An Open Letter To A Fellow Writer About Twitter

Dear Jamie,

I read your post on Ploughshares blog yesterday. Your post was about whether or not you should use Twitter. The title is “Why I’m Not On Twitter Yet” and you actually write that you can be persuaded to join. But it feels like what you’re really writing about isn’t Twitter but addictive and dangerous behavior, about knowing yourself, about balancing what’s healthy for you and what’s healthy for your career. Know where I discovered your post? On Twitter.

Usually, when I read a blog post that I feel compelled to comment on, I end up saying something a bit lame: great post, thank you for this, etc. What I really want to do is ask a bunch of questions, to talk more to the writer, pick his or her brain on a wide-range of topics that only tangentially are relevant to the post. I’d like to buy that person a drink. But since I live in Columbia and the blogger almost certainly doesn’t, this will likely never happen. So, power of the interwebs and all that …

What I liked about your post, Jamie, is that the anxiety that you describe is all about the book promotion. You’re terrified that if you don’t do this, don’t hop on Twitter and use it (to do what, exactly?) then you’re dooming your collection to the dustbins of forgotten contemporary writers not named Franzen. And what I so admired was that you said so publicly! “I want my book to sell and I do not want to doom my career.”

I feel this way all the time. My first book, a story collection like yours, comes out in October. Am I worried that the world will shrug? That by going with a small press, my agent can’t sell my novel? That whatever miserable decision(s) I’ve made about my entire writing life, from beginning to the here and now, can somehow be salvaged if the next move is the smart move?

Yeah, all the time.

So, with that. Do not use Twitter. Never.

I say this as a monster fan of Twitter. I keep a tab open all day, in large part because I’m in front of a computer for my job. I love Twitter. I don’t recall how long I’ve had the account. I have a personal website, a Facebook account, and a Gmail account. Smartphone. Etc. People can get a hold of me however they want.

Facebook bores me: it’s an echo chamber where the same dozen “friends” post noise all day long. Facebook is visual. Seems like an obvious point, right? Pictures and videos and stuff, and all that makes me feel is that I should be doing something else, with real live people in real life who I really love being around. Which I can do at 5 pm when I log off my computer.

Twitter is textual. Seems like an obvious, yeah? But Twitter is about those pithy 140 characters and links to good articles. There are some people out there who put up some terrific stuff – Nick Moran, Roxane Gay, Nathan Bransford, Jane Friedman, Rebecca Schinsky, Ezra Klein, Maud Newton, David Gutowski, Cory Doctorow, Liz Heron, and many others. And the only one of those people I’ve ever met in person is Roxane.

There are my friends, too. Zinging each other with wit, sarcasm, even serious stuff. Real life people who I love and do, in fact, get to see in real life outside of the office.

A major factor for me is that Twitter is information. I read a ton of articles about publishing, writing, editing, and business that I simply don’t see on Facebook. The people I follow might be friends, they also might be complete strangers. But it doesn’t matter. Sure, I’d love to have lots of followers, but if something interests me, and I’m having a good time, I keep it up (digression: I probably lost a dozen followers just the other night by sending about 200 Boston Celtics tweets in three hours). I’m learning from Twitter. I believe I’m better at my job because of Twitter.

Twitter isn’t effortless. But it isn’t really work either. Have you ever read those “Why I Write” essays by famous writers? They always amaze me, how much someone can articulate, without being too pompous (I mean, some of them are, you know, but just think about the ones you actually like), the impetus to write stories or novels or poems or essays. More than once, I’ve tried writing a manifesto like that. But they never come out right. I keep it simple. I write because I want to. I like it. That’s it. Same with Twitter. I like it. I dig Twitter the same way Roxane does. It’s fun. End of story.

Jamie, I’ve thought quite a bit about book promotion, and like most writers, I get deeply anxious and nervous.  I hope Grove/Atlantic is doing something awesome for you. My press—Queen’s Ferry Press—is small. The publisher, Erin McKnight, has been a dream to work with. How can an author not love working with an editor who believes, deeply and sincerely, that your work demands to be read? But despite our shared enthusiasm for my book, the fact remains that Erin and I have a pretty limited amount of marketing cards to play. There is so much noise out there. We’ll do all we can to get the good word out, but there are 300,000 new books published each year. 300,000! I mean, if I could bank on all my Facebook friends (800) and Twitter followers (500) combined, then subtracting out the duplicates (let’s make it easy and call it a 1000), buying my book, I’d be thrilled.

But it won’t. Social media doesn’t work that way.

Here’s the thing: once you try to sell people, they won’t buy. The soft sell isn’t even the thing now; it’s more like the non-sell. Some kind of Buddist, zen, voodoo, something other. It makes no sense. I’m sure that you have gone to plenty of readings over the years. I know I have. You know what is the biggest factor in people buying books? Whether or not they like the author. Which, when you really think about it, is kinda silly.

When I got the offer from Queen’s Ferry Press, I had to think about it. Really think about. I called my writer friends and asked for their opinions. I called my agent. I stewed and marinated on it for a long time. The advice I got came down to this: no Big Six house is going to expect the moon and the stars from a short-story collection. Those people in publishing are pretty smart. So is your agent; so are your friends; so are you. Guessing here, but if you published a story collection on a major press, unless your name is Daniel Orozco, you promised a novel. Unless it’s finished (and even if it is), you have work to do.

Maybe I’m wrong. I don’t know. We’ve never met. Maybe this entire open letter thing is an awfully presumptuous thing to write. But let me say something else. You’re married, and from what I can gleam from your post, happily. You have four children, and are a conscientious mother. You wrote stories, probably ten or eleven of them, that were published by terrific journals. You have a book. It will be in the world no matter what. The view from my seat? You’ve already won. You’ve done it. You’ve climbed the mountain and slammed the flag into the ground and sounded your barbaric yawp.

Because, Jamie, none of us are going to be famous. Selling a few extra copies won’t impress the big shots in New York. As for us writers, well, none of us really care about that. In the end, when you sit down and look at your work, the person that has to live with it is you. No one else will know what went into writing each story, each paragraph, each chapter. Not really. Only the writer knows that. No one else will appreciate that good, true, honest, devastating story.

That’s why we write, I think. For the work, not for the recognition. A couple hundred people on Twitter that you don’t know won’t change that.

You spoke honestly about obsession and addiction, and while I’m not Dear Sugar and I have already exhausted my armchair psychology for the day, it sounds like you know you don’t belong on Twitter. Frankly, Twitter shouldn’t even be a thought. Stay away. Book promotion isn’t worth going crazy, neglecting your children and your husband, isn’t worth the possibility of being sleepless because you’re missing a link or two. Publishing a book should be (is this silly?) fun. We should enjoy it, celebrate it. If trying to snag a couple extra readers gives you ulcers, threatens your writing time, your reading experience, and your family, then don’t bother. It isn’t worth it.

And that you decided to address this publicly is why I’m responding the same way: Airing the honest anxiety writers feel, an anxiety and worry that I instantly felt in my stomach as I was reading your words. There are probably many other writers who feel the exact same way and I hope by answering you publicly, we help them out too.

Anyway. That was the fastest 1600 word letter I’ve ever cranked out. I hope it helps. And, the last thing: I’ll buy a copy of your book. You just gotta promise you’ll sign a copy for me … and not tweet about it.

A Fellow Writer & Total Stranger,

Michael

Follow Michael on Twitter: @mpnye

MFA Rankings Are Useless (Could They Be Useful?)

In late August, Poets & Writers, by far the most respected and well-known magazine in the writing and publishing world, released their September/October issue, ranking all the MFA and PhD creative writing programs in the country. It’s a monster issue filled with not just the rankings, but an explanation of the rankings, compendium articles, pithy quotes, and about seventy pages of advertising for those particular programs. It is probably the most widely read issue that PW has ever published.

It also caused over 200 writers and program directors, from those very same MFA programs that the issue is promoting, to publically denounce the ratings in an open letter to The New York Observer.

How an organization responds to criticism, especially such public criticism, says a lot about its relationship with its audience. The examples are endless, but just think about a recent one. Netflix announced a change in their fee structure, then apologized not for the change but how the change was announced, followed by an announcement that they are splitting into two companies, Netflix (streaming) and the poorly named Qwikster (DVD rentals), and then announced they weren’t splitting into two companies. Neither of these changes went particularly well. And say what you will about why Netflix is doing this (or how poorly their letter was written) but they have been upfront about the changes they are making and the reasoning behind it. And Netflix listened when their audience said “Hey, we hate this!”

How did PW respond to such open criticism? Five days later, PW fired back with an open letter of their own. You can read the letter here. Well, their letter gets off to a rough start:

We are disheartened to hear to have read the open letter written on behalf of creative writing teachers and program directors protesting our publishing the 2012 rankings of MFA and PhD programs.

“Disheartened”? Doesn’t sound like they are really open to these program directors, are they? This isn’t Netflix saying “I messed up. I owe everyone an explanation.” In fact, they aren’t:

While we readily consider reasoned criticisms of our work, we cannot in good conscience make editorial decisions in response to outside pressure from those groups and individuals who disagree with our coverage, much less those that threaten to withdraw advertising as a means of influencing editorial content. Our responsibility is to our readers. And we would hope that, as writers, our critics would understand and respect this obligation.

I’d like to think that as a graduate of a MFA program and an employee of a literary journal, I am one of PW’s readers. So too are the MFA students, graduates of those programs, creative writing professors, administrators, and novelists and poets and short story writers years removed from writing programs. All of us are PW’s readers. And we all disagree with how PW is representing MFA programs. Doesn’t PW’s response seem to be missing something? It feels like they are saying they only serve writers who don’t know any better about MFA programs.

Poets & Writers cannot obstinately reject any criticism of their work. They claim that they have a responsibility to their readers. Who are their readers? Because when PW ignores the directors of two hundred creative writing programs, and by extension, all the graduates of those programs and all those students currently in those programs, then I’m not sure who their audience is anymore. Unless they are targeting only those trying to get into MFA programs. People who, one might argue, are naïve and easily persuaded?

I’m being hyperbolic: I don’t really believe that Poets & Writers assumes their readers are ignorant and that they are simply bilking young, emerging writers into buying a magazine. But the tone of their open letter is pugnacious and obstinate. And they do have a conundrum on their hands, don’t they? After all, PW does want people to pick up their magazine, and, on the surface, those are people not yet in graduate programs. I can see why they view it through such a myopic lens.

Who is the audience for Poets & Writers? It’s actually a trickier question than you might think. This point was really hammered home in Julien Smith and Chris Brogan’s book “Trust Agents” when they discussed college websites. Take the University of Missouri’s website, just as an example. Who is the website for? It’s for prospective students. It’s also for current students. It’s also for faculty. It’s also for alumni. Donors. And more. And all of those groups want the website to deliver very different things. Really think about that for a second. It is an incredible challenge to try and make all these different groups happy. The same applies for our writing community, too.

Anyone that has looked at MFA programs online has discovered that college websites are a bit of a mess. Many creative writing programs don’t have very good websites. As an outsider, a person trying to determine what program is a good fit, these poor websites are infuriating. As an insider, I realize how hard it is to get changes when the creative writing department is just a small part (very small part) of a large state university.

So what can Poets & Writers do to make things better for their entire community?

Eliminate the rankings. Rankings of MFA programs are bad for everyone involved.

The rankings are the overwhelming concern, one that has been posted on numerous websites and stated by dozens of writers. PW can’t have a whole bunch of articles and essays saying “Don’t look at rankings” placed directly next to, I don’t know, the rankings? To continue the string of mediocre analogies in this letter and other blog posts on the topic, it’s like publishing swimsuit model calendars and it’s really important to remember the models are athletes and should not be objectified. Sure. Not based in reality, is it?

I swapped a few tweets with my friend Andrew Scott about PW’s MFA issue. I tweeted that we were still waiting for a response from PW—my god, in an information age, how could they wait five days before responding at all? Not even a “Hey, we hear you!” response—and Andrew pointed out that PW benefits from all this attention, positive or negative. I wrote that they should just ditch the rankings. Andrew replied that without the rankings, who cares: all the basic info is available for online. He also suggested that it would be far more useful for them to profile a handful of MFA students’ journeys each year.

Profiling MFA students for one year, or, maybe, for the entire two (or three, or four!) years a student is in the MFA program would be a terrific read. Imagine it: five students at five different programs. A mixture of demographics. Each student gets to blog, on PW’s site, about his/her experience in the program. PW doesn’t have to create the content—the student creates it for him or her. The student, likely unknown, has a built-in audience while working on his/her stories, poems, essays, novel, whatever. The program, which everyone gets picked, gets a ton of attention. Costs? Just the hosting space on PW’s site. It would send PW a ton of traffic. It also would provide a close look at what it would be like to be in a particular writing program. Easy to do, and useful, and insightful for everyone involved.

But I don’t think PW is worthless without the rankings. PW is the authority. Being on the site or in the magazine gives the information strength. But why can’t it work as an aggregator? Isn’t that, really, what Google does? Of course, I’m greatly oversimplifying what Google does. The information PW has needs to be accessible and easy to understand, especially when program websites can be difficult to navigate. Why the website? Because PW claims that is to expensive to list all the programs in their print edition.

Online, their Directory of Poets & Writers claims 9200 authors. How many do you think went through MFA programs? Let’s safely say one third and round down. 3000 authors. If PW asked what MFA program they went to, and then link the answer to the MFA programs page on PW’s site, and even said something like “Prospective students can contact you about the program?” that writers could opt-in or out of … well, isn’t that a ton of information that could really serve a prospective student? It looks like PW has half-heartedly started doing this – there are links to some writers on some of the program pages – but it is incomplete at best.

Also, it would help if there was a really good filter. Look at PW’s MFA Database: There are two filters: degree and state. Given how much data PW has collected, this is pretty useless. Click on the first program listed. That’s Abilene Christian University. Their posting has a website and a contact name. That’s it. Couldn’t that be a much more interesting and dynamic page? Of course it could!

This seems to be left up to the programs to add this information: I noticed that American University, Bowling Green State University, and Hollins (to just name three) have better pages, but they are still aren’t all that useful. Indiana University has a Lynda Hull Fellowship in Poetry. That sounds great. But it doesn’t really tell you anything, does it?

Here’s another excellent idea from the comments section of PW’s open letter. It’s posted by “Rachael C”:

I’d also remove numerical values in other parts of the rankings and simply use general categories, just as you do with other aspects like “program size.” For example, with funding, you could have “Excellent,” Good,” “Fair” and “Poor.” Or with selectivity, you could have “Extremely,” “Very,” “Moderately,” and so on. Basically, by removing the numerical values, you’d be removing the impression that there are enormous gaps between particular programs, while at the same time still providing applicants with the exact same information.

There isn’t one simple solution about how Poets & Writers can better serve the community. These three ideas – eliminate rankings, get current students to blog, a better and more informative web listing – are ideas that, frankly, might have more holes than Swiss cheese. They do, after all, still have a print publication to sell. As an organization, Poets & Writers has been around for forty years and done remarkable work, and their commitment to us – that’s all of us, all of us writers – has always been steadfast. So maybe changes are in the works and we just don’t know it: the next MFA issue is, presumably, a year away. I don’t know. What I do know is that many of us in the writing community are feeling shut out and ignored, and the stakes here are very high: getting emerging writers in the right place to work on their writing for two to three years. Let’s hope they hear us.

Follow Michael Nye on Twitter: @mpnye 

The Shapeshifting Literary Journal

An article at the Guardian by Ben Johncock last week provided some commentary on those literary journals that have struck out into Twitter and Facebook, and other such media, in order to target readers in novel ways. Johncock writes in praise mostly of those journals that have adapted completely to the existence of the Internet, distributing their content via electronics alone. He cites several journals I’ve never heard of, perhaps because they are British, though the Atlantic Ocean really shouldn’t restrict me from seeing them, considering the worldwide reach of a journal published online.

Johncock’s article set me thinking all weekend about the implications of journals that have established blogs and presences on social media like Twitter and Facebook. It’s not simply that new journals, and particularly electronic ones, are establishing social media accounts; many of those print journals that have been around for years, such as this one, have done it, too. Even as I made breakfast yesterday, and observed on Saturday that I should wash my car, I was thinking about this.

When a literary journal establishes a blog, and when, like this one, it is managed and contributed to by those staff members and interns who help make the journal function, it constitutes – it seems to me – a reversal of the dynamic that the literary journal is used to functioning under, in which potential contributors submit their work in the hope of seeing it printed. Although TMR still, of course, does that, it simultaneously maintains this space, where content is provided by those who, more passively, or at least much less visibly, help to select new content for the magazine (editing is, of course, hardly a passive activity).

Working for a literary journal, at least in the case of TMR, is no longer a matter only of reading potential content and helping to determine whether it is suitable for publication. It has become a job in which one writes under the aegis of the same print journal that others are working very hard to be published in. I don’t want to suggest for a second that writing this blog post is in any way equivalent to publishing work in any literary journal, let alone TMR – the difference in prestige alone is a vast one. And the blog post is a genre unto itself, one that has no direct equivalent on the pages of literary journals; those who look for what we elsewhere call creative nonfiction, or essays more specifically, in blog posts, are looking in the wrong places. A blog post needs to be timely in a way that the typical essay isn’t; the need to integrate images into a blog post is more urgent than in more traditional prose forms; and a blog post can be sloppy and still accomplish something more readily than an essay can. So I hope, anyway, and also, I feel like paragraphs have an altogether different identity in a blog post than they do in print – but I’m straying.

Staff – and editors in particular – have always had a limited role in producing content for the journals they publish, with an editor providing an introduction to a given issue, or foregrounding a particular issue’s feature. I think of this blog as a sort of extension of that.  Even though our blog posts aren’t usually in direct reference to the magazine, their essential role is to support, or draw attention to, the magazine. These things I write  come out of my head, but they’re publicly available thanks to, and on behalf of, TMR.

What interests me most about the fact of the staff of a literary journal writing on behalf of that journal, as I’m doing now, is that in this small way, the literary journal – or this one and a handful of others – has become a little more like a different kind of magazine, or a newspaper, in that the staff working on the journal have the dual role of being staff writers, albeit in this tertiary space. I don’t know entirely what to make of that, except to declare how it interests me, that as newspapers and magazines fold all around us, not only are altogether new publications and blogs taking their places – or edging them out and helping to bring about their demise – existing publications like TMR are also expanding in these small ways to help fill in some gaps. They’re changing shape, even if you wouldn’t know it by looking at their print manifestations alone.

One last thing that I find quotable in Johncock’s article are two very good questions, concerning the ways in which new publications are establishing electronic forums for publishing short stories. He writes, “Could we be in a place now where technology has brought us full circle? Where that which took us away from stories is now set to bring us back to them?” The suggestion that technology might have run its course as a tool for distraction, and that we’re now figuring out how to make use of it more intelligently – to provide literature in a new fashion, for example – is very exciting, to put it as vaguely as I must in order to end this post.

Robert Long Foreman is The Missouri Review’s Social Media Editor.

TMR on Facebook

The Missouri Review is no stranger to the digital world. We were the first literary magazine to launch a website–in the early 1980’s at that, before the internet was truly the world wide web. Beginning in 2007, we started recording all our content, and will soon offer an audio version of the magazine for readers on the go. We feature digital copies of our stories, essays, and poems on our website and through Project MUSE. We blog, we podcast, we produce videos to post on our website. And now, we’ve taken our digital dominance to the next level: we’ve created a TMR facebook.

For those of you who don’t know, facebook is a social networking site similar to Myspace. People without facebook don’t realize its significance until they finally break down and sign up for one of their own–then they start to feel the gravitational pull that the simple little website exercises over most of its users. Status updates can alert all your friends (or long-lost high school peers, ex-boyfriends, and co-workers) about what’s going on in your life– you might be a more literal person, and post what you’re actually doing; perhaps a philosophical soul, who posts meaningful song lyrics or poetry or quotes; maybe an enigma who crafts ridiculous, nonsensical status just to remain a mystery. The photo feature allows you to post pictures to share with others–but watch what you put up, because potential employers are now prowling pages (hyperlink: http://www.nydailynews.com/money/2008/03/10/2008-03-10_employers_may_be_searching_applicants_fa.html) and checking out job applicants. The “looking for” portion of a user’s profile also says a lot about them– everyone knows a romantic relationship isn’t official until it’s proclaimed on facebook. You can also post videos, notes, events, and information about yourself–favorite books, movies, music–on your facebook profile page.

So what does TMR have to do with facebook? Do we want to declare an online relationship, post photos of our wild nights, or write on someone’s wall? Not really. We just want you, the readers of our blog, the fans of our magazine, the contributors to our issues, to stay as up-to-date on TMR as possible. We’ll be using the page to announce our contests and preview our latest issues. So if you have your own facebook, feel free to search for “The Missouri Review” and become a fan of our page–and invite other lit-mag lovers as well!