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Letter from the Editor, Spring 2011 originally appeared here at Our Stories Literary Journal
I BELIEVE IN THE BASIC PRINCIPLE OF A LITERARY WORLD THAT DOES NO HARM OR AT LEAST, A LITERARY WORLD THAT ONLY HARMS CONFORMITY. I believe the process of writing is sacred and that the pen is mightier than the sword. I come to this work as a humanist and someone who believes that the most important tenet of humanism is that the populace should not be alienated by its culture or the individuals who are chosen, hired or self-appointed to be arbiters of that culture. The arbiters of that culture are the ever-changing media landscape that includes the traditional print, TV, and web based reporters. I believe the literary journal is part of that media, albeit a small player in the conversation. Literary journals are the arbiters of poetry, short stories, essays and the like and should be a reflection of the exchange of ideas and culture read by the masses.
We began this century watching a symbol of American power brought to the ground by a terrorist organization. We were then fed this trauma over and again by a sensational media who instead of accurately processing it, or allowing us to understand the true ramifications of the world we now live in, reported conjecture and presuppositions. We ate this up and continue to eat this up and have yet to come to terms with 9/11 a decade after the event that changed our lives forever.
Not two years after 9/11, the body politic and a lazy fourth estate undermined basic truths and sold us a dallying ruse of “maybes” and “sort ofs” to launch a war. We fought this first postmodern war based on a past fact that Iraq had gassed its own citizens a decade or so in the past (back when we didn’t give a damn) and made up intelligence to ensure that we could spend billions on a fool's errand. Sitting in Washington DC in 2003 I watched our country go to war based on at best an “oops” and at worst “systematic war profiteering”. The media failed us, the free market world failed us and they continue to fail us and therefore alienate a population. I do remember who got it right though. I read dozens of indie newspapers, fancy things just invented called “blogs” that quickly debunked Powell’s speech, correctly highlighted no links to al Qaeda and presupposed that we were going to war based on hyperbole. Information and knowledge was gained therefore by those without money and status who could articulate truth. We had the need for accuracy in reporting and bloggers and independent journalists had the ability to feed that need through alternative channels of communication.
The fact that our government lied to us and our media continues to misinform a significant portion of the population and that we--to this day--do not intellectually understand who it is we are fighting against and what their goals or our goals have been in this war on terror, has had a debilitating and I’d say alienating effect. Our way of dealing with being this misinformed, has led us to look for answers in metaphor instead of factual information. You ask for an example and I will strike a wooden stake to the heart of the summer hit coming to us in 2011. The fourth season of True Blood. We love our vampires because they are the terrorists in the American social and cultural consciousness. Our desire to understand a terrorist is summed up when we watch the charming Sooki Stackhouse talk to a vampire. We console vampires, hug them, care for them, save their lives, kiss them, sleep with them, we’re defended and saved by them, coddled by them and etcetera etcetera. These all-powerful, pale faced walking undead turn people into minions to do their bidding, and at times even turn a few orgasms. They are, similarly to the way terrorists have been covered in the media, killers that without reason kill with animalistic accuracy. We know that terrorists walk into public buildings, where we are most defenseless and use their last act in life to kill others. We are told they cannot be reasoned with, they cannot be talked, dealt with or negotiated with so instead we talk to the vampires. We have no idea who they’ve been, before being a terrorist and being a terrorist is their only identity. Unlike the Cold War we even lack the language of defections or asylums for these people and what language we do have to describe them as cryptly “underground cells” and “safe houses” or being “activated” is all Bram Stokers’ work. So instead of being informed, we instead watch the terrorists on the big and small screens. We attain some semblance of peace getting to watch True Blood, or the Twilight series, that someone, even someone as annoying as the female lead in Twilight, can communicate with a vampire and that she can be defended against other vampers at the same time. A therapist would tell you, and my educational background is in equal parts writing and counseling, that if you want to truly come to peace you need to deal with what’s real. America, you need to deal, for real.
So now we have closed a chapter of our war on terror with the assassination of Osama Bin Laden and even before President Obama got to pivot off his birth certificate the media was asking for Bin Laden’s. I am going to suggest something quite central to the theme of this essay: we are tired of presuppositions that lead to nothing. The man is dead but it does not make it any easier for us to understand why we continue to spend billions of dollars destroying and then rebuilding a country that had nothing to do with 9/11 and billions of dollars rebuilding a country that did. We are tired of our basic needs being alienated in all facets of communication in society. I believe that there is a groundswell of change afoot in this country and that art, true art that speaks truth to power must be part of that change.
Let’s return to literary journals, since I am an editor of a journal and this essay is appearing in such a journal. Literary journals are some of the basic arbiters of art; we lay in the bottom of this hierarchy. Some may call this position the gutter. I like to call it the grassroots. For the purposes of this essay let’s settle on something in between, perhaps the back alley. This back alley world of a literary marketplace is where writers are for the most part snidely turned away from the “great literary party” that is happening on the other side of the media curtain. I think most of us think of editorial boards of literary journals as the dickish bouncers that get to turn masses of people away without ever giving a reason. Those that are picked, the stories that are the most elegant, flashy, cocky, good looking; the red carpet is rolled out, the paparazzi glitzes them pop, popping their lights and the door opens, the string instruments playing and finally the door begins to close as a stripped down lady holds the round card above her head, her presence a statement that one round has finished and the next yet to come. The problem that I always have had with this system is that I believe it willfully ignores everyone who is turned away in such a stalwart, alienating fashion that it makes me question the entire purpose of the arts.
I see the work that we do at Our Stories in a way like grassroots organizing. I believe there is power in providing feedback to everyone who comes to us with their story and giving them some honest feedback about their work. I believe the reason for rejecting a manuscript at other literary journals is clear 100% of the time in the mind of the person who is sending the rejection. Why literary journals prefer silence than to assist a writer in even the briefest one sentence way, “Your first page had too many spelling errors,” or “Didn’t go anywhere.”
It continues to baffle me how some literary journals get away with on one hand being held up as the great arbiters of culture while on the other hand ripping off so many people off with such a brazenly arrogant business model. If any other for profit business took a contest fee that had no guidelines for what they would receive for that fee, no odds at winning and no disclaimer about how many people would actually be published from those open submissions to the contest then the business would be thought of as no better than a Nigerian scam. The police would be called in, an investigation perhaps. Something would occur, I mean, come on, even the lotto has to publish their million to one odds, right? What sort of masochists are we artists, who adore these scammers and hold them up to everyone we know as great leaders in the literary world, sending them a check in the mail in exchange for getting the finger every time we send them a story?
I had a talk with Dana Gioia the other day, the literary critic and former director of the National Endowment for the Arts, he’s a firebrand of his own sort and I deeply admire his work. I wrote him asking for advice regarding Our Stories, as to what direction he thought we should go, because honestly, it is a hard lonely thing running a literary journal that gives feedback to every submission they receive. For those of you who don’t know Gioia he wrote an essay entitled “Can Poetry Matter?” almost a decade ago that made big waves and it still strikes me as relevant to understanding the world of arts today. In it he wrote: “American poetry now belongs to a subculture. No longer part of the mainstream of artistic and intellectual life, it has become the specialized occupation of a relatively small and isolated group. Little of the frenetic activity it generates ever reaches outside that closed group. As a class poets are not without cultural status. Like priests in a town of agnostics, they still command a certain residual prestige. But as individual artists they are almost invisible.” How poetry became such a subclass Gioia spends a great deal of time discussing the decline of poetry in the general public, the discontinuation of poetry in newspapers for example but to me his greatest point comes in his corollary that at the same time that there is a rise of poetry programs and the MFA that there is a dearth of poetry read by the everyday man. He postulates, quite accurately I believe, that poetry became the stuff of academic departmental suites, divorced from the every day work. “Once poets began moving into universities, they abandoned the working-class heterogeneity of Greenwich Village and North Beach for the professional homogeneity of academia.” I fear the literary work of the short story, ie the “art story” is rapidly following in the same footsteps of its cousins across the halls of MFA programs. His advice, in sum, about Our Stories was to keep going, keep fighting and expand if possible. I intend to follow that advice and this essay is part of that literary expansion. There will be other ventures coming soon from Our Stories including contests for first book prizes and perhaps—just perhaps—a new virtual wing at Our Stories that reviews poetry.
I believe and still believe that when those with abilities are able to help those with the greatest needs in doing so we make a better society. This is why I founded Our Stories, that there exists a portion of writers in the world for whom the options of feedback and MFA programs are out of reach. It is up to the graduates of MFA programs to help future storytellers, future writers to get it right. All we’re doing at Our Stories is letting you hear our trained thoughts on a matter. We do not come to this work with deep pockets or the notion that we will retire early from these labors. I have watched many socially motivated organizations with big endowments fail. I have seen corporations throw money around trying to fix schools or businesspeople try to run socially minded organizations with a neutered accountant’s zeal. I abhor the false logic of trickle down economics just as I abhor waste, abuse and corruption in systems where their intents are to support every part of society. Yet, I am not a socialist, far from it.
I believe in the system of laws and want to set out this philosophy separately from the philosophy of organized chaos or anarchy in society. I believe we are capable of taking care of one another but that not all government is a bad thing. I am a contemporary writer and thinker, there is nothing wrong with wanting to solve say, for example the health care problem on a nationwide scale; we are capable to do it without reverting to plots, sub-plots or delusional subversions. People have abilities and others have needs. I do not believe in large-scale revolutionary change, I believe that different methodologies are to be used on micro levels in tandem. I believe a mix of socio-political philosophies are required to address different problems in society—that we are complex thinkers and America is a complex country and that an all or nothing approach in every situation is counterintuitive.
In my opinion, our literary world, since this is where I hang my hat six days a week, is failing and no one really cares that the emperor has no clothes. We need to do something about it and all of us need to chip in.
I believe systems such as EditRed and Zoetrope where a large-scale flat system of mentor/writer/mentor can only take one so far. For those unfamiliar with these systems of literary review, by submitting one manuscript for review on their sites you must “engage” and do reviews of someone else’s work. Not only do I see this as ripe for internal abuse (having participated in Zoetrope I found many of the reviews to be unhelpful) but this also brings about the critical literary question: whose reviews are worth a damn? What, my friends, makes a good literary reviewer of work? In these sorts of ventures, like EditRed and Zoetrope the arbiter of work, who has no credentials or understanding of how to give feedback can be quickly reduced to a cheerleader. The failure of these sites is that if you receive a “good” review, where does that take you? So what, a nice guy from Topeka dug your poem? Does he work for a literary journal? How does he know what gets published? Even if they “like” your stuff they might not be able to help your manuscript get into print. This is, in my opinion, why having an MFA is the basic form of literary credentials to do what we do. Now not everyone can get an MFA, it’s extremely hard to get into, costs a lot of money to do and the options after graduating and making a career of this is daunting. However, with that said—there are lots of MFA grads out there that have experience and talent to help your work.
Next, I reject huge grab bag classes of creative writing that insist that as long as a student submits a story and the rest of their online class says, “great work” that progress is being made. Again, I believe people have abilities and others have needs. We can bring MFA graduates who dream of teaching creative writing to small groups of emerging writers and work cooperatively at a fair wage. Writing is hard but developing skills at being a great reviewer of your own work is even harder. I don’t believe Hemingway was just being an ass when he said the best tool for a writer to have is an automatic shit detector. To me the only credentialed degree to get that shit detector is the MFA.
Okay, now I hear what you’re going to ask next, “Just because someone has an MFA or just because they work at a literary journal does that mean their criticisms are valid?” Well yes and no. Yes, the MFA is a place where these skills can be developed but not everyone develops those skills during their MFA. The ability to review manuscripts should be something beyond just affirmations. There is a craft to reviewing manuscripts, and not everyone who has the MFA degree is imparted with this knowledge. I believe that literary journal staffs have an edge on their colleagues who are solely credentialed with a degree, because in order to reject a manuscript they have to, or rather they should, always have the knowledge as to how why they are rejecting a manuscript. A good reviewer at a literary journal very quickly is able to read first couple of the pages of the story and see something that causes them to cringe. In fact, 99% of the time this is the case even for stories that we have accepted. On the other hand, at your basic MFA program there is likely scant attention paid to the craft of reviewing stories and giving feedback. I was lucky, I was taught to do so as an undergraduate (this is how I got to be friends with Josh Campbell) and I had a group of core friends in my MFA program who were obsessively kind in reviewing each other’s manuscripts (this is how I got to be friends with Kendra Tuthil.) I did not receive any lectures on providing feedback in graduate school unfortunately, and I have not heard of an MFA program that makes this a pedagogical cornerstone of their program. I personally run all potential staff members through a series of trials to determine whether they have the skills to join our crew. Not everyone learns these skills in MFA programs but everyone on our staff has them.
To come to a fine point, I believe the best combination of literary review that you can receive on your manuscripts is as follows: 1) they should have an MFA (MA in creative writing, PhD, etc.) 2) they have been a “decider” in the field of the literary arts. And 3) they should have the verbal and written skills to accurately relay what their thoughts are on improving your manuscript. And 4) they should do no harm to you as a writer personally or professionally. I believe this is what you should be looking for when you want your work reviewed.
Our Stories has not offered “class style” workshops yet--that is--until now. We are going to be offering a new sort of workshop, a regional workshop where 5-7 students (first come, first served) will work with an instructor. I will be teaching in Saint Louis. Steven Ramirez will be teaching in Chicago. MK Hall will be teaching in New York City. We will be teaching for 10 weeks from July until October and then we’ll be starting more workshops after that. I’ll hire more staff to do so. We will for the first time venture into a literary marketplace where students are to share their opinions of a stranger’s writing. However, there’s a catch—the Our Stories instructor will be giving the student feedback on their craft of giving feedback. The regional workshop is our iPad. It bridges the gap between the traditional MFA workshop that you can spend tens of thousands of dollars receiving and the one-on-one online workshops that we already offer. It is built upon the combination of editorial review at a literary journal, the careful critique of those educated by some of the best programs in the country and those committed to train you in the craft of feedback and literary review. In short, it is the way I’ve always thought the craft of creative writing should be taught.
In conclusion, there is a credo known in the industry by good-natured folks as “Yob’s Law” which essentially is all about the idea that money should flow to the “writer”. It rejects the notion that stories should be accompanied by submission fees to be published and it rejects the concept of contests and such. While we do charge fees for our contests we believe we are in line with Yob’s law that ensures that money flows towards writers or in exchange for money a service of a review. In addition, we ensure that money flows to the staff of our literary journal, the often overworked, underpaid staff earns money for their abilities and by filling someone’s needs. Finally, I sleep easy knowing that I do not sell the dream of getting published but that my staff gives honest assessments to 100% of everyone we don’t publish. I also pay my staff a fair wage for the work that they do. This is (if you will allow me) Santí’s Law: the literary marketplace should equally support art and the future development of art in a grassroots model which brings qualified and learned opinions and support to those that need it the most. We do this at the same time as not exploiting labor so that the management of art remains humble and true to good works.
This is what Our Stories is all about and this summarizes what I believe is my philosophy of what I built over the years with the incredible help from my staff. I know. I know. I take myself too seriously. I take Our Stories seriously. But isn’t it about time we started taking something seriously? Thanks for your time. We’re not going anywhere, check us out.