Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Fiction in a Bottle on a Napkin from a Letter?

Commercial Magazines are in trouble this week with kiddie porn in Vanity Fair (though I happen to think the shot by Leibovitz was rather artful, but clearly against the kid's branding).  

With writers commenting here, the trouble is with Esquire:  in particular Esquire's Napkin Project and Letter-Inspired Fiction.  

My take is that the world is pushing hard to make fiction something gimmicky so that the reality-TV-watching, data-bombarded, Internet-using, non-book-reading public will find it cute.  I don't like cute fiction, but that's just me.  And since when have we aimed for Regular Joe Nonreader as the audience?  I think it's a mistake. You?

14 comments:

Anonymous said...

I thought the Miley Cyrus photo spread was in Vanity Fair...

The Unknown Writer said...

Everything is a gimmick. We're so used to that, conditioned to its omnipresence, that we're cynical and we believe nothing.

But you are so right: any attempt at something "serious" or with meaning (like a short story appearing in a magazine) has to be dolled up with a "cute" gimmick. To its detriment.

I can't help but think that, in such an environment as ours, if just one commerical magazine editor were to just go ahead and print a few serious, meaningful stories -- without any such "gimmick" -- they would be a great success. Who knows, maybe this could be the next great gimmick.

Oh yes, and those stories in Esquire are just so sad. I think that's the word for it: sad.

Anonymous said...

W,R, I think the thing to do is aim at regular Joe and Jane Reader. And I know, there aren't too many of them now. But if it's true that commercial publications don't publish good material anymore -- and like OP pointed out comparing vintage issues to now demonstrates this, at least for fiction -- then a lot of people who WOULD be a Joe or Jane Reader are actually Non-Readers now, or cynical partial Readers, or Secondhand Book Readers or some other obscure sub-genre. The people addicted to various TV shows and Internet boards and whatnot. The point would be that big commercial publishers have to start featuring good stuff again, and then Joes and Janes will start coming out of the woodwork.

Just look at this Esquire example. What they are printing now is crazy. But a cursory archive search of some of its fiction from the Arnold Gingrich heyday shows a whole different mindset: in this is lots of John Steinbeck short stories (here's one called "Flight"; lots of John Dos Passos stories, such as "The Villages Are the Heart of Spain"; a whopping seventeen F. Scott Fitzgerald stories in the "Pat Hobby" series; lots of Hemingway including "The Snows of Kilimanjaro"; Erskine Caldwell, Thomas Mann, Dylan Thomas, the list goes on.

Not saying that everyone has to go retro and write stories like Hemingway or poems like e.e. cummings. But what is it that's different about these old works and the napkin-letter-in-a-bottle gimmicks of now? My favorite, "Boil Some Water--Lots Of It" is a good example: a real STORY, and it has heart. It's entertaining, not napkin-gimmicky, doesn't look down at the reader or talk trash or resort to anything tasteless which the Esquire of today seems to revel in. And it's just GREAT WRITING. That's it right there. No wonder anyone with any sensitivity and intelligence at all is steaming mad about this Heath Ledger napkin nitwittery!

And before I go off to work, here's one final example that I think shows it all quite clearly. Google "George Hamlin Fitch" who was a columnist at the San Francisco Chronicle back 100 years ago. You can read some of his articles online. Even some of his books. The one I want to point out is this one: Comfort Found In Good Old Books.

You can read the whole thing online, or download a copy. DO IT. And just READ the friggin' thing. And think about this: how many Joes and Janes out there fit the premise of his book -- people who don't have higher degrees in English but want to be educated in the culture, want a liberal education and all the benefits of reading the best books in the world?

Now keep in mind that these chapters in this book were actually weekly COLUMNS in the Chronicle.

Sh*t, man, I read the Chronicle every DAY and there's NOTHING like this in there now. Please, just take a gander at that book I linked to, and read -- there's nothing difficult in it, it's actually quite readable, simple, straightforward. But what wonderful ideas! What sincerity! What depth and meaning! And it's SERIOUS ... see, why can't the Chronicle do that now? Why don't we see columns like this, why do we have to turn to a book that's A HUNDRED FRIGGING YEARS OLD to get this sort of substance? It actually READS like it could have been published this morning, doesn't it? That's the thing -- we need stuff like this. And fiction like this. Yes, the Grand Theft Auto culture is working against this sort of thing today -- young editors want to make everything "cool" and "relevant" when instead they should be featuring great stuff like those columns on Shakespeare and Dante or stories and poetry with meaning -- there's NO REASON why Shakespeare, Dante, good stores and poetry SHOULD NOT BE RELEVENT to young people today! You don't have to doll stuff up in gimmicks -- that's just another way of saying that young people are imbeciles who can't relate to anything than the junk in front of them, which is another way of saying you're going to perpetuate this madness. However, if more publishers got responsible and did this sort of thing again, I think Joes and Janes would come out of the woodwork all over and it would make for a big, wonderful change for the better.

Whew, long post, but what can I say? I love this blog -- it's about the only place in the world where you can have a serious discussion about the current state of serious literature. Keep on keepin' on, people.

Dave Clapper said...

I agree with Unknown Writer that it'd be great to see excellent stories printed in mainstream mags as the next "gimmick." Not so sure I agree that it's a mistake to target Regular Joe Nonreader. Turning anyone into a reader is a success, even if it has to start out with gimmicky crap. The key, to me, is to make sure that new reader has something available to read that's the next step up the literary chain.

So, okay, fine... do the napkin stuff (although I doubt that's what going to pull Joe Nonreader in, frankly). But then follow it up in the next issue with something good.

Dave Clapper said...

Anon, we posted at the same time, so I didn't refer back to your comment in mine, but I'll just say: preach on, brother (or sister)! That market exists, but isn't being served.

Steve said...

Maybe the mistake we're making is believing that our fiction has to appear in these national venues in order for fiction to make a comeback. What if fiction had more of an indie buzz, kept it real, offered stories not of intellectual effetery but of the actual struggles of people we recognize and whose lives offer us a template for examining our own experiences. Must we wait for the Esquire's of the world? Or must we first narrow our approach, start with the grass roots.

bookfraud said...

there's a place for this cute type of gimmick (see "what white people like"); sadly, it's at a magazine that was once a proud publisher of fiction. i agree that fiction on a napkin is for our attention-span depraved culture, but who really wants to read this stuff? somebody's rambling on a napkin?

PUC said...

Then again, what's a napkin for? They should start up a napkin press, print bundles, and sell them to restaurants. Diners could have a literary discussion over their meal. You think Bukowski wouldn't be all over this? You bet he would!

Writer Reading said...

I'm still preoccupied with Dear commercial magazine editor and the last few posts which I think you should amplify in a post on your blog, even listing at least some of the universities, endowments and lit. magazine editors and put some pressure on them. Change has to start somewhere. Whining is cathartic but not enough.

the unknown writer said...

Steve, I like your idea. Start small, where we can. It will filter up. (Corporate Media always copies from the indies.) Are you thinking established magazines, like n+1 and McSweeney's, or the tiny indies like Tarpaulin Sky, Alice Blue and Forklift, Ohio? Or a brand new pub or set of pubs that are specifically for this, and keeping it real? Only catch I see is the $ issue, which is such a complaint now. I don't think indies will be able to pay? But maybe that's just part of the struggle for now. I would contribute to something like this gladly. I think you've got it, why wait for the Esquire's of the world when it looks like they have no intention of going the right way? And an indie buzz will make this huge. The kind of grass roots venues people will pass among friends or link to.

Warren Adler said...

The avalanche of people burning to be practitioners of the art of fiction will, with the advent of the new technologies, one day get their works to readers eager to find their wisdom, insight and enjoyment outside the box of the traditional suppliers of such fare. They may not make best seller lists, which glorifies popularity as the crowning achievement of literary worth, but they will at the very least have a chance to win the grand prize, meaning a life changing shot at contemporary influence and perhaps a contribution to the collective wisdom of mankind. I know this sounds a bit schmaltzy, but it makes the point about the value of fiction in creating a moral compass for the benefit of the human race.

Writer, Rejected said...

Well put re: a good reason we write fiction. Moral compass and all. Remember when that was what it meant to be a writer? I find these days of celebrity worship to be confusing time. Whatever happened to contributing to the collective wisdom? I think mostly I write to figure out what the heck is going on in the world; at the very least, to know what I think about it.

big, bad al said...

Anon #2, thank you so much for those links. Those stories were so right on. Where can you find that caliber of work now? That was the day. And this is the night, with the "napkin fiction project" and endless gimmicks.

I think I'll go stick my head in the oven.

Tell me when it's morning.

Warren Adler said...

Well put, Writer, Rejected.