What is Wet Asphalt?
Stop blaming the reader.
Read any article in any magazine about the state of fiction in America: most often the first thing mentioned will be the competition for time that contemporary fiction is engaged in with television, movies and video games. The reader, we are told, has been lured away by flashy new media. The reader is silly and impressionable and easily distracted by shiny objects held before her gaze. The reader is tired of made-up stories told in prose--this having to do, apparently, with the post-9/11 world, or the post-twentieth century world, or the post-contemporary condition or something like that. No, instead she only wants non-fiction, preferably memoir. Some critics have even derided fiction authors who pursue popularity as trying to be "celebrities." It seems there is some crime in wanting to be read widely, wanting to be culturally relevant, wanting more than to be read only by other writers. "What's the point?" these defeatists say with a shrug. "People don't like to read fiction anymore. It’s not our fault."
And while people complain about people complaining about fiction's irrelevance, the publishing industry remodels itself along the Hollywood blueprint and books on writing come out that refer to a writer's name as his "brand" without irony. "This is the age of the blockbuster," they seem to be saying. "You're either the Next Big Thing, or you're nothing. Don’t feel bad, readers are meek and zombie-like chattel. They're only interested in a book if everyone else is reading it. Didn't you see our demographic statistics? Look, I've got this chart I can show you. It explains everything."
Stop blaming the reader. Say what you will about Oprah’s Book Club, if there's one thing that phenomenon illustrates it is that ordinary people (i.e. non-writers, non-publishers, non-agents, non-creative writing instructors, non-literature professors) still read good fiction if they're exposed to it. People like good fiction. They even love good fiction. If people aren't reading good fiction, it's just because they're not finding out about it. Why is that?
Consider for a moment the greatest American novel: a long, rambling book in dense, heavily-stylized prose about a lunatic, one-legged sea captain obsessed with vengeance and hell-bent on killing an albino sperm whale. Sounds like a good book, doesn’t it? The problem is that, were Moby Dick published today, rather than competing with the latest Horatio Hornblower, it would be up against a mediocre morass of novels about dysfunctional families and lousy childhoods—or worse, memoirs about coming from a dysfunctional family or having a lousy childhood. Moby Dick would be lost in the rising tide of the banal. We're sick of your boring novels. It's not just the staleness of contemporary plots, it's the absence of anything—anything at all—that could possibly grab our interest long enough to tear us away from the latest episode of "Lost." After all, "Lost" is better than all of 2004's much-talked-about National Book Award finalists combined, to use one less-than-arbitrary example. Note: this is not a remark about craft; the MFA Industry has stamped out legions of writers who can polish a sentence to a fine, gem-quality luster but who still think that short stories should be about someone dealing with a dying relative. You want to know why The DaVinci Code sold better than Our Kind? It certainly wasn't because Dan Brown is a more skilled writer than Kate Walbert. And it wasn't because people like "crap." It was because The DaVinci Code, for all its many, many problems, was interesting. We need books with the technical refinement of Our Kind and the entertainment value of The DaVinci Code. Which isn't as preposterous as it may sound; we only need look to the past for examples. Look at Moby Dick, look at Huckleberry Finn, look at The Turn of the Screw; more recently Catch-22, The Universal Baseball Association, or American Psycho. As much flak as Rick Moody and company caught for that year's NBA's, it's telling that 2005's committee responded by selecting writers like William Vollmann and Mary Gaitskill who are maybe less touchy-feely New York insiders à la Moody and co., but whose books are equally soporific.
Even worse than the plight of the novel in American letters is the sad case of short fiction, which these days primarily appears in "literary magazines" with circulations that can be counted in three digits. Short fiction, once the great egalitarian form that supplied or supplemented the livelihoods of generations of writers, seems to be in danger of becoming a historical curiosity as relevant to literary culture as the saga, the broadside, or the epic. But what’s wrong with these literary magazines? Why doesn't anybody read them? We suggest that the editors of these periodicals should withdraw their listings from "The Writers’ Market" and similar publications. For most literary magazines, more people submit work than read the magazine. Which is to say that the number of writers who want to be published in these magazines far outstrips the number of people who want to read them. Some magazines have even instituted an abhorrent policy of charging people to submit work. All of this because of the perception that literary magazines are not really publications to be read for enjoyment, but rather stepping-stones to representation by book agents and contracts with book publishers. This perception is fostered by "The Writer's Market" and "Poets and Writers Magazine" and "Writer's Digest" and ten thousand websites whose raison d'etre is to tell unpublished writers what they need to do in order to get their memoir of being abused as a child by a dying relative published by Harper Collins. Even sadder is the reality that most of the people who do read literary magazines are people who found out about them from "Writer's Market;" they are a percentage of the people who are submitting work. A pessimist might suspect that the majority of these readers are only reading to figure out how to market themselves to the publication.
This is ridiculous.
Perhaps the days of mass-market consumer fiction and poetry magazines are well behind us, but we think the problem with literary magazines can be summed up by the fact that you'll find nearly nothing about their content on their covers; most have merely a list of the authors published inside. Maybe that's because "Someone Deals with a Dying Relative" doesn't make for snappy cover copy. We're tired of your boring stories, and we're tired of your literary magazines without an audience. Withdraw your listings from "Writer's Market" and try making something that people actually want to buy. Then you’ll get submissions from people who actually like your magazine and want to be read in it. If nobody reads your magazine at that point, it's possible that the free market is trying to tell you something. Look at the example of McSweeney's, which, for whatever else one might say about it, has single-handedly proven that the literary magazine can be commercially viable and culturally relevant.
For poetry, the situation is all the direr. Poetry is so marginalized, so ill-read, so insular, incestuous and desperate that one wonders if there is any hope for it at all. And yet poetry still carries weight as a popular form—how many people can recite from memory lines from "The Raven" or "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock"? Still, boringness eats away at poetry like Ebola Zaire. The contemporary poetry scene is a mess of quiet, maundering free verse that goes nowhere and does nothing. Rather than excite the reader with language and artful deployment of image and form, the present doyens of American poetry have inherited all the soul-baring honesty of the confessional poets with none of their style and sophistication. Poetry as practiced by these self-reflexive sycophants—who, as Ron Silliman, Foetry.com and others have observed, control what little money there is in verse—is a watered-down version of what was produced by previous generations. We hold that Shel Silverstein, who wrote humorous doggerel aimed at children under seven, was a better poet than Billy Collins, Robert Pinsky, or Ted Kooser and it is significant that he is more widely read and known than any of these U.S. Poet Laureates. Stop blaming the reader. We're tired of your boring poems.
We look around the literary world today and see on one side book publishers and so-called marketing gurus who seem to think you must write thrillers poorly or be picked by Oprah or get a movie deal or you just don't matter. "It's all about the blockbuster," they say. "After all, we're only giving the reader what he wants."
On the other side we see literati who write amazingly well crafted stories about nothing. "Appealing to readers at large is a pointless, shallow, lowest-common denominator affair," they seem to think. "Instead you must work your ass off to become part of the 'community of writers,'"—one assumes because they’re the only ones who'll ever bother to read your book. Maybe if you're lucky one of your friends or lovers or teachers will give you an award. And that's just the state of things—most people don't want to read good novels or good poetry, and you can only give the readers what they want.
This is the world as we’ve been sold it.
We disagree with this picture.
We propose that the audience already exists, waiting to be shown the good work.
We propose that the good work already exists and is merely mired in the endless bog of the dull and the mediocre.
We propose an engine to promote the good work, to publish the good work, to discuss the milieu in which we operate in light of the good work.
We propose a beachhead where readers can rely on a standard of quality, free for anyone with an Internet connection.
This is Wet Asphalt.