Salvatore Pane

Month: January, 2010

He Always Stands a Chance of Becoming a Man

J.D Salinger is dead. A lot of people much smarter than me have already discussed this.  Over on Slate, Chris Wilson avoided an outright eulogy and instead touted “Seymour: An Introduction” as the deceased writer’s greatest work (Not true. Not even close).  Via Twitter, Bret Easton Ellis mocked the writer’s death and planned a celebratory party. And all across Facebook you can find various people who haven’t read much since high school claiming that old Jerome was their favorite author, and that they’ll miss him dearly.

What I’d like to address is the question of what Salinger will be known for. Will future scholars look back on his brief career and modest output of literary fiction, or will they remember the nearly fifty years of silence and all the memoirs and bizarre legal wranglings?  All writers hope to be remembered by the words left behind, the monk-like work done at the desk, and hopefully that will be the case with J.D. But one can certainly imagine a world in the not too distant future where Catcher in the Rye is purged from high schools much in the way A Separate Peace has fallen out of favor. It’s esoteric. It’s out of touch. The fragmented American identity no longer bears any tangible resemblance to that phony Holden Caufiled. And if Salinger loses his millions of guaranteed new readers each year from mandatory high school English classes, then it will be left to fans of literary fiction to remember the slim volume left behind by Salinger just like readers who still champion the work of other mid-century writers like Cheever and Updike even though they too have fallen off reading lists.

So what will last? What is remembered? Clearly, Catcher in the Rye will live on, but what about Salinger’s short fiction? Why does it seem that very few people when discussing Salinger’s work bring up Nine Stories? For my money, “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” and “For Esme–With Love and Squalor” are two of the finest examples of short fiction from not only the waning days of post-World War II traditional realism, but of any era. And surely Salinger devotees will remember Franny and Zooey and even the first novella of Raise High the Roofbeam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction with nostalgia. So what I hope for is that in the following weeks, when commentators discuss his strange post-literary career and the possibility of movies, sequels or even video games, we stop and remember the work Salinger shared with us. I hope we will remember the only part of him or herself that a writer can leave behind: the words, the words, the words.

Why Literary Magazines Are (Still) Not Dead

In case you’ve been hiding under a rock these last few weeks due to the stunning Democratic loss in Massachusetts and the subsequent three-year spending freeze, Editor of  the Virginia Quarterly Review, Ted Genoways, published an article on Mother Jones entitled “The Death of Fiction”. His hypothesis: nobody reads literary magazines, and therefore, literary fiction is doomed, doomed, doomed! The comments section of said article exploded, and a bunch of notable up-and-coming fiction writers, Matt Bell included, rushed to fiction’s defense as so many have in the past when the elderly rely on that tried argument that the novel should be dead and buried. The venerable HTMLGIANT published a great counter-argument citing many prestigious online journals that have sprung up in recent memory as proof that it’s not literary journals that are dead, but specifically print lit journals.

I’d like to take that train of thought and run with it. For two years I served on the Editorial Board of Hot Metal Bridge, one of the many small, university sponsored lit journals to come out in the aughts. I was Fiction Editor, then Editor-in-Chief, and now I’m Emeritus Editor. What I can say about reading slush piles is that there’s more writing being done than ever before. I inherited the magazine with only two issues under its belt and we received hundreds of submissions (in fiction alone) and that number grew exponentially with each new issue. That much is in line with what Genoways argues; he’s not saying there’s no writing being done. He’s saying there’s no readers. But with Hot Metal Bridge, our readership grew at the same steady pace as the number our submitters. If we got two-hundred fiction entries, we usually ended up with readers in the four or five hundreds, a readership that’s comparable to the many prestigious print lit mags that I deeply love. And as we instituted a monthly podcast series, a fiction contest judged by Tom Perrotta, and bi-weekly book reviews, our readership only increased.

So what’s the problem? It can’t be that people actually prefer reading on screens over reading print, and no one is arguing that the work being done on the onlines is inherently better than the fiction being published in the print mags. I suggest looking at that other fore-bearer of print media: traditional newspapers. At the start of the decade, major coastal newspapers struggled with how to handle online content (you may recall how at first you had to register free accounts to read material from LA Times and the New York Times online). But then the floodgates opened and pretty much every newspaper in the country decided to offer every lick of content (and sometimes more) for free. This has contributed to the collapse of the print media industry. Rumors that the old guards are trying to seal the genie back in the bottle by charging for online content will only give more of a lead to specialized news sources like Drudge Report, Huffington Post and Politico.

This same line of thinking can be applied to literary journals. With the advent of the free online lit mag (Narrative, The Collagist, failbetter, etc. etc.) it’s become less and less likely for readers or even working fiction writers to pay for more than a handful of print lit subscriptions if any at all. The literary magazine is not dying; the print literary magazine is decaying. But even that can be salvaged with an embrace of change and emerging technologies, not a steadfast belief that American letters’ best days are behind it. Take a look at Electric Literature, the upstart journal of last year. They offer established and emerging authors in a variety of formats. There’s print-on-demand for traditionalists, but also options for PDF copies of the magazine along with versions for the iPhone and Kindle. Perhaps this is the path forward. Not a “this side or nothing” mentality but a combination of both the print AND the online that can shepherd literary fiction during the decades to come.