Make Contributors’ Notes Great Again

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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.

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.

When 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.

The 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.

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.

Paper Laurels: On a More Diverse ‘Best American Short Stories’

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In the latest edition of The Best American Short Stories, series editor Heidi Pitlor and guest editor Junot Díaz picked a wide and diverse selection of stories and authors for this year’s anthology. Hailing new voices (Yuko Sakata, Lisa Ko) and established alike (Andrea Barrett, Karen Russell), the editors in their respective introductions mused — as is common most years — on the relevance and startling power of short fiction today. Unlike The Pushcart Prize anthology, The Best American Short Stories allows national and transnational periodicals to submit — as long as the magazine is published within North America. For decades, the slicks (Harper’s, The Atlantic, Playboy, Esquire) played a vital role in publishing literary fiction, and these magazines were often rewarded with plaudits from the anthology. Today, only one — The New Yorker — dominates the percentage of reprinted and noted stories in The Best American Short Stories.

This is understandable. Unlike its peers, The New Yorker publishes 50 issues a year, each one containing a short story or a culled novel fragment. Until a poorly-paid graduate student sets out to write a dissertation on the stories of The New Yorker, we have only subjective opinions as to what constitutes one of its “typical” offerings. Arguably there is no such identifiable thing as a New Yorker story (other than the story being well-told and the writing edited to an immaculate state). The magazine publishes a wide repertoire of stylistic and artistic modes, spanning realism and postmodernism, fables and modern-day fairytales. More to the point, the diverse array of recent authors includes George Saunders, Etgar Keret, Joy Williams, Charles Yu, Robert Coover, Salman Rushdie, and Zadie Smith. With such an eclectic group of authors, does the fiction of The New Yorker have anything in common? Perhaps critics may argue a sizable portion of the magazine’s stories concern the lives of the middle-classes and that the characters are generally heteronormative and/or white. Indeed, Marlon James once complained in a public Facebook post of highbrow magazines privileging a certain type of story that appealed to “older white women critics.” For James these stories were “Astringent, observed, clipped, wallowing in its own middle-style prose and private ennui.” Whether completely fair to The New Yorker or not, perhaps the Díaz-chosen stories in The Best American Short Stories offer a different demographic of readers a chance to see less represented voices and read about the unfamiliar inner lives and struggles of a more diverse set of characters. Perhaps change is taking place from the bottom-up, in the so-called little magazines.

Let’s look at the data: Each year for Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s esteemed annual, Pitlor sifts through thousands of stories from the gamut of literary journals (and the few slicks) in the United States and Canada. In discussion with that year’s guest editor, the stories are whittled down to a manageable number. Ultimately, the book reprints 20 stories and notes 100 other “Distinguished Stories.” For the 2016 edition, Díaz and Pitlor selected 14 stories from The New Yorker. In previous years, the stats played out as follows: 15 (2015), 19 (2014), 24 (2013), 14 (2012), 26 (2011). In other words, over those six years, the percentage of New Yorker stories fell from 21.7 percent to 11.7 percent. As in 2012, it is possible this year’s selection was a down-year for The New Yorker, a blip on its record. It is also possible, though, the choice of an inclusivity-minded guest editor opened up a space for other venues to bask in the limelight. Admittedly subjective, the concerns of many of this year’s stories also speak to — and represent — traditionally marginalized voices and characters. In this time of Donald Trump’s presidency, the celebrated depiction of multitudes, of what “Best” and “American” means, can only be a good thing.

Smaller journals such as the Iowa Review, Pembroke Magazine, New Madrid, and e-flux made inroads this year, adding to the previous accomplishments of Hobart, Fifth Wednesday, American Short Fiction, and DailyLit. Yet, we must not forget that statistically, unless writers publish in top-tier literary journals — Ploughshares, Tin House, Southern Review, One Story, Glimmer Train, etc. — the odds of being honored are still against them. This is important because inclusion in The Best American Short Stories is often viewed as one of the pinnacles of achievement for short story writers and generally leads to more professional opportunities: tenure-track jobs, fellowships, book deals. Unagented writers usually become represented. (Thus, in this publishing-world ouroboros, writers lower the odds of being accepted in The New Yorker!)

At least for now, The New Yorker’s loosened grip on the Best American series offers the potential for up-and-coming writers and writers of color, and for less-commercially viable fiction, to be seriously considered for the anthology. We’ll see what next year brings.

Audio Only: On the Rise of the Literary Podcast

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In the current age of visual albums, the parade of comic book movies, and glossy cable television, it is — at first glance — strange that audiences have gravitated toward the less bombastic offerings of the spoken word. In particular, the huge growth in podcast listenership has led to a dazzling array of shows, professional and dilettante alike. Back in 2005 The Millions drew attention to the podcast craze and posted a list of literary-themed ones.

Most of those are no longer in operation.

Since then a second wave of literary podcasts has emerged. In total, millions of listeners — no doubt many of them writers, or aspiring practitioners — have sought out these repositories of craft-talks, MFA advice, lit-scene gossip, and book reviews. The low bar to entry has led to hundreds of podcasters (often white and male) to pontificate in the nicest possible way on literature, and you will find on iTunes such shows: Bookrageous, Drunk Booksellers, Books and Nachos, Dead Robots’ Society, and so on.

But only a handful of podcasts have transcended the limitations of the genre and broken through to find a wider audience.

The New York Times Book Review
Part of a cultural behemoth, and a hangover from those early days of podcasting, The New York Times weekly book podcast soldiers on even in the financial dire straits of the Internet news age. The host (for many years Sam Tanenhaus and now Pamela Paul) and guests-of-the-week wag about the major books on the newspaper’s bestseller list. A glimpse into the perhaps vanishing world of old-school book reviewing

Book Fight!
If there were an award for jokey banter and humorous digression, Book Fight! would win it. Hosted by two Iowa grads, Tom McAllister and Mike Ingram, the show mixes boyish wit with beer-fueled insight. In one particularly funny episode discussing a Flannery O’Connor story, Mike quips: “Great writer. Sorry about your lupus.” Moments like this pepper the 130 episodes, with each one delving into a piece of contemporary or classic literature, or striking off to ponder Himalayan salt blocks or the Jonathan Franzen-Jennifer Weiner feud. Perhaps most fun of all, the pair rate books on a wildly inconsistent star system, grading everything from Elfriede Jelinek’s Greed to Glenn Beck’s word-fluff of a book.

Otherppl with Brad Listi
Upbeat, honest, assertive. Otherppl is very L.A. Brad Listi’s rakishly smooth voice drives the show, lulling listeners with his wry sense of humor and knowledge of the lit-scene. Each week Listi sets out his stall delivering an off-the-cuff monologue that segues (eventually!) into an hour-long interview with a notable writer. His charm rubs off onto his guests and brings out the best of, say, Dana Spiotta, Melissa Broder, or Hanya Yanagihara. Listening in, there’s a feeling the warmth of ever-sunny L.A. promotes the idea that happiness and literature can co-exist and make us all better people.

A Tiny Sense of Accomplishment
The infectious laughter and all-round jolliness on A Tiny Sense of Accomplishment is unabashed. Although recorded infrequently, Sherman Alexie and Jess Walters’s podcast delights in having a good time, and handles listener questions with patience and sage advice. Upbeat, non-threatening music stitches together the sections of the show and provides handy interludes between the two hosts sharing polished works-in-progress or riffing on the lit-hipsters populating Spokane. Whatever the topic at hand, it’s dealt with in a good-natured fashion. Even Walters’s anecdotes of outperforming novice writers on the basketball court at writing conferences is remarked upon with genuine heart for his smote foes. Alexie — and us at home — can only laugh along.

The Drunken Odyssey
From within the nether regions of Central Florida, comes the self-proclaimed “World’s Greatest Writing Podcast™.” Once you get past the bizarre, mildly hypnotic introduction, John King — himself a Raëlian presence — quickly gets to the book under examination. Reminiscent of a grad school seminar, the podcast scrutinizes academic and esoteric texts, and you’ll often find King excavating the meanings of Wallace Stevens’s minor essays or celebrating Bloomsday. When King co-hosts with the delightful Vanessa Blakeslee or is imbibing red wine with David James Poissant, the show transcends the bounds of King’s academic baggage. Unafraid to intellectualize fiction and the craft, King draws such notables as Rick Moody and Mary Gaitskill to his secret recording studio. Definitely a Raëlian — how else to explain King’s ardent followers?

Minorities in Publishing
Jennifer Baker and Bev Rivero (the latter no longer co-hosts) are industry professionals in New York advocating for change in publishing. More serious in tone than many podcasts, the show mixes interviews with editors, illustrators, publicists, writers, and agents of color, with bursts of warm laughter and an obsession with Whole Foods. The high caliber of guests — Ashley C. Ford, Ivan Lett, Linda Camacho — allows important coverage and analysis of the disparities in diversity and what can be done to manifest change.

Selected Shorts
Around in one form or another since 1985 (!), Selected Shorts has traversed the radio/podcast divide and embraced the digital age. With some 300,000 downloads per episode and a comparable number listening on the radio, the show is one of the most popular around. Fortunately, it is also one of the best. In each episode, famous (and not-so-famous) actors stage readings of classic and contemporary short fiction. It’s quite a post-post-modern mélange when we have Alec Baldwin read fellow ego-maniac John O’Hara and Anna Chlumsky take on 1980s bratpacker Tama Janowitz. Some may abhor the theatrical performances, but there’s no doubt the stories are first-rate.

The New Yorker Fiction Podcast
A world unto itself, The New Yorker Fiction Podcast has one New Yorker author read aloud the story of another. So we find such wonderful combinations as Allan Gurganus reading Grace Paley and Etgar Keret reading Donald Barthelme. The result is a special kind of magic, as though the baton of literature is being passed from writer to writer. Leading the discussion on this peculiar form of navel-gazing is Deborah Treisman, the magazine’s fiction editor. Always insightful, Treisman offers context on the chosen story and speculates on the story’s moves and literary vision. Triesman’s soft-spoken voice creates a mood of candle-lit intimacy with her guests, and whether talking with Jonathan Franzen or Karl Ove Knausgaard, she coaxes the love for stories out of each one.

If you’ve ever wondered what happened to Ted Cruz’s freshman Princeton roommate, you’ll find him co-hosting a weekly podcast on screenwriting. Craig Mazin (the aforementioned roommate) along with John August present an insider’s view on the craft of screenwriting and the business of the industry. With noteworthy, if populist, writing credits (Mazin: The Hangover Trilogy [yes, all three!]; August: Go, Charlie’s Angels) both men know the ins-and-outs of Hollywood. Although not strictly literary, the show offers budding novelists a bevy of good advice on structure, pacing, conflict, plot, and character. And the co-hosts straightforwardness about money may tempt writers to switch genres, or at least ponder the absence of their own big paychecks.

The Guardian Books Podcast
Like your literary news delivered in a British accent? Want a hipper than BBC-made podcast? Enjoy tea-dunked biscuits and rainy days? Appreciate perfect enunciation and the Queen’s English? Then this show by the center-left British newspaper is for you. The Guardian’s Claire Armitstead and Richard Lea assume hosting duties, and each week deliver interviews with big-hitters: Don DeLillo, Marlon James, Colm Tóibín, and more. Yet the interviews are only the crumbs of the chocolate-encrusted digestive. For the show covers a wide-range of events and topics, from multicultural literature at the London Book Fair to a four-part series on forest appreciation to the championing of good old British libraries. This podcast has it all.

Image Credit: Flickr/Patrick Breitenbach.