Criticism

Deconstructing Sarah

Last night in Minnesota, Republican Vice Presidential nominee Sarah Palin delivered possibly the most vile, hate filled, and repulsive political statement by a major American figure I have seen in my lifetime. Certainly there have been more vile speeches, but in all honestly I feel like I would need to reach for pro-slavery democrats, pro-segregation dixiecrats, or actual card carrying eugenics supporters in order to find something worse. And those special cases are too extreme and hyperbolic to carry the full weight of the comparison I would like to make. Perhaps the best comparison would be to the extremist views that Pat Buchanan regularly brought before the Republican party back when he was making his various unsuccessful runs at the Presidential nomination. Even in that case however, Buchanan was always recognized as a fringe player who represented the most extreme segment of his party. Sarah Palin, by securing the VP nomination, is apparently right where the Republican party thinks it should be. And that, dear readers, is fucking scary.

Fantasy and Science Fiction and the state of Fantasy and Science Fiction

The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction recently made a marketing push, sending out copies of their latest (July) issue to any blogger who asked for one. I have mixed feelings about The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. On the one hand, everything about it from the covers to the editorial position seems generally rooted in 60s and 70s New Wave (strange how a magazine of a genre that thinks constantly about the future can dwell so much in the past). On the other hand, the stories in F&SF are generally better than those of its rival publication Analog (which is not just SF, but Hard SF, the most tired and irrelevant type of that genre), and more over, I'd much rather read F&SF than Glimmer Train or The Paris Review or any of the other publications running the MFA meat grinder for what passes for literary short fiction these days. At least I can read F&SF without falling asleep. Still, compared to quite edgier magazines like A Public Space, Weird Tales or Strange Horizons, any given issue of F&SF seems like a relic from another age.

A Counter Proposition

I recently linked to John Scalzi's post about SF writers jumping ship to become Young Adult writers, and Mediabistro's additional notes on the subject. Scalzi expands more on this, but the bottom line is the same; books in the Young Adult section of the bookstore sell better (and therefore pay better) than books in the SF section of the bookstore.

"As a final kick in the teeth," Scalzi observers, "YA SF/F is amply represented at top of the general bestselling charts of YA book sales, whereas adult SF/F struggles to get onto the general bestselling adult fiction charts at all." The overall effect? Adult readers, he proposes, "are missing a genuine literary revolution in their genre because the YA section is a blank spot on the map to them, if not to everyone else."

As an example, consider Cory Doctorow's new YA novel Little Brother which is the first of his novels to make it to a New York Times bestseller list (granted it's the kids bestseller list, but still).

There have been a number of explanations of the reasons for this discrepancy, but let me put my two cents in: SF titles sell better in the Young Adult section because they're mixed in with non-SF titles as general fiction aimed at a certain age group. On the contrary, adult SF is segregated from the rest of the "Fiction and Literature" as if it were not fiction or literature, but instead the embarrassing power fantasies of people who think making women wear "touch-my-boobies" pins is acceptable adult behavior.

Let me say this to all you SF/F people out there: sometimes it's really hard to take you folks seriously. And there's plenty of talk about stigmas and ghettos in the SF world and even talk about how the constant death of SF is part of the nature of the beast. But so what? How low do your sales have to get before you finally abandon ship?

Fuck Narrative Magazine

Narrative Magazine has gotten a write up in the San Francisco Chronicle recently which seems to make a game of how completely it can crawl up the Magazine's asshole. The editors, Tom Jenks and Carol Edgarton, are revolutionaries, the article tells us, because they've put fiction on the Internet and gotten "40,000" subscribers instead of the "5,000" subscribers "most 'small magazines,' on- or offline" have. (Try 500 and you might be closer to the truth, but I digress.) Yes, Jenks and Edgarton, a loving couple, a "symbiotic" match made in yuppieville, took time off from writing their own, "acclaimed" novels and went to Martha's Vineyard to put together their revolutionary website. How revolutionary?

Narrative is also atypical in terms of quality. There is no whiff of literary hipsterism here, no veil of coolness to cover up the mediocre writing that is often found in new publications by editors who have spent their college years boning up on David Foster Wallace.

Fuck you.

Instead, Jenks and Edgarian offer a wide, well-edited and stimulating selection of narrative forms.

If by "stimulating selection of narrative forms" you mean countless interchangeable, meandering, pointless slice-of-life vignettes that go nowhere, then yes, I see exactly what you mean.

But there is one major, overriding reason to hate Narrative Magazine, which can be seen in their submission guidelines:

Except during our open-submission periods, we require a reading fee for submission, as follows:

—a $20 reading fee for short short stories of 750 to 2,000 words.

—a $10 reading fee for up to five poems in a single submission.

—a $10 reading fee for short audio (MP3) submissions of poetry. Audio poetry submissions may be up to five minutes in length.

—a $10 reading fee for short audio (MP3) submissions of prose, for our TELL ME A STORY category (see description below). Audio prose submissions may be up to five minutes in length.

—a $20 reading fee for a single manuscript (fiction or nonfiction) of 2,000 to 10,000 words in length.

—a $20 reading fee for novellas and book-length works.

And when is their open submissions period?

Narrative is not currently accepting open submissions.

This is a magazine that asks its potential writers to pay them for the privilege of submitting work. I can't imagine a bigger middle finger to the working fiction writer, a way a magazine could treat the already struggling and unpaid short fiction writer more poorly. I mean, fuck you Narrative Magazine.

As for their supposed "40,000" member subscriber list: we linked to Narrative Magazine once in our original mission statement, and the magazine promptly started sending us regular emails about the crappy writing they were publishing, which makes me think their business ethics fall somewhere between porn spammers and casino spammers, and calls into question any numbers that come out of them. But even at face value the number is incredibly weaselly. A "subscriber" to Narrative Magazine is merely someone who has registered (for free) at their site, which you need to do to read anything on it. So someone who signed up on the site once, read a few stories and never went back is still considered a "subscriber", which is nothing like someone who plunks down money to get every issue of a magazine mailed to them. Calling registered users "subscribers" is not only misleading, it's just plain dishonest. Besides the fact that forcing people to register to look at work on your site is kind of a dick move to begin with, especially since it seems to be done with the express purpose of boosting these fraudulent "subscriber" numbers.

In short, fuck Narrative Magazine. If they're "the future of reading" then reading is not something I want to be a part of.

EDIT 3/28/2008: See my follow up for information about Narrative Magazine selling your information to spammers and junk mailers.

What Are You Going to Do, Bleed On Me?

There's been a lot of talk on the Interwebs about the state of the short story, especially since Stephen King's introduction to "The Best American Short Stories 2007" anthology, in which he observes that the short story is a dying art. People have objected to this assertion (from King and others), but most of the objections come off specious and empty. For instance, a recent blog post on Galley Cat called "The Short Story is Doing Fine" says

Quick, somebody tell Alice Munro she doesn't have a valid career. She's up in Canada; you can swing by George Saunders's house on the way and break the news to him as well. I'll stay here in New York and let Amy Hempel and Deborah Eisenberg know it's time for them to move on.

I can see the whiny, no-doubt-anonymous objection now: "Yeah, but if those last four weren't creative writing professors..." But if we started saying you couldn't be "successful" as a writer unless all you did to make money was write—well, let's just say the ranks of successful writers would be a lot less interesting.

Granted, measures of success are different among different people, but Alice Munro's "career" is not writing short stories. Her career is teaching creative writing. Writing short stories is at best her vocation and at worst her hobby.

Or consider this reaction in the Quarterly Conversation. First, evidence of the short stories' decline is attempted to be reframed so that it's actually a good thing, as in, "maybe just writing for other writers is all we want". Then, arguments are made for the supposed health of the form that are bafflingly poor, the worst of which is this quote from Alexander Chee:

"I have modest blog traffic at best for my blog, Koreanish: 150 to 300 hits per day. But that means in a week my blog is read by at least a 1,000 people. Many small literary magazines hope to sell a 1,000 issues per print run."

Anyone with the most rudimentary knowledge of websites knows that 1,000 hits a week is not anything like 1,000 readers, and for the author to not even point that out just reinforces the utter desperation lurking behind the whole thing, peering out between the sentences. PLEASE believe me the short story is FINE! PLEASE!

Finally, the author says, "Writers, like everyone else, will continue to need day jobs or sugar daddies." which has so many levels of wrong I don't know where to start. Not only do lots of people most emphatically not need a day job, but lots of writers don't need day jobs. TV and movie writers, for instance, make quite excellent livings. And you know, people who write TV and movies and don't make a living at it don't get to be called professionals. Aspiring professionals, maybe.

The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers Association (a decrepit and anachronistic organization if ever there was one) defines a professional short story publication as three cents a word, a laughable figure which hasn't changed in decades. As for "literary" short fiction, the number of publications which pay decent rates for it can be counted on the fingers of one hand -- The New Yorker, Harpers, Playboy, Esquire, and once a year the Atlantic Monthly. Did I forget anyone? On the other hand there are an ever increasing abundance of "literary magazines" with circulations in three or even two digits, published by universities or the equivalent of two guys in a garage. Nothing wrong with that, per se, but it's incredibly obvious that today having a "career" in writing short fiction and reaching out to a large audience on a regular basis simply isn't possible.

Let's be clear: I like short stories and I both read and write them. But we wouldn't need a Save the Short Story campaign if it wasn't in trouble. Let us not play pretend, let us not close our eyes and stick our fingers in our ears and make believe the art form that once provided an income for a multitude of professionals isn't becoming (or hasn't become) irrelevant to the population at large. The short story is not a healthy art form, but rather a once mighty appendage of the greater literary body that's been gradually severed off and reduced until all that remains is a single lonely ligament, desperately clinging for all its worth.

I don't want it to be this way. I want the short story to be widely read, and I too have hopes for the potential of the Internet and for the future of iPod and Kindle-type devices to allow people to read short stories easily and thus reinvigorate the form. But pretending that there's nothing wrong with the short story is not helping. It is, in fact, counter-productive, akin to the Black Knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, insisting he's fine and ready to fight after having his arms and legs chopped off. ("What are you going to do, bleed on me?") And that's just kind of laughable.

Human Smoke Roundtable

Forgot to mention, I've been participating in a round table about Nicholson Baker's book about the causes of World War II, Human Smoke. This discussion, involving a bunch of really excellent, smart people that I'm flattered to be in the company of, is currently being serialized over at Filthy Habits.

BR Myers and Where He Differs with The Blogosphere

Recently, there's been some uproar in the blogosphere about BR Myers' review of Denis Johnson's latest book. Without going into a lot of detail about my opinion of Denis Johnson—the short version: Angels kicked ass, Jesus' Son was overrated, and Already Dead was so boring I didn't finish it and haven't bothered trying to read anything Johnson has written since)—I do think that Myers's detractors are not being fair to him. Some folks seem to have confused Myers aesthetic stance with James Wood's, seeming to think that Myers assault on what he sees as bad writing is in fact a call for a return to Flaubert style psychological realism. Others seem to think that he's more in the Dale Peck school of literary car bombing, taking imprecise aim at the contemporary literary lights and not really caring who gets caught in the cross fire. In fact, neither reading of Myers is the case, and in an attempt to take seriously the ideas of a critic who I think deserves to be taken seriously, I'd like to take a moment to describe how I read Myers critical stance.

The overall thrust of all of Myers critical writing is an inversion of contemporary standards of good writing. To put it another way, Myers believes that a lot of what is taken for good writing in contemporary prose fiction is in fact bad writing and most of his criticism is an attempt to illustrate what those things are and why they are mistaken. In this pursuit, Myers appears to me to hold to several general principals.

1.) Contemporary criticism is over focussed on the sentence as a unit of composition. Myers often points out where critics are praising an author's sentences and goes so far in his Reader's Manifesto to talk at length about how he thinks its bizarre how much import has been placed on a writer's sentences. The review of Denis Johnson on Powell's blog that caused so much furor is in keeping with this criticism because he opens with pointing out how Johnson's sentences have been praised in keeping with his over all thesis. Myers has marshaled a lot of evidence for this in his oeuvre, but frankly I think he makes over much of it. Yes, there are a number of well regarded contemporary authors who seem to write sentences at the expense of everything else, but I think what is going on here with Myers is more a criticism of other critics and this doesn't have much to do with what he likes and doesn't like about authors. That is, I think he thinks this is where contemporary critics go wrong in their reading of contemporary authors, not necessarily where contemporary authors go wrong.

Friday Round-Up

There's a fascinating article at The Arts Fuse about critic Edmund Wilson, which posits Wilson as the ideal blogger:

Yet during the past decade opinionated writing about literature has grown over the Internet, from online ’zines to the ever-expanding blogosphere, where criticism takes various forms, from the sedate to the sensational. And this transformation in the cultural conversation makes Wilson’s expansive approach to his conception of the critic look prophetic. From his tell-all journals to his headstrong urge to write, along with criticism, cultural reporting, revisionist history, and social commentary, no other no other American critic in the 20th-century looks as congenial to 21st-century blogging than Edmund Wilson. Like any worthwhile blogger, he is nothing if not intensely personal. Dabney reports Isaiah Berlin’s admiring belief that his friend Wilson brought “his whole self to every word he wrote.”

The two parts can be read independently, but the first part of the same article has a lot of interesting stuff about the contrast between Wilson's prudishness as a reviewer and the hairy sex life he documented in great detail in his journals.

Some excellent writing on Stanislaw Lem, "It's hard to imagine such contemporary authors as Paul Auster, Steve Erickson, and Haruki Murakami creating their art without Lem to point the way." Also, if you've never read Bruce Sterling's take on Lem, it helps put him in context.

n+1: still crappy. I know I should give this up already, but I can't help myself.

A really excellent short short by David B Dale. The short short is so ubiquitous these days(especially on the Internet) but rarely done well, so it's nice to see someone get it right. Go read, it won't take long.

GalleyCat reports on some griping within the publishing industry which then results in mixed bag of responses. "I can tell you that my occupation does not have a bright future and working in publishing is not for the sane... I love books, but I have to say most people in America do not." One response? "TAKE YOUR WHINING ASS HOME AND START LOOKING FOR A NEW JOB."

I'd say I'd agree that merit-based publishing is a myth, but this article is far too self-aggrandizing for sympathy:

What has been interesting about the reception, now that The Child has been published, is that I have not received a single bad review. In fact, most of the reviews are ecstatic, the kind of appreciation that makes one blush. But not a single mainstream magazine or newspaper has reviewed the novel. Only the gay press and gay people writing for alternative media like the LA Weekly have acknowledged the existence of the book, and they have done so rhapsodically.

It's quite strange to live as two such different people at the same time every day. On one hand, I am someone who is creating literature that is needed, wanted, praised, and often adored by people whose representation is usually stopped by the kinds of obstacles I managed to overcome through sheer will. On the other hand, I don't exist.

I'm super awesome and I don't get the respect I deserve because THE MAN is keeping me down! WAAAH!

This is frustrating, because I know that my books have a great deal to offer that is just as valuable, or more so, than work that can access the machinery of support. I just have to hope that this horrible moment is a cyclical one, and with the forthcoming change of administration, there will also be an emotional/psychological change on the part of the gatekeepers of the culture, who will open the doors just a little bit wider, so that we can at least get back to where we were 15 years ago. And finally move forward from there.

Yeah, I really hope that the Republicans lose the White House so that your gay book will get a spread in Newsweek. Because that's why this election is important. That's what it's all about.

On a completely different note, a little late for Halloween, but here's a whole lot of stories by HP Lovecraft. Not enough for you? Here's a a motherlode of other free online writing. Don't say I never did nothing for ya.

Fiction Magazines of the Future

Daniel Green recently responded to Ed Champion's musings on what fiction magazines should be like. He writes:

...its hard to argue that with the proliferation of literary magazines, now abetted by the constant appearance of new literary journals online, that there isn't enough short fiction published in this country. Indeed, most of what is published in the existing journals goes largely unread.

True enough, certainly. But,

Publishing magazines "exclusively devoted to fiction" that "the public will buy," as futile as this enterprise would surely turn out to be, could only mean to dumb down the current tenor of literary magazines, to publish more conventional, more "accessible" fiction. I can't see what purpose this would serve. Such fiction would not be "better" for its readers than Desperate Housewives. It would identify fiction as just another entertainment option, a way to pass some time while easing up on the electricity bill. You are not better off reading a bland and undemanding short story than you are watching a bland and undemanding tv show. If just weaning a few people away from visual entertainment back to print is the goal, forget it. Not enough people will convert to make the effort worthwhile.

This seems to me a fundamental misunderstanding of what Ed was trying to say, and moreover it continues the assumption that for something to be accessible to general public it must be dumb or bland, a notion that I've objected to many times. We know that there's intelligent, interesting work that is widely loved; why point to Desperate Housewives when you can point to Lost or Deadwood? Just because something's entertaining doesn't at all mean it's bland and undemanding, and the notion that for something to be of high quality it must somehow not entertain is crazy. However, Green then writes,

What is needed is not more short story publications "exclusively devoted to fiction" that appeal more widely but fewer publications devoted exclusively to fiction (or poetry, for that matter) and more that appeal to the discerning audience for serious fiction that actually exists. What is needed is for editors of literary magazines, both established and up-and-coming, to not just publish fiction shorn of all context and mixed together in an otherwise indigestible stew but to indicate, both through editorial commentary and consistent editorial choices, what they think is important about the fiction they publish. Why have they selected it? What larger vision of the possibilities of short fiction does the selection illustrate? In my opinion, the "miscellany" approach practiced by most literary magazines--by which the "best fiction available" is printed, with little or no indication of what makes it the "best"--makes all too many of them useless; I can only make my way through a few of them, trying to find the "best" in a scattershot fashion, before I put them aside and conclude it just isn't worth my time (and sometimes money) to prospect for fiction in this way.

Which is absolutely right on, and the idea of publishing fiction, criticism and commentary with a very particular context and aesthetic was the guiding idea for this site. It makes me wonder, should we be talking more about what we publish and why we publish it? We've been fortunate enough to publish some pretty great stuff, and maybe we should do more to tell you why, what criteria exactly we're using to judge it.

In fact, one of the things I like about sf magazines and anthologies over literary ones is that they tend to have more of the editor and the author talking about their work, a few paragraphs before or after to help draw you in or give you context. It's also something I like about One Story's interviews with their own authors that give you some background. My fear is that people are seeing the fiction and poetry on this site and ignoring it, even if they like reading the commentary. And, let me tell you, most of the time on this site, the fiction and poetry is where it's at. This is partially because the commentary is mostly written by me, and the fiction and poetry is written by other people, and so I have some critical and editorial distance.