Wednesday, February 13, 2008

A Fart that Well-Nigh Blinded Absalom, or An Immodest Proposal

Here's a depressing statistic for you: there are 1,585 short fiction markets listed on Duotrope.com. That's not all the short fiction markets in the world, only the ones Duotrope lists, and Duotrope only lists those with online submission guidelines and who don't charge reading or contest entry fees. Also, they only list those they are aware of, but that goes without saying.

So many places publishing short fiction, competing for so few readers. Short fiction isn't the first choice for most people. They'd rather read a novel, or better yet, some fictionalized account masquerading as biography or history. Or how to lose weight, or make friends, or make money, or how to write a novel and get published, or why George Bush sucks or why liberals want to destroy the world. Thousands of blogs endlessly pontificating. Thousands of news sites endlessly pontificating, but with nice diplomas on the wall lending the illusion of legitimacy. Thousands more entertainment sites, celebrity sites, political sites, weird sites, science sites, porn sites, game sites, community sites. All of them competing for a sliver of the public's reading time. Never mind television, movies, music, work and life in general.

It seems like every day, there are three or four new short fiction markets opening up, and five or six going out of business. Do people even read short fiction anymore, or does the short fiction audience mostly consist of aspiring short fiction writers? Aren't most subscriptions to short fiction magazines sold to writers trying to get published in said magazines?

It seems to me that we are living almost exclusively off ourselves, feeding off our dwindling fat reserves until such time as public interest in short fiction magically revives -hey presto! I recently read somewhere that back in the days of Hemingway and Faulkner, these guys would sell a short story to a magazine like Harper's for the equivalent of a school teacher's yearly salary. Nowadays, if most writers didn't have non-writing jobs providing a trickle of new money into the publishing ecosystem through subscriptions and purchases of the yearly plethora of anthologies, I imagine almost the entire short fiction market would collapse.

I blame university-level creative writing programs. Not only do they churn out a steady stream of aspiring writers, they churn out a steady stream of shitty aspiring writers, completely mucking up the ecology with technically proficient garbage, overwhelming editors, agents and publishers with so many crappy stories that they have been forced to build taller and thicker walls just to keep from being buried in the shit, simultaneously blocking out the good with the bad. They can't completely shut everyone out, because these shitty aspiring writers are the same people who are buying all their books and magazines, and thus keeping them in business. But at the same time, they no longer have the time, energy, or inclination to give a serious look at any of the shit that comes across their desk unless it comes with a prior recommendation.

It's like when a factory posts a job listing and they get 1,500 applicants for one stinking entry-level job. The person who eventually gets the job does so not because of their talent or qualifications. There are probably 100 other applicants equally or more talented or qualified. At this level, the ultimate hiring decision becomes rather arbitrary, often based on the personal, irrational feelings of the employer. Maybe the winner had nicer teeth, or bigger boobs, or was left-handed. Maybe the loser sneezed during the interview, or wore a slightly annoying shade of eye shadow, or was right-handed. Maybe it was cloudy the day the loser interviewed and thus the employer was a little depressed. Maybe the employer had just received some good news, or won a bet, or got laid the night before the winner was interviewed.

Meanwhile 99 other people sit at home wondering what they did wrong. They did nothing wrong. They were just competing against the irrational force of randomness. A writer/doctor I met a few years ago stated it perfectly. He said, "One day Jesus was in Southaven MS. He pointed at a dried piece of bubblegum on the sidewalk and said, the next person who steps on that spot I will make him a famous writer. And as He spoke, a foot stepped on that spot and He looked up and beheld John Grisham. Mr. Grisham is a fine writer, I'm sure, but there are ten thousand more just like him who haven't sold their first book."

Now, if there hadn't been 1,500 applicants for that one shitty factory job, if there had only been 40, things probably would have turned out differently. The employer wouldn't have been so overwhelmed and might have given each applicant careful consideration. But thanks to university level creative writing programs, there are 1,500 applicants instead of 40. Thanks to university level creative writing programs, there are 1,585 short fiction markets listed on Duotrope, but only 155 that pay 5-cents or more per word, and only maybe a dozen that will ever pay more than $1,000 for a short story under any circumstance, and none that pay the equivalent of a year's salary for a school teacher, because publishing short fiction is largely a losing proposition. There's no money in it for the publisher, thus no money in it for the writer.

So I say lets close down the creative writing programs. Stop churning out too many applicants for too few jobs. Or we could always begin culling the herd - arm editors, agents and publishers and let them winnow out the weak and unworthy graduates of Iowa and Clarion. We could feed them to the starving children of Ireland and Sudan. Sure a few creative writing instructors will suffer, their livelihoods will be destroyed, but most of them will be culled from the herd along with their former star students. The best ones will no longer need to teach to survive, as they'll be able to make a living from their actual writing.

The world will be a better place, trust me.

And while we're at it, lets cull most of the other general education university programs. Let's be honest, the only reason you need 60 or 80 hours of general education credits to graduate is because those liberal arts departments would be forced to lay off most of their staffs if not for general education requirements. The only graduates they actually turn out are future teachers of the same damn general education requirements, so why not break this endlessly brutal cycle and stuff them all into one building. Think of the money we'd save in tuition alone!

Forcing people to study Shakespeare doesn't turn them into Shakespeareans, any more than forcing them to take college algebra turns them into mathematicians. Those who want to learn will learn, those who don't won't. Let's generally educate people in high school and allow them to choose their own paths of higher education rather than dragging them through two or more years of institutionally-mandated ritual intellectual hazing. You must first prove your worth by reciting the first twenty lines of Canterbury Tales in Middle English. Only then will you be allowed to learn the inner secrets of organic chemistry. If this wasn't exactly the way it is, you'd think it was a Monty Python skit.

Besides, the only lines of Chaucer's anyone ever remembers come from the Miller's Tale:

This Nicholas anon leet fle a fart,
As greet as it had been a
thonder-dent,
That with the strook he was almoost yblent;

And he was redy with his iren hoot,
And Nicholas amydde the
ers he smoot,
Of
gooth the skyn an hande brede aboute,
The hoote
kultour brende so his toute,
And for the smert he wende for to dye.
As he were
wood, for wo he gan to crye,
"Help! Water! Water! Help for Goddes
herte!"

UPDATE: Stephen King seems to agree.

10 comments:

BrentD said...

I agree with your proposal. My only question is: Will editors get machetes or rocket launchers.

Jeff said...

Rocket launchers that fire exploding storms of machetes.

Big Cab Daddy said...

I disagree with the John Grisham part. Very few of us could be the prolific even if we were paid for it. Grisham deserves accolades and distinction for quantity if nothing else.

Jeff said...

Daddy, the doctor's words, not mine.

deangc said...

I don't know whether it's the creative writing grads that are doing it.

The fundamental problem is that, like driving, everybody thinks they can do it. I remember talking to someone a few years ago, a humorless narrow ferret of a woman who loudly proclaimed that you got 12,000 dollars for a romance novel, and she could do that. She could write a romance novel and it would be an easy twelve thousand dollars.

I did not enlighten her, but I think that THEY are the people clogging up the queues. There are way more of them than creative writing grads. The fanfic sites are full of them.

I used to participate in an online critique forum, and for every writer there who produced tolerably good work, there were ten bad ones who wrote barely legible shit and who really didn't like it when you pointed that out.

The fundamental problem, really, is that the barrier to entry is low. All you need now is a computer and an internet connection. This is perhaps why some periodicals still want a hard copy: it keeps out that 20% of submitters who only submit because it's easy.

You're an editor. You must see these people.

Jeff said...

The two zines I produce only accept electronic submissions. The one time I took hardcopy submissions, I didn't notice an increase in quality at all, only an increase in the average age of authors. Also, when I began offering payment at Southern Gothic, all I saw was in increase in the volume of submissions, not the quality. So I dropped payments.

It is true that I reject most of the stories sent to me. I don't get very many submissions from people who can't write at all - maybe one in ten. Most are technically proficient but uninspired.

I'm just saying that if colleges had rock star coursework, they'd be flooding the music market with technically proficient but uninspired rock stars.

Besides, I'm half kidding on half of this post. It's up to you to decide which halves.

deangc said...

I got that you were half-kidding.

Not having been an editor, I don't really know what it is like. I would imagine that you can pick up clues early on that a piece is going to be bad, something like:

"She twirled her scintillating golden hair gaily around her perfectly manicured finger with Revlon Carmine Ecstasy on the fingernail, her startlingly violet eyes sparkling joyously over her perfect rosebud mouth, slightly parted and with flawless ivory teeth..."

And you can dismiss it without reading much further. But if the work is minimally competent, you don't have that luxury.

Jeff said...

I think I've read that story before.

deangc said...

But in the end, they were all vampires! And then it turned out to be a dream!

[says the man who is STILL working on a vampire gunslinger story]

Morgwyn said...

hehehehehe I love you.

Now, if bigger boobs got one's stories published... I'd be all over it.