The Twitterati: Who You Should Follow
Jonathan Franzen might hate Twitter, but we love it here at TMR. Literary Twitter, or the Twitterati, proves that great literature can be composed just as well in 140 characters as 1,400 pages. Yet it’s also fun to see that your favorite authors are suffering from a hangover or watching bad reality TV, too. But Twitter also benefits authors. When used for more than book promotion, Twitter is a powerful way to connect with readers, crowdsource ideas or take a much-needed break. Here are our favorite authors to follow on Twitter whether for sheer amusement or inspiration:
Twitterati’s rock star is Neil Gaiman. Gaiman tweets/retweets support for other writers, makes dry observations and updates us on his tour and writing process to keep the fans happy — and there are a lot of them. He was one of the first writers to figure out how to use Twitter to connect with readers, culminating in a crowdsourced Twitter short story earlier this year.
Roxane Gay has developed a strong cult following thanks to her dynamic Twitter presence. She tweets about everything from writers of color to Lifetime movies to teaching (hilariously referring to her students as “babies”.) If you’re looking for smart commentary on a big news event or a good book recommendation, follow Roxane because she won’t disappoint.
Like his sharp characters, Alexie has the same irreverent wit in 140 characters as he does in his novels. Whether he’s tweeting about writing, race relations or basketball, his tone is always poetic or political with a healthy dose of sarcasm. Recurring feature: Alexie gives us a look into his mental state with his “my soul is…” feature, which is equal parts humorous and profound.
Margaret Atwood seems to know everyone on Twitter to our delight. We can’t help but wish we were invited, too, whenever she’s jokingly flirting with comedian Rob Delaney or drinking champagne with Alice Munro. Oh well, Twitter is the next best thing.
Colson Whitehead is that guy watching everyone at the party and making sardonic comments under his breath, except he’s so funny it’s okay. Nothing escapes his derision — from what he’s reading to fatherhood.
Although most writers cite Twitter as a distraction, Maureen Johnson has 10 young adult novels and nearly 68,000 tweets to her name. She’s known for trivial musings and calling out sexism in the publishing industry, especially with her thought-provoking “Cover Flip” trending topic in which she asked readers to submit covers as if the author were the opposite gender.
Ian Rankin isn’t just a great crime novelist. He also has excellent taste in beer and records. We wouldn’t want to be a victim in one of his books, but we’d gladly down a pint or two with him.
Bret Easton Ellis is everyone’s favorite troll. Bashing fellow artists won’t get you many fans, but it does attract vindictive followers. We know following him isn’t good for us, but like Patrick Bateman, we just can’t help ourselves.
Emma Straub has been called one of the nicest people in the book industry right now and for good reason. Her tweets radiate enthusiasm as she recommends new novels, New York restaurants or 90210 reruns. It’s nice to see someone use social media to spread the love instead of the snark.
Joyce Carol Oates is a fan of composing long narratives both in novel and Twitter form. She poetically muses on everything from contemporary film to international relations (albeit sparking a lot of controversy for the latter) in serial tweets. Even if her thoughts don’t always make sense, they are certainly amusing.
R.L. Stine is still giving us goosebumps, but this time it’s in 140 characters. The horror author is known for tweeting spooky stories, odd articles and sometimes scarily bad jokes.
Twitter, Tumblr, YouTube — is there any social media John Green hasn’t conquered with his humor and political awareness? His characters might be enigmatic, but he uses Twitter to reach out to fans by thanking them for reading or telling them what to read next.
Salman Rushdie is famous for picking fights and his Twitter is no exception. Fortunately, these fights are good spirited “literary smackdowns,” in which he pits two authors against each other and gets his followers to tweet support. Sometimes his tweets are less highbrow, though, as he discusses the Kardashians or tennis.
God might not have been there for Margaret, but Judy Blume is there for us. The author is 75 but tweets more than most teens and can still give great advice.
When Michael Nye isn’t managing TMR, he’s impressing us with his mad basketball skills or crazy routine of getting up at the crack of dawn to write.
Obviously, this is not a definitive list, especially because some of our favorite authors have yet to join Twitter, including:
-Lorrie Moore — Moore was born for Twitter. Her cutting wit would be perfect for a 140-character medium.
-Jane Austen — If Jane were alive today, she would definitely be tweeting snarky quips to avoid awkward conversation at the party.
-Ernest Hemingway — Short, to the point, honest sentences are ideal for Twitter. Although we have a feeling Hemingway would be a tad pretentious.
-W. H. Auden — No one understood yearning in the way he did and could get it out in 140 characters.
You can follow Tess @temalone.
Public Readings and Fractured Voice in New Media
My relationship with literature, like that of most people who’d claim to have a relationship with it, is multi-faceted, complicated—even fractured. At work, I spend several hours every week in front of a computer, reading submissions, essays, blogs, etcetera. When not working, the majority of my time with a screen is dedicated to writing, be it academic or personal. I don’t own an e-reader, so when I’m reading at home it’s usually a paper book or journal. Then there’s the constant dialogue between my friends and coworkers. This dialogue, even if the moment’s topic is as seemingly mundane as the weather or lunch, is related to literature, for it is that shared initial interest that allowed the moment to occur. These facets, of course, are linked, and constantly inform one another.
However, there does seem to be another facet of this relationship which is more distinct than the others: live readings. These ceremonies are rare in a couple of senses. First (at least here in Columbia), they are rare because they are few. Each semester, the MU Creative Writing Program does organize a new student reading series (which you can check out here) and a visiting writers series. And of course, TMR hosts a few too, like the one happening October 8th, but these are nonetheless infrequent, much-anticipated events. This anticipation relates to the second sort of rareness of these ceremonies: the primary act itself, or hearing and seeing an author read his or her words. At live readings, the author’s chief goal in writing is inevitably achieved: he or she connects with the audience in a pure and authentic way. You hear and see the author’s voice and words—no matter if you’ve read them previously—and they resonate, if only on an auditory level. Thus, live readings are a facet of literature whose immediacy seems unparalleled.
Immediacy here is linked to voice, one of the most fundamental subjects in my relationship with literature. Common discourse and phonocentrism position spoken speech as primary, and because we call what emits from the author during a reading his/her voice, I use “unparalleled”. However, voice is complicated and fractured, too, much like the stated aspects from which it originates. When we describe voice as spoken or auditory, that referent may be negatively described as “not-written”. Furthermore, when we discuss voice in literature, we describe it as “narrative”. In both cases, voice is considered inextricable, and its transcendent presence as both a word and idea suggests a primacy more fundamental yet. This is most apparent in literature, where apparently voice must exist.
What I am wondering, though, is how the tradition of live readings—and moreover, its status as literature’s paramount manifestation of voice—will be affected by the constantly diversifying concept of voice in contemporary literature. I’d say that my understanding of voice has developed, but I’d nonetheless have trouble identifying a single ubiquitous quality—that is, one independent from and indifferent to the subsequent criticism of it.
This diversifying of voice is most readily apparent in the increased role of New Media in contemporary literature. The examples are numerous: we have seen a novel chapter in PowerPoint, a short story in Tweets (1 of 153), video trailers for books, and more. Each emits “voices” that are multi-faceted, voices that are “fractured.” In the first example, there is supposedly the character Alison Blake, but there is also the PowerPoint interface, its various constraints, and of course, Egan transcending all. Each are a voice—disparate, autonomous, whatever else. In the second, there’s Electric Lit., Twitter, Rick Moody’s shrewd narrator, and Moody himself. These go beyond words: they are more than words. That you could argue that there are more voices, or that there are less, or, finally, that my understanding of voice is general or incomplete, reveals much about the complexity of voice, its “inherent” difficulty.
In this developing realm called New Media, some have attempted to establish a concentrated presence which accounts for such diversity. Most literary journals have embraced social media, sure, and several offer content in additional mediums, but there are others still that somehow manage to emerge from the rest in a markedly progressive way. Not The New Yorker or Harper’s, whose historical weight propel them inevitably forward, rather, I’m speaking of ones like Electric Literature and Blackbird. Is formal inventiveness crucial, like the Moody story mentioned above, or is it the words the journals themselves produce (e.g. editorial policies, missions, forwards, etcetera)? Both? But is this not conceptually identical to Egan’s PowerPoint chapter? Presence, then, or dominance, is another sort of “voice.”
Even The Moth, a organization unique in its focus on live, unscripted storytelling, exists as an autonomous entity. “Each story is true and every voice authentic”, yes, but The Moth also maintains a blog, social media presence, and does radio broadcasts—in short, asserts it’s self.
Even so, New Media and its entities have yet to authentically (re)create the inexplicable magic of live readings. A video of an author reading does not compare with being in the same room with that author, his/her words assuming a new texture both visceral and singular, undeniably true, indifferent to your cursor, your mouse’s erratic clicking. It seems this is will always be so, that recreation is only an insufficient prosthetic, and I am happy for it. However, this language is “fundamental”, not fundamental. Nor are live readings. Likewise, some other “true” may emerge. Live reading culture could wane. If this happens, what will be lost?
Two Mistakes I Made on Twitter Last Week
Twitter is a favorite medium around our office, both for personal and professional use. It’s quick, informative, witty, and the links are terrific. Unlike other social media devices, Twitter loads fast on mobile devices and its mobile platforms retain all the best of the site’s navigation and simplicity without coughing up any user functionality. It’s a terrific way for us to reach out to our audience and provide—in 140 characters—a good sense of what The Missouri Review is all about.
Last week, however, was not my finest week for social media clarity. I had an a nasty cold I had, which made me super congested, foggy, and cough-y (not a word). Misspellings, bad links, incomplete thoughts, and other missteps were all over the place. But there are two in particular that I think are interesting examples of Twitter mistakes, both for writers and literary magazines.
Goof #1. I tweeted this on August 15th:
I get embarrassed when I find a lit journal that’s been around for a long time … and I’ve never heard of it.
We receive several literary journals in our office: these are “exchanges”—we send our magazine to Journal X, and Journal X sends their journal to us. We probably receive somewhere in the range of thirty to forty exchanges, and since many journals publish on a similar schedule, there is usually a three week period when we receive a ton of magazines. Last week, we received a copy of a journal, an anniversary edition, that had been around for well over a decade, and as my tweet indicates, I had never heard of the publication.
Off Twitter, one of my friends wrote me and suggested I delete the tweet. He’s a good writer and a sharp editor, too, so he has experience with this and knows what he’s talking about. He wrote that while the tweet didn’t bother him, he noted that statements like that can upset people. You know, “Oh, big bad TMR hasn’t heard of MY journal, huh?”
I think one of the biggest problems with literary journals (and this is also true of other businesses, not just lit mags) is a lack of transparency and honesty. I believe it’s all right for me to admit what I do not know, and either laugh at myself for not knowing or be able to explain why I couldn’t reasonably be expected to know. Duotrope currently lists over 4300 markets for fiction, poetry, and nonfiction. 4300! I just can’t be familiar with all of them.
So I decided to laugh at myself. I see my friend’s point … and yet, I disagree, and I’ve left the tweet up.
Goof #2. I tweeted this on August 13th:
I’ve just used my ten free NYTimes articles this month. Nice job sending me to the @washingtonpost guys!
Another writer wrote to me and questioned my decision. He said, and I’m paraphrasing, that if I start with NYT, clearly then, it has value, and isn’t that worth paying for?
I’ll say this upfront: I don’t believe there is a mistake here, by me or by my friend. He wrote in response, I wrote back, he wrote back and apologized for being presumptuous, and I wrote back and said he wasn’t being presumptuous at all. He had a point that is worth thinking more about (a future blog post I hope to soon write).
Here’s the angle, though.
This tweet received a DM from a writer who doesn’t actually know me. We’ve only interacted through Twitter, and my sense is that he was worried he angered me: you don’t always know how your online friends and colleagues are going to respond to 140 characters. He also might have been worried about calling out me, and by extension, TMR. He doesn’t know if I’m a vindictive bastard (I’m not! Really!) and might blacklist him for crossing me.
I’m a firm believer that if I post something online, it’s fair for anyone to respond to it, and I must be able to defend what I wrote. Or admit that I screwed up. Both of which I’m perfectly comfortable doing. I find the New York Times is trying to put the toothpaste back in the tube, and this aggravates me, and there are terrific writers at The Washington Post and Los Angeles Times and The Guardian and a hundred other venues that don’t have paywalls.
Most people follow me on Twitter because I’m with The Missouri Review. When I post on my personal feed, regardless of any disclaimers, I’m representing my magazine. Even when I’m posting pithy comments or thinking about the Boston Celtics, I know that everything I write reflects on TMR. I understand and embrace that. I try, as best I can, to make my social media interaction as genuine as possible.
Charles Baxter’s “Dysfunctional Narratives, or: ‘Mistakes Were Made’ ” is one of my favorite essays on writing fiction. The phrasing he quotes demonstrates how social narratives, like the one Nixon pushed, created deliberate confusion and incoherence. “I made mistakes” is much clearer. And clarity—and transparency and honest—is something that I think all of us in the writing world need to fight for all the time.
I made mistakes. “I didn’t deny anything.” Let’s go from there.
Follow Michael on Twitter: @mpnye
An Open Letter To A Fellow Writer About Twitter
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,
Follow Michael on Twitter: @mpnye
An Attempt at a Definition of a "MFA Story"
What does it mean to say a manuscript is a “MFA story”?
This question comes from a tweet sent by Union Station, an online magazine based in Brooklyn. They actually phrased the question “MFA-styled,” so I’m adjusting the phrasing a bit, but it’s a really good question. I instantly had a few phrases that came to mind. I’m thinking only of fiction here, not poetry or nonfiction. These words and phrases include:
—Strong Prose. This isn’t, obviously, a bad thing. Perhaps that’s what I’m starting with this one. Stories that have good rhythm, sentence variety, proper grammar and syntax (with the rules “broken” when needed), and a rich vocabulary suggest a writer who has spent time on his or her craft.
—Static. This might be what is really meant by “MFA story”: the claim that “nothing happens.” The idea of a static story usually means the lack of an exterior plot because MFA programs, and writers from these programs, do their damnedest to avoid cinematic plots, turning away from guns and violence and melodrama for a stronger sense of a character’s interior life.
Case in point: In my MFA program, during our second year, our visiting professor gave us an article that involved (and I’m piecing this together from memory) a shooting. Something about, I think, a pizza delivery and a discovery of physical abuse, I’m fuzzy on the details, but there was a shooting and a killing. We were asked to write a short scene about this incident. Out of twelve students, only one of us wrote directly about the most dramatic moment: the killing. We just avoided it. Our professor was stunned by this. Why would we avoid the hard moment? Why would we avoid what is most dramatic?
—Interior. MFA stories tend to focus on thought. No other art form can really get inside a character’s thoughts. Movies use voiceover, but that technique is hackneyed and lazy. The exploration of a character’s consciousness, all those messy thoughts, is a response, a moving away from cinema and television. There is so much “action” that seems devoid of any true emotion that it seems natural for a writer to focus on characterization in a way that is seen in literary writing.
—Opaque. MFA stories seem to be pretty straight-forward. But more often than not, when reading a MFA story for a third or fourth time, editors will often wonder “What is this story actually about?” You’d be surprised how often the story’s purpose isn’t really clear. It’s usually a feeling that the writer is the one who isn’t quite sure. Either there is too much thrown in (and by this I mean possibilities or feelings, not events like car chases and crashing blimps and a talking sea lion battalion armed with flamethrowers)(digression: I’d like to read that sea lion story) or what is presented as the conflict is too weak and not truly explored.
—Character Driven, Not Plot Driven. Those five words should be pretty clear. MFA stories can sometimes feel like character sketches more than stories.
To summarize, a MFA story is a well-written, character-driven story that is awfully interior, very little happens, and the ending feels like not much has happened.The question Union Station posed, though, has a pretty clear connotation: it’s negative. Not that Union Station is trying to be negative, but the phrasing, the actually saying that you have a “MFA story” is not considered a good thing.
Does this mean that Missouri Review, Union Station, and other journals won’t publish writing by MFA students? Of course not. Our track record, and the track record of many other fine journals, proves that very good stories are not just written and published by MFA graduates, but by emerging writers currently in MFA programs. I’d even say that the idea of a “MFA story” is probably a holdover from ten or fifteen years ago. Most emerging writers are savvier now.
But many of the techniques learned in the programs are just that: a series of tools, a series of styles, but the story will be, should be, greater than the sum of its parts. To extend the metaphor, all magazine publishers are looking for that magnificent and curious house, not the cookie cutters with the two-car garage wholly indistinguishable from the other homes in the development. We haven’t, won’ t, and will not disparage the programs. We just want to the houses that let us know—despite having walls and windows and roofs and gutters and all the other basic qualities—that we’ve set foot in place unlike any other.
Follow Michael on Twitter: @mpnye
Hot Dog! TMR Goes to Chicago Twitter Contest
The Missouri Review is excited to be attending AWP’s Conference in Chicago in just a few short weeks. We are doing our best to prepare for the Windy City, but could use some help. With Oprah out of the picture, I have little to contribute to a Chicagoan presence. Our resident Cubs fan also seems to have come to terms with what little value his fandom holds. There is one famed Chicago attribute that the TMR staff seems confident enough to take on: gourmet hot dogs. In honor of these mystery meat masterpieces and in an attempt to improve our AWP readiness, @Missouri_Review is holding its first Twitter contest.
We are asking our Twitter followers to send us your literary-themed hot dog recipes. Entries should include a name for your hot dog, a list of ingredients, and reference literature in some way, all under 140 characters. Let us know that you’ve entered by including the hashtag #TMRchicago at the end of your tweet. Vegetarian and vegan tofu dog entries will also be accepted. Judging will be primarily based on the giggling and stomach rumbling of our editors and staff. Your tweet entry might look something like this:
The winner will receive a handmade literary-hot-dog-themed craft, assembled by The Missouri Review office staff. To increase your chances of winning a (better?) prize, consider entering TMR’s other contests: Our Non-Contest or our 5th Annual Audio Contest. We look forward to eating your tweets!
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.
Moby Dick: Or, The Fail Whale
That’s right: we would like you to follow us on Twitter!
As The Missouri Review makes its first foray into the Twitterverse, we wanted to ask all of our readers, bloggers, and contributors to come join us. Tweets will include updates on behind-the-scenes action at the magazine, favorite literary quotes, retweets, and of course, lots of stuff about Martin Amis. Please bear with us these first few weeks as we get used to the Fail Whale regularly appearing on our ‘puter screens. We should have it running along smoothly in no time!