Three Musketeers: Eco, Rushdie, Vargas Llosa

I went to the "Three Musketeers" event at the 92nd Street Y which was a reading and then interview with Umberto Eco, Salmon Rushdie and Mario Vargas Llosa. I wrote about the event on Filthy Habits, and now that post was quoted by the 92Y Blog itself. Also audio of the entire event has been posted on the PEN American website. It was a pretty amazing evening, and worth listening to.

Free Books from Small Beer Press

Small Beer Press is giving away a number of their books as free downloads, including Kelly Link's Stranger Things Happen which I reviewed glowingly on this site. (Stranger Things Happen has actually been available for download for a while, their new books are Mothers and Other Monsters by Maureen F. McHugh and The Baum Plan for Financial Independence and Other Stories
John Kessel

Narrative Magazine: It's Worse Than You Thought

Over at Literary Rejections on Display, some commenters have discovered the real reason Narrative Magazine is so eager to pump up their fraudulent subscriber numbers: they sell their email list to spammers and junk mailers.

Let's be clear: Narrative Magazine is run by a bunch of scumbags. Do not patronize their website, "subscribe" or, god forbid, pay them to submit work. Avoid at all costs.

See also my original post Fuck Narrative Magazine

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.

Round Up

John Scalzi points out some problems with the "1,000 True Fans" concept. (See last week's round-up.)

Tom Bissell: still the best critic working today

From the New York Times, a history of literary fakers in honer of the latest culprit, Margaret Seltzer.

Strange Horizons gives us an excellent, in-depth review of the new Library of America collection of four Philip K. Dick novels (which, incidentally, the kindly Ed Champion just bought me for my birthday— thanks, Ed!).

The history of the graphic novel begins with Rudolph Töpffer, by comics great Chris Ware.

The Onion sums it up nicely: "Novelists Strike Fails To Affect Nation Whatsoever"

Speaking of comics, the inestimably strange and wonderful Gutsworld number 1 is available in its entirety online. It's about a civilization that has developed inside the body of an enormous leviathan, after said monster swallowed whole a ship 150 years ago.

The Reading Experience discusses the rise of science versus the rise of realism.

And lastly, the aforementioned Ed Champion ably kicks the feet out from under David Kamp on Filthy Habits. (Full disclosure: I am a co-editor of Filthy Habits.)

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.