Friday, February 26, 2010

of writers' magazines and the art of interrogation

Venny McPulitzer subscribes to the usual raft of trade and literary magazines, and today INTERN flipped through a recent issue of Poets & Writers while eating her lunch.

INTERN has never been one for writing magazines (all those ads for MFA programs give her nightmares—always that uncanny mix of "we're distinguished and literary" and "yowza! we're so hip and rebellious Kanye West is our program director!"). Today's perusal did nothing to change her mind. INTERN was horrified to read a "profile" of an author that seemed more like an interrogation by the KGB:


Author: Fourteen years.


Author: Umm...I pitched her at a conference.


Author: I think it was a Thursday?


Author: Uh...the conference was at the Radisson hotel.


Author: What do you mean, associates?


Author: (weeps with terror)

All the attention that gets paid to "cracking the code" is downright absurd, not to mention often useless (books end up getting published for a thousand different reasons and as the result of a thousand different circumstances. You can't reproduce the same situation that resulted in another writer's book getting published, unless you come armed with some kind of time/space/memory-wiping machine).

INTERN would be interested in reading a history of the narratives and industries surrounding "creative writing" throughout the past century or so. Surely Steinbeck was never subjected to the same kind of purely technical grilling writers are getting subjected to today, or Gertrude Stein pressed to reveal her Ultimate Power Secrets to getting published in a magazine article.

Maybe INTERN is hallucinating, but surely there was a time not so far in the past when writers just wrote and good work got published—right? Where did all this magazine-style mania for "secrets" and obsessively precise numbers and details come from?

INTERN is going to investigate this Encyclopedia Brown-style. Any insights appreciated.


  1. I'll tell you what. If you publish my work, I promise to say that I don't know anything about the industry and my pitching and networking skills are so lousy only my brilliant writing overcame them.

  2. Stein on getting published? That would be hilarious.

    An excerpt from Tender Publishing


    The publisher is on red the broken lamp is an absence of toner which aids in the falicity of words. When the typeface is a typeface is a typeface, there are no drafting. This is drafting. There is not proofing here, there is drafting. Drafting. The king is dead.


    Twice the intern exucutive.


    A blind typist is a desk typewriter wastebin in the repetition of boxes is Stepford."

    Consider also that I saw an ad offering inner peace by their special method of meditating for under fifteen minutes a day! Somehow I think these are related.

    WV: shagotyp; if you add an e, that's probably the sexiest typeface ever.

  3. Sorry, that was incoherent. (And not just the "Objects" parody.)

    I meant to say that I once saw, on Facebook, an ad which claimed that you could achieve inner peace be following their program. This program consisted of a special sort of meditation, which you did once a day. This program would require a maximum of fifteen minutes per day.

    I think this is related to the general topic of INTERN's post, not to the Stein "passage."

  4. Here's an interesting tidbit:

    Elizabeth Boyle got copies of her book, now published in Japan, Czech and Dutch. Last month, web visits showed fan contact from 95 countries and territories.

    But she is still not shelved as a Local Author at the B&N 5 minutes from her home. The manager doesn't consider romances as books or romance novelists as authors.

  5. I attended a children's literature forum where Lois Lowry showed off the rejection letters she was receiving decades ago. Funny enough, the language and the phrases in the form letters practically match the form rejection letters that writers receive today, so I doubt that much has changed . . .

  6. Huh. I don't read literary magazines but I am submitting to hypocrite here!
    Also, on that note, I shall pin all of my rejection letters on my wall and LAUGH.
    Sorry. I'm bitter.
    Stein...I'd read that.

  7. I dunno but Venny McP is beginning to sound like the secret headquarters of THE evil empire. Let us know if we need to stage a rescue mission headed up by Jason Bourne to get INTERN out of their clutches.

  8. See, INTERN, lots of folks SELL the dream. To do this they have to claim SECRETS OF, TRICKS TO, GAURANTEED SUCCESS WITH, ASTOUNDING RESULTS IF YOU, 500 WAYS TO BEAT... get the drift, sure you do!

    Nobody wants to hear the truth... BUTT HOURS IN YOUR WRITING CHAIR! Ain't sexy, ain't secrets nor tricks, ain't no slick fast track... in fact, sounds like damn hard work!

    Haste yee back ;-)

  9. Check out "The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing," by Mark McGurl.

    And this:

    "Just how the programs help is something that Mr. McGurl tends to be incurious about. Except for Paul Engle, head of the famous program at Iowa for a quarter-century, he pays little or no attention to any of the great mentors associated with the writing program movement — writer-teachers like Frank Conroy, also at Iowa; John Barth, at Johns Hopkins; or Donald Barthelme, the subject of a new biography by Tracy Daugherty, at the University of Houston.

    "The actual process of tuition is hard to generalize about, so his book is, instead, full of incomprehensible diagrams, theoretical analysis and sentences like 'Technomodernism identifies with the "emptiness" of pure formality — that is, with the systematicity of the system itself, drawing the machine to itself in a form of ontological prosthesis.'

    “ 'The Program Era" may, in fact, be a symptom of why creative writing is so popular. If stuff like this is what you get to read in regular English class, then no wonder students would rather write texts of their own."

  10. If you investigate encyclopedia brown style, you will need a buff girl to be your bodyguard.

  11. I guess it's the "There's always an easy way" philosophy. There are secrets to everything: getting a good job, losing weight, making a million dollars... Noone just works anymore.

  12. In answer to INTERN's final question, I think it's because the number of aspiring writers has gone up dramatically...It's "so easy" now to write a novel and submit it for publication that everyone wants to know the fast, for-sure method to publication. :P

  13. There's all kinds of nifty historical anecdotes about publishing, authors, and writing and the contexts of those experiences on the Internet of late. More on the horizon.

    Origin of the term said-bookism, for example, at the SFWA version of the Turkey City Lexicon by Bruce Sterling.

    "The term 'said-book' comes from certain pamphlets, containing hundreds of purple-prose synonyms for the word “said,” which were sold to aspiring authors from tiny ads in American magazines of the pre-WWII era."

    Critical editions of novels and collections often have an editor's preface on the historical circumstances surrounding an author's situations and complications.

    Critical editions of classics often incorporate reviews, analyses, contexts, and backgrounds of the depicted eras and of an author's times they were written in. The Norton Critical Edition of Upton Sinclair's _The Jungle_ has several illuminating articles on the circumstances of immigrant Americans at the time of the novel, and one insightful article on Sinclair's methods and purposes.

    The Viking Critical Library edition of John Steinbeck's _The Grapes of Wrath_ has several hundred pages of social context, creative context, and critical reviews of the literary response kind.

    Authors' forewords and afterwords, editors' or guest author introductions, prefaces, and so on are other great places to look for contexts and anecdotes. Not to mention biographies by insider acquaintances.

    Many of the current event and celebrity type periodicals of past eras haven't yet migrated to the Internet. Most of the magazines of the past were gobbled up by the capitalist machine or went out of business long ago. University library collections preserve many of them.

    Anyway, celebrity personalities were hounded just as much in the olden days as they are now. I don't believe the questions posed to authors have changed much, just the technology for disributing sensation and scandal and human interest stories to audiences has changed, and their audiences have swelled to enormous proportions.

  14. Did INTERN go to Brown University?

  15. Essentially, it's the same reason that women's magazines always have 'The secret to great orgasms!' plastered across their covers. You tempt readers with 'The secret to getting your book published!'. People are curious. And slightly stupid.

  16. I think it's all about authors trying to be heard over the noise. There were something like 750 million titles logged in Bookscan last year (separate ISBNs, that is). With that much competition among published books, imagine how exponential the competition is among people trying to get published!

    Although a large indie bookstore in Colorado (I think the Boulder bookstore but I might be misremembering) said that 1% of their sales were self-published titles...

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  18. Sadly the reason I occasionally resort to such tactics (only occasionally, when the moon is full, or every third Tuesday) is that from my end, the entire process is so nebulous. I send out a query (imagining the excitement of the agent on the other end!)--and get back a rejection. Random speculation is the only thing that makes me feel as if I have any semblance of control (ha!) over the situation. The only thing I haven't tried is voodoo, but I haven’t fallen quite that far. (Yet!)

  19. Attached is an essay written by John Steinbeck - Advice for Beginning Writers. I don't believe he ever mentions the Radisson Hotel.

  20. Well, Intern, when Steinbeck was writing, people thought writing was tough, and not just anybody could do it. In the age of motivational posters and "You can do anything you put your mind to", everything is easy and you just need to know "THE SECRET" to be successful. And if you have to pay for THE SECRET, you'll make that money back when you outsell Dan Brown.

  21. This was so funny, thanks for sharing. You really don't like MFA programs AT ALL though? Come onnn....

  22. Brilliant post, INTERN! Thanks, yet again!

  23. Personally I'm a fan of Writers Digest. There are a great deal of insight and tips in there. Not just about MFA programs or how to get an agent, but about writing.

    Take this months issue: In the back there are a few pages on POV. There are somethings I never thought to incorporate before.

    So there are some good things in those magazines.

  24. @-30-

    Well, you can get those same things from reading, writing, or online resources like blogs and forums. And have useful discussions about them.

  25. This post made me laugh like a hyena. I have seen this same sort of bewildered aggression all over Teh Intratoobz. Surely, if enough published authors are badgered/interrogated, The SECRET will surely be made available to all of us still toiling in brilliant, misunderstood obscurity!

  26. Apropos of nothing, really, I just had to read Tender Buttons for a class. And yeah, I've noticed the same kind of mania surrounding published authors, like there's some kind of magical equation that will allow unpublished people to Get It Right, if only they could discover what the equation really is. HAHAHAHAHAHAHA. If only people could see the submissions I've been reading in the last week, and what's been bought and what hasn't.

  27. First you must understand; there is no spoon.

  28. Yeah. This is one of my favorite thought experiments. It's a bit further back than Steinbeck et al., but I like to picture Samuel Johnson being grilled like this.

    Somebody above mentioned the need (?) nowadays for authors to establish themselves as publicity-worthy. Amen. They know (?) that if they don't kick butt in sales, even just to curiosity-seekers, they'll never get to tell Story #2 that's really roiling their brains in a way that #1 never did.

  29. Ahh, the case of the publishing secrets. Just look out for Bugs Meany.

  30. Or, how about the fact that the authors of these ridiculous "secret success" articles are cashing in on the secret.

    It's called finding a market and writing to it.

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  32. Magazines are bad enough. But the Internet is our noose. We weave it carefully, one posting at a time. Run, writers, run!

  33. Hm. That interview must have been in "Cosmo-Gestapo." ;)

    @John Peterson: BRILLIANT!


  34. I agree with the orgasms above. (Wait – that’s got to be the first time anyone’s ever said that: “I agree with the orgasms.” I can just see it being used in a Hugh Grant comedy: “Yes, I agree with the orgasms. I’m a fun guy to be around.”)

    But really, as everyone’s said, it’s all about selling the secret. Even in spiritual magazines, it’s the secret to past lives or agreeable orgasms. At least you don’t get literary mags plastered with half-clad woman leering at you ‘cause you’re about to buy the secrets to professional photography.

    I used to subscribe to P&W, but it was too literary for me. WD always has great interviews, nearly all of which you can find on their site (including a recent rare one with Anne Tyler, who, ironically and nobly enough, chooses not to publicize her works).

    While you’re doing your research, many classic interviews can be found in the Paris Review. You can read most of the ones before 1980 in full at their site.

    P.S. From my computer I can see a full half dozen Encyclopedia Brown books still on my shelf.