Tin House Ignites the Greatest Controversy in the History of Literature

by Salvatore Pane

This is going to be old news for some, but I was out of town and mostly away from the computer the last few days, and I feel the need to touch on this briefly. I don’t know if you know this, but days before the 4th of July Holiday Weekend, Tin House ignited the greatest controversy in the history of literature!

On July 2nd, Tin House altered its submission policy:

Tin House launches Buy a Book, Save a Bookstore Between September 1 and December 30, 2010, Tin House magazine will require writers submitting unsolicited manuscripts to the magazine to include a receipt for a book purchased from a bookstore. Writers who are not able to produce a receipt for a book are encouraged to explain why in 100 words or fewer. Tin House will consider the purchase of e-books as a substitute only if the writer explains why he or she cannot go to his or her neighborhood bookstore or why he or she prefers digital reads. Writers are invited to videotape, film, paint, photograph, animate, twitter, or memorialize in any way (that is logical and/or decipherable) the process of stepping into a bookstore and buying a book to send along for our possible amusement and/or use on our web site.

Seems innocent enough, right? They’re not asking writers to buy copies of Tin House at indie stories, just any book in general. Matthew Simmons, who I interviewed on PANK, posted a relatively innocuous entry on the policy over at HTMLGIANT. Here’s the post in its entirety:

If you want to submit to Tin House, you’ll need to send a receipt proving that you bought a book in a bookstore. What do you think?

Moments later, all hell broke loose as the comments section ballooned to well over two-hundred posts including thoughts, and occasionally tirades, including everyone from Steve Gillis, publisher of DZANC Books, to Andy Hunter, co-editor of Electric Literature. I’m going to include a few of the arguments, but not necessarily in the order they were posted. If that somewhat distorts the nature of the discussion, I apologize. It’s not my intention to sway your opinion on the matter, but merely to report on both sides of the argument.

Authors Laura van den Berg and Lily Hoang both made brief comments in favor of the submissions policy. Laura wrote, “I’m for it. Especially after having worked for a lit mag. And if you only submit to Tin House, say, twice a year, then that’s only 2 books,” while Lily said:

If I start a journal/press, I’ll require people link/photocopy a book review with their submission. That would promote books and ensure that people actually read and think about the book critically, rather than just blindly consume. No? I’m unlikely to start a press/journal any time soon. Besides, with that kind of submission policy, no one would submit.

Jackie Corley, from Word Riot, made a similar argument, saying, “Why would anybody want to be in a magazine they don’t care enough about to buy a copy and read?” Blake Butler, at first, wrote the whole discussion off.  “Is it that hard to get your hands on a receipt for a book purchase? i mean, it’s not exactly plutonium. if you aren’t buying books you shouldn’t be wanting to publish one yourself.” A commentator brought up the library argument, the idea that some writers only read books they can get from libraries, which set Blake off:

i mean, why publish it if you believe in the library system over the bookstore? photocopy a zine and give it to some dudes and stick it in with the other books in the spots where people gather. that also said: not all books worth reading appear in libraries. if your reading history can be all found within the walls of a library, or all of them, you aren’t reading very hard.

Two major points came from Justin Taylor and Andy Hunter. Hunter first:

My first reaction to the Tin House policy was, “Ha Ha. Good for them.”

The economic arguments against it are a joke, as are the ‘local bookstore’ arguments. Most people can afford to buy a couple books a year. Most people live near bookstores. And if you don’t? Write a note explaining that. Not much to get outraged about.

Sometimes I’m amazed at how quickly commenters get outraged around here, but then I realize: being outraged is fun.

Anyway, the condescension complaint is valid, although I think TH meant it in good humor – which apparently didn’t come off.

The thing that I think many here are missing is the incredible volume of submissions Tin House must get. EL is not half as well known, but we get thousands of submissions every issue, and even with 35 readers, it’s very hard to keep up. Especially because everything is read twice. Sometimes we regret our open policy, but it was the policy we wanted to see when we were on the other side, as writers. Now that we’re on the publisher side, it gets a little rough. There are many, many writers who are scanning duotrope and submitting to magazines they’d never fit in. The majority of these writers don’t seem to read enough, to be honest. They really ought to buy and read more books. Collectively, EL spends thousands of hours reading submissions, which is exponentially more time than we spend on anything else. The temptation to put up a small hurdle for submitters is understandable. Especially one that is directed at helping your industry, and supporting what you love.

For about 4 months, EL offered $6 off subscriptions to writers who submitted work to us, via a coupon code. It brought the cost of a digital subscription down to $3 an issue. Out of over 3,000 submitters during that time, less than a dozen used that code. I’m sure Tin House has similar stories.

There has been a lot of wondering, here and elsewhere, if emerging writers do enough to support the institutions which they wish to support them (i.e. ever buy a literary magazine). Tin House decided to playfully push the issue, and lighten the slush pile for themselves at the same time. It’s not so horrible.

Now Taylor:

Did anyone read the actual press release at the TH site? it’s headlined “BUY A BOOK, SAVE A BOOKSTORE.” Hardly an ignoble position or goal. It’s here- http://www.tinhouse.com/all_news.htm Also, if you read the whole post at the TH site, you’ll see that this is part of a larger project designed to instill a sense of happy pride in patronizing brick-and-mortar bookstores. Ever heard of Record Store Day? Comic Book Day? This isn’t just one day, but it’s sort of like that. From their release: “Writers are invited to videotape, film, paint, photograph, animate, twitter, or memorialize in any way (that is logical and/or decipherable) the process of stepping into a bookstore and buying a book to send along for our possible amusement and/or use on our Web site.”

And to all the people waging the classism argument, I would like to suggest, with all due respect–which is to say, not much–that you are full of shit and that, what’s more, you damn well know it.
Let’s say I want to submit a book manuscript to Tin House. I enclose a copy of the receipt for the last book I bought new in a bookstore, in this case ON BEING BLUE by William Gass from McNally Jackson books on Prince Street, NYC. This paperback book has a sticker price of $11.95, and I got it at 10% off because it was a staff pick.

That makes OBB about the same price as a movie ticket, or a full-album download on iTunes, or two drinks at a reasonable bar. Granted, those are New York prices, but any urban center is going to be within about spitting range of those numbers (iTunes of course costs the same all over), and if you happen to live in the sticks, where you’re used to dollar drafts all the time and $4 steak dinners–hey, good for you, bud. Spend that extra scratch on a second book.

I think it’s incredibly noble of Tin House to forgo any kind of “reading fee” that they would keep for themselves, and instead encourage you to simply present evidence of an active engagement with literary and bookstore culture today. Presumably, because you are an aspiring writer and an avid reader, you are not being “forced” to go out and buy a book just to submit your work–you probably buy books on a semi-regular basis, and so it is really no problem for you to simply dig out the last receipt you generated and send it along.

I think the people who are asking about the library card option are missing the point. This isn’t an elitist disenfranchisement scheme–it’s not a matter of proving your literacy to them. The fact that the majority of respondents here presume it is their “literary-ness” which is under question says worlds more about y’all than about TH, which I assume takes it for granted that people who write, read, and vice versa. In fact, I’d be willing to bet that they don’t really give a shit if you even read the book you’ve got a receipt for having bought. They are looking for displays of enthusiasm for the process of publishing on the consumer-side, from those who would inflict themselves on the world of publishing on the supplier-side.

If patronizing a physical bookstore in order to purchase a new book at its full retail value strikes you as morally derelict in some way, then you have no business asking Tin House Books–or anybody–to publish your work. It’s emphatically not a question about book-reading, but about book-buying. They are book-makers, and book-sellers, and they are looking for people who are interested in what they do: make books, and make books available to be bought. If you hate those things, and hate them for doing those things, why would you want to court their attention in the first place, or pursue this course for your own work?

All that being said, many, MANY detractors showed up over the course of the thread. Some of the most insightful commentary came from Roxane Gay:

As a sort of publisher, I can absolutely say the money goes further when people buy our books or magazines directly from us. The distributor takes 50 percent. We’ve been working with a distributor for a year now and haven’t seen a penny.

Some of us live in towns where there are no actual bookstores but I buy books almost every day online, from big outlets and small. This requirement largely excludes people who live in rural areas. The ability to buy a book in a store is not that easy for everyone.

The rural argument was one that few of the pro-submissions camp could effectively deal with. Mike Meginnis, Co-Editor of Uncanny Valley, and Steve Gillis both had funny replies about the absurdity of the situation. Meginnis wrote, “Anyone submitting to Uncanny Valley a manuscript accompanied by a receipt showing five hundred dollars spent on pornography will be automatically accepted.” Steve had this to say:

Having had a night to sleep on the Tin House policy, I have had a change of heart. What a brilliant concept. We at Dzanc Books will now require a resume and college and grad school transcript – there must of course be grad school – with all unsolicited manuscripts. The submitter will be required to provide a reading list of all the books they’ve read in the last five years. We at Dzanc will also provide a reading list and the submitter will need to have read each book on our list and provide a review. Failure to meet these standards, the submitter will have to bake us a cake. And not just a cake but a poetic cake, and a film of them baking the cake. As we receive thousands of submissions a year at Dzanc, we have every right and reason to limit the folly of would be submitters thinking they can just submit us their work. This is brilliant. Thank you Tin House for blazing this trail.

About a day after the original post, Jimmy Chen uploaded this to HTMLGIANT and tried to recruit as many people as possible into submitting with this receipt.

But one of the funniest posts came from Matthew Simmons, the original poster, who seemed a little horrified by the amount of venom spawned by his two-sentence post. Halfway through the thread, he wrote this: “Okay. Let’s just forget I mentioned this. How about that World Cup?”

I’ve very intentionally tried to leave out my biases and position on this argument (I definitely have one), and what I’m interested in is what you think. Is Tin House‘s submissions policy the end of modern literature? Are they blazing a path that other journals will soon follow? Is their initiative simply misunderstood and similar to Free Comic Book Day like Justin Taylor suggests? Or is this whole argument ridiculous and another example of writers getting pissed off over absolutely nothing? Sound off in the comments.

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