always think that she was ridiculous for continuing to read books she found boring or just plain bad, but it’s been several years since she’s grown out of that grand idea and now I’m not so sure I was right to scoff at her.
Let’s look at this from both sides, shall we? On the one hand, there isn’t enough time in the world for a person to read every single book ever written, even if all those books were conveniently housed in one super-duper library down the street. So why suffer through a book if you don’t like what you’re reading? Just pick up another one! I will admit though that I’ve done it before. For class (in which I was forced to continue reading) and sometimes just because I kept hoping that by the next chapter it would get better. And was I mad after finishing that terribly boring book that I followed through to the very end? Yes, sometimes I was, but there were also times when I felt a sense of accomplishment, especially if that book was considered a classic. I know that sounds somewhat haughty, but I’ve found that it’s usually nice to be able to contribute to a conversation about well-known books, even if you didn’t particularly like them.
For me it was Faulkner, more specifically, As I Lay Dying. (Was your mother really a fish?) But my favorite example would have to be Pride and Prejudice. I read the first two chapters as a homework assignment, and I immediately assumed that it was going to be a dreadful read because it was difficult to understand the style of writing. So I set it down until the next two chapters were assigned as homework again and by the fourth chapter I was hooked. The rest of my weekend (which just so happened to be the weekend that Valentine’s Day fell on) was consumed by finishing the book. If the next two chapters hadn’t been assigned as homework, I never would have picked the book back up, and what a shame that would have been. I shouldn’t have been so quick to judge the entire book based on the fact that it was somewhat of a challenging read. Since then I have reread the book two more times and now consider it to be one of my favorites.
Sometimes reading a bad book is worth it. Sometimes, that bad book sticks with you days after you’ve finished reading it and you realize that the bad book has actually made you think about things differently and possibly even see things in a new light. Take, for example, literary magazines. Now before you freak out I am not saying that the writing in literary magazines is bad. I love the stories and essays they publish (most of the time). But my 10-year-old self probably wouldn’t have made it past the table of contents of The Missouri Review. My tastes in writing evolve as I grow older, and I hope they continue to do so. And who knows, maybe one day I’ll pick up As I Lay Dying again find it impossible to put down.
I’ve found that although most literary magazines have a different style and feel, most of them publish well-crafted stories that really make you think. And isn’t that the whole point of reading — to reflect on the various aspects of your life and the world around you? I guess what I’m trying to say is, although you may have been clawing your eyes out while reading that terrible book, you still might learn something in the end. Thus, I challenge you, whoever you may be, to take up the gauntlet for my sister and read every book you can get your hands on!