Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Psuedo-literary Ficto-tainment?

An interesting update on the Zadie Smith/Willesden Herald mess at The Coming of the Toads. Apparently, there's been a response letter from Smith and Willesden Herald. Here's an excerpt: “Just like everybody, we at The Willesden Herald are concerned about the state of contemporary literature. We are depressed by the cookie-cutter process of contemporary publishing, the lack of truly challenging and original writing, and the small selection of pseudo-literary fictio-tainment that dominates our chain bookstores.” As Toads' joelinker points out: "Does that describe the stories they received? We don’t know."

Here's a link to the letter in full. What do you think?

40 comments:

Anonymous said...

I'm quite happy about this. It's the same reason I don't support literary journals -- they contain nothing (or nearly nothing) worth reading. If the same kind of stories were being sent to Zadie Smith as appear in these journals, then three cheers to her for having the guts to say no to the lot of them. I mean, if the short story wasn't dead, we wouldn't have this problem in the first place. These editors, it's like a club. They all think the same. And they live in an insular dream world. The only way we'll see the short story come back is by more courageous people like Zadie. We need someone like that to get in power at a big site like Slate or Salon or something. Even a paper that's online, like LA Times or Boston Globe. Maybe Yahoo! content will experiment with buying stories. Whoever does it, then people will have something good to read at work, and the short story will be on the rise again.

I think joelinker makes another good point. Poetry gets 90,000 submissions and prints 300. No way are those things read by their what, two editors. No way. Those people are envelope stuffers, that's all. Need proof? Read the contributor notes in any issue of Poetry (yea they're all online, just click on the samples and read the bios on the left). Notice any commonality? Think any of those come through the slush pile? Think any slush pile entries get a fighting chance? Heh. So that means tons of people waste postage and time, stay obscure, meanwhile whole spectrums of poetry get the shaft. (If you don't write free verse, you have like 4 obscure journals willing to read your stuff. Everybody says they're "open to all forms" but in practice it's all the same free verse everywhere. Most of these editors probably don't even understand anything else.)

What a total crock.

Anonymous said...

I gotta call bullshit on the idea that there's nothing good in literary journals. Yes, you must wade through some crap...no doubt. But the same is true about whole shelves at the library. Ain't nobody knocking the library.

And I'm calling bullshit on the idea that stories somehow need to "come back." There are some brilliant stories every year in "The Best American" series. Some crap, too. Some favoritism. But some wonderful, insightful stories.

No more crying. No more. The writing of a short story is a labor of love and the best reward is not money but waking up the next day and doing it again. Keep doing that, brothers and sisters, and then maybe we'll see fiction make a comeback.

bookfraud said...

"more courageous people like zadie."

more accurate is "more self-righteous, self-serving snobs like zadie."

i wouldn't be surprised if they decided not to award something just for the shitstorm they knew would happen. the willesdenherald gets a ton of publicity; zadie smith becomes a the leading crusader against bad fiction (presumably unlike the perfection that she writes) by spitting on unpublished writers who probably spent a hell of a lot of time preparing their entries.

the point of joelinker's excellent post is if short stories today are so poor that the esteemed willesden herald can't find anything suitable to win a contest, they how can they find anything suitable to publish in their journal?

what's more sickening is that they lack the courage of their convictions. as you note, high priestess zadie bemoans "the small selection of pseudo-literary fictio-tainment that dominates our chain bookstores," but doesn't have the courage to name names. if she's really that concerned about fiction, she would publish an essay somewhere, not take a crap on those who have the nerve not to be as talented as she is.

the whole thing is nauseating.

Anonymous said...

"the best reward is not money but waking up the next day and doing it again"

Accurately describes the masturbatory state of fiction to me.

Anyway, my landlord disagrees with the quoted above.

gypsy eyes said...

bookfraud, you are so right zadie should name names and that would truly take nerve/courage. anybody can complain. doesn't help. if you name names, thats what puts something to your words. i say she should do it. it would be so different if she said you know "zoetrope is lame" or "nobody reads ploughshares anyway" or whatever, just lays into the scene ... a lot can be said ... but otherwise, i think to generalize like she does about being all "concerned on the desperate state of the short story" well, it comes off like a load of hot air.

as for yahoo content.... scary, I too have wondered about this, they're almost like a general interest magazine with a list of air travel tips, article on how prescription drugs are the New addiction on campus ... it must all be freelance... yes they should do fiction...

Anonymous said...

The masturbator state of fiction? Your landlord?

Dude, trying to pay your rent by selling short stories: a) will leave you homeless in short order; and b) won't necessarily make your fiction any better.

Have you noticed the downward spiral of the financially successful literary artist? It's a luxury to have time to write. To want to get paid on top of that--to make a living from it--that just smacks of entitlement.

But, hey, if that's what you want, the financial reward, go for it. Some people make it work. They are also f-ing brilliant and probably (just guessing here) don't blame others (i.e. agents or journals, as shitty as these folks can be) for their lack of success.

I mean, help me understand. You're mad at the state of fiction today because the way the deck is stacked makes it harder for you to cash in? Sorry. I can't help but think that there are way bigger issues and stakes in the fact that people don't read for shit anymore. Our current Prez being a good example.

Gloria, Writer Reading said...

I'm not clear if the alleged problem with the short story is the stories that journals actually choose over stories that are rejected that might actually be better and more original but don't fit the contemporary literary specifications. That again makes me question Zadie Smith's refusal to give out a prize. Since she only read a few of the pre-chosen stories, perhaps there were a slew of better ones in the reject pile. We've all had stories rejected that we were certain were better than those in the boring literary journals that I, too, have simply stopped reading. Not that we are the best judges of our own work.

Anonymous said...

People don't read for shit? Have you ever gone to a newsstand recently? Ever see anything BUT shit there? Ever read Publishers Weekly? See how dumb it is? What do you expect. Of course they don't read. They're smart. They know shit when they see it, and keep away.

Anonymous said...

I kind of feel that way about your posts. That's for sure.

Celina said...

So. Did Zadie like reject the whole contest after only reading the top few entries? The ones her screener gave her? If so that is just so wrong. She should go back and read through all of them before she calls off the contest. Otherwise, it's just not fair.

Anonymous said...

Top anon here, coming back. Responding to anon 2 if you're still here. I agree w/ you about a lot of crap in the journals, but I don't really understand your argument. I suggest that short stories (and poetry) could have their big comeback if mainstream media opened up to publishing good commercial stories and poetry (ie, not like what's in the journals). You say that's a bad idea? You like it how it is now, when short stories are hidden away and no one reads them? And the labor of love thing sounds incredibly elitist and ivory tower to me. Sorry, but I don't have the luxury of a college or university handing me a paycheck while I keep myself smug and satisfied. I write for my readers. And I write to get paid.

Anonymous said...

I commented late the last time a post about this came up, but here's what I said:

As one of the 10 finalists in this contest, I have to say that I respect Zadie's decision (even if I don't agree with it), but I was appalled by the tone of her letter, which was insulting and condescending. In some ways, it would have been better to be in the pile of non-finalists, because then I could have least said, "Well, mine obviously got lost in the shuffle; if Zadie had read it, she would've loved it!" There's something humiliating about being deemed not-good-enough by the brit lit queen herself.
***

It's unfair and stupid to claim that everything in lit mags is bad. You can't say that with confidence unless you are spending hours upon hours reading the many journals out there. Of course some of the work is bad, and some might not be to your taste, but I think there's a lot of exciting fiction getting published, by emerging and established writers.

Gloria, Writer Reading said...

Celina: About Zadie only reading the top pics, it's true if you believe everything you read on LROD which I do because (1)It's on the Internet so it must be true and (2)LROD is third-gendered and those people never lie.

Writer, Rejected said...

LOL, Gloria! But also remember that we are oft mistaken, so believe what you read here with a grain. It is generally reported from other unverified literary sources. So, God knows what's really "true."

Anonymous said...

I don't think there's anything elitist about calling one's work a labor of love. In the end, it's only a love of the work that makes the shame and humiliation of the publication process worthwhile. After all the stupid agents and editors have shown us their asses, we get to return to the work of writing fiction/memoir/poems. Isn't that what this blog is about--enduring the stupidity of others?

If you write for readers and to get paid, that's great. I envy you. You should keep doing that.

pr said...

So why doesn't the Willesden Herald publish "A Change of Season" or "Deus Ex Machina"?
I tabulated the votes and found that the answer to your question - "Should This Story Be Published?" - is a "Yea," and by a wide margin. This is true for both stories. Anybody can check it out.
I set criteria for the counting, but I won't bore you with them.
Any way you cut it, the numbers were most definitely in favor of publication.
So how about you editors out there trying something outside the box? Just try. Open the door and you may hear a voice calling from the street. (What is this person saying?)
As for the type of magazine I'd like to see my work appear in, I'll put it this way: I write to be read (which is why I stopped writing). I'm not much concerned with payment, though I think, on principle, that writers should be fairly compensated.
Lastly, thank you, writer, rejected, for allowing this experiment to go on.
The excerpt you quote regarding the depressing lack of truly challenging and original writing has led to some volatile reactions. Maybe enough people are sick of what is being put on our plate. We want more nourishing food.

Anonymous said...

I hate to say this because I'm afraid someone who rejected may see this, but I'm going to go out on a limb here.

The entrants of this contest are only a reflection of the Willesden itself. Who does Zadie think entered her contest? The audience of Willesden. They are the ones who read the advertisement for the contest, they are the ones who submitted. So honestly, Zadie and the contest editors are putting themselves on the "shit list" along with the apparent undeserving entrants.

Jokes on you, Willesden.

-C

Anonymous said...

pr, I wouldn't look to them to change the menu. I think they want to starve us. A weak population is an easy one. We will have to look elsewhere. Remember, getting your story in which of these magazines/sites will make you widely read? Only magazines/sites that don't do stories, for the most part. Meanwhile, magazines/sites like "Vice" and "Gawker" are flourishing. These are dark times my friend.

pr said...

I agree, previous Anon (and thanks for the feedback). Times are dark. Editors won't change the menu (or open the door), and the public at large doesn't give a damn about the literary fiction of today. That includes those who visit this site; they care about what they wrote. I'm guilty of that too, though I read fiction every day. But it's fiction written in the past. When I check out something recent, from an aclaimed author, I'm mostly disappointed.
Yet my hope was that editors would give a different kind of fiction a chance. Harpers, Atlantic Monthly (in their once-a-year fiction issue). Zoetrope.
You'll say -- rightly -- "Dream on."
MLK had a dream, one that involved opening doors. But many millions in this country cared about civil rights. This uproar about literary fiction is a big tempest in a very small teapot.

Anonymous said...

pr, I'm like you. I read fiction every day, but most of it that I truly love comes from our dead forefathers. There is some I love today. Most of it is marginalized or comes from marginalized groups and writers. Yes, even a little bit of it's from the journals. But not much. I do subscribe to several, although every time I get that first issue in the mail I regret having paid for it. Why? Because the amount of tasteless and/or "academic" writing is always the majority. What I'm after is completely underrepresented. And besides, I'm completely against the notion that supporting the litmags will do anything at all for fiction. It won't. Because when people like me say that "fiction is dead" we don't mean that nobody's writing short stories or anything like that, we mean that there are no mainstream forums for our kind of stories. There are very few (perhaps no) academic forums for the kinds of stories I want to write, either. There was a period of years where I wrote no stories. It was not due to lack of interest. It was simply because there was no outlet for them. The academics like this illusion of writing "for writing's sake" and that a true writer will always write even if it's all for naught. I don't buy it and I think the history of great writers will support my idea that writers write for an audience. Writing is not a once-only operation, it requires two people at minimum, the writer and the reader. You want to be more than a good writer ... want to be a great writer? Write for your whole generation. Trouble is my generation is stratified. We're culturally divided so there is nothing to grab hold of. This is global too and many cultures are experiencing the same upheaval. So we have to satisfy ourselves with tiny specialized segments of a larger divided culture. I refuse to do that. But without an outlet, a writer is useless and impotent.

I predict that the Atlantic Monthly annual fiction issue will end with Curtis. Fiction in Harpers might end with Alice Munro. Zoetrope will not outlast Coppola's daughter. By that time, less people will read or speak English in America and Europe anyway and the great writing in our language will be further in the past.

We need something bigger than these few, fading hold-outs. It's a tiny teapot, but maybe enough of us can put something on the web that will attract notice. Not another journal, but something for mainstream culture, an antidote to the "Vice" and "Gawker" attitudes of the media world. When Nick Denton and a few of his associates began Gawker, it was a very small time operation. Slashdot started with one guy. Drudge Report might have had assistance later but it was a man and his dad for many years. Maybe someone clever can do the same for good fiction and poetry. Unlike yet another journal, it will be very controversial because it won't be trendy, won't publish the same old stories and poems. People will care about it because they'll see what the site is trying to do, in the face of all that's out there. You don't need a big teapot to start with if you want to make a huge change, as long as you have the support of the media. But what will work against us is that, unlike the causes/upheavals of the late '60s, this is not a cause/upheaval that will be supported by the media. In fact they will probably demonize the publisher and all the writers associated with it. But when that happens, that's when you know you're on the right track.

pr said...

Amen. We're reading the literary landscape the same way, and it's a bleak view. But -- you suggest -- not hopeless.
Who is the "someone clever"? I imagine him running fiction that tells a story, has authentic (not hothouse produced) characters, is written to entertain the reader, not impress him. Stories that have a point. And that do not depend on smut and/or gore.
Are there readers for this type of fiction? Can the term "literary" be redeemed in the public's mind?

Anonymous said...

Emily Dickinson

Anonymous said...

pr, I think you hit it with the idea of redemption. That's exactly what we need. Not only for the term "literary" but for many other things -- the whole stinking culture. Everything is divided and against each other, and we need it whole. Historically there have been few authorities that have played this role of unifying force, but we were always at our best when our culture was so guided. Today it isn't there. Notably, it ended in the '60s. Whether it's only been eclipsed (a temporary chastisement) or is permanent (the end of western civ) remains to be seen.

But publishing-wise, to come out and attempt such a thing as we're talking about, a new publication that will champion the kind of work that has become maligned (even forbidden), will be tough. Everything today has to be its own little subculture. To reject your place in that cage and speak for the "all" is how to do it; but some may say that doing so you'll be giving a model for what that "all" should be -- a big no-no. You will have to break taboos when you want to demonstrate moral truth (and the idea that all great art is not the subjective elephant-dung of recent decades, but rather like our classical Roman and Greek forefathers is *always* a demonstration of moral truth: "truth in action" in fact is the most succinct definition of art I know). If you attempt this in public, expect to be vilified. They will be shocked by it. They'll say "What, you dare to question our endless use of more smut/gore to 'push the limits'? That's what art is for! And what is this poetry built on metaphor? Loosen up, you fogey! What's this now, you've rejected the questioning-of-authority as a way of being, and insist in the concepts of authority and eternal truth? Don't you dare tell *me* what to do!"

It will be hated by the media and many. Banned, vilified. But for those who are awake, it will be unmistakable. A bright flame in a bleak dark age.

I have been following this blog for a few months now and the discussion at times has been tremendous and uplifting. It seems to be at its best when it draws this great polarization, like on the death of fiction. I read plenty but I agree with the voices who say that fiction died -- and I've been thinking about how that happened and how to bring it back. I just don't know, but I do keep coming back to all the upheavals of the '60s. At the time, some writers did see what was happening and made note, including Evelyn Waugh and Flannery O'Connor. Just a few comments here and there, usually in private letters, but looking back it all adds up. That's why my heart about stopped back about a month ago with that post about how the troubles really began with postmodernism and the late '60s. It felt true to me, and undeniable; very, very few authors of now are as satisfying as those who came before that time and I often ask, Why? The world has always been light against dark but something very subtle, very big happened all around the world in that time and nothing has been right since, despite the best efforts and intents of many.

To answer your question, I know there are readers for this type of fiction, but I assume that the people who "know" that they are such readers are on average older -- more or less the same people who "know" that things have been waning for the past few decades. Media, however, works its spell on youth. And the youth of now, children of the boomers and early x'ers, don't know much of anything (except that "everything's relative" and that the past is bad and reading is pointless unless it's jokes or for immediate sexual stimulus). Getting to them will be a trick. Maybe the bottom does have to drop out first before things can get better, and the waning of the arts has been the early warning it always is in such a time, so that those of good will and who can see may get ready and prepare.

Anonymous said...

You want to speak for "all"? Gimme a fucking break.

And by the way: don't you think that there were a whole group of people in the 60s who thought Flannery O'Connor was a hack? That the "good" writing was disappearing at an alarming rate? How many writers that we consider brilliant today were irrelevant in their own time? How many had to be rescued from the dustbin of history?

And by the way, whatever happened to not trusting anybody over 30? Oh, that's right. The people who jumped on that bandwagon turned 30. Then 40, 50, 60. And are starting to sound like the people they rebelled against. Hell, we even had a boomer prez who wanted to re-enact Vietnam except in the middle east this time.

Anonymous said...

Can't you ever post on here without resorting to cussing and losing
your temper?

Writer, Rejected said...

In literary debate, tempers will flair.

Writer, Rejected said...

...or will they flare?

Anonymous said...

Didn't you know that gen x-ers swore all the time? :)

pr said...

Nobody around today can write nearly as well as Evelyn Waugh, and he was extremely popular in his day. Now he's largely unread, so I guess you could say he's in the dustbin of history (though they made a TV series out of his worst novel-- Brideshead Revisited -- so that may have gotten some to read the book; a shame).
Read A Handful of Dust or Decline and Fall or Black Mischief or the war trilogy, Sword of Honour.
No, it won't happen. If you haven't already read Waugh, you won't now. Most minds are closed to work from the past.
Reading, a study showed, utilizes parts of the brain that activities like movie or TV watching or video games don't; I believe those parts of the brain have atrophied in the young. (And, yes, I'm an old fogey.) Two of the demands that reading makes are concentration and imagination.
By the way, who has been rescued from the dustbin of literary history?

bookrack said...

Herman Melville, for one, comes to mind.

Anonymous said...

Faulkner, Melville, Hurston, Mary Austin, H.D. Thoreau (if you consider the fact that at the time of his death he was basically out of print.)

pr said...

I should of said "current" -- because those discoveries were made long ago. Also, these people aren't being read (outside of assigned reading).
Neither Faulkner nor the Melville of Moby Dick and Pierre will ever be popular; they are too difficult. I count this against them.
I don't even know of Mary Austin! I'll need to do a bit of research.

bookrack said...

Well, the "current" ones are up for grab... John Barth might make a good canditate. "The Floating Opera" might be his most accessible.

Dunce Too said...

Barth is already too mainstream. How about "Shamp of the City Solo"? But Toole's "A Confederacy of Dunces," taken by the author's mother, following his suicide, from New Orleans to Loyola, when Walker Percy was there, might just be the most contemporary example of this "rescue" being discussed?

Anonymous said...

pr, I have to go. If you care to continue the discussion you can reach me through blogmouse at hotmail dot com. No April Fools joke, but spring is here and have to migrate to the open fields.

pr said...

Toole is legitimate.
If it weren't for Walker Percy's efforts, Confederacy would still be unknown.
Besides his promotion of the book, Percy's introduction -- an artful piece of writing -- set the tone for readers: an author who committed suicide, his rejected manuscript that is actually a masterpiece.
Now the book had romance, a compelling history! Who wouldn't want to be one of those able to recognize the author's genius?
Thelma Toole made the right decision (after sending it out to numerous publishers): get help from someone with connections.

Anonymous said...

Toole did this when? Percy's been dead for how long. Also the book was rescued by a working writer, not by academia. So this is actually a counter-example to the above argument that it's all relative and there's no major difference between the situation today and how it was before the late 60's.

We just can't avoid it. Contemporary publishing is in a precarious state.

Anonymous said...

It was bad back then. It's much worse now.

Anonymous said...

In response to the Anonymous poster who claimed that the editors at Poetry Magazine don't read through their slush pile, I can assure you, as a former employee of the Magazine, that this is incorrect. Every submission *is* read by a human being and judged on its merits; however, as is the case at virtually every magazine or journal, the person who reads the bulk of the submissions that will be tossed is, to put it politely, a flunky.

Anonymous said...

WR: That last comment is a classic - the one from Nov 09. I'm surprised you haven't given it its own posting: A Bureaucracy of Poetry.