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Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Publish (Your Own), or Perish

At the risk of losing more readers due to the hairy ongoing debate over academic writing and literary journals, I want to make a public response to this dude's comment:
a nameless (and blameless) editor said...

"Sigh. I have been irritated by these comments on this blog and only wonder what the motive could possibly be. Will some people never learn?This is not the day of Flannery O'Connor or F. Scott Fitzgerald or whoever your heroes happen to be. Their day is past. You probably don't use a typewriter to draft your stories, either. In case you haven't noticed, literature is more or less an academic industry now and the MFA has become its gold standard, even outside of the so called "ivory tower"; almost every literary agent under 30 has an MFA. You expect to be taken seriously without one? Think about it, people.I hold a fiction editor post at an upper tier journal. While we are technically open to anyone, I do have to wonder about those outside academia who are submitting. I have to question your motive.

And I'll tell you why my serious attention is given to submissions that come from an MFA graduate or student. First, because it shows dedication: he or she is serious about the writing craft; this person has decided to make the craft his or her professional career. Second, because it shows that a qualified authority has also seen at least some ability in this person's writing, and is guiding them appropriately. But there is also an unavoidable third reason. As a teacher my salary does comes from student tuition, and I say with confidence that all teachers in my position realize this. It behooves us to support the very system that keeps us going, so common sense says to pay closer attention and give extra support to those who are part of it. You don't have to have the MFA yet, but as long as you're working on it, it shows that you're serious.

Even if you choose to ignore me, think of the practical considerations, people. If you don't have an MFA or aren't working on one, I have to ask: what are you doing??? This is an academic journal of new writing; almost everyone who reads it is teaching writing or somehow connected to the "ivory tower".

Among journals, we are among the more generous; besides the token copies and discounts, we pay $20 per page for literary fiction. It usually works out to around $200 for an accepted story. This is a nice perk, but if you're not a student, you're simply taking these funds away from those emerging or established professionals they were intended for. Surely you don't expect to survive on acceptance monies alone!"

Dude: First, why blameless? I don't even get that; you must feel guilty about something. Second, I don't have an MFA, and I have won your upper-tier journal's literary contest, or at least I've been a runner-up in several just like yours. And if you are the Iowa Review (which I know you're not because D.H. would never write such classist drivel), I've been a finalist for your fiction award. Readers: I say it's worth all the money I laid out for those academic review contests, every cent, because the conests are blind, and it never mattered that I didn't have an MFA, and now I get to shove it in this nameless editor's face (not my usual style, but justified, I think). Also, I say this: it's a pretty sad state of affairs when editors of well-established academic journals admit that they would rather publish work by their own (or other) MFA students, than publish good writing. Period.

The death of fiction: case closed.


Anonymous said...

boo-yah. you go w,r!!

Anonymous said...

This quote comes to mind:

"God knows people who are paid to have attitudes toward things, professional critics, make me sick; camp following eunuchs of literature. They won't even whore. They're all virtuous and sterile. And how well meaning and high minded. But they're all camp followers." ~ Ernest Hemingway

Anonymous said...

I think he's overstating his importance. I've been a literary magazine editor, I know lots of them, and no one gives a shit about MFAs.

Anonymous said...

Then why, literary magazine editor, are literary magazines filled with writing by MFA grads?
Maybe you wouldn't have this blog for the rejected, w,r, if you had a MFA. One gives you an opportunity to impress people who can help you, if you're socially adept at that sort of thing (some aren't). Admittedly, there are other ways of making contacts with the right people.
But a submission to the slush pile, from a nobody? Forget it.
Also, I thought you were through with the contest bit. Disillusioned and cynical. They're as blind as Ted Williams when he hit over .400.

Anonymous said...

[the mfa] shows dedication: he or she is serious about the writing craft...this person has decided to make the craft his or her professional career. Second, because it shows that a qualified authority has also seen at least some ability in this person's writing, and is guiding them appropriately.

it's a good thing i wasn't drinking my coffee when i read that. someone hasn't really been looking closely at mfa programs -- do you really think that most of the students there are "more serious" than those who are cranking out pages in his or her spare time? and that "qualified authority" somehow validates a writer's ability?

i have an mfa, and i can say this is monkeycrap.

Writer, Rejected said...

Anon: I am over literary contests, which means I'm still sending out to them. :-)

BookFraud: You're right. Plus those degrees are mainly cash cows for higher ed institutions. They cash in on the dream. I heard the other day that Iowa Writer's Workshop had a reunion, and most of the folks with MFA's were bankers and insurance agents, and only 1% were writers. That's how it is. If you are serious, and writing has you by the throat, then there's now way around it, no matter whether you have a degree or not.

Monkeycrap to the rest of it!

Anonymous said...

i just wanna say i like your blog. i have an mfa. i didn't want to go that way at first; i had my heroes, and like the editor accuses you, i had dreams of being like them. i really did. thought i had a chance to be a 'great american writer.' after getting my ba i went to new york and worked in publishing, lived in a rathole, the works. pretty soon five years went by and i wasn't getting anywhere but older. what i did learn, though, was that no infrastructure exists to help a guy with the ambitions i had: i don't really do the new yorker style, and i learned the hard way that all the other magazines out there weren't interested in fiction. i kept sending, i met a few at parties, i walked in off the street, had chutzpah, tried everything. nothing will change the fact that these magazines don't buy fiction (unless you're norman mailer or something). i had no outlet to aspire to, so i didn't write stories. i tried, but i had nothing to shape them for, no market to shoot to. i felt impotent. i also worked on 'the novel.' and worked on it. and i thought it had some promise but i also learned (again, the hard way) that there are no max perkins editors out there. it's not the job of editors to go out and hunt for 'young promise' or correspond with people they think might be talents to guide and nurture or whatever. when you submit it's got to be perfect. and you can't submit to editors, you have to go to agents. and yes, more and more of them were of the mfa mindset (especially toward the end when more and more of them were younger than me). i thought about changing course, heading west and doing screenplays. but it seemed so foreign. my models are novelists and short story writers. in the end i decided to forget the path of my role models because it didn't seem to exist. so i went back and did the mfa thing. got out in 2005. got a job that allows me to talk about writing all day and work on my stories. finished several of them and got them in some of the 'better' journals. now i have an agent and she's working on selling the collection. looking back at thirty i realize i haven't written nearly as much as any of my heroes. i also see that what i've done hasn't had nearly the kind of impact that i hoped to have when i was an 18 year old undergrad with visions of being the next great american author. i just don't think fiction has the power to affect the culture anymore in the ways that it once did. not at all. is it the fault of the agents? trust me, plenty of them would not recognize a lost classic by tolstoy if it came onto their desk. probably wouldn't recognize a known classic by tolstoy either if you took off the title page. but to their credit they are sales people, and they can only take on what sells. is it the editors? in my experience they don't do the same kind of editing that editors used to, but they're strapped by their bosses and have to do what they're told. and they are alarmingly young, a lot have the 'party' mindset i saw in college, i do question that, being how publishing used to be so sophisticated and now doesn't seem to be at all. every book has to have some kind of twisted angle to get their interest. everything has to be 'relevant' now. so is it the publishers? they are in for the big sale, publishing was never a very profitable business to begin with but now that all industry here has gone 'soft' and publishing has merged with other media they seem to have no choice, they can't afford to push sophsiticated or 'heady' stuff on the public. so is it the writers? i don't know any writers out there who've gotten as far as i have without making some sacrifice in principles. i did the mfa because i knew i would get connections, and i did. but to give us credit, as your blog has pointed out, in no way can any of us make even a low-income living as a working fiction writer. it doesn't work anymore, so what else can we do. so is it the fault of the reading public, and the people out there who don't read? i don't know, but how many people can you name who are avid readers of literary fiction or stories or poetry anymore and are not with backgrounds of higher education? i know a lot of old people who read and who seem to always have read. my grandpa was a laborer but he could quote a few bits of longfellow. not so with young people. even in school, especially in my undergrad days, people partied much more than they spent time learning. we americans love a wild party. but i think it's all catching up on us, with the war, the looming depression, the fact that high school kids today seem dumber than yesterday's five year olds. i don't know what's going to happen but it doesn't seem like it will be good. i'm just glad i have the job i do, i think it's the best solution out there especially after reading your blog. i have to say i don't really dream about being a big name 'great american writer' anymore. because honestly, i just can't see who my readers would be. not in this america. they're all watching tv.

Writer, Rejected said...

You know what's weird?

I've had a parallel emotional journey, minus the MFA. Also same level of scant success with the ebb and flow of hope and ambition.

Maybe this is to say that at some level in this difficult environment: a writer is a writer is a writer.

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Anonymous said...

"getting it off my chest," you make me want to sit next to you and offer you a cup of steaming tea and put my arm around you and say it's not going to be ok, but at least I feel just as you do and we have each other. and then you offer me a cup of tea and put *your* arm around me and say, "i know, tell me all about it."

i think your reading of the situation is so right on. even if things are depressing, it's good to know one is not alone.

Anonymous said...

"would not recognize a lost classic by tolstoy if it came onto their desk"

Oh, but good work is always recognized. You must not be sending it out enough.