Make Contributors’ Notes Great Again

May 8, 2017 | 2 books mentioned 2 4 min read

1.
A couple of weeks ago, browsing through a literary magazine, I turned — like most writers — to the final section: the contributors’ notes. As my finger traced over the two dozen or so names, I felt a giddy mixture of apprehension and excitement: Who did I make it in with? Am I sandwiched between a 68-page Joyce Carol Oates story told from the point-of-view of a Steve Bannon-a-like and a Ron Carlson piece waxing romantically about his boyhood in Utah? No. All were unfamiliar names — a combined mass of the up-and-coming MFA students of America, a respectable mid-tier covey of professors, and one or two writers from outside of the academic system.

The series of quasi-biographical statements made references to a wife here, a dog there, a college town somewhere in the Midwest. The contributors’ notes manifested as potted CVs, detailing professorships, university press books, semi-prestigious fellowships, names of MFA programs. Almost 90 percent of the biographical space listed the other literary journals the writers had been in, other places readers could hunt down their work. The stream of journal titles became an indicator of stature, a look-see-here, I’m in the Kenyon Review! And you’re not. My own note was just as guilty of journal-shaming.

Still, in my time reading literary magazines, I’ve read some egregious proclamations, including one obscure novelist declaring his work to be the heir to Franz Kafka’s oeuvre. On other occasions: I’ve ripped out the cutesy baby pictures published in Glimmer Train; I’ve wondered if anyone contacts the writers who include their e-mail addresses and Twitter handles; I’ve laughed at writers’ insistence on providing wacky lists of mundane and weird jobs, these romantic notions of the literary outsider.

2.
Some years ago, I published a short story involving an ever more fractious dialogue between the contributors of a made-up journal The Tenure Quarterly Review. Arranged as contributors’ notes, the story assaulted the ponderous and solipsistic nature of the genre. To complicate matters, the story had its own tumultuous publication history. For some inexplicable reason, the story’s title and my name appeared above the journal’s real contributors’ notes and my story was nowhere to be seen. My name hung there as the author of other people’s lives. When I showed a close friend the magazine, he joked I was the Creator, the God of these poets and fiction writers. In truth, I was much less than this. I was an embarrassed MFA student. No doubt there had been a botch-up at the printers, or someone had figured out the actual contributors’ notes were more compelling than my story.

coverWhen I wrote the story for workshop, the year before, our teacher Matthew Vollmer had been putting together an anthology for Norton. Co-edited by David Shields, the book — Fakes: An Anthology of Pseudo-Interviews, Faux-Lectures, Quasi-Letters, “Found” Texts, and Other Fraudulent Artifacts — included stories that used the postmodern apparatus of inventive form.

We read such stories as Robin Hemley’s “Reply All” (e-mail chain), Rob Cohen’s “The Varieties of Romantic Experience: An Introduction” (lecture), Rick Moody’s “Primary Sources” (works cited), and Daniel Orozco’s “Officers Weep” (police blotter). At the time in workshop, Vollmer termed such work artifact fiction. A good deal of the forms were nonfiction and taken from academia or the world of employment. When the class took on this writing challenge, it occurred to me this sort of form appropriation were our last impotent jabs at the jobs we had left behind or were facing post-graduation.

coverThe day of my workshop, one smart aleck noted how my chosen form had already been done. I glanced up, mystified. The student went onto discuss Michael Martone’s 2005 story collection Michael Martone, an entire book of fictional contributor notes about Michael Martone. Very quickly I realized I had written an imitation without ever having read the original. Worse than feeling parasitical, I felt derivative.

After class, I bought a copy of Martone’s book, but stopped short of reading it. I changed my story from revolving around a single character to be polyphonous, with each new contributor’s note having its own voice and role in the story. After some polishing, Vollmer liked the differences from Martone’s set-up and encouraged me to send out the story. Within a couple of weeks, a journal snapped up the story. After the misprinting fiasco, it took a long while for the story to be seen in print. E-mails to the editors went unanswered. Facebook requests were denied. It was not until AWP the following year that I managed to convince one of the higher-ups to run the story properly. In my follow-up e-mail, I included a very short and sober biography; a contributor’s note so dull and bland it would be invisible.

3.
Let’s call this essay what it is: a call-to-action. We have the chance to make contributors’ notes better. Perhaps “Great Again,” if you are of a certain political persuasion. Yet, thanks to Mr. Martone, fictionalized pieces feel too done, too passé. Whereas polemics against Donald Trump seem too obvious, too prone to a $1 billion lawsuit. Emoji are too 2010. Morse Code panders to the longshoremen hipster crowd. We need to go post-genre, post-text.

I envision the final pages of our nation’s literary magazines to be invisibly divided into sections: each one the equivalent of a blank 4×6 notecard. The voids offer up slates for others to write-in their dreams and aspirations for us. MFA cohorts, parents, well-wishers, or frenemies can fill the spaces. They can rewrite the lives of the writers’ loved/hated ones and ink the lucrative book deals or vanity-publishing ventures. As God-like Creators, these others can tell the stories of agents, editors, cats (both living and deceased), supportive husbands and wives, bitter writer spouses, divorce lawyers, potential bunkmates. And, yes, even the names of future children. Or perhaps we should avoid these pseudo-omnipotent hijinks, and leave the spaces untouched, like a gessoed canvas. The post-text era of contributors’ notes allows us to focus on what matters, 10, 20, 30 pages back: the work.

Image Credit: Flickr/Ramunas Geciauskas.

2 comments:

  1. Hello to a fellow Christopher!

    As soon as I began your article I thought of Michael Martone’s contributor’s notes because I had excavated his “artifacts” before reading about your attempt. One of Martone’s contributor’s notes was anthologized in Best American Essays 2005 when Susan Orlean served as guest editor. That note first came from Flyway: Journal of Writing and Environment at Iowa State University where I did my MFA and served as managing editor for the last print issue. (Maybe I should write a contrib note here?) In addition to the usual biographical statements, we also included actual contributors’ notes that gave a background of their writing like Best American Short Stories and I must say that you’re missing some of the most entertaining little auto-fictions if you still haven’t read Michael Martone by Michael Martone.

    Best,
    Chris

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